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Guest Post: Charles Cameron on Abu Muqawama

Charles Cameron, my regular guest blogger, is the former Senior Analyst with The Arlington Institute and Principal Researcher with the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. He specializes in forensic theology, with a deep interest in millennial, eschatological and apocalyptic religious sects of all stripes.

One blogger’s rant to another: for AbuM

by Charles Cameron

Abu Muqawama seemed a reasonably nice and interesting guy, so I invited him in.  He came into my living room and was holding forth on Afghanistan and Iraq and matters military, and he seemed well informed.  I was glad I’d invited him in, and from time to time I found myself over in that corner of the room, and I listened. 

I think it’s important to learn from reasonably well-informed people, so I invite them into my home.  That’s the basic exchange that happens when you write a worthwhile blog: people invite you into their homes to listen to you.

When I invited Abu Muqawama into my room the other day — Andrew Exum, of the Center for a New American Security, that is — he happened to be talking about Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of a top Hamas sheikh who converted to Christianity a while back, and was run as an inside agent by the Mossad for years.  Yousef has a new book coming out, and that’s why Exum and others have been taking an interest in him this week.

I turned to Exum and told him my own thoughts on the matter, but Exum didn’t respond, which is not ideal, but he’s a busy guy, okay — and anyway we were interrupted at that point.  Unfortunately, Exum seems to have had a drunken friend with him when he came into my living room this time, a ranting, homophobic drunk who spewed comments across my Bokhara rug (it’s not like it’s a museum piece you know, but I like it, I like it) such as…  well, let me quote his comment on Yousef himself, his conversion and his spying:

He’s probably celebrating Ask and Tell, say it proud, say it loud, it’s raining men in the Military. Hell, he’s probably volunteered to be the first gay in a submarine, along with all the pregnant sea persons. Gay. He probably saw Brokeback Mountain one too many times in that Israeli prison. Them Jews are smart, making gays out of Islamist, letting them sodomize each other.

Utterly charming. The only problem being, it’s not the sort of conversation I really want in my living room.

It is, Andrew Exum, should you ever read this, distinctly uninvited.

If I lived in a rowdy bar, perhaps, and slept in the sawdust during the day?  But I don’t. 

There are, by one count, around 15 such comments on that particular post on Exum’s blog that — what shall I say? will make me think twice about inviting Exum over to my place unless I can find a grownup to vouch for him first?

Look, there was another commenter on that particular blog post who told Andrew — if he was even listening — that that he was letting his blog “be ruined by not IP banning the moron”.  And I excerpted that phrase and put it in quotes because the commenter was plainly annoyed by this time and his own language was getting a little salty.

I think he had a point.  Exum wants into the living rooms and offices of people like myself: that’s why he has a blog.  Exum works for CNAS, which is an interesting group with friends in fairly high places, like Michele Flournoy.  Their logo is atop Exum’s blog these days, though I remember when it was just this young soldier’s blog, and no less interesting for lack of official sponsorship.

But look, today it is part of the web-presence of the much touted Center for a New American Security, so they’re in my living room, too.  And you might think they’d have a concern for their reputation.

I’m a reasonably civil chap — brought up in England, and a bit old school, you know — so I fished up their email address and asked them very politely if they would remove comments like the one from “Bubba loves them Sabra girls”.

Somehow, I don’t see them letting someone stand in their office suite handing our fortune cookies that read “Bubba loves them Sabra girls” — do you?  I don’t want them to think they can encourage that in my home, either.  I tried to tell them that politely via email, but that was almost a week ago, and I don’t think they read all their email.  And almost that long ago, the same comment poster who had complained earlier posted again, this time saying:

Rofl, this is amazing. 1 guy with 15/21 comments in a thread. Exum, you’re being an idiot. I’ve read this blog for well over 3 years now, and this is terrible. You’re letting your blog sink.

It’s truly sad. It would take 2 seconds to moderate this blog.

 He’s right, you know.  Exum isn’t an idiot, but his tolerating this sort of trolling on his blog is idiotic.  Exum would like to make conversation with anyone who’s listening, but he doesn’t appear to be listening himself. 

Look, this is all focused on Abu Muqawama, who doesn’t entirely deserve it.  And I understand: he’s a busy man.  But I love this internets thing, and I happen to think it’s an opportunity for all of us.

There are blogs out there for hatred, blogs for poetry, blogs for discussing issues in Byzantine history or Catholic liturgy, blogs for porn, blogs for someone and the cousins to share photos of their pets and kiddies, lots and lots of blogs.  But within the enormity of the ‘sphere, there’s an opportunity for civilized discourse on matters of significance.

Abu Muqawama aspires to speak in that place, as does Zenpundit, as do I.  We are trying to build a conversation of informed insight across the webs, blog calling to blog, in a project that might make the world a little wiser and less liable to suffer the consequences of ignorance and prejudice.

If, like Abu M, you are a web notable, and you blog — as I see it, you have an opportunity and an obligation.

I want to say this quite clearly, because I invite you and your peers and friends into my living room and into my life, every day:

You have an obligation to listen, as well as speak.  You have an obligation to read the comments in your blog — or if you’re too busy, okay, to have an intern read them for you, and select the best for you to read — and you or your intern have a responsibility to notice when some foul-mouth splashes your pages with regurgitated bile, and to clean up the mess. 

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21 Responses to “Guest Post: Charles Cameron on Abu Muqawama”

  1. zen Says:

    Hi Charles,
    .
    When a blog reaches a certain daily traffic level, circa 1000 hits a day, the trolls and nuts begin to emerge from the woodwork. Tom Barnett has Sean Meade as webmaster who deftly and diplomatically moderates the comment section, generally getting the visitors to play nicely and banning the few who can’t get it together. Dave Dilegge has a "graveyard" of folks he has had to ban from SWJ. It appears to be some kind of power law that makes the relationship between comment section quality and traffic to be roughly inverse.
    .
    My contact with Andrew Exum has been limited to a few emails where he has been unfailingly cordial and professional, so I can’t imagine he likes it when the commenters go completely ape when he is away from the keyboard. An intern handling comment moderation would probably solve the problem.

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hey, Zen — thanks for posting that!  And: Yup.  I fully agree.  I very much appreciate Abu Muqawama, and I shall in fact continue reading his blog despite the ravings of the odd troll.  But I did feel like venting, I had fun writing the piece, I’d be delighted if it caught Exum’s eye (or the eye of someone else at CNAS) and resulted in a cleanup — and yes, I think an intern could probably solve the problem nicely.  Most of all, I’d like to encourage bright bloggers to keep an eye on their comments sections, to respond to reasonably polite questions when possible — and to build the conversation ‘sphere in ways that will enrich the understandings of us all.

  3. Schmedlap Says:

    I don’t get the concern. The comments have never added much to Abu M. Every thread has the same handful of people re-arguing the same points, regardless of the topic of the thread. Even if the comments were worthwhile, it is easy to see which are spam or trolls and to just skip over them. And even if that were not the case, the concern seems a bit melodramatic. Using a computer to view someone’s website is no more "inviting him into your house" than using a telescope to peer into your neighbor’s window is "inviting him into your house." Ultimately though, do you ever learn anything new from his blog? If you’ve read one month of his stuff, you’ve read it all.

  4. Lexington Green Says:

    If a blog gets above a certain level of traffic, as Mark said, it’s readership is no longer a small group of like-minded people, but more like the mob passing through a bus station lavatory on a daily basis, and it is a mob of people in which many of the people have vehement opinions, have no life, since they have time to be trolls, and in many cases are not particularly functional in the normal world.  Once the blog becomes popular and te unwashed mob has taken note of it, at that point, the blogger can either (1) stop allowing comments, (2) let the commenters do their thing, and ignore it, or just take out the most egregious comments when you have time to look at it (3) pay a high price trying to police the comment section.  Exum is probably following path #2.  On most sites that are at all popular, it is a waste of time to even look at the comments. 

  5. Robert Link Says:

    I have been meaning to dig deeper into this, but watching how Jack Balkin handles comments moderation leads me to believe fear of litigation is the problem. There seems to be an argument that once one begins moderating one is in effect creating an editorial policy for which one may be liable. Now, I don’t buy that, but when I see the folks at Balkinization simply disable comments on most posts rather than addressing their dedicated vandals, that’s the only conclusion that seems to make sense.

    That said, I haven’t researched it as I would like. Maybe now is the time…

  6. Charles Cameron on Abu Muqawama « The Image Says:

    [...] via zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Guest Post: Charles Cameron on Abu Muqawama. [...]

  7. Purpleslog Says:

    I rarely ever read comments on larger blogs because of the quality drop (noise increase) with the increase in comment totals. 

    One exception is SlashDot, but that site allows users to self-moderate comments up and down, and lets you set the level at which you want to see comments. So, a post that is interesting to me may have 500 comments, but only a few are visibile to me at the threshold level I set. Perhaps, A.E. should look at something like that (or an intern).

  8. onparkstreet Says:

    I’ll tilt at the windmill as I’m a regular – or was for about two or three years? – commenter at Abu M.
    .
    The thing about big crazy comments sections is that you look for certain names, or blog handles, and skip the rest. It’s like searching around a consignment shop or second-hand book store or flea market. You look for gems, if that’s your thing and you feel like it. I do. I think Gian Gentile said in the comments section once that he looked at blog comments as reading raw historical data, or something like that. I really, really liked that idea. Like sleuthing!
    .
    As to the trolls: yes, they are especially noticeable because they now dominate. Even I remarked on one thread, "hey is there any place I can complain about sexual harrassment?" It was that milk-kin person. Ugh. So tiresome. But, human nature as many young people hang out there. I think it’s important to remember that the age range is enormous on that blog, from teenagers to the old-timer retired types I love because they know so much and contribute wonderfully.
    .
    As for moderating, I’ll say the same here I’ve said there: if you start moderating you become responsible for that which you don’t delete. A fool’s errand.
    .
    That being said, I don’t comment there as much as I used to, but then the blogger himself doesn’t seem as interested in the topics, either. Eh, you blog for a bit and then, maybe, you move on to something else.
    .
    The anecdote about the drunk friend and the living room? I don’t know what to say about all of that. Have you ever had a friend or ex that liked the bottle? Sometimes even well-meaning people can get into tough situations because you want to be a good person and take care of your friend, or whoever, but in that action you end up spreading a lot of misery. Well, I’m projecting so I don’t know. I do think the crazy atmosphere allows a wider group of people into the conversation. By keeping it civilized and focused, sometimes you lose people. And then you miss things.
    .
    - Madhu

  9. onparkstreet Says:

    Wait. I re-read your post and I’m REALLY confused now, but that’s my standard steady state. So, it’s me, not you, just me.
    .
    Is that a literal or digital-living room – or both – anecdote about the drunk friend? If you mean digital, then no, it’s not your living room. It’s his.
    .
    - Madhu

  10. onparkstreet Says:

    I just read the post for the THIRD time now.
    .
    Oh no. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, am I? To quote Emily Litella: Never Mind.
    .
    - Madhu

  11. Charles Cameron Says:

    Don’t worry, Madhu, the living room was metaphorical, and I liked your point about second hand bookstores.  I was feeling mildly irritable — because I think that blogger-reader interaction in some of our better forums is a fine new avenue, just as the coffee-house was a few centuries back — so I scratched my itch by writing this little squib.     .     And it got a great story out of Larry Dunbar, too…

  12. Kim McDodge Says:

    Here is an idea about another level of discussion that blogs cannot handle and could contain and differentiate some of the noise:http://www.davidbrin.com/disputation.htmI appreciate us all trying to keep up with all this, but if the frame is not solid enough, everything pitches up and deafens us, stops us from inviting people in just for need for quiet.

  13. Bryan Alexander Says:

    Loved the line about you living in a bar and sleeping on sawdust, Charles.  Heightened further by your asserting your English upbringing.  :)

  14. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Bryan:I’m glad you liked the sawdust. In RL as you may know, I live in an attic flat in the rafters of a warehouse full of sarongs <grin> — it’s entirely writerly and quiet.

  15. Andrew Exum Says:

    Charles,

    Thanks for this considered post, but I disagree with you here. My policy on comments borrows from the logic employed by the Washington Post and other newspapers for why they let anyone — the reasonable, the nutty and the hateful — write whatever they want in the comments section on their articles. I would *much* rather people see with all the ugly crap that is out there ye olde internets than employ some bound-to-be-arbitrary standard for screening comments. I’m a bit of a free speech fundamentalist, I’m afraid, much less likely to crack down on even "hate speech" to the chagrin of many readers. Better to expose that kind of nonsense to the light of day, I say, and the commenter to ridicule.

    My comments section, in other words, is not my living room. I’m too poor to even afford an apartment with one of those, but I assure you that if I ever can, I will not allow the racists and nutjobs to sit on my sofa for a cup of coffee. :)

    Thanks again,

    Ex

  16. Charles Cameron Says:

    And this is what I really like about the blogosphere — the best of the place: cross-blog conversations with courteous disagreements.      .      Thank you, Ex, for taking the time to respond, and for doing so graciously as well as firmly.  As an analyst of religious violence, I often find the comments on news reports (eg JPost and Haaretz on anything to do with the Temple Mount / Al Aqsa Mosque) very revealing when compared with the more considered statements of the various spokespeople — so I can easily understand the principle that underpins your decision.       .      I hope you’ll keep an eye on Mosab Yousef, too — as I said in another comment on your blog today, he really is a three-ways interesting character.

  17. S.D. "Snake" Plissken Says:

    I’ll tilt at the windmill a little more, as I too was a regular- on AM.  I came read and learn from the group, more than I would post. I’m a former U.S. Military Officer.

    Ex, not sure what happened, but I believe your IT people blocked my IP or DNS for voicing my opinion, when I commented on the hate / idiotic statements from the “trolls” were growing on the blog, I even stated that a log-in system should be devised, in an attempt to stop the malicious and vulgar public statements by these trolls.

    Perhaps your technical people at CNAS have blocked all or certain Middle Eastern DNS from posting on your Blog, but I am an "American" voice on the other side of the pond.

    I am happy to say that I can still read your Blog. Keep up the good work, but please don’t call yourself a "free speech fundamentalist" when CNAS is blocking DNS’s to those who wish to provide positive input to your blog. I don’t want you making yourself a hypocrite. You’re better than that.
    R/ S.D. "Snake" Plissken

  18. zen Says:

    Hi SD,
    .
    I sent an email to Exum with a copy of your comment. Hope that helps.

  19. Schmedlap Says:

    Snake,
    Don’t feel bad. The US Army blocks the American Enterprise Institute, Stanley Foundation, Bing, and Wikipedia.

  20. Andrew Exum Says:

    SD,

    Uh… I do not know anything about this. CNAS does not block DNS that I am aware of. I suspect the problem could be on your end, but I will look into it.

    Ex

  21. S.D. "Snake" Plissken Says:

    I get the "Saving…" with the spinning pizza, followed by the yellow highlighted text "Not saving? Wait a few seconds, reload this page, then try again. Every now and then the internet hiccups too :-) ". Reloading and trying again never works because I’m guessing that my unshielded IP address is prevented from posting due to some adblock-ware on your server.  It’s not on my end. 

    This problem with CNAS server has occurred before. 

    click the link. 

    http://www.cnas.org/blogs/abumuqawama/2009/06/technology-and-revolution.html

    Scroll down to: Comment by ??? ?????? on June 15, 2009 – 11:24am

    Let me know what your tech people figure out

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