We’re on Rocketboom

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Andrew Baron and Joanne Colan, who put together the daily video-blog Rocketboom, were at the Blogference with us, and also took the helicopter tour. They’ve put up several segments (running the full week of July 9-13) and if you watch carefully, you’ll spot me and Jesse in this one about halfway through. You’ll also catch a snippet of bizarre dialogue with our guide, Calev Ben-David. He’s standing next to Kent Nichols of Ask-a-Ninja, and at one point he asks “How would a Palestinian ninja get thru this border fence?” Kent says, “Wouldn’t he just meditate across?” This led Ben-David into an extended discussion of the powers of Palestinian ninjas, which unfortunately the Rocketboom folks cut…

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Home Again and Unfinished

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We landed early this morning at JFK, and right now I’m trying to figure out what time-zone I’m in. I’m listening to a CD that I bought of Shlomo Artzi and Shalom Hanoch, two of Israel’s top singer-songwriters, in concert together. I’ve always felt grounded by Israeli pop music, because it reminds me of a time when I was younger and more innocent, and my experience of Israel then often involved long bus rides listening to the radio along with the other passengers. My hebrew isn’t what it was then, but I still like to think that Israel’s musicians are the purest expression of the best of what modern Israel can offer–their music is honest, full of yearning for love and peace, and completely Jewish without an ounce of religious orthodoxy (at least the artists I follow).

Once in my life I was innocent enough to accept all those songs at face value, to believe that Israel wanted peace more than anything else. Now I know the story is much, much more complicated. My eyes started to open in my late teens and early twenties, at a time when I and my then-to-be wife Leslie seriously contemplated making aliyah to a kibbutz, along with a group of close friends from our summer camp days. Little things that I noticed bothered me: the fact that cars registered to Arabs in Israel have a different color license plate than to Jews, making them easier for police to spot and pull over; the fact that many kibbutzim, socialist in name and internal practice, sit on formerly Arab land and have no Arab members. I was already full of pacifist leanings, and the idea of having to serve in the Israeli Army, if I did make aliyah, bothered me immensely. And I was even more bothered by the idea that if I chose to conscientiously object, I’d never be accepted as a “full” participant in Israeli public life. (I know this has changed somewhat in recent years, but we’re talking the early 1980s now.) Ultimately, we chose not to make aliyah, obviously, but given all the family we have living in Israel, we’ve never abandoned the connection.

I’m not going to blog about the intimate facts of my extended family in Israel. (On my mother’s side, I have an aunt and an uncle and various cousins with their own children.) I’ll just say that they’re a mix of working class and middle class people, of both Ashkenazi (Western) and Mizrachi (Eastern) background. And they’ve had more than their share of life’s hard knocks. Whenever we visit–and my mother makes this trip at least once a year–we try to offer as much support as we can. But some of their difficulties are deeply ingrained. This is a part of my Israel experience too, and one that colored the last few days of our time on this visit. But I’m not going to go there. Not now anyhow.

Back to politics. During this trip, I re-read David Grossman’s book The Yellow Wind, and I also read a collection of dispatches written by Amira Hass in her role as Ha’aretz’s correspondent from the occupied territories. It was a useful counterpoint to the tour we got on the helicopter ride, which climaxed with a close-up view of the border with Hamas-controlled Gaza and a visit to a synagogue that had been hit by one of the daily Kassem rocket attacks aimed at the Israeli border town of Sderot. Our guide, an American-Israeli named Calev Ben-David, concluded his explanation of the situation there by arguing for Israel’s current policy of “targeted killings”–where the Air Force fires missiles at Palestinian militants that they have identified as bomb-makers, sometimes killing innocents at the same time. From his point of view, everything Israel is doing is justified self-defense.

Amira Hass makes you think twice, hard, about that argument. Her work covers the years between 1999-2002, when the brief hopes of the Oslo process and the Rabin-Arafat handshake all went sour and the second intifada began. If I can, I’ll dig up some links to the most cogent articles in the collection. She documents, in careful and excruciating detail, how Israel has dominated the Palestinian population, and how the ongoing expansion of settlements during the Oslo period (when they were supposed to be frozen) and the ongoing humiliations of daily life and Israeli military action in the territories embittered and helped kill Palestinian hopes for a peaceful solution to their predicament. Again and again, you read of an arbitrary house demolition, or a permit refusal, and the sum total of these experiences begins to weigh heavily on the notion that justice is all on Israel’s side.

I don’t know what has happened to the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian compromise or even dialogue. (Unfortunately, there just wasn’t time on this visit for me to see some of my old friends who are still involved in the Israeli peace movement.) Clearly, the outbreak of the second intifada (triggered by Ariel Sharon’s provocative stroll on the grounds of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in Sept. 2000) and the failure of the Camp David summit between Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat later that year, and the usage of lethal force and then suicide bombing by Palestinian militants, has poisoned nearly all possibility for dialogue, though it’s clearly not completely dead. But the rise of the “security fence” and the enormous consensus among Israeli Jews in its favor, suggests that we are into a new chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One glimpse of what that might be came in a conversation with one of my cousins…

Friday morning last week we drove to the artist’s colony of Ein Hod, nestled in the hills about a half hour south of Haifa. My cousin Nechama and her partner Nadav have made their home there, and this week they were hosting a menagerie of artists from all over Europe who were visiting and creating art while on their visit. Their home, which doubles as their studio and display space, was overflowing with half finished paintings. Two of the visiting artists held a playful “instant art” competition in the road below their house, complete with a referee who timed each stroke of paint. It was a delight to see Nechama in her element, the ringmaster of a gentle exhibition of creativity.

On the way there, I recounted the details of our previous days with Katy, another cousin of mine, who was driving us, along with her mother and mine and Jesse, on the visit. On past visits, Katy has struck me as generally not one to talk about politics, out of a general disgust with men in public life (she grew up in Netanya, which has a reputation as one of Israel’s most chauvinistic cities). On this trip though, politics was very much on her mind. The day we arrived she told me there was a big demonstration against the light punishment given to disgraced Israeli President Moshe Katzav, who apparently harassed and molested and perhaps even raped many of the women who worked in his office. At her house later, she talked about how she couldn’t bear the thought of her grandchildren potentially having to go into the army and asked how we were going to end this cycle. And on the car ride to Ein Hod, she objected to my singling out the director of Israel 21c for living in Ma’aleh Adumim and not mentioning to our tour group that that was a settlement.

“Netanya is a settlement too, you know,” Katy said. “So is Tel Aviv. The Arabs say that, and I think they are right. There is no difference between Netanya and Ma’aleh Adumim.” For a minute, she had me floored. At some level, it’s true. A hundred or so years ago, there was not much of a Jewish presence in this area, other than a community in Jerusalem. When the first Zionists came to settle places like Tel Aviv and Netanya, they were a minority of the population—the same way today’s settlers in the West Bank are a minority of the population.

But to accept Katy’s argument, you have to ignore one critical difference. When the first Zionists came to settle in Palestine, the ruling power was initially Turkish (the fading Ottoman Empire) and then, after WWI, British. There was no state of Israel in any boundaries at all, and the state that came into being was the product of the UN partition plan and then a climactic war between the nascent state of Israel and its Arab neighbors. Tel Aviv was the heart of a new country that was a majority Jewish, and that began its existence with the imprint of the United Nations (even if the 1949 armistice boundaries were beyond what was contemplated in the 1947 partition plan).

By comparison, when Israel began settling the West Bank and Gaza, it was doing so as a sovereign state acting in contravention of international law governing the responsibilities of an occupying power, and it did so in places where there was an overwhelming Arab majority.

But there may be something to what Kati said, nonetheless. There was a sense in her words that in the wake of the failure of the Oslo process Israel is no longer facing an adversary that is willing to compromise around the 1967 boundaries, that this is an existential conflict over whether or not to roll back the reality created in 1948. Certainly that is the sense one gets from the rhetoric of Hamas. But I still have to ask, who missed the opportunity of the 1990s? Was it just Arafat? That answer may make many Israelis feel better, but critics like Amira Hass certainly makes a strong case that the Israelis also misunderstood their adversaries, and traded the peace of the brave for a humiliating non-peace, one that is now bearing very bitter fruit.

Perhaps you can begin to see why I stopped writing intensively about this issue a decade or so ago…it’s so frustrating.

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Israel continued

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My feet hurt, my heart aches and once again instead of being able to sleep, my mind is awake with a swirl of impressions. In the last seventy-two hours, we have been flown across the country–seeing everything from new “security fence” to Jerusalem to the Gaza border in less than 45 minutes; we have run our fingers over the exploded casings of some of the thousands of “Kassem” rockets that have rained down on the border town of Sderot in the last five years from Gaza and wondered how the rise of Hamas there may affect the conflict; we have seen how Israeli high-tech ingenuity is transforming medical care and training; we have met two of Israel’s top filmmakers and actors and discussed how their new film portrays and tries to puncture the “bubble” of unrealities that different Israelis and Palestinians live in; we have pondered at the Yad Vashem memorial museum how the Holocaust could have happened and what its memory does to Israelis and Jews today; and we have gazed upon the 2000+ year-old foundation stones of the Temple Mount that have been uncovered in a still-unfolding archeological dig deep below the streets of the Old City; and we have listened to Israeli Jewish and Arab artists meld American hip-hop music with their own experiences into a sound that is uniquely theirs. All that was with our tour group of bloggers under the auspices of Israel21c.

We (my son Jesse and my mom, who is also here visiting) have also dined in Jerusalem with some American cousins of ours who have been living here 30 years and heard them declare that they have never been so depressed at the prospects of finding any solution to the conflict; I met with the director of the Hartman Institute, Donniel Hartman, and discovered the movement for Jewish renewal and relevance in modern times is alive and beating; and Jesse and I searched out and found the site of a tree that was planted at Yad Vashem 29 years ago to honor a Polish man named Walter Ukalo who was a friend of my in-laws and who saved eight Jews during the Holocaust, making him one of the good souls known here as a “Righteous Gentile.”

I can’t process all of this in any kind of narrative form. It’s too much. I’m also sacrificing sleep to even get these thoughts down while they’re semi-fresh. But here are a few jottings:

– I have always said to myself that sooner or later, Israel’s neighbors would have to reconcile themselves to its existence. “Like it or not, Israel is not going away,” I’d say. And just from the explosion of construction that you see everywhere, this feeling of mine has only gotten stronger. Tel Aviv is unrecognizable to me. What was once a relatively modest city of five and six-story buildings with a handful of larger apartment towers is now a sprawl of genuine skyscrapers. In 1982, when I was here doing research for my Princeton senior thesis on the rise of Shalom Ackshav (Peace Now), I could walk from one interview at an Israeli newspaper to a meeting at the Kirya, Israel’s defense ministry. Now I could perhaps still do that walk, but the borders of the city have spread at least four-fold. Same with Israel’s highway system, which has gone from a handful of two-lane roads connecting its main cities to an array of super-highways and three-lane thoroughfares laced throughout the whole coastal metro area.

– The helicopter tour, on the other hand, reminds me of how small Israel is. But while the Israel Project, the organization that took us on that flight, might want that to prove how vulnerable the country is, all it reinforced for me is how land alone is no guarantor of security. In an age of “home-made” Kassem missiles and spreading high-technology, no country can ensure its security perfectly. Unfortunately, so much of what is going on now seems to me to be the bitter fruit of so many years of Israeli hubris. The peace movement warned for years that holding onto the territories and building settlements on them would, among other things, embitter the Palestinians and poison the chances for peace. How horribly ironic that just 15 years ago, it was against the law for an Israeli to meet with a member of the PLO, and today Israel is trying to prop up Fatah, the core of the PLO for all these decades.

– Tunnels. In Gaza, the Palestinians are digging tunnels. In Jerusalem, in the Old City, so are the Israelis. In Gaza, the tunnels are for smuggling weapons in from Egypt to supply Hamas, and for occasionally attempting raids on Israeli border outposts (one of which resulted in the killing of an Israeli soldier and the kidnapping of another). In Jerusalem, the tunnel is for uncovering the deep Jewish past there that dates back to the time of the Second Temple, more than two thousand years ago. These are not morally equivalent projects. No human beings are being harmed by that archeological dig. And yet there is a similarity, because these tunnel projects ARE both about national self-assertion. Israel’s new Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, once created a stir when he declared on Israeli TV that if he were a young Palestinian living in Gaza today, he too would be a terrorist. This is not to justify what Hamas is doing or what it stands for but to realize that the Palestinians are in their own cycle of history, and maybe the moment for compromise has passed for this generation. I hope not for all.

– The Temple Mount. Walking underground on our guided tour of the underground tunnel along the Western Wall, listening to our enthusiastic young guide gush about the beauty of the foundation stones, how we were passing just 300 feet from where the “Holy of Holies” once stood, closer than any Jew had stood in 2000 years; watching him kiss the rock wall, and then gazing on a sophisticated model of the Temple Mount that explained the archeological work we were walking through, I had a very bad feeling. It is one thing to see how archeology can uncover and confirm facts from the past. Yes, the ancient Jews built a great Temple here, and it is awe-inspiring to walk underground and know that you are standing in a bathing area built by King Herod, or what was probably a changing room for people coming to worship. But it is another thing to see how these discoveries fuel a Jewish neo-mysticism that thinks everything that Israel has accomplished is a miracle from God rather than the hard work of human beings, and how they fire a zeal for the return of that Temple, no matter how unrealistic or dangerous such a project might be. After all, if God brought the Jews of 150 countries back from Exile, won’t God protect them if they fulfill His commandments regarding the building of that Temple?

– Yad Vashem. Yad Vashem was stunning. The new museum, which was built in 2005, is nothing like the old one. Gone are the simple photographic exhibits that my colleague Joann, the Nation’s copy editor, had so diligently copy edited as we walked its halls in 1985. Moshe Safdie, the world renowned Israel architect, has built a beautiful and stark gash in the earth made of steel and concrete, and most of the time you are underground walking the halls. Above us there is a thin beam of light coming thru the roof, meant to symbolize the occasional shafts of goodness that pierced the dark times of the Holocaust.

Our guide pierced my heart right away. A softspoken Orthodox Jewish woman with the slightest of Hebrew accents, she startled me at the beginning of our tour by asking the group, “Is there anyone here who knows someone who was in the Holocaust?” I cleared my throat and said, somewhat embarrassed, “Yes, my mother, who is with us here, was a hidden child during the war in Belgium. And my father-in-law, on his side of the family, lost at least 70 immediate family members. I have the list with me here.” My mother then said a few words about her experience during the war, but she too seemed a bit startled. It was not going to be an easy walk through the exhibit, even though we were rushing and only had an hour or so for what is normally a three hour tour.

Several times I felt myself tearing up. Once, when I read the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who was quoted from the 1820s saying, “When they burn books, the burning of people is not far behind.” This as we watched a short movie showing Josef Goebbels presiding over a mass bookburning at a German university in the early 1930s. Once again as we looked at a giant wall-sized poster of the massacre site at Babi Yar, where more than 50,000 Jews were shot and killed in the open air. I hadn’t realized that Babi Yar was a picnic site. You could see how the grounds were green, below the bodies stacked like cordwood. A third time as we looked later at pictures of the days after the liberation of the camps, and we listened to a chorus of emaciated Jewish children singing hatikva, “The Hope,” which later became Israel’s national anthem, and looked at a photo of the first Friday night Shabbat candle-lighting to take place in Bergen-Belsen. “That 8-year-old boy sitting in the corner there,” our guide softly told us, “later made aliyah to Israel and grew up to be one of the country’s chief rabbis.” Gulp. Finally we stood in the Hall of Names, a circular virtual cemetery lined by simple black file boxes. There are 3.5 million names of victims of the Holocaust that are collected here, our guide told us. There were many empty rows, waiting to be filled.

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Israel at 6:00am [UPDATED]

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It’s now almost 6am in the morning, and I’ve been up since 5, and I am
grumpy and can’t fall back asleep after last night’s dinner with a
group of Israeli Anglo bloggers. It’s day three of our visit to Israel
with a group of American bloggers and videobloggers to attend the
first Israeli “Blogference
under the auspices of the Interdisciplinary
Center
of Herzliyya (Israel’s first private university) and Israel21c (a nonprofit group that
seeks to make sure the media covers the Israel “behind the
headlines” — i.e. all the amazing technology being invented here and the
realities and richness of daily life). I’m tossing and turning because
the biggest attraction of this trip, for my 13-year-old son Jesse, who
has joined me for this week and a half of business and personal travel
in Israel, was abruptly pulled out from under us. It was supposed to
be a helicopter ride to the south later this morning, to visit the
border town of Sderot and see how civilians living next to Gaza have
been shelled by Hamas. The helicopter they were planning to use is in
repairs, we were told, and the smaller one they are using doesn’t have
room for Jesse (and thus I am not going either of course), but I am
also aware of the fact that it was always kind of an odd deal being
offered (come on our wonderful propaganda tour–the Israelis call it
“hasbara,” meaning information–and say nice things about us in your
blogs) and I wonder if something I said in the last two days offended
our hosts.

At the same time I am thinking that’s nonsense, don’t be paranoid,
you’re not that important and it’s entirely reasonable for them to say
the helicopter they originally managed to reserve needed repair and
the one they’re using is too small to take Jesse along (and thus
neither me). [UPDATE: It turned out that one of the folks in our
little delegation wasn't feeling up to it, and so there was room for
both me and Jesse to get on the helicopter! It's been a whirlwind of a
day and while I am quickly posting this at 6pm, I don't have time to
get into details about the trip, I will as soon as I can. I think the
rest of this post still stands... and seeing both the "security fence"
from the air, the geography of the conflict, and the battle around
Gaza playing out now, I've got plenty more to chew on...]

I am also frustrated that despite my efforts last night at a delicious
Ethiopian restaurant to draw out the Israel21c people and the Anglo
bloggers they invited to join us for dinner, I couldn’t really get
them to engage on the issue of how they deal with what is
euphemistically referred to as “the situation” or “the conflict” and
in particular what it does to Israel to be continuing to be occupiers.

When I described for them David Grossman’s effort in his book The
Yellow Wind
, which I am re-reading and savoring on this trip, to
get Israelis and Palestinians alike to take one moment to empathize
with the suffering of the other, and his failure to get anyone to do
so, I got no meaningful response. Maybe they were tired. Maybe they
were tired of being asked such questions. I know I’ve gotten tired of
them at times.

Blogger Lisa Goldman,
who had been involved in a fascinating dialogue with Lebanese and
other Middle Eastern bloggers starting last year, and who had just
come back from Lebanon, didn’t really respond and if anything seemed
frustrated at my effort to raise the issue. “Don’t you understand that
we are exhausted of the conflict and just trying to get by and raise
our kids?” she asked. We have a government that is at 4% popularity in
the polls (makes Bush look popular!), everyone is under indictment,
and we’ve tried almost every option for peace, she added. Actually,
there are some things we haven’t tried, she said in passing, but
didn’t want to get into it when I asked. (But you just came back from
Beirut and sat on the beach with a Syrian blogger, what else can you
tell us, I thought to myself.) She just must have been tired. I can
understand that!

David Brin, the head of Israe21c who hosted our dinner, casually
mentioned that, in fact, he lives in Ma’aleh Adumim, which is a giant
settlement of 40,000 people east of Jerusalem, but he insisted, with
no rancor at all, that it really wasn’t considered a settlement any
more, just a part of Jerusalem, one of its neighborhoods. I had in
front of me a perfect example of how the settlement movement had
succeeded in making its zealotry part of Israel’s “normal life”, to
borrow from the “This Normal
Life
” title of blogger Brian Blum’s autobiographical blog, and I
didn’t have the heart or gumption or will to challenge him further.
(My dear departed friend Robbie
Friedman
was right, I thought to myself, the settlement movement
has succeeded in dragging Israel into an untenable situation, a cancer
on Israel’s soul.)

Brian, who was sitting across from me and who was the friendliest guy,
and who has a really cool business in the works helping bloggers turn
their best posts into cyber-books, had also told us that he started
his blog five years ago, after a cousin of his was killed in a suicide
bombing, and out of respect for his loss I didn’t really want to probe
too hard what is after all an unacceptable tragedy for him. I also
kept sensing how badly these Israeli-Anglo bloggers want us to accept
them and embrace them as part of the larger political blogosphere (Allison Kaplan
Sommer
, a blogger here who works for Pajamas Media, told us during
dinner how she felt uncomfortable being totally rejected by the left
side of the blogosphere and totally embraced by the right, even though
that wasn’t where she thought of herself, and I couldn’t help but
empathize with her)…the same way the Israeli techies we met over the
last two days want to be (and in many ways are) seen as Silicon Valley
(Middle) East and not necessarily as part of the “situation” that is
still festering and threatening to explode once again. (No, we haven’t
spent a second talking about that!) But when you meet people
face-to-face over a nice meal, the last thing you want to do is get
into an argument.

I am also grumpy because so far I feel like we’ve been visiting a
bubble, that we’ve had little to no contact with “real Israelis” but
instead are being handled, with the greatest of finesse, by
Professional Israelis, people who have made it their job, either by
day or by avocation, to “represent” the country to outsiders and make
sure we get a varnished view while claiming they are giving us a
rounded picture. Out of politeness again, and a sense that, hey, after
all, they invited me and paid my way, I bit my tongue when David Brin
said that Israel21c had organized a post-Blogference touring itinerary
that aimed to give us a balanced experience–seeing the border fence
(with an IDF guide), visiting Sderot (a border town being regularly
shelled from Gaza) and also meeting an Israel Arab economic
development group. I should have said, and what about a meeting with a
Palestinian, or one of the Israeli human rights groups? Are you so
sure every option for peace has been tried? You say that the
Palestinians rejected a two-state solution at Camp David, but what
about the fact that after Oslo in 1993 Israel doubled the size of its
settlement population and kept demolishing Palestinian houses (built
without permits from the occupying authority) at a prodigious rate?
But then again I am not staying for the full tour, as Jesse and I have
various family and friends to visit around the country over the next
few days, so while we are going to get spend the next two days with
the group in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which we are very much looking
forward to, we will miss the trip to the border fence and the economic
development group.

I don’t feel good about biting my tongue…but at the same time I don’t
need to make a stink, this isn’t my passion any more, thinking about
all of this gets me depressed and angry, and why should I upset
Jesse’s experience of the country? (And hey, the Jerusalem Post just
did a story
yesterday about the Blogference where I am cited as having written
“several books” on the Internet and politics–if only this were true!)
I am wondering also what I should do with the time we have to make
sure that Jesse does get a more rounded view of things–can we somehow
squeeze in a meeting with the Seeds of Peace people, since
after all we’ve been sending the kids Tzedakah donations to them for
years. Or should we try to go parasailing, so he has a great story to
share with his friends back home. But how can I take him on such a
privileged activity when, after all, here were are in the Middle East
and just a few miles away from us things are not gleaming and bright?
So, that’s what is keeping me up this morning when I should be
sleeping…

And at the same time I am also still chewing on and savoring the
conversations with all the interesting and creative people I met over
the last two days, both from among the Israeli techies and bloggers
who came to the Blogference and sought me out in the hallways for a
conversation, and also the other members of our little delegation,
like Andrew Baron and Joanne Colan of Rocketboom, and Doug Racine
and Kent Nichols of Ask-A-Ninja, and Garrett Graff and Jessica Coen and
Om Malik. Yesterday, I met one
Israeli entrepreneur, Eran Reshef, who has started a company called Collactive that helps individuals
and groups amplify their voices on social media sites…and another,
Yaron Charka, who has started a company called Speakitz that enables anyone to add
their voice or comment to any site on the web…and a woman named Taly
Weiss with an absolutely brilliant if still not-fully-baked idea to
create an international “United Nations 2.0″ on the web and invite
people from around the world to join and group them, by their IP
addresses, to their own countries and enable them to vote on how their
country should vote on issues actually coming before the UN. Imagine
that, an Israeli who wants to think of a way to get the UN to actually
work!

Dr. Noam Lemelshtrich-Latar, the organizer of the Blogference and Dean
of the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at the IDC, also impressed
me with his knowledge of how search technologies and personal tracking
systems were being deployed, without our knowledge or consent, in all
sorts of business settings, and his anger and concern for the mass
invasion of privacy taking place was real and urgent. The School of
Communications itself is an impressive new facility that should be a
major draw for the IDC. The two thirteen-year-old pre-pubescent
Israeli boys who sat in the back of the Ask a Ninja’s workshop,
furiously scribbling notes while the Ninjas spoke about how they build
up their videoblog, wowed me completely. “Oh, we’re really enjoying
the event,” they told me. “We’re learning so much. We have our own
blogs, you know.” Same with the first year Israeli students at the
IDC, Tammy Berger and Dorin Bornovski, who were interviewing all of
us for a documentary they are making about the event. Same with the
Israelis who came to my and Garrett’s workshop on blogging and
politics, and who genuinely seem to be searching for a way to foster
the rise of an independent Hebrew political blogosphere that might be
able to do for Israeli politics what the netroots movement in America
has done for the left there (more on that topic maybe later). Their
questions and enthusiasm and hard work were infectious.

Ach, I hate to feel so conflicted with myself. No wonder I can’t sleep.

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Catching Up With Myself

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So, obviously this isn’t my primary blog as I haven’t been doing much posting here of late. I’m about to take a long personal trip to Israel, speaking at a conference on blogging called “Blogference” and visiting with family and friends who I haven’t seen in eight years, so maybe if I have time I’ll use this blog for my reflections on the trip. (See here for a published version of a journal that I kept when we last visited in 1999, pre-blogging.)

If you want to catch up on the bulk of my blogging and writing these past few months, you can start with the stuff I’ve been doing for TechPresident.com and PersonalDemocracy.com, two sites I co-founded with Andrew Rasiej. My blog posts are here and here, respectively. (Some are cross-posted to both sites.)

Here are some of my favorite posts:

The Long Tail of Online Political Video, 6-14-07

Joe Green on Project Agape and Online Democracy, 6-06-07

The Rise of Ron Paul, 5-24-07

MySpace’s Presidential TownHalls: YAOD or Something New?, 5-10-07

The Battle to Control Obama’s MySpace, 5-01-07 (which got 80 comments and for which I wrote about 5 follow-up posts)

Who is “ParkRidge47″? 3-07-07 (first of several posts on Phil de Vellis’s “Vote Different” Hillary-1984 mashup video)

What YouTube Election? 3-02-07

I’ve also been writing a biweekly column called “Politics 2.0″ for the Politico, along with my buddy Andrew. I wish I could find a simple pointer to all our columns, but if you search on “Politics 2.0″ on their site, I think it gets you to most of them.

Lastly, I spent a big chunk of the first half of the year working on our annual Personal Democracy Forum conference, which was a big success this year. Videos of all the keynote talks can be found on our blip.tv channel. The picture is a bit dark but I highly recommend trying to watch them.

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Understanding the New New Left

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Start with Matt Stoller’s brave effort at a comprehensive explanation of the rise of the net-roots entitled “What is this New Movement?“, and then turn to Mark Schmitt’s amplifications and clarifications. These two guys nail it.

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End of the Year Tzedakah Greetings

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Dear family and dear friends:

As the year draws to a close and we reflect on how blessed we are, we also think of the many people who are not as fortunate and wonder what we can do to help.

One thing we have always done as a family is sit down together to pick a few groups that are doing important work helping fix the world (“tikkun olam”) in some of the places where it most needs help. The kids go thru all of our jars of loose change and put the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters into rolls, and then we all dig a bit further into our savings, and lo and behold we have a few hundred dollars more to donate as tzedakah (hebrew for charity, though the root of the word is the same as justice). I asked Mira and Jesse to write something about each of the groups that they decided to support this year and this is what they said:

From Mira:

Seeds of Peace is an organization dedicated to changing the way young people look at and treat each other in conflict areas especially the Middle East. They encourage friendships and bonds between teens of warring nations and teach them how to make the correct decisions in the future. I have decided to donate money to support them because I feel that the conflict in the Middle East has gotten worse and there needs to be more support for the younger, soon to be more influential, people. By helping to change the next generation we are also helping to better the relations and hopefully pushing for a more safe and peaceful area.”

From Jesse:

“As goes with tradition, at the end of this year my family will be making tzedakah contributions to different organizations. Just as I did for my Bar-Mitzvah, I will be making a contribution to the Save Darfur Coalition. The reason I am doing this is because I feel that the situation in Darfur is in a great need of help, and although there are other problems that need fixing, what is happening there is in the greatest need. The peacekeepers being sent into Sudan need a lot of help and support, and the sooner the better. I urge you to donate–even if just a little–to helping save the many people who are in need of help.”

As we do each year, Leslie and I are going to match Mira and Jesse’s donations. If you feel moved to do so, you can give directly to these two groups via their websites.

Also, this year I especially felt a need to do something to help the people of New Orleans and the surrounding areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina more than a year ago. I asked some friends for advice on groups to support and one name that came up a couple of time was Common Ground — a grassroots, bottom up, community organizing effort that started with some street volunteers offering basic health care services in the days after the hurricane, and which has grown into a vital hub for all kinds of aid. Mother Jones had an interesting article about their work earlier this year, if you want to learn more. You can donate to them by following this link.

All our love,

Micah, Leslie, Mira and Jesse

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Blog and Thou

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I am a big fan of Chris Bowers, one of the main proprietors of the MyDD “direct democracy” political blog and one of the most prolific and influential netizens at the heart of the so-called “net-roots” phenomenon. And my respect for his skill as a writer and thinker only grew after reading his introspective post about how blogging for nearly three years straight, 65 hours a week, has not just changed his external life (in terms of opening a whole new world of work and contacts and friends and influence to him) but his internal life. Read this:

After two and a half years of virtually non-stop blogging, my perception of myself as a distinct individual has dramatically waned. My interior monologue has virtually disappeared. I no longer have aesthetic-based epiphanies, and I almost never concern myself with examining internal passions or emotions anymore. Blogging has not just changed the activities in which I engage–the activities in which I engage in order to be a successful blogger have profoundly altered the way my mind operates and the way I conceptualize my agency in relation to others. In effect, I do not exist in the same way I once existed.

Chris does something unusual as a blogger, which is almost entirely write, with tremendous focus and verve, about reviving progressive politics. If you don’t know who he is, you probably did hear about his effort to organize liberal bloggers to “google-bomb” Republican congressional candidates (the press fell all over that one) and he is also the guy who started the blogswarm that pushed Democratic candidates who were running unopposed but sitting on huge warchests to cough up nearly $3 million to help more embattled candidates. This guy is very effective. Call him a super-empowered netizen, one of the best of the breed.

But reading Chris talking about his blogging and how it’s affecting him, it’s hard to not to notice one glaring fact–all his blogging is about work. Yes, work that he is passionate about, but still, he’s not making much room in his life for anything else.

Maybe he needs a personal blog, apart from MyDD, where he’ll unwind. Or maybe just a good long vacation, well-deserved.

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Glover’s Low Blow on Bloggers

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Do you think the “bloggers vs journalists” fight is over, as Jeff Jarvis exclaimed to me at a panel we were on together last week at the Museum of Television and Radio? I argued with Jeff then that it was far from over, and to prove my point I can point you to today’s New York Times Week in Review, which has a giant 3/4 page charticle by Danny Glover of National Journal titled “New on the Web: Politics as Usual.

To my knowledge, Glover’s piece is the first time the Times has looked so closely at the new phenomenon of blogging and tackled the question of blogger ethics, so — even if we wish this debate were over — it ain’t. Unfortunately, Glover sets up a straw man–that all political bloggers are contemptuous of the political establishment, outsiders, “revolutionary” even–and then knocks it down by producing a list of bloggers who went to work in 2006 for political campaigns: Jerome Armstrong, Abraham Chernilla, Peter Daou, Jule Fanselow, Lowell Feld, Jon Henke, Aldon Hynes, Patrick Hynes, Scott Shields, Aaron Silverstein, David Sirota, Tim Tagaris and Jesse Taylor. He goes further, essentially arguing that these political bloggers are for sale, either because they took jobs with candidates they had backed on their blogs, or because they didn’t disclose their ties to candidates on their blogs after the fact. Hence the “politics as usual” as the subtitle of his piece.

I’m kind of surprised to read this from Glover, having met him once and corresponded in a friendly way, and I’ve emailed him some questions (see below) about the piece in the hopes that he will clarify matters. For all I know, his editors at the Times made the piece worse than he intentioned. But what he published does a major disservice to political bloggers, and to any serious understanding of why blogging is a new force in politics and the media.

First problem: Like a lot of other commentators, Glover treats political bloggers as a monolith. According to him, they are all filled with disdain and contempt for the political establishment. “You might think that with the kind of rhetoric bloggers regularly muster against politicians, they would never work for them,” he writes, setting up his straw man.

But this is patently silly. Peter Daou, one of his targets because he is now a prominent blog advisor to Hillary Clinton, worked for a year on the Kerry campaign. How anti-establishment is that? Tim Tagaris, who Glover tags for his work on the Sherrod Brown and Ned Lamont campaigns, also did a stint at the DNC. Republican blogger Patrick Hynes, now working for John McCain, is a senior account executive with a Republican consulting firm.

Conversely, I’m not sure it’s accurate to describe going to work for a candidate like Ned Lamont or Sherrod Brown or James Webb as joining the political establishment. (Though I suppose it’s hardly as anti-establishment as, say, backing a third-party candidate or getting arrested in the street, but again, who said that bloggers were that radical?) Many bloggers appear more attracted to maverick candidates; and so far outsider candidates seem to be making better use of blogging in their campaigns. But Glover completely elides this nuance, since it doesn’t fit his argument.

Second problem: Glover makes a big deal over the fact that “Few of these bloggers shut down their ‘independent’ sites after signing on with campaigns, and while most disclosed their campaign ties on their blogs, some–like Patrick Hynes of Ankle Biting Pundits–did so only after being criticized by fellow bloggers.” Note those quote marks around the word “independent.”

That’s the “for sale” charge, and unless Glover can cite more evidence for it, he’s basically smearing the good names of the other twelve bloggers he cites by name in the piece without proof. Ever since the issue of conflict of interest came up in the political blogosphere, bloggers have dealt with it by saying that disclosure is key to earning and maintaining trust. No one serious has ever suggested that if you go to work for a campaign or a cause that you have to stop blogging!

I’ve written him the following note:

1. Other than Patrick Hynes, which of the other bloggers you list by name failed to disclose their campaign ties on their blogs? You say “some” failed to do so until after they were criticized by fellow bloggers; that implies more than one, and since this is a key part of your argument, I’m wondering who else you are hanging that on.

2. The other straw man in your argument is this notion that all political bloggers are self-styled revolutionaries who are now being seduced by, or hiring themselves off to, the political establishment. Problem number one–not all of these bloggers are revolutionaries”; take Peter Daou, for example. I mean, he was with the Kerry campaign before this. Conversely, does working for Ned Lamont suddenly make a blogger into someone ensconced in the establishment? Same with working for James Webb or Sherrod Brown, who were both maverick outsider candidates.

I think you’ve done the political bloggers you attack a disservice, but I’m open to hear your replies on these points. For the record, please.

Glover replies:

On No. 1

– The Times chart initially was going to include a section on disclosure — i.e., the different ways that bloggers disclosed. That section was dropped and the sentence in question here was added instead. The nuanced points I made about disclosure got lost in the process.

– That said, Michael Brodkorb of Minnesota Democrats Exposed was attacked by liberal bloggers this year for not disclosing his work for campaigns, and he in turn attacked several liberal bloggers for not disclosing their payments from a “new journalist” group (http://beltwayblogroll.nationaljournal.com/archives/2006/10/minnesota_the_l.php). I mentioned Brodkorb in my initial article on this topic for NJ.com/MSNBC and in the first draft for the Times. He was dropped from the Times chart.

– If you think the issue of disclosure is a key part of my argument, you really missed the point. Bloggers in general have handled the disclosure issue very well and I acknowledged as much by saying “most disclosed their campaign ties on their blogs.”

On No. 2

– This is the point of my article. While I never said all political bloggers are self-styled revolutionaries, that clearly is how the most prominent bloggers, their proteges and their readers see themselves. I suppose you could make the argument that Peter Daou doesn’t belong in that bunch, but he would be the exception among the bloggers listed in my article, both Democratic and Republican.

– I also would add that you are being unfair in characterizing my piece for the Times as an “attack” piece. On that point, I refer you to this comment I posted in response to a reader at Beltway Blogroll:

“My article neither states nor implies that anyone, candidates or bloggers, is ‘corrupt’ because of ties between the two. I don’t believe that. Candidates have the right to pay for Internet advice, blogging, etc., and bloggers have a right to be paid for that work — or to do it on a volunteer basis, if they so choose.

I do think it’s interesting that some bloggers made a name for themselves by fighting the establishment and billing themselves as revolutionaries but at the same time are willing to work for campaigns. That, to me, is part of the establishment — at least in a broad sense. And that is the point of my article.

I hope this helps. Let me know when your response is online, and I’ll link to it at Beltway Blogroll.

Danny

I don’t want to beat this into the ground, and I appreciate Danny’s willingness to engage the discussion openly. But two comments on his email. First, it’s interesting that he admits that the only other blogger he knows of who failed to disclose his political campaign ties was a Republican, Michael Brodkorb. Too bad that his Times oped leaves the reader with the sense that some unknown number of these mostly Democratic bloggers listed were hiding something.

Second, I guess it’s clear that Danny thinks he’s discovered something big–revolutionary bloggers going to work for the Man–but like I say above, this is a straw man. Even the so-called Kingmaker of the liberal blogs, Markos Moulitsas, is not a revolutionary. No, he doesn’t care to go to work in a suit or even to move to Washington, but the notion that some liberal bloggers who have been hankering to revive the Democratic party might move from mere volunteer enthusiasm to paid labor is really not a big deal.

What is a big deal is the implication that this makes them corrupt. Danny says that he doesn’t believe that. Fine. Take a look at the graphics his designer added to jazz up his chart. We’ve got a line that goes from “blogger” to “candidate” to “payments” to “excerpt” (i.e. the favorable writing of said blogger, with no clarity about whether it was on the candidate’s blog or on their own blog, and if whether proper disclosure was made). And at the end of that line, in the top right corner of the page where you can’t miss it, is a big dollar sign.

This is unfair, and it’s too bad.

UPDATE: Lots more good commentary on this here on Pandagon (who points out that Jesse Taylor, one of the bloggers named by Glover, had given up ownership of that blog before he joined Ted Strickland’s campaign), on BlueJersey.com (by one of my favorite grad students, Xpatriated Texan, who defends blogger Scott Shields from Glover’s implication that he had failed to disclose his work for the Menendez campaign), and on Steve Gilliard’s News Blog.

[crossposted from my Personal Democracy blog]

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Yellow Ribbin’

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Every now and then, some parody on YouTube makes my day. This parody of the old “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” song, called “Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV,” did it for me today.

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