Our friend Ivo Skoric of the Balkans Pages interviewed WW4 REPORT Editor Bill Weinberg via e-mail last weekend for the Croatian alternative e-zine H-Alter, as the first in a series of interviews with American left-wing bloggers. The interveiw appears in both English and Croatian:
The Thankless Life of a Left-wing Blogger
What is a blogger? When did you become one?
A blogger is someone who writes a blog. Technically speaking, I’ve only been using blog software for about a year and a half. But I’ve really been blogging—that is, writing an ongoing online commentary on the news—for almost five years now.
What triggered that development?
9-11 is the short answer. More below.
Why did you become a blogger?
After 9-11, I launched WW4 REPORT as a watchdog on Bush’s new Global War on Terrorism, examining the media reportage with an eye for propaganda and distortion, tracking down the Internet rumors and separating the wheat from the chaff, and particularly watching the foreign press for facts and contexts that don’t make it into the US media. So there was a convergence of three factors: 1.) the global political crisis which I (taking a tip from James Woolsey and Subcommander Marcos) call World War 4; 2.) the development of blog software; and 3.) the radical contraction of the market for print journalism.
What do you get out of blogging?
I admit it has become something of an obsession, perhaps a not entirely healthy one. Three primary things I get out of it: 1.) an organized, cross-referenced, ongoing commentary on the news, allowing me to keep track of events in the multiple thematically-related conflicts now raging around the world; 2.) a soapbox from which to denounce politicians and other commentators when they say or do stupid shit (which is often); and 3.) a vehicle to promote activist events and campaigns I support, which gives me the sense (or perhaps illusion) that I am having some effect…
How do you survive and pay your bills by writing blogs all day long?
I don’t. The blog brings in a trickle of money, but I still have to work freelance—writing when I can, more often copy-editing.
By the way, how much time do you spend daily on blogging?
It varies. Sometimes I’ll blog for eight hours straight, sometimes just for 15 minutes. I’d say it averages around four hours a day.
Is there anyone else published on your blog?
WW4 REPORT’s co-editor David Bloom is also co-blogger (and our resident expert on Palestine), but he does perhaps one post to my ten, at best.
Where do you get your news, facts and inspiration for blogging?
I read the New York Times and Newsday every day (yes, the print editions), and listen to the BBC World Service every night, as well as the WBAI/Free Speech Radio News. Then I search Google News for more information or accounts from the foreign or alternative press on stories that interest me. I also subscribe to a list-serve that sends me clips from the Mexican press every day (Chiapas95), and to Weekly News Update on the Americas, an excellent summary of the news from Latin America published by the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York.
Before becoming a blogger, unlike many other bloggers, you were actually a journalist and a writer, i.e. you actually wrote books published on paper. How do you like the transition to becoming a blogger?
It sucks, and one of the worst things about it is that I have to keep on reminding people that I am not just a blogger! I am still struggling to finish my third book, to be entitled Pachamama Returns: Plan Colombia and Indigenous Resistance to the Pillage of a Continent, hopefully forthcoming next year from Verso. I still have several stories in the print media every year, most recently my feature in the Village Voice this summer on the Queens blackout. But I used to make a comfortable living as a writer, with full bennies and travel budgets and everything. Now I am struggling to pay the damn rent every month.
On the bright side, as a blogger I have total autonomy and I am not constrained by clueless editors. However, there is a down side to this too, because every writer needs some editorial oversight, and the lack of such accounts for the poor quality of most bloggery. We at WW4 REPORT think of ourselves as professional journalists first and foremost (I know, very old-school). I edit Bloom’s work, and encourage him to at least review my own work. No writer can catch all his/her own typos, etc. I should also point out that in addition to the daily weblog, WW4 REPORT has a monthly electronic journal, which is real old-school journalism, not bloggery.
Your past books are primarily about Latin America and environmental issues. How did you get interested to write about Latin America and environment? Briefly summarize the conclusions you reached in your books.
I was intrgued by Mexico even as a little kid, but the obsession really began when I went down to Palenque and took mushrooms in 1983. The crisis in Central America was approaching its climax then, and over the next few years I travelled repeatedly through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The work I did on the social roots of tropical deforestation became my first book, War on the Land: Ecology and Politics in Central America (Zed, 1990). When the Chiapas revolt broke out in Janaury 1994, I immediately went down to cover it, which proved to be the first of several trips to Mexico to cover the exploding social movements there in the ’90s. This work became my last book, Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso, 2000). In 2003, I went to South America for the first time, travelling overland from Bogota to La Paz, to research the book I am currently trying desperately to finish.
The conclusions I have reached are that capitalism is destroying the planet, and that the survival of land-rooted indigenous cultures is critical to planetary survival. The new models of resistance to emerge from these cultures provide the most hopeful trend on the planet right now, for me. For all the suffering there, Latin America and especially Mexico is the only place on the planet where the headlines give me a sense of hope instead of despair.
You also wrote and edited for The High Times magazine. Tell us more about the magazine and your role there, and what happened with your tenure there.
I had real freedom and fulfillment at High Times for a few years, which coincided with the most active years of the Zapatista movement in Mexico. So it worked out well for me—I had travel budgets to go down there and write about what really interested me. Unfortunately, the publication was taken over by idiots in an editorial coup d’etat and purged of all intelligent journalism. It is now just pot pornography. My colleagues Peter Gorman and Steve Wishnia also fell victim to this purge. I don’t have a problem with pot pornography per se, but as long as the US government is waging counterinsurgency wars in places like Colombia in the name of the War on Drugs, and as long as there are 1 million non-violent drug offenders in the nation’s prisons, dope is a highly political issue and should be treated as such. High Times was founded in the ’70s by the ex-Yippie Tom Forcade as the counter-culture’s answer to Playboy, with both pornography (only sexy buds instead of tits and ass) and intelligent journalism. The current leadership have betrayed this ethic and turned it into the equivalent of a sleazy jerk-off rag.
I should also point out something else that nobody seems to know about me: the whole time I was news editor at High Times I was also a contributing editor at Native Americas, the quarterly journal of the American Indian Program at Cornell University. Two very different publications, of course, but they were both interested in the reportage I was doing from Mexico. About the same time I was purged from High Times, Cornell cut off the funds to Native Americas and it folded. Both symptoms of the same dumbing-down and contraction of print media generally, which has also dried up much of the freelance market and forced me into self-publishing on the Net. The irony is that I think the hypertrophy of the Net has been a key factor in the decline of print media. So I have been forced into the arms of my enemy, so to speak. It seems to be like the Borg. Resistance is futile.
On your trips to Mexico, you met Subcommandante Marcos of Zapatistas movement and interviewed him, for The High Times, if I recollect rightly. Do you still have a contact with him? What are Zapatistas doing in the new Mexico of Calderon?
I was (to the best of my knowledge) the second gringo journalist after Tim Golden of the New York Times to interview Marcos, and the first to run a full Q&A interview with him. As for the current situation: Calderon does not take power until Dec. 2, and his election is contested as fraudulent by the left oppositon, who have declared their own candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, as Mexico’s “legitimate president” and pledged a civil disobedience campaign to prevent Calderon from taking office. Additionally, there is a local revolution going on in the state of Oaxaca, where what began as a teachers’ strike has turned into a broad-based movement to remove the (fraudulently-elected, it seems) governor, and a seizure of power from below by the popular movements. President Fox wants to get the situation resolved before the presidential transition, and negotiations are underway, but there are also signs the army could be sent in to put down the Oaxaca movement by force. Chiapas, of course, remains divided, with much of the mountains and jungles under the real control of the Zapatistas, and Marcos is now on a national tour of the country in a bid to unite the various social struggles around a radical left program.
So nothing is really “new” about Calderon—he represents the same party and program as Fox (free trade, privatization, “neoliberalism” as its called in Latin America). What’s new is the sense that Mexico is on the edge of a social explosion. It feels almost like it did in 1994, in the first days of the Zapatista rebellion. Because despite the supposed democratic transition with Fox’s election in 2000, which broke up the old one-party state, nothing has really changed. Except that NAFTA (which both Fox and the old party he ousted support) has forced perhaps 2 million peasants from their lands.
Your interest in the politics and the role of alternative movements lead you also to the issues surrounding former Yugoslavia and the war in Bosnia. You co-authored a short booklet “War at the Crossroads” (http://balkansnet.org/crossroads.html). What drove you to do that? What happened to that?
When the war broke out in Croatia in 1991, I was very naive about European politics and history. I almost militantly refused to pay attention to the situation, figuring that as an American my first responsibility was to those people being directly oppressed by my government—prinicipally in Latin America. But when I saw the photos of Vukovar on the news after the bombardment, it finally dawned on me that my attitude was something of a cop-out. A European city had been destroyed by bombardment for the first time since World War II, and I had a responsibility to figure out what was going on there. Since I was starting pretty much from ground zero, I dove in head-first, and as you know it became something of an obsession.
I met you and Indira [Kajosevic] through Neither East Nor West, a group I’d been involved with in the ’80s that supported anti-conscription and anti-nuclear activists in the East Bloc. But this was, as the name implies, very much a response to Reagan’s new Cold War. I had very little sense of post-communist Europe’s pre-communist history, which sort of came back to haunt the Balkans in the ’90s.
Once I got up to speed, I was appalled at how messed up much of the American left’s thinking on the Balkans was (and remains). The liberals looked to US military intervention as a panacea, while the “radicals” looked to Milosevic and his thugs as heroic anti-imperialists. So a neither/nor position continued to be imperative, even in the new post-communist context. In my journalistic work at WBAI radio, I tried to give a voice to the movements in all the ex-Yugoslav republics that opposed militarism and ethnic nationalism. In 1993, we organized a benefit for Hungarian draft-resisters in Serbia’s Vojvodina region at CBGBs (which closes this weekend, sadly), and wound up sending them a computer. I co-wrote the booklet, War at the Crossroads: An Historical Guide Through the Balkan Labyrinth, with Dorie Wilsnack of War Resisters International, as a primer on the conflict for activists and journalists, which almost everyone says is very objective. It is still available through Shadow Press.
I still follow the Balkans fairly closely on WW4 REPORT, especially in calling out figures on the American left who are engaging in a very dangerous historical revisionism and denying the horrific realities of what happened in Bosnia and Kosova, like Edward Herman and even, sadly, Noam Chomsky: /node/1239
If you are not blogging, what would you do? Do you spend all day bloogging, right now, or do you do something else on the side? How much it costs to blog?
As I said, I do freelance writing and copy-editing, and I also do my weekly radio show, the Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade (Tuesdays at midnight on WBAI, 99.5 FM in NYC, http://www.wbai.org), although that is also a labor of love. Maintaining the website does cost money, and having moved to a new server this year is incurring extra costs because the old code doesn’t seem to be compatible with it. So it looks like we need a general make-over, much to my dismay.
Do you think blogging is changing the way Americans get their news, and the way they form political opinions?
Definitely, and not for the better. I don’t believe in “objective” journalism, because nothing human beings do is objective. But there are certain standards for distance and factual content which are necessary for writing to be journalism at all. The recent decline in these standards is nothing short of alarming.
Do you see bloggers taking over the mainstream media in the future? Or do you see mainstream media picking up some of the bloggers and giving them jobs?
I am still waiting for the big “enclosure” of the Internet. It has been a free-for-all for a decade and counting now, and I have a hard time believing the party will last forever. Meanwhile, the Net’s hypertrophy has succeeded in nearly destroying print journalism. The initially democratizing instinct that “information wants to be free” and “everybody can be a journalist” could be (is being?) perverted into its opposite: the death knell of information freedom and real journalism. And even as we wait for the corporate/government clampdown, the sheer abundance of electronic media has a marginalizing effect. So I think the techno-utopianism of the past several years could end up being a grand illusion.
What would you like to happen to your blog?
I would like to see it become self-sustaining. I tell myself if we can draw enough traffic, the Google and Amazon ads and our twice-yearly fund drives will start to pay off and I will be able to live modestly but comfortably as a writer again as I did ten years ago. Although its seems a little Quixotic, to say the least.
Do blogs ever expire or do they linger around the net forever?
I can’t speak for others, but I hope WW4 REPORT sticks around. A part of the reason we do this is to have a day-by-day record of history as it unfolds.
On a scale 1-10 rate the influence of blogs on the November mid-term elections. Oh, and, btw tell us what do you think will happen.
It’s very hard to judge the influence of the blogosphere because it is so decentralized by its very nature. The Bushites have never seemed weaker, but around one half of the country seems so deeply reactionary that it is hard to say what is going to happen. And even if the Dems do take the House they will likely have neither the gumption nor the votes to overturn the horrific legislation just passed which suspends habeas corpus and essentially legalizes torture. Its like the famous line from Yeats: The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity…
Do you think there are more left-wing or right-wing political bloggers in the US, and why?
Obviously far more right-wing, which is just part of the general devolution of political culture in this country (and, to a degree, the world). And most of the “left” doesn’t really even deserve the name, having abandoned real class analysis, principled anti-imperialism and an understanding of political economy for vulgar kneejerk anti-Americanism and an unseemly embrace of anyone who appears to be fighting the Americans, whether it is Serb fascists or (ironically) political Islam.
All of which makes me more convinced of the importance of my project. I only wish others were as convinced… We do have our loyal following, but nothing approaching that of the big “leftist” websites like ZNet and Counterpunch, which have neither our sophistcated politics nor our old-school editorial standards.