[Marxism] Juan Cole on the perils of blogging

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 24 07:20:00 MDT 2006

(This article is in response to other articles on the topic. I am not sure 
whether they are accessible to those without a sub to the Chronicle, but is 
worth a try: http://chronicle.com/review/)


 From the issue dated July 28, 2006

Juan R.I. Cole Responds

The question is whether Web-log commentary helps or damages an academic's 
career. It is a shameful question. Intellectuals should not be worrying 
about "careers," the tenured among us least of all. Despite the First 
Amendment, which only really protects one from the government, most 
Americans who speak out can face sanctions from other institutions in 
society. Journalists are fired all the time for taking the wrong political 
stance. That is why most bloggers employed in the private sector are 
anonymous or started out trying to be so.

Academics cannot easily be handed a pink slip, but they can be punished in 
other ways. The issues facing academics who dissent in public and in clear 
prose are the same today as they have always been. Maintaining a Web log 
now is no different in principle from writing a newsletter or publishing 
sharp opinion in popular magazines in the 1950s.

The difference today is that, because of Internet neutrality (which may not 
be long with us), an academic's voice is potentially as loud as or louder 
than those of corporate-backed pundits. Occasionally, my Web log has 
generated as many as 250,000 unique hits and over a million page views per 
month. Entries have also been sent in e-mail messages in numbers that 
cannot be traced. My Web log is, for the moment, certainly a mass medium.

The ability to speak directly and immediately to the public on matters of 
one's expertise, and to bring to bear all one's skills to affect the public 
debate, is new and breathtaking. I have had some success in explaining the 
threat of Al Qaeda and suggesting how it should be combated, and have 
addressed U.S. counter-terrorism officials on numerous occasions on those 
matters. And then there is Iraq, about which I was one of the few U.S. 
historians to have written professionally before the 2003 war. In the 
summer of 2003, when the general mood of the administration, the news 
media, and the public was unrelievedly celebratory, I warned that a 
guerrilla war was building and that powerful sectarian forces such as the 
movement of Moktada al-Sadr were a gathering threat. I gained a hearing not 
only with broad segments of the public but also at the highest levels of 
the U.S. government.

I am a Middle East expert. I lived in the area for nearly 10 years, speak 
several of its languages, and have given my life to understanding its 
history and culture. Since September 11, 2001, my country has been 
profoundly involved with the region, both negatively and positively. 
Powerful economic and political forces in American society would like to 
monopolize the discourse on these matters for the sake of their own 
interests, which may not be the same as the interests of those of us in the 
general public. Obviously, such forces will attempt to smear and 
marginalize those with whom they disagree. Before the Internet, they might 
have had an easier time of it. Being in the middle of all this, trying to 
help mutual understanding, is what I trained for. Should I have been 
silent, published only years later in stolid academic prose in journals 
locked up in a handful of research libraries? And this for the sake of a 
"career"? The role of the public intellectual is my career. And it is a 
hell of a career. I recommend it.

Juan R.I. Cole is a professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history 
at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. His blog can be found at 



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