Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Washington Post's new online look

Talk about corporate news downsizing: The new online version of the Washington Post looks like just another mediocre blog. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Europe and Libya

Kadafi's long reach: The nations of Europe will pay a price for their reliance on a steady flow of oil and petrodollars from Libya.
- Eric J. Weiner,
March 24, 2011

Regardless of how the Libyan revolt plays out, in the global economy the humanitarian crisis is just one deadly aspect of the fighting. Thousands are believed dead, and the fabric of society has been shredded in what has become a civil war. But to the nations of Europe that have come to rely on a steady flow of oil and petrodollars from Moammar Kadafi's nation, the destruction of what could be called Libya Inc. is likely to be the most painful blow.

When the United Nations lifted sanctions on Libya in 2003, after Kadafi's regime accepted responsibility for the bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, many European countries rushed to do business with Kadafi, despite his erratic history. Why? Because Libya was sitting on a deep, largely untapped reservoir of oil and a mountain of cash. It has more than 40 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves, ninth most in the world, and its central bank holds $110 billion in foreign exchange reserves while its sovereign wealth fund, the Libyan Investment Authority, has $70 billion more to invest.

Seeing the opportunity, Europe pounced. As a result, today just about all of Libya's major trading partners are European. Take Italy, for example. Italy is by far Libya's most active business partner, with more than $12 billion in two-way trade annually. Libya supplies almost a quarter of Italy's oil, and Italy is the world's largest importer of Libyan crude. Libya also owns 7.5% of the Italian bank UniCredit and has investments in Fiat, the defense conglomerate Finmeccanica, the energy company ENI, the soccer team Juventus and a variety of other Italian businesses.

This financial backing helped Italy stave off the most damaging effects of the global recession that started in 2008. In response to international pressure, Italy has frozen some Libyan assets, but none belonging to the country's central bank or the Libyan Investment Authority.

However, Italy's hardly the only cash-strapped European nation to forge significant economic ties with the Kadafi regime. In 2009, the European Union's two-way trading with Libya amounted to more than $37 billion, with Germany, France and Spain among its leading partners. Naturally, the bulk of this was petroleum because Libya supplies more than 10% of Europe's oil. For a sense of just how much that is, consider that the United States, which had just $2.6 billion in two-way trade with Libya in 2009 and imports virtually no petroleum from the country, gets roughly 10% of its oil from Saudi Arabia. That's what Europe is losing as Libya burns.

In many ways, the nation with the most at stake economically is Britain. Although its annual trade with Libya amounts to less than $2.5 billion, Britain has recently emerged as a major target for Libyan investments. Libya has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on prime London commercial real estate. And last year, a senior executive with the Libyan Investment Authority announced that the fund had earmarked $8 billion exclusively for Britain. This pledge was welcome news for the British government, which has been trying to sell more than $40 billion in state-owned property to help address its yawning budget deficit. In short, it needs the money.

Libya's fascination with Britain stems from Kadafi's second-oldest son and presumed political heir, 38-year-old Seif Islam, who earned a doctorate from the London School of Economics, owns a $16-million mansion in London's fashionable Hampstead Garden neighborhood and even opened the Libyan Investment Authority's first foreign office in London. Over the years, the erudite younger Kadafi charmed his way into British society, befriending Prince Andrew and visiting Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.

Of course, now that he's become a full-throated defender of his father's savagery, Seif Islam's erstwhile friends are rushing to distance themselves. The London School of Economics, which has come under heavy criticism for accepting a $2.4-million donation from a Kadafi charity, is looking into accusations that he plagiarized parts of his doctoral thesis. And his abandoned London home has been occupied by anti-Kadafi protesters from throughout Britain.

But none of these reprisals changes the cold reality that with Libya descending into chaos, Europe is losing a major partner just when its key economies are struggling to regain their footing. Though the timing may be terrible, the outcome shouldn't be surprising. Europe's leaders chose to look past the mercurial Kadafi's violent past, seeing only Libya's fortune. And in a matter of weeks, Kadafi has destroyed everything.

As populist movements spread from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, where protests have erupted in Bahrain and Yemen, the U.S. will probably face similar issues over its troubling economic alliances, particularly with Saudi Arabia. So U.S. leaders would be wise to pay close attention to what happens with Libya and Europe. An entire continent is wondering: If not the Kadafis, then who? And it probably won't be long before America is asking the same questions about its friends as well.

Eric J. Weiner is a financial journalist and author of, most recently, "The Shadow Market."

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Berlusconi/Gaddafi regimes

It would be instructive to learn, from the parochial US-centered American media, more about the ties between the Berlusconi/Gaddafi regimes, to shed light about what is actually going on in Libya. After all, Rome and Carthage have long history. Image from

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Public Diplomacy and Nostalgie de la Boue

"We need an avalanche of unique American voices speaking about their beliefs and representing our country abroad. Our Peace Corps volunteers are those fulltime citizen diplomats. Even dressed in sandals or covered in mud, they have shown the best of America day in and day out to the people of almost 140 nations."

--Judith McHale, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

Consider this quotation: "The French have a deliciously helpful phrase for just about everything, and one of the best is nostalgie de la boue. Nostalgia for the mud, roughly meaning an artist's or a reader's fondness for slime, muck, sewage, degradation, treachery and perversion. It's a specialty of the comfy bourgeoisie, who yearn for the real and the raw as experienced through the lens of literature or cinema. As far as actually, ick, touching the mud ... no thank you."

Perhaps the next time Ms. McHale meets with her foreign counterparts in official ministries of culture/information -- or with the internet-savvy successor generation worldwide -- she should be covered in mud. Might be fun for all involved. Image from. See also

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Morozov: Facebook and Twitter are just places revolutionaries go

Facebook and Twitter are just places revolutionaries go: Cyber-utopians who believe the Arab spring has been driven by social networks ignore the real-world activism underpinning them

--Evgeny Morozov, Monday 7 March 2011

[JB Note: Having witnessed the so-called first "internet revolution" -- against Slobodan Milosevic in the mid-1990s in Belgrade -- the below article rings quite true to me. Sure, dissidents/protesters used email and the Internet (the anti-Milosevic radio station B-92 aired its programs via cyberspace), but what really counted in rousing the opposition was dissatisfaction with the political/economic situation in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia; the intense frustration of educated young people/intellectuals with this situation; the reaction of many against the regime's all-too-evident propaganda on state-controlled TV; and the close personal associations within and among the dissident groups in opposing Milosevic (this did not mean, however, that these groups were in full agreement/harmony).

I also witnessed anti-communist regime protests in Poland in the late 80s, while posted in Krakow. Twitter/Facebook/Internet, communications of the future, had nothing to do with this historically important event, which arguably was the beginning of the end of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. And a Polish Pope was far more important in inspiring the Polish people to rise up against an oppressive system than television (although, to be sure, John Paul II understood the power of TV as a tool of positive social change).]

Tweets were sent. Dictators were toppled. Internet = democracy. QED.

Sadly, this is the level of nuance in most popular accounts of the internet's contribution to the recent unrest in the Middle East.

It's been extremely entertaining to watch cyber-utopians – adherents of the view that digital tools of social networking such as Facebook and Twitter can summon up social revolutions out of the ether – trip over one another in an effort to put another nail in the coffin of cyber-realism, the position I've recently advanced in my book The Net Delusion. In my book, I argue that these digital tools are simply, well, tools, and social change continues to involve many painstaking, longer-term efforts to engage with political institutions and reform movements.

Since the internet's cheerleaders can't bury cyber-realism any more than they can secede from history, they've had to design their own straw-man interpretation of the cyber-realist position, equating it with a view that the internet doesn't matter. This is a caricature of the cyber-realist worldview that doesn't really square with parts of my book that very explicitly state – here is just one quote – that "the internet is more important and disruptive than [its greatest advocates] have previously theorised".

Or take the ongoing persecution of Malcolm Gladwell, who is increasingly painted as some kind of a neo-Luddite. In an online chat that Gladwell did for the New Yorker's website shortly after his infamous attack on the notion of "Twitter Revolution" was published last October, he explicitly stated (no less than three times) that the internet can be an effective tool for political change when used by grassroots organisations (as opposed to atomised individuals). Thus, simply showing that the internet was used to publicise, and even organise protests in the Middle East does nothing to counter his argument (which, by the way, I do not entirely endorse). To refute it, cyber-utopians would need to establish that there was no coordination of these protests by networks of grassroots activists – with leaders and hierarchies – who have forged strong ties (online or offline or both) prior to the protests.

What we have seen so far suggests otherwise. True, the principal organisers of Egypt's Facebook movement may not be revolutionary leaders in the conventional understanding of the term. (And how could they be, given the grim track-record that former president Hosni Mubarak compiled – with Washington's complicity – in dispatching such leaders?) However, they did exercise leadership and acted strategically – even going into hiding a few days before the actual protests – just as leaders of a revolutionary cell would.

The collaborations between Tunisian and Egyptian cyber-activists – so widely celebrated in the press – were not virtual, either. In the space of a week in May 2009, I crashed two (independently organised) workshops in Cairo, where bloggers, techies, and activists from both countries were present in person, sharing tips on how to engage in advocacy and circumvent censorship; one of the attendees was the Tunisian blogger Slim Amamou, who went on to become Tunisia's minister of sport and youth. One of these events was funded by the US government and the other by George Soros's Open Society Foundations (with which I'm affiliated).

There were many more events like this – not just in Cairo, but also in Beirut and Dubai. Most of them were never publicised, since the security of many participants was at risk, but they effectively belie the idea that the recent protests were organised by random people doing random things online. Those who believe that these networks were purely virtual and spontaneous are ignorant of the recent history of cyber-activism in the Middle East – to say nothing of the support that it's received, sometimes successful but most often not, from western governments, foundations and corporations. In September 2010, to take just one recent example, Google brought a dozen bloggers from the region to the freedom of expression conference the company convened in Budapest.

Tracing the evolution of these activist networks would require more than just studying their Facebook profiles; it would demand painstaking investigative work – on the phone and in the archives – that cannot happen overnight. One reason we keep talking about the role of Twitter and Facebook is that the immediate aftermath of the Middle Eastern spring has left us so little else to talk about; thoroughgoing political analysis of the causes of these revolutions won't be available for a few years.

This points us to the real reason why so many cyber-utopians got angry with Gladwell: in a follow-up blog post to his article that appeared as the crowds were still occupying Tahrir Square, he dared to suggest that the grievances that pushed protesters into the streets deserve far more attention than the tools by which they chose to organise. This was akin to spitting in the faces of the digerati – or, perhaps worse still, on their iPads – and they reacted accordingly.

And yet Gladwell was probably right: today, the role of the telegraph in the 1917 Bolshevik revolution – just like the role of the tape-recorder in the 1979 Iranian revolution and of the fax machine in the 1989 revolutions – is of interest to a handful of academics and virtually no one else. The fetishism of technology is at its strongest immediately after a revolution but tends to subside shortly afterward.

In his 1993 bestseller The Magic Lantern, Timothy Garton Ash, one of the most acute observers of the 1989 revolutions, proclaimed that "in Europe at the end of the 20th century, all revolutions are telerevolutions" – but in retrospect, the role of television in those events seems like a very minor point.

Will history consign Twitter and Facebook to much the same fate 20 years down the road? In all likelihood, yes. The current fascination with technology-driven accounts of political change in the Middle East is likely to subside, for a number of reasons.

First of all, while the recent round of uprisings may seem spontaneous to western observers – and therefore as magically disruptive as a rush-hour flash mob in San Francisco – the actual history of popular regime change tends to diminish the central role commonly ascribed to technology. By emphasising the liberating role of the tools and downplaying the role of human agency, such accounts make Americans feel proud of their own contribution to events in the Middle East. After all, the argument goes, such a spontaneous uprising wouldn't have succeeded before Facebook was around – so Silicon Valley deserves a lion's share of the credit. If, of course, the uprising was not spontaneous and its leaders chose Facebook simply because that's where everybody is, it's a far less glamorous story.

Second, social media – by the very virtue of being "social" – lends itself to glib, pundit-style overestimations of its own importance. In 1989, the fax-machine industry didn't employ an army of lobbyists – and fax users didn't feel the same level of attachment to these clunky machines as today's Facebook users feel toward their all-powerful social network. Perhaps the outsize revolutionary claims for social media now circulating throughout the west are only a manifestation of western guilt for wasting so much time on social media: after all, if it helps to spread democracy in the Middle East, it can't be all that bad to while away the hours "poking" your friends and playing FarmVille. But the recent history of technology strongly suggests that today's vogue for Facebook and Twitter will fade as online audiences migrate to new services. Already, tech enthusiasts are blushing at the memory of the serious academic conferences once devoted to the MySpace revolution.

Third, the people who serve as our immediate sources about the protests may simply be too excited to provide a balanced view. Could it be that the Google sales executive Wael Ghonim – probably the first revolutionary with an MBA – who has emerged as the public face of Egypt's uprising, vowing to publish his own book about "Revolution 2.0", is slightly overstating the role of technology, while also downplaying his own role in the lead-up to the protests? After all, the world has yet to meet a Soviet dissident who doesn't think it was the fax machine that toppled the Politburo – or a former employee of Radio Free Europe or Voice of America who doesn't think it was western radio broadcasting that brought down the Berlin Wall.

This is not to suggest that neither of these communications devices played a role in these decades-old uprisings – but it is to note that the people directly involved may not have the most dispassionate appraisals of how these watershed events occurred. If they don't want to condemn themselves to a future of tedious bar-room arguments with the grizzled, and somewhat cranky holdouts from the 1989 fax glory days, or the true believers of the Radio Free Europe Revolution, then today's cyber-utopians need to log off their Facebook accounts and try a little harder.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Montaigne’s Moment

March 10, 2011
Montaigne’s Moment

Anyone who sets out to write an essay — for a school or college class, a magazine or even the book review section of a newspaper — owes something to Michel de Montaigne, though perhaps not much. Montaigne was a magistrate and landowner near Bordeaux who retired temporarily from public life in 1570 to spend more time with his library and to make a modest memento of his mind. He called his literary project “Essais,” meaning “attempts” or “trials,” and the term caught on in English after Francis Bacon, the British philosopher and statesman, used it for his own collection of short pieces in 1597.

Dr. Johnson’s dictionary defined an essay as “a loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece.” Bacon’s compositions tend to drive at a single conclusion, but Johnson’s “sally” is a nice fit for Montaigne’s meandering collection of thoughts, and those of his more whimsical descendants. Only a very brave or foolish exam candidate today would try to copy Montaigne instead of Bacon. The art of digression reached breathless heights in Samuel Butler’s 1890 essay “Ramblings in Cheapside,” which traverses turtle shells, the relation of eater to eaten, likenesses between common tradesmen and famous portraits, the worthlessness of most classical literature, the politics of parrots and the practical wisdom of slugs. Ramblings indeed. Where was I? Oh, yes: Montaigne.

Oddly, Montaigne learned to speak Latin before he learned to speak anything else, thanks to his father’s strict ideas about schooling. But he chose to write in French, which he expected would change beyond recognition within 50 years, rather than a more “durable” tongue. This is because the book was intended only “for a few men and for a few years.” Well, that plan backfired. Not only is “Essais” still in print, in many languages, more than 400 years later, it is also now extolled as a source of wisdom for the contemporary world — or at least the English-speaking part of it. (The French may have had enough of him.) Last year, to great acclaim, Sarah Bakewell, a British biographer and archivist, published HOW TO LIVE; Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Other Press, $25). And this year we already have two new books covering similar ground: WHEN I AM PLAYING WITH MY CAT, HOW DO I KNOW THAT SHE IS NOT PLAYING WITH ME? Montaigne and Being in Touch With Life (Pantheon, $26), by Saul Frampton, a British lecturer; and WHAT DO I KNOW? What Montaigne Might Have Made of the Modern World (Beautiful Books, £14.99), by Paul Kent, a British radio producer.

It’s been said — by Bakewell, with reservations, and others — that Montaigne was the first blogger. His favorite subject, as he often remarked, was himself (“I would rather be an expert on me than on Cicero”), and he meant to leave nothing out (“I am loath even to have thoughts which I cannot publish”). Some of his critics accused him of, in effect, oversharing, in the manner of a narcissistic Facebook status update. One was appalled that he should think it worthwhile to tell his readers which sort of wine he preferred. Montaigne also happened to mention that his penis was small. Two 17th-century theologians who were instrumental in getting his “Essais” placed on the Vatican’s index of prohibited books, where it stayed from 1676 to 1854, accused him of “a ridiculous vanity” and of showing too little shame for his vices.

In the eyes of Rousseau, Montaigne had shared too little, not too much: he was not truthful about himself. But this charge reflects the fact that Rousseau was unwilling to allow that there had been any accurate self-portraits in words before his own “Confessions.” It was Montaigne, though, who was the real pioneer. The famous autobiographies of late antiquity and the Middle Ages — St. Augustine’s “Confessions” and Abelard’s “History of My Misfortunes” — bared all in order to help other sinners save their souls; unlike Montaigne’s “Essais,” they were professedly intended for sober religious purposes. And Renaissance autobiographies, like those of the artist Benvenuto Cellini or the mathematician and gambler Girolamo Cardano, tended to be published only posthumously.

Somewhat like a link-infested blog post, Montaigne’s writing is dripping with quotations, and can sometimes read almost as an anthology. His “links” are mainly classical, most often to Plato, Cicero and Seneca. Modern readers may find all these insertions distracting — there is, as it were, too much to click on — but some may be thankful for a fragmentary yet mostly reliable classical education on the cheap. (Montaigne should not, however, have credited Aristotle with the maxim, “A man . . . should touch his wife prudently and soberly, lest if he caresses her too lasciviously the pleasure should transport her outside the bounds of reason.” The real source of this unromantic advice is unknown.)

Bakewell, Frampton and Kent all stress that the distinctive mark of Montaigne is his intellectual humility. Like Socrates, Montaigne claims that what he knows best is the fact that he does not know anything much. To undermine common beliefs and attitudes, Montaigne draws on tales of other times and places, on his own observations and on a barrage of arguments in the ancient Pyrrhonian skeptical tradition, which encouraged the suspension of judgment as a middle way between dogmatic assertion and equally dogmatic denial. Montaigne does often state his considered view, but rarely without suggesting, explicitly or otherwise, that maybe he is wrong. In this regard, his writing is far removed from that of the most popular bloggers and columnists, who are usually sure that they are right.

For Bakewell, it is Montaigne’s sense of moderation in politics and his caution in judgment from which the 21st century has most to learn. For Frampton, whose style is more academic than Bakewell’s (and not always in a good way), one of Montaigne’s most valuable insights is that self-knowledge is connected with the knowledge of others, and that empathy is the heart of morality. Kent concludes that the wisdom of Montaigne is a wisdom for Everyman, and that the “Essais” are a tool for thinking that anyone may use.

Maybe it is in pursuit of such egalitarianism that Kent’s prose works tirelessly to evoke the beery eructations of a British lout. To put such a slurry of slang, cliché and swearing in print comes across as artifice. Littered among the arch spellings, mangled names and frail grammar are slapdash attempts at iconoclasm: Proust is “onanistic tosh,” both jazz and opera are ridiculous. At a stretch, one can perhaps see Kent’s curious experiment as being in the candid spirit of Montaigne. But this contemporary version of uninhibited writing shows the limitations of the genre rather than its potential.

Montaigne can evidently still evince strong affection from authors after nearly half a millennium. So artful is Bakewell’s account of him that even skeptical readers may well come to share her admiration. But it’s not so clear that Montaigne’s often chaotic essays are all that digestible today unless one has a good guide to his life and context, like Bakewell’s or Frampton’s, close to hand. At the end of the “Essais,” Montaigne complained that “there are more books on books than on any other subject: all we do is gloss each other.” One wonders what he would make of his own inadvertent contribution to this state of affairs.

Anthony Gottlieb is writing a sequel to his book “The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance.”