PEN, Google, China, Goliath: A Follow-Up

By James Fallows
Statement from today's Reform Government Surveillance ad.

These follow last week's item on various ramifications of free and controlled speech around the world:

1) I said that when it was available, I would put up the video of the Newsweum session sponsored by PEN, Google, and the Atlantic and featuring the formidable lineup of E.L. Doctorow, Masha Gessen, Afar Nafisi, and David Simon. The video is now ready (if somewhat grainy). You can read the background, and see a number of backstage photos, at PEN's site, or see the embedded version below.

2) As mentioned earlier, and as you can see starting around time 1:06:40 of the video above, there was some heated back-and-forth among panelists and Ross LaJeunesse of Google about whether civil libertarians should consider the company friend or foe. Friend: its stand in China etc. Foe: panopticon data collection.

You'll see that I weigh in mainly "Friend," in large part because of Google's China stand but for what I know about their privacy practices. (Routine disclosure: one of my sons works for Google.) Judge the on-stage discussion as you will; but include today's encouraging news that eight normally rivalrous companies of the tech world have joined to protest the all-fronts overreach of government tech-surveillance programs. "The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual," the statement says. 

As the PEN panel pointed out, these companies need to be more careful too. But it's much better for them to speak up about state overreach than to stay quiet.

Aol, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo -- glad you said this.

Hey. Amazon, what about you?  (Yes, I have a query in.)

3) The Chinese situation continues to darken, on the environmental and the free-expression fronts alike. For one of many environmental accounts, try this from Rob Schmitz in Shanghai, where the recent air emergency has been worse than anything previously known. For one of many on free discussion, see this by Emily Parker in TNR. More on both fronts soon.

4) In the previous item, which discussed the controversy over Max Blumenthal's Goliath, I said that his preceding, also-polemic-style book American Gomorrah, was about the rise of the Tea Party. That was careless; it was really about the rise of the Christian Right within the GOP, which immediately preceded the Tea Party's emergence. They're related but different.

I also mentioned that the treatment of his book was strikingly different in the English and the Yiddish editions of the Jewish Daily Forward. The English review was 100% negative, and the Yiddish one was described to me as on-balance positive.

Since then I've heard from my friend Robert King, who is the former chair of the Linguistics Department and dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas. He is also the Audre and Bernard Rapoport Regents Chair Emeritus of Jewish Studies and an academic specialist in Yiddish. (And was my wife's dissertation supervisor.) He describes himself as "very, very pro-Israel" but also "a First Amendment near-absolutist." He read the two versions and said this:

Without question the Yiddish review is much, much different and far less hostile, especially in tone. For one thing, it spends much more time telling us what Blumenthal writes and less time criticizing or making snarky comments about what he writes. Second, the reviewer writes that he (or she) has had several interviews with Blumenthal, and when he brings those in it is to make something Blumenthal wrote in his book softer, less edgy.

The last two sentences give the mild flavor of the Yiddish review:

"He presents to the reader either new facts or reports or the freshening-up of themes already out there; he is after all a foreign journalist in a foreign land. And let's not forget that while it's not always pleasant to be told about difficult problems, it's definitely better not to ignore those problems."

This is offered to close a loop opened previously. As many other readers have pointed out, a Yiddish-language review is less significant and reaches a smaller audience than one in Hebrew, but the same point would apply: it's easier for any group to have frank discussions within the family than "in public." Emily Hauser has a very interesting post about this phenomenon in the Daily Beast.  

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/12/pen-google-china-em-goliath-em-a-follow-up/282170/