Beauty of Gray

Friday, May 17, 2002

The blogosphere as coffeehouse

There has been a lot written, both on blogs themselves and in the more mainstream media, about the blogging phenomenon. For the most part, the writings have centered on blogging’s relationship to existing print media and punditry, which is understandable considering the many similarities. However, I’d like to suggest a different comparison—I think blogging is the modern day equivalent to the old Viennese coffee houses of the early 20th century.

Those coffeehouses served as the center for public intellectual discourse. Writers, thinkers, and other intellectuals would gather there, where they would read the papers (all the coffeehouses would have subscriptions to all the papers) and discuss the issues of the day. Similarly, here on the internet, bloggers surf the papers, linking interesting articles and posting thoughts about them. E-mail and comments sections render the medium interactive, as well.

While the coffeehouse culture focused more on art and literature than on politics (the Viennese papers would run significant sections of original literary works and essays. A prominent fuellitonist could become a celebrity in the city.), that is a difference in the times—politics are more central to our existence now, and in their self-destructive pursuit of avant-garde status, music and art have rendered themselves irrelevant to most people’s lives. And blogs are not solely about politics—you can equally find discussions of the classics, economics, history, religion, cognitive science, drug research, and probably any other topic you can think of.

Different coffeehouses would serve different clienteles, and would thus have their own specializations. One might be known as the bohemian haunt, another for dramatists and poets, a third for philosophers, a fourth for politicians and writers. Similarly, the blogosphere has organized, or at least is in the process of organizing itself into nodes, which each cater to a particular interest.

Blogging has restored the public intellectual sphere that has been lost for most in America. (As was shown by the general irrelevance and obscurity of most of those cited in the recent book about public intellectuals.) It provides the chance for thinkers from all over the country to gather together and exchange thoughts, bounce ideas off each other, and to find out what others are thinking. The Viennese coffeehouses served the same cultural function—blogging is this same phenomenon writ large.

Both served a relatively small population of self-described elites, but through the quality of minds present and the cross fertilization of ideas nurtured by it, the blogosphere can have an influence out of proportion to its number of readers. But even if it has no effect on society at large, the blogosphere still provides an intellectual home for its denizens, a place to go to hear the latest political developments and to find out what’s going on in the world, in the largest sense. Just as the coffeehouses did—they existed and flourished not because of any product they produced or power they had, but because they provided a benefit to those who frequented them. I don’t know if blogging will ever make anyone any money, but I think it will still survive, because people like it. They like doing it, and there is value in it for the participants.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 10:11 AM

Tuesday, May 14, 2002
Palestinian Rationality

Two readers wrote in with responses to my last piece, both criticizing me for my sloppy use of the word “irrational” in describing the Palestinians. The first letter takes a pessimistic tone. He says that, if you only recognize that the Palestinian goal is the eradication of Israel, that their actions are perfectly rational. Because they are working.

I respectfully disagree with parts of your analysis because I believe the Palestinian leadership defines its objectives in somewhat different terms than you do. I would posit, first of all, that its goal is the liquidation of Israel, not a Palestinian state next to Israel.

Your observation that "there’s pretty strong evidence that the Palestinians are no longer behaving rationally. Their goal is no longer to maximize their own utility, but instead to inflict maximum damage on the Jews, regardless of the cost" may be true up to a point, but here is the critical dynamic: Israel cannot wipe out the Palestinians (nor does it want to). The Palestinians can destroy Israel (albeit slowly, gradually and eventually with the help of neighboring Arab states). In that sense, the Palestinian losses are sustainable. 30 years of PLO violence and terror have caused more Palestinian suffering than Israeli suffering, yet it has produced tangible results: world recognition, proto-statehood, a US endorsement of future permanent Palestinian statehood, Israeli acquiescence - even on the political right, etc... In short, the tipping point of terror may be bad policy in terms of its direct impact on individual Palestinian leaders (captured or preemptively killed) and on the Arab populace that sees its standard of living collapse, but in terms of the over-arching genocidal goal, it continues to pay dividends.

This is true, but I also think that, post Oslo, Israel had clearly signaled what concessions they were willing to make, so that the dividends of terrorism were at an end. And I could be reading him wrong, but I’m more hopeful than this—I don’t think the terrorist attacks will lead to an ultimate defeat for Israel. In fact, I think the severity of the attacks has, if anything, stiffened the resolve and unified the Israeli population. I would also argue (and this is what I meant when using the word, as I should have indicated more precisely) that, while the Palestinian attacks might be a rational way to pursue that goal, the choice of goal itself is irrational. Choosing a path that may very well lead to their own death or the destruction of the nascent Palestinian state merely to take the Israelis down with them is, in my view, an irrational course of action.

The second e-mail, from Thomas Maguire, raises the interesting point that the apparent irrationality of the Palestinian actions is explained if, instead of treating them as a monolithic entity, it is recognized that there are multiple factions in Palestine that are jockeying for power and prestige.

if the Palestinian extremists can credibly threaten to assassinate Arafat or any other Palestinian leader who compromises with Israel, then Arafat's behavior appears a lot less crazy and a lot more self-interested, from a personal perspective at least. And the utility function of a religious zealot who really prefers death (especially if it is the death of one of his followers or adversaries, rather than himself personally) to dishonor may not necessarily be irrational. It is also possible that the power of Hamas increased relative to the Palestinian Authority during the Israeli incursion, since the PA infrastructure is visible and formal - police stations, Arafat's compound, etc. So maybe the Hamas people weren't making a mistake when they provoked the Israelis into shattering the PA.

This is a very good point. When lumped all together, the net outcome for the Palestinians may be negative and apparently irrational, but that doesn’t mean that individuals or particular blocks are behaving irrationally.

It’s analogous to the prisoner’s dilemma problem in that everyone pursuing their own selfish interests can create an outcome that is in no-one’s interest. The classic solution to this problem is government—bringing in a third party to coerce the two factions and force them to cooperate. If there was a real, functioning democracy, it’s possible that electoral competition could do the trick—if they keep pursuing policies that are destructive to the country, a party that didn’t pursue those policies might be able to unseat them. (This assumes, of course, that the wider Palestinian populace would rather have peace and security than killing the most Jews.)

But it’s hard to see that there’s any possible group that could play a third party enforcement role. If such a collection were possible, it would be some combination of both the Arabs and the west—the people that hold the purse strings. Unfortunately, either they support the uprising or are unwilling to actually hold the Palestinians responsible for anything and simply keep writing the checks. But the Israeli idea orf a wider, regional peace conference does seem like a good idea, or at least it could be if Saudi Arabia and Iran were actually willing to buy into it.

Ultimately, if you thought you could trust him, this analysis actually does support the past policy of the US and Europe, which was to assist Arafat and support the Palestinian authority in trying to set up a police force. With power divided, Arafat doesn’t have the strength to impose a solution on the country in the way that the governments of Jordan and Egypt did. They were strong enough to make their peace and crack down and suppress those elements that didn’t like it.

So there’s a germ of truth in the contention that attacking Arafat is counterproductive for the Israelis since it removes the only possible force that could hold Hamas and the other more extremist groups in check. Of course, this analysis fails since Arafat showed that he had no interest in doing any such thing and was actually directly assisting them in their plans and attacks. But it wasn’t necessarily a bad idea at the time.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:42 PM

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