Two Reviews of the netroots

by Henry Farrell on August 18, 2009

Two book reviews I’ve done on netroots related stuff that may be of interest to CT readers.

First, a “review”: for _The American Prospect_ of Eric Boehlert’s and Matthew Kerbel’s books on the netroots.

But the netroots’ discomfiture isn’t mere pique. Nor is it simple anger that Obama has broken his promises to roll back the security state that developed over the previous eight years, although this is surely important. The real worry for the netroots is that Obama is undermining their particular blend of online politics. He has taken the parts of netroots politics that he likes (online organizing and fundraising), while dumping the parts that he doesn’t (a strongly confrontational politics and emphasis on bottom-up decision making). There isn’t much room for the netroots and vigorous online partisanship in Obama’s plans for the future of the Democratic Party.

I think I would modify this a bit now, given the interesting stuff happening around pressure to keep the public option in healthcare reform, but would still stick by my fundamental claim about the basic tensions between the administration and netroots and their allies.

Second, a piece for “Times Higher Education”: on Matt Hindman’s book on digital democracy.

bq. As his book title suggests, Hindman puts paid to some of the most pernicious myths of democracy and the internet. Lazy libertarian arguments that the internet was going to create radically empowered individuals, an “army of Davids” that would topple government and so-called “mainstream media” with a few well-aimed missiles are simply unsustainable. So, too, are some of the hazier left-wing claims about how the internet would foster “extreme democracy”. The internet is creating new forms of social organisation, but they have their own kinds of hierarchy. And in many cases the old hierarchies are co-opting the new ones. In the US, traditional media and think-tanks are hiring prominent bloggers. Few major bloggers are still independent, and those who are, are mostly trying to create their own miniature media empires. Still, stupid claims for the democratic benefits of technological pixie dust may be too tempting a target. Hindman’s focus on the bad arguments of internet evangelists leads him to make some over-reaching claims of his own.

Comments or criticisms welcome on either or both …

Humanitarian dilemmas in northern Sri Lanka

by Conor Foley on August 18, 2009

Amnesty has just published a good report and action. It calls ‘for the immediate release of 285,000 innocent civilians – including an estimated 50,000 children – being held in cramped and squalid camps in the north of Sri Lanka.’ 

Here are a couple of photos taken from about six months ago of the camps as they were being built:


And here are two from about the same day of the ‘no-fire zone’ a few miles away:



And here is a picture which I think shows the refugees leaving the war zone and being escorted to the camps.


You can see in the first photo the emblems of a humanitarian agency.  The second photo shows the barbed wire surrounding each camp.  These were, and are, effectively concentration camps (in the original meaning of the word), and so the dilemma was whether humanitarian agencies should have helped to build and administer them? 

The next two photos show the conditions that the people who are now in the camps were previously suffering.  Thousands died either from direct shelling, or starvation and disease, in the space of a few months.  Should the aid agencies have done more to publicise what was happening or spoken out louder for a ceasefire – even if it meant getting thrown out of the country or arrested? 

Finally, should the agencies have allowed themselves to be used in part of a counter-insurgency campaign by the Government of Sri Lanka in which over a quarter of a million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes – which is a prime facie violation of the laws of armed conflict?

The other relevant bits of law here are the provisions in the Geneva Conventions which permit humanitarian agencies to ‘offer their services’ to state parties but also require them to remain strictly neutral during conflicts (Despite what is sometimes asserted there is no legal ‘right to humanitarian assistance’ and nor are governments ‘obliged to allow’ access to civilians by humanitarian agencies during non-international conflicts) and the humanitarian imperative, which says that the alleviation of human suffering comes before other considerations.

Governments may suspend certain rights during public emergencies – such as liberty and freedom of movement – but are constrained both in what they can do to captured combatants, and other prisoners, and how they treat civilians under their control.  Governments may on no account torture people or carry out summary executions, starvation is prohibited as a weapon of war and military forces must attempt to distinguish between military and civilian targets, are prohibited from attacking purely civilian targets and must subject all attacks on military targets which may result in civilian casualties to a principle of proportionality.  People charged with criminal offenses have a right to a fair trial.  The International Committee of the Red Cross has a recognized role in ensuring that these provisions are upheld in practice and so the denial of access to screening facilities or detention centres are issues of legitimate concern from a humanitarian or human rights perspective.

So what would you have done if you had been working for an aid agency in northern Sri Lanka over the past six months?

What really happened …

by John Holbo on August 18, 2009

You are all wondering what Kieran is so damn sorry about (in his characteristically sociological and defensive way.)

Well. Here is a picture of our orbiting server, taken around 1910 A.D. (common era, if you prefer, you atheist.) An estimable flying fortress – sort of a cross between a siege engine and a bat. That’s to keep out spam. (Since siege towers were once called belfries, I deduce that this is a belfry bat.) No doubt it performed excellently in wind-tunnel tests. But, to make a long story short … over the weekend it crashed. And comments were, as it were, ‘crushed’ under the ‘weight’ of all that ‘wood’ and ‘canvas’. (source: Flickr.)


But if that’s what our server looks like, you ask: Whatever does the internet as a whole resemble, eh, riddle me? It is, now that you ask, a sort of ‘City of the Future’, circa 1925:


Now get back to work! All of you!