Friday, September 28, 2007

Reflections on One Month of College Life

As I near the end of my first month at CMC, I've really been thinking (a shocking development, I know) about a few things that have occurred to me during that time. In no particular order:

  • I like having an outlet for my thoughts on politics, life, what-have-you, especially when I can use lofty language or be a little quirky. I'm not really trying to be pretentious -- it's just how my mind works. Varied language and offbeat humor are natural to me.
  • Time management is difficult. There are so many things I'd love to do, and probably could, if I could just get my act together. I need to make the time for more pleasure reading -- I have at least three policy books on my shelf that are practically begging to be read. I'd love to read the Bible and the Koran from cover to cover. I'm not sure I understand enough about the fine details of my own religion, let alone the one our enemies claim to be fighting for, to make truly informed and substantive judgments about either of them.
  • Connected to the prior point, I've not been blogging nearly as often as I thought I would, or as I would like. Perhaps it's because I have yet to let go of the idea that most or all of my posts need to be lengthy commentaries on current affairs or politics. I also need to learn more about the various new services associated with blogging (e.g., Digg, TrackBack, del.icio.us, etc.). I've realized that while I'm more or less as tech-savvy as many of my peers, I've not done a good job of keeping up with all the hottest new Web 2.0 services out there. Maybe I am suffering from an acute case of information fatigue.
  • I've come to realize that perhaps I have far higher aspirations for this blog than can be realistically achieved. Particularly when it comes to politics, I would love to be seen as a credible commentator -- who wouldn't? But it's more than just, "oh, look, someone else has an opinion on the news -- how bold..." I've been disappointed with the quality (or lack thereof) of much of what passes for public discourse these days, and I would love to be seen as a credible voice for the center -- even if it's only among a few of my peers. That would be a start.
  • I can't wait for the first moment where I am totally blown away by the knowledge I take away from a book I read for class, the remarks of a professor, a class discussion. I sense that I've come close -- my discussion-oriented classes have been incredibly interesting and stimulating thus far -- but that I've not reached it. I hope continued patience will bear this out.
  • This list of random musings has been perhaps excessively influenced by Ben Casnocha. (Not that that's a bad thing.)
Month Two should be interesting, then.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Voice of America 2.0

The International Herald Tribune broke a story yesterday that may have been missed among the attention-grabbing headlines from Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, but has broad implications for the region. In a sign that the U.S. government is finally realizing the importance of countering all the anti-American propaganda circulating in the Middle East, the State Department is preparing to expand a group of bloggers who seek to engage the Arab world online:

Walid Jawad was tired of all the chatter on Middle Eastern blogs and Internet forums in praise of gory attacks carried out by the "noble resistance" in Iraq.

So Jawad, one of two Arabic-language bloggers for the State Department, posted his own question: Why was it that many in the Arab World quickly condemned civilian Palestinian deaths but were mute about the endless killing of women and children by suicide bombers in Iraq?

Among those who responded was a man named Radad, evidently a Sunni Muslim, who wrote that many of the dead in Iraq were just Shiites and describing them in derogatory terms. But others who answered Jawad said that they, too, wondered why only Palestinian dead were "martyrs."

The discussion tacked back and forth for four days, one of many such conversations prompted by scores of postings the State Department has made on about 70 Web sites since it put its two Arab-American bloggers to work last November.

The blogging, officially known as the Digital Outreach Team, is an effort to take a more casual, varied approach to improving the U.S. image in the Muslim world.

Brent Blaschke, the project director, said the idea is to reach "swing voters," whom he described as the silent majority of Muslims who might sympathize with Al Qaeda yet be open to information about U.S. government policy and U.S. values.
More critically, the article goes on to say, the State Department bloggers have taken pains to avoid leaving themselves open to being "pigeonholed" by their own credentials or stereotypical American positions:
"They are not carrying the slogans of liberalization or democratization across the region," said Adel al-Toraifi, a Saudi political analyst. "They are talking about peace and dialogue, and I think that makes it difficult for those debating them to justify criticizing them."

Toraifi said the bloggers had generated some debate in the Arab World and had been the subject of a column in an Algerian newspaper lauding the State Department for discussing policy with ordinary people, something the writer said the Algerian government would never do. Indeed, several analysts said having State Department employees on the Web helps to counter one source of radicalization - the sense that Washington is too arrogant to listen to the grievances of ordinary Arabs, so violence is the sole means to attract attention.
This is one critical development in the war on terrorism that -- unlike the coverage of the highly-predictable Petraeus report and all the other bad news coming from Iraq -- will most likely never see any more attention from the mainstream media. This simple fact is a great shame. Instead of focusing on substantive issues that reach to the roots of the anti-Americanism that fuels terrorism against us, the media will continue to cover the same inanities we have been subjected to for the past several years.

It has taken the United States entirely too long to realize how much damage its reputation has sustained from the disinformation being spread by terrorist groups, and to come up with effective countermeasures. Moreover, the U.S. has thus far failed to realize the importance of attempting to connect with ordinary Muslims in the Middle East (and, some would say, in America, as well). In other words, we have met the enemy -- and he is partly us. By engaging the disenfranchised and opening up a dialogue with them, it becomes possible to disprove the stereotypes they hold about American policies and demonstrate that Washington is not the arrogant behemoth they perceive it to be.

Information is the new weapon of war, and we have been slow to adapt. The war on terrorism will be fought with fiber-optic cables as much as with bullets and bombs, and this blogging can only help burnish the image of America abroad. Call it Voice of America 2.0 -- a new outreach program for the digital age. After all, shaping the debate is half the battle. Unfortunately, it looks like an uphill battle from here.