Police blogs seem to be much in the news these last few days. When Britain’s Bobbies aren’t accidentally killing protester’s by beating the shit out of them, or punching someone they just tasered in the head, it seems their blogging about it.

One such detective is in the news for having just lost the right to keep his blog anonymous. I’ve only just heard about this case, and must admit to never having read the (now deleted) blog, but I expect that its going to generate some interesting discussions over the next few weeks about the concept of anonymity and privacy on the internet.

In a nut shell, it appears that Richard Horton (aka NightJack, the author of a popular exposé on his life in the force) has just lost an injunction against The Times that would have prevented them from exposing his real name. Horton had protested that if they did so, it would put him “at risk of disciplinary action for disclosing confidential information about prosecutions within the force”.

My immediate reaction to this is to find it just a little bit ironic that its a law enforcer who is seeking protection from the law for being exposed for doing something potentially unlawful. I don’t blame the judge for turning down his request. His case for anonymity is built on an argument that he thinks he’s done something wrong he should be punished for.

But the intelligence of this particular copper aside, there’s the bigger debate about internet anonymity, and blogging in general. Given that I’m all still excited about getting back into the blog zone, here’s some half baked thoughts on the topic.

I see this as falling somewhere in that googy grey zone of morality that usually comes up in discussions of paparazzi intimidation of famous people. The argument is always that people who choose to step into the limelight can’t expect to have privacy. By opening up one’s life, one looses all rights to not be photographed 24 hours a day, to not have people camp out on your doorstep and scream abuse at you, and so on. There’s something utterly obnoxious about this argument, but its an argument that seems to stick.

For bloggers, or any writer in fact who chooses to share some aspect of their life, I guess the same argument could be made. Putting yourself up on a public stage means giving away some rights to privacy and anonymity. Long before the internet, a pseudonym was no guarantee one’s identity wouldn’t be discovered either. I assume that the journalist didn’t have to work too hard to find out who he was. Damned by his own keyboard, so to speak. The closer it is to an authentic expression of reality, the easier it is to find out who the “real” person is.

The question taken from the oppostie direction would be, does it make a difference if we know that he is Richard Horton as opposed to NightJack? Why did the Times want to expose him? The hunt to find the “real” person seems to be something peculiarly urgent: if we find out Shakespeare was really Marlow, or Bacon, or Elizabeth I, this somehow will make his/her poetry and plays more or less real? I’m sure there’s a world of literary and authenticity theory that we could conjure up here. Still. At some point does it only matters who Pauline Réage was as opposed to Anne Desclos, when we think we know either of them beyond the page. What is this urge to uncover the “real” person, the truer experience, the concrete behind the spectacle.

And then there is also the accusation, made by The Times, that in writing about real, ongoing cases, he put police investigations at risk. The failure to properly anonymize his own writing seems remarkably stupid, up there with the infamous, ongoing Jared Diamond case, and makes me wonder whether bloggers and journalists need their own form of an IRB.

Maybe, in the end, the simple answer is that he should have just called it fiction. There’s a thriving tradition of writing first ‘novels’ that are thinly disguised biographies.

Advertisements

Ok folks. So I’m back. After nearly a year of hiatus, I’ve decided to deal with my “issues” and relaunch the Wrong Side of The World.

Perhaps to start off I should give an apology for disappearing. I’ll be honest about it: I was having a nine month sulk. I think I got a little dispirited with the idea of blogs, a little over enamoured with the quick fix potential of facebook, a little over-anxious about being labelled an “anthropology blog”… in all, it was complicated. And rather petty at the same time.

I spent the last nine months concentrating on some other projects: doing some creative writing, taking up painting again, that kind of thing. But I realised I missed writing here and so have decided to give it another go. First, though, I want to take this opportunity to talk a little about some of the things that made me start writing this blog in the first place, the direction I hope to take it in the future, and some more general musings about academic and internet writing. Partly as an explanation for the sulk, but partly as a way of clarifying my own thoughts on what I want this blog to be in the future.

When I first started the Wrong Side of the World back in 2003, I was just about to start grad school, and very sad about leaving behind a wonderful community of friends in Cambridge. I wanted some way to keep in conversation with them, some way to keep a connection other than sending awful group emails. I envisaged the blog as a way of carrying on the kind of informal, friendly debates about life, love and politics that I knew I was going to miss.

Grad school can be, particularly at my university, an isolating experience that slowly tears your sense of humour and self confidence into a thousand tiny little pieces. Particularly here in the US, I find, people are wary of what they write or say in public, cautious about what they feel prepared or able to defend. In writing the blog I wanted a space in which I could speak more freely, throw some ideas around and talk shit without necessarily having to worry so much about whether I could back it up with the requisite collection of citations.

As the name of the blog suggests, I also needed a space to deal with some of the total cultural confusion that I encountered in moving to a new country. Talking about the bizarre situations I found myself in was perhaps also a way of dealing with the loneliness that comes when you’ve just moved somewhere new and don’t have any deep friendships yet.

But, of course, the internet is not really a cozy night in the pub, and conversations take on a life of their own when they are overheard by the whole world. My biggest worry was always about whether I was writing something too personal, or something that wasn’t respectful of a friend’s privacy. (Or, lets be honest, that I would tell a stupid story about someone and they would then find it and be pissed off…) What caused my extended time-off (aka “sulk”), however, was more to do with me re-evaluating my relationship to the idea of a blog tself.

My initial reasons for blogging were to look for a safe space to share ideas, a space away from the rigours of academic speech/writing. But blogs are not that really that space. There are some pretty terrible stereotypes of academia that many people (inside and outside) share. The image of a bunch of egotistical arseholes constantly getting into cat-fights over obscure remnants of triviality, waving their dicks about, ready to crush any sign of weakness. I don’t believe in this stereotype. Or at least, I think that such images are a very tiny portion of the bigger picture. Yes, we all have to learn how to play the game to get ahead – its not some utopian community of lofty, idealist thinkers striving for truth and knowledge. But in that respect its just like every other profession or community. And so yes, there are styles of speech one has to adhere to in academia, and these can be limiting if one has no other outlet to speak in. Such was the situation I found myself in when I started the blog: wanting another venue to talk more freely in. The problem is that the blogosphere is also not a utopian space of free expression and shared ideas either. Instead, it can resemble nothing more than the worst of the dick waving cat-fight stereotype of academia, without the minimum requirement of some intelligence or knowledge.

Not always of course. But it happens. (particularly when one dares talk about politics.) And when it does, it sours my lovely naive idea about nice open spaces to talk about ideas without worrying that someone will flame you.

Anyway, the last few years blogging and my time off thinking about blogging have taught me two things.

Firstly, that I have a very thin skin. In fact, this was something that one of my informants told me rather forcefully a few months ago, when I was trying my best to convince him that my thesis wasn’t going to be at all controversial. I am a classic middle-child I guess, desperate at all costs to avoid conflict*. I’ve got to deal with that head on.

Secondly, that its really not possible to keep my academic and my personal life separate any more. My mind has been colonised by anthropology as much as my life style has. In the same way that my day-to-day schedule is dictated by the open-ended nature of research and my ability to have a relationship is undermined by the propensity to spend several months a year doing fieldwork, I now can’t read a magazine, or go to a store, or meet someone at a party without anthropologizing the encounter. Its insidious. So the idea that I would somehow write about my life or my thoughts and have it not be anthropological is wishful thinking.

Which is why I was so uncomfortable with the idea of being an “anthropology blog”. Not because I have something against them: I am an avid reader of several, particularly the excellent group blog Savage Minds. But instead because I wanted that separation, that safe space. I’ve realised, however, that its not going to happen.

So… I’m going to embrace it. Here, you will hopefully see over the next few months, the new and improved Wrong Side of the World. It might not work. Then again it might.

I have a few aims.

I’m going to avoid as much as possible talking about my informants, or explicit aspects of my fieldwork. My reason for this is mostly to protect those relationships and the ethic obligations to privacy that are embedded in fieldwork. Besides, I’m going to be doing so much field note writing already I probably won’t want to be writing additional things about it.

I want to keep this as a space I can write informally in. My biggest challenge in my professional development has been learning how to reign in my over-colloquial writing style in my academic writing. Learning how to cut out the cute phrases, sarcastic asides, over-enthusiastic effervescence and unsubstantiated rants. Gradually I’m getting there, and think my academic writing is improving as a result. But I miss them sometimes. Expect the usual chaotic, incoherent ramblings here instead, plus some.

I probably won’t be able to stop myself from me!me!me! posts, so you’ll have to bear with me on that. Though as Jim put it, when I talked this over with him a little over the Christmas vacation, the personal is still political so there’s no reason to exclude it all. Besides, if I stopped telling long-winded stories about my own stupidity, that would be half my conversation gone.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last year about whether its possible to make cultural anthropology accessible and/or relevant to wider audiences. So there may be some experiments in that. Other people have done it better before me, and are doing it better now, but we’ll see what happens. Its a challenge.

I’m about to move to yet another side of the world, Chile, so I’ll be writing a lot about that. However, for the first time I’ve decided to let my parents know about my blog, which will probably add a whole other level to the self-censorship ;)

So. Here goes! Thanks for reading, feel free to hang around leaving comments, and lets see what happens!

A few more links on Bolivia that you may find interesting to read. Some may be a little out of date now – I meant to be writing more this week but have been ill. I’ll keep adding to this as I find more over the next few days.

BOLIVIA:”Twenty Families Are Obstructing Governability” By Franz Chávez. Some background and analysis of possible solutions.

It is precisely this avalanche of votes, the greatest proportion won by a president since the restoration of democracy in 1982, that raises questions for sociology Professor Joaquín Saravia, who told IPS that “The government appears insecure, because it has overwhelming social and political support, but this has not translated into real control of the country, which is alarming,” he said.

The head of the governing Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) parliamentary group, César Navarro, said that democratic changes being promoted by the government are resisted by the elites, who are accustomed to lives of privilege and benefiting from the state.

Elite Backlash, by Nick Buxton. Commentary on Monday’s conflict, including a translation of an account from Bolivia.

What they nearly always fail to mention are any of the following facts:

– that the opposition is led by business elites and big landowners who have spent vast amounts of money, tactics of intimidation, and violence to push the message that regional autonomy will improve people’slives
– despite this fierce campaign and the almost complete absence of central government, the opposition’s popular support is still limited to the cities whilst the central government’s support grows ever more
– that the central government’s nationalisation more than doubled the revenues for the Eastern regions
– that the Right who fought the Constitutional Assembly for a year saying everything had to be approved by two-thirds suddenly don’t want any further popular votes now that two-thirds backed Evo in a referendum in July

Definitely worth reading, this is the reaction of the Center for Juridical Studies and Social Investigation, the organisation whose building and records were destroyed on Monday. “Violent Groups Take Over Human Rights Organization In Bolivia”.

The offices of CEJIS, along with its personnel, were attacked more than 15 time in the last five years. In the last months the institution suffered two attacks with molotov cocktails (in November 2007 and last August). In its 30 years of work, CEJIS has provided legal assistance to indigenous, landless and peasant organizations in the process of titling their lands and territories. It has been a permanent ally of the social movements in the legal codification of their rights in national legislation, and advised and accompanied the progress of social organizations in the Constituent Assembly. This work has implied a permanent risk on the personnel and offices of CEJIS, threatened by the sectors of power that have historically controlled the region of Eastern Bolivia, who now feel menaced by the advance of the rights of the most marginalized sectors of our society.

As always, for ongoing analysis check out Jim Shultz in Blog from Bolivia (in the links to the right). In particular he reported last night on one piece of good news and potential hope for a solution other than civil war:

Tarija’s Governor Heads to La Paz for Negotiations with Morales

The one good piece of news today is that Tarija Governor Mario Cossío announced that he was headed to La Paz this afternoon to open a negotiation on the current crisis with the Morales government. Radio Erbol also reported that Santa Cruz Governor Ruben Costas has endorsed the negotiation effort. “I am completely convinced that this is the last opportunity to begin a process of reconciliation and leave behind the process of confrontation,” Cossio told reporters.

His piece from yesterday (Friday 12th) is worth reading in its entirety.

The Gringo Tambo blog reports on “8 dead in Pando overnight”, giving a brief summary which links to an article in Spanish:

Again according to La Razón, eight people were killed in Pando in “armed clashes” between autonomistas and masistas. Venezuela is threatening to intervene. Brazil and Argentina have said that they will “not tolerate” a coup and that they fully support the Morales government. Meanwhile, Evo is mobilizing military and police troops. No word yet on what is happening today. From what I understand things in Santa Cruz are tense but calm, with members of the UJC still occupying buildings.

Following that, there is more historical background on these clashes from the political scientist blogger Miguel Centellas.

The sad thing here is that these are not military units, which should be the forces (along w/ the police) used to restore state authority. The consequence—assuming they actually do march on Santa Cruz & other opposition-controlled areas—will be a higher casualty count. For all their bravura, Ponchos Rojos (like the UCJ) lack military discipline & training. That means their clashes will be bloody, like the clash in Pando that left at least 8 dead & 80 injured.

Miguel’s summary post from this morning is also very useful, describing the Bolivian military’s reaction to Venezuela’s ‘offer’ to send their army into Bolivia to defend Morales at a time when the US ambassador has been forced to leave the country for interference in Bolivia’s affairs.

Via Overthinking It (my new favourite blog) I just came across Chris Marcil’s blog following his attempt to read the entire Harvard Classics. Marcil is a comedy writer, better known for penning such pop culture classics as Beavis and Butthead and Frasier than for his knowledge of Cicero, Byron and their ilk. The result is an idiosyncratic combination of humour and intellectual analysis that makes for great reading. For example his thoughtful comments on Darwin are particularly apt at a time when stooopidness seems to be making another attempt to spread beyond the US to the UK.

The ever lovely Jim celebrated two years of his insightful and politically astute blog Daily (Maybe) two weeks ago. He asked some of us for a guest blog as a birthday present, but being the kind who always turns up fashionable late to parties I only got round to writing it this week. If you’d like to see me sullying the pages of an otherwise fantastic blog with my ramblings, follow this link…

The alien takeover

Happy belated birthday Jim :)

Its been a really chronic case of writer’s block.

The last few months of last year involved some intense and highly personalised writing – having to define my research project and shape it into a particular piece of writing. A month of fraught stuckness around late November turned into several weeks of utter paralysis. Usually my blog helps me get out of writer’s block – this time it got caught up in the consequences of a particularly bad case.

A few weeks back home in the UK studiously avoiding doing any work at all, and more importantly not feeling guilty about it, has helped a lot. The last week since the holidays ended has been refreshingly productive after so long feeling useless. I hope to be able to get some blogs out too, once the latest draft of this document is finished this week.

Writer’s block is a strange thing. Its not the words that are the problem, but the act of writing as a means of arranging thoughts. I imagine my thoughts to be like clouds of sticks, each one pointing in the wrong direction. I know they should all fit together, somehow, and that the structure they create will be a strong and sensible one. But each time I look at a handful of sticks and get them all to align, the others on my peripheral vision start to shift and spin in all directions again. I turn to them, and the ones under my fingers start to move out of shape. Ideas spin in all directions, as I dash backwards and forwards trying to solve first one problem then the next. Trying to grasp onto so many different thoughts at once and bring them all together is difficult, even when I know that in the finished arrangement, they theoretically all fit perfectly.

A book I read recently on overcoming problems with writing in the social sciences talked about the different rituals people create for themselves to be able to write. Like, having to clean the whole house first, or only being able to write the first draft in red felt tip pen, or having to be sitting at a particular desk in a library. Most people seem to find their rituals silly, in a rational sense, but still can’t live without them. Despite doing all my note taking and reading on my laptop, when I get really stuck in my ideas I have to start writing my notes in pencil on the back of scrap paper. I’ve no idea why, that’s just the way it is. Modern day superstitions.

Right now my desk is strewn with piles of pencil scribbled scrap paper, the ideas are finally beginning to align, and I feel some relief for the first time in almost two months. Hopefully these virtual pages will be back to their normal spluttering self soon, and I’ll be able to give Jim that long over due guest blog that has been on my guilt list for a while. What could be a more appropriate way to end a blog-drought than with a blog about not being able to write?

…to my new home. Isn’t it pretty? Make yourself comfortable, pull up a chair, take a beer from the fridge… Did we lose anyone on the trip over from there?; Should we send out a search party? I’m still getting used to a few of the features and generally settling in, but I think I’m going to like it here.

Depending on whether I get round to acting on my great plans, but there maybe a few content changes to accompany this new move. Maybe a little less of the “me me me!!” posts, maybe a little bit of fiction every now and then, a bit more openness and interaction with the wider world. I’m still torn on how anonymous to be… The blog has worked very nicely as a letting-off-steam space for me up to now – more openness always brings bigger responsibilities to be careful about what you say about people you know in the ‘real world’. All things to ponder.

In the meantime make yourself at home, and feel free to leave muddy footprints in the comments box.