Now that my summer session course is coming to an end, I feel like I can finally take a moment to reflect on a few things. I'm coming up on six years of blogging now, which is pretty astonishing. Abu Aardvark is older than my daughter... though not nearly as cute, and almost certainly not as smart.
I'm constantly surprised at how many people I meet "know" me through the blog. It's always funny, if a bit odd, to meet graduate students or senior government officials who know that I was just in Jordan or that my kids have been sick. That's one of the reasons I almost never blog about family anymore. I can only shake my head when the organizer of a meeting of intelligence analysts explains that the discussion should be at "Abu Aardvark level", by which he seems to have meant open source, unclassified, close reading of what's in the public domain (and inappropriate references to hip hop and Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
My experience with blogging over the last six years has been overwhelmingly positive - I'd say 98% of my interactions are positive, creating a sense of warmth and community among far-flung people working on similar topics. I've had a lot of commenters who disagree, dissent, or argue in a respectful fashion, and learned a lot from them. It's been instructive to interact with, say, the Small Wars Journal community, which is populated by people who likely disagree with much of what I write but who typically engage sincerely and constructively. The occasional troll comes and goes, but compared to most other blogs this has generally been a civil, constructive place.
But sometimes, as everyone in the blog world knows, things go wrong - sometimes intentionally, but at least sometimes because people who think they know you really don't. It's just so easy on the internet to miss the intended joke, to read ill intent or malicious design into casual posts or comments. It's so easy to impute the worst motives onto someone with whom you disagree, or to convince yourself of things which have little grounding in reality. It's so easy to attack, to hit "post" without really thinking about how something sounds. And that's not even counting the garden-variety trolls, for whom "the worst" is a feature, not a bug, people who have no interest in good faith discussion, who just want to throw personal insults and disagreeable comments for the sake of disruption.
So that brings me to Nibras Kazimi of "Talisman Gate" and "Badger" of "Missing Links". I like both of their blogs, learn a lot from both of them, and have had productive exchanges with each of them at earlier points. Each is deeply invested in Iraq, albeit from diametrically opposed political and analytical positions. Each has unique insights and a unique perspective. Each contributes to the lamentably small world of Iraq-focused blogs. And each has spent the last few months taking pot-shots at me at every opportunity: Badger (who I have met, and found to be a lovely person in the flesh) mostly over what I don't write about - whether 'national reconciliation' projects or the Sadrists or whatnot; Kazimi (who I have not met) over a whole variety of mostly personal issues - "expertise", political sympathies, being a "sissy", and whatnot.
What went wrong? In Badger's case, best as I can tell, he got upset that I was neglecting certain issues which he wanted to see addressed. He chose to air his unhappiness on his blog rather than just shoot me an email and ask why, and then his frustration evidently snowballed. In Kazimi's case, as best I can tell, a few unfortunate exchanges in the comment section (where he was posting under a variety of pseudonyms) spiraled out of control. Many posts hating on me have followed.
It would be easy enough to hit back at each of them, either to defend myself or to attack them. At another time in my life, I would have. When I was first blogging, I got in a few nasty blog spats. I apologized publicly after the first one. I still disagreed with his arguments, but I felt that I hadn't lived up to my own expectations of keeping arguments at the level of ideas. Another one, I ended up feeling absolutely horrible about despite "winning", because the older gentleman on the other side was so deeply upset by the whole thing. Neither gave me great satisfaction. I come from an academic world, where people disagree intensely - but generally in a civil manner, and ideally with a shared ethic of good faith which assumes that everyone involved is trying to find the truth... even if you believe they have failed miserably in their quest.
So I don't want to attack. That's not my vision of how the blogosphere should work, and it isn't how I want to spend my time. Don't get it twisted - this isn't a plea I'm copping. I'd just that I'd rather try and find a way to promote civil dialogue, mutual respect, and some sense that we're all doing the best we can with a difficult situation. I'm sure that I've made my own mistakes too. We can all do better than this. We need to. Iraq is a complicated, messy country which we're all struggling with and about which it's usually dangerous to make grand, confident assertions. There are a multitude of conflicting sources, which we're all trying to process, and multiple cross-cutting forces pushing and pulling in different directions. Conditions on the ground in Iraq are changing. American policy is going to change. Emotions run high.
Many of us disagree about Iraq, sometimes analytically, sometimes passionately, often on the most fundamental issues. I doubt that we would agree about everything, or anything, but so what? That isn't the point. Interacting with people with whom you disagree is how you learn, how you challenge your own assumptions, and how you make analytical progress. If that "mapping the blogosphere" project is right, then precious little of that still goes on- and the election season is almost certainly going to make it even worse. I'd like to make it a little better.
So that's it. I'm off to have lunch now, and have to get back to work. Surprise me.
title lyric: Nas, "Where are they now?", off of Hip Hop Is Dead (2006)