Alternative media

Lou Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Aug 10 11:12:00 MDT 2002

NY Times, August 10, 2002


The Ancient Art of Haranguing Has Moved to the Internet


The pamphlet is a one-man show," observed George Orwell approvingly.
"One has complete freedom of expression, including, if one chooses,
the freedom to be scurrilous, abusive and seditious; or, on the other
hand, to be more detailed, serious and `highbrow' than is ever
possible in a newspaper or in most kinds of periodical."

But Orwell, who pamphleteered on behalf of unpopular leftist causes,
was not optimistic about the genre's prospects in an era dominated by
newspapers devoted to what he perceived as an increasingly narrow
range of mainstream opinion. "At any given moment there is a sort of
all-prevailing orthodoxy, a general tacit agreement not to discuss
some large and uncomfortable fact," he lamented in 1948.
It seems Orwell may have been underestimating contemporary society.
If he had lived to surf the Internet, for example, he might have been
cheered to discover a flourishing new breed of pamphleteer: the
blogger. Like its ink-and-paper antecedent, blogging is quick and
cheap. Anyone with access to a Web site can post a weblog (or blog)
linking readers to other online sources and promoting all manner of
original opinion - serious, scurrilous, seditious and otherwise.

Today, according to Camer0n Marlow, a doctoral student in electronic
publishing at the Media Lab at M.I.T. and the creator of a weblog
index, Blogdex, the number of blogs - liberally defined - has
probably passed the half-million mark. That's up from just a few
dozen five years ago, a spike that blog watchers say owes much to the
events of Sept. 11, which spawned a whole new subgenre: the war blog.
And while most online harangues presumably lack the public profile
and scathing eloquence of history's most redoubtable pamphleteers (a
typical passage from one of Milton's famous antiprelatical tracts,
for example, refers to the Anglican church service as "the
new-vomited paganism of sensual idolatry"), some bloggers, including
the neoconservative journalist Andrew Sullivan, (Andrewsullivan
.com), and Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of
Tennessee (, routinely draw more than 20,000 visitors
a day and get cited by the mainstream press.

But the surest sign that blogging is no longer just a
para-journalistic phenomenon is academic recognition: this fall, the
Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at
Berkeley is inaugurating a course that uses weblogs to investigate
current debates over intellectual property.
"We wanted to explore a serious issue using a novel medium, " said
Paul Grabowicz, director of new media programming at the school and a
co-teacher of the course. "When you have journalists sitting down to
write a weblog, what happens to objectivity? Obviously, a weblog is
far more interactive. It starts to mix journalists and their sources
together. Then you have those people responding to postings on
weblogs: What do you do with those?"

The war on terrorism may be giving new life to the old-fashioned
pamphlet as well. This winter, "9-11," a stinging indictment of
American foreign policy packed into a 125-page, pocket-size pamphlet
by the M.I.T. linguist Noam Chomsky, became a best seller in five
countries, setting a new sales record for the Open Media pamphlet
series published by Seven Stories Press. Begun during the Persian
Gulf war in 1991 by a pair of Rutgers University graduates hawking
Xeroxed copies of an antiwar tract on New York City street corners,
the Open Media pamphlets now appear as glossy bound little books on
hot-button topics - terrorism, the Middle East, civil liberties - by
scholars like the radical historian Howard Zinn.

And now Open Media has some competition: the Prickly Paradigm Press,
a scholarly pamphlet series begun by a pair of British
anthropologists in 1993 as the Prickly Pear Press and recently
revived by the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. Mr. Sahlins
raised money from friends and family to take over the series and
convinced the University of Chicago Press to act as its distributor.
To celebrate its new incarnation, the renamed Prickly Paradigm is
issuing five 50-page polemics this month on subjects ranging from the
West's relationship to war to the unlikely affinities between
left-wing cultural studies scholars and libertarian Wall Streeters.
In "War of the Worlds: What About Peace?," Bruno Latour, a French
theorist, argues that to achieve world peace the West must first
acknowledge that it has long been at war, albeit covertly, a war
masquerading as the "peaceful extension of Western natural Reason" to
"the many Empires of Evil."

Other pamphlet writers reserve their ammunition for particular
academic disciplines. In "Waiting For Foucault, Still," Mr. Sahlins
tackles the theoretical excesses of anthropologists. In "New
Consensus for Old: Cultural Studies From Left to Right," the critic
Thomas Frank does the same for the field of cultural studies. By the
1990's, Mr. Frank contends, facile "cult stud" arguments about the
"subversive potential" of a television sitcom or the
"counter-hegemonic" impact of shopping malls had come to look
uncomfortably like the market populism promoted by the pro-business
right: both groups appear to equate consumerism with democratic
Then there is Deirdre McCloskey's "Secret Sins of Economics." Ms.
McCloskey, a professor of economics, history and English at the
University of Illinois at Chicago, accuses her colleagues of
producing endless thoerems and statistics that have nothing to do
with the real world. "Imagine that instead of doing economic history
about English agriculture in the 13th century, you were to do an
economic history about an imaginary place," Ms. McCloskey explained
in a telephone interview. "What would be the point of that? An
economics department ought not to be about speculation and
hypothetical worlds."

Of course, in today's media-saturated environment, these latest
endeavors can hardly expect to sway opinion the way the pamphlet did
in its glory days, the 17th and 18th centuries, when master
rhetoricians like Milton, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and Thomas
Paine regularly swamped the public sphere with two-penny treatises on
burning social issues. (Published in January 1776, Paine's "Common
Sense" sold half a million copies within a few months and is credited
with transforming untold numbers of ambivalent colonists into ardent

Ms. McCloskey said she had jumped at the chance to write a pamphlet
for Prickly Paradigm when Mr. Sahlins, an old poker-playing friend,
asked her to contribute. "We really need some place between the
formal journal article - mainly used for academic promotion - and the
book,"she said.
But she confessed that she doubted whether her pamphlet would have
much of an impact on her discipline. "I ought to have called myself
Cassandra," she said ruefully. "I'm a student of the rhetoric of
economics. You'd think that a student of that would realize that
people aren't persuaded just because you have the correct argument."

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