Responses to the Coup d'etat in Honduras on Sunday June 28, with special emphasis on producing English-language versions of commentaries by Honduran scholars and editorial writers and addressing the confusion encouraged by lack of basic knowledge about Honduras.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

And now, a word from your hosts...

A reader writes:

First, this is a comment not at this specific blog post but the blog itself.

I am a worldly-minded American who is curious about Honduras, but has little real knowledge about what's going on.

I've looked through the blog entries, and they strike me as credible and knowledgeable. However, I have no idea who writes this blog or why they are writing it or where they are located. I would have loved to use one of your blog posts to refute a skeptic on the other side. But by failing to give any information about yourself or the contributors to your blog, you make it unlikely that readers will regard your information as trustworthy.

Perhaps you have your reasons for hiding your identity. Perhaps you are blogging only for yourself or your colleagues. But you can't just post anonymous information on your blog and expect people to trust it.

Google/blogger provides methods for letting you describe the nature of the blog and the people who write for it. I realize that you are probably less interested in the technical aspects of blogging than political matters. At the very least, you could make a separate post explaining who you are and why you are making this blog.

About this UN report, it sounds credible and I hope you are right, but obviously you are not citing a real source here.

As I said, my inclination is to trust your analysis, but I have to treat a nameless writer on a blog with a lot of skepticism.

Robert Nagle

RAJ replies:

This was submitted as a comment on our post of the UN Press release that debunked the claim that the UN Department of Political Affairs had concluded the removal of President Zelaya was legal. By now, of course, everyone and his brother has access to the official English language text. I received the Spanish version of the press release from a Zelaya administration connection, forwarding an email from a UN staff member. I like the Spanish better: I have no idea why the English version doesn't use "tendentious" when the Spanish does.

Anyway, "obviously you are not citing a real source here" strikes me as one of the more interesting comments we have received since I began this blog on June 29, thinking it would be a short-term commitment, instead of turning into something close to a full-time preoccupation.

Mr. Nagle has a point about this particular post, but I have to say-- come on, really? We routinely link to original Spanish language newspapers and translate them; to legal codes; to scholarly analyses; but this one post, which probably preceded the posting of the English version on the UN website by a few minutes, becomes the basis to judge whether what we are doing is well-enough sourced?

But our correspondent's concerns are somewhat broader, and raise interesting philosophical issues. Why should anyone trust what I am writing here? The option we are provided is that the blog will be more convincing if the writers are clearly identified. What we are talking about here is authority: what gives any piece of writing its authority? As it happens, I have some professional opinions on that. I even wrote a book about writing in my own discipline and how we come to consider interpretations as credible.

But you can't just post anonymous information on your blog and expect people to trust it.

Information is not anonymous, and I know that what our reader means is, we cannot anonymously post information. It is the information we are offering here that we want you to trust or not; and you can look for the evidence in the sources. Either the arguments we are making are well supported by evidence (which includes external links); or they are not, and my position in the world should not make a difference.

My (really quite thin) anonymity bothers a lot of people; most of them, unlike this correspondent, outright coup apologists who attack the person they presume I am. And the truth is, while they are not my colleagues, there is a group of people who have commented on this blog to whom I wrote to explain who I am. In that book I mentioned, I argued that the scholars in my field have a responsibility to readers because we routinely write as if the interpretations we are making are simply facts, when they are always evidence put together from some engaged perspective. So I have been very careful to make it clear what my engaged position is-- opposed to the unconstitutional coup that has distorted life in Honduras, and concerned about, as the description of the blog says, the lack of information and knowledge that exists about Honduras that made it possible for the media to so deeply misconstrue events. And we have situated our knowledge within our experience, working in Honduras, in contact with particular parts of Honduran society. But that is clearly not enough.

So how do I give an account of myself? First, of course, by acknowledging multiplicity: two of us write here, and we are collaborators in life and work; RNS, as I have noted, has a long-term engagement on Wikipedia, trying to keep it honest despite the debilitating conventions intended to eliminate all point of view, a mission that, in my scholarly opinion, is impossible. RNS is a historical anthropologist whose research on Honduran colonial society has won him the appreciation of Honduran scholars and students. He also is a 20-year veteran of the computer industry. RNS has a special interest in economic issues, and his long habit of reading the Honduran newspapers online every day has stood us in good stead in finding the money trail, and more besides. While it does not come to the forefront all that much here, his historical research, in addition to breaking new ground about race and gender, involves a special concern with the history of religion. He interrupted his PhD studies to spend 20 years in the computer industry, among other things, working on some of the original technologies for delivering news on specific topics to your desktop.

But this blog is a project I started on June 29, so it is also, in a very real sense, mine. RNS and I have long ago worked out how to negotiate my tendency to overwhelm others with whom I am collaborating. I set the ground rules for us here, which have included keeping our focus on what is happening in Honduras, on filling in gaps that result from the lack of Spanish language fluency among many in the US, and giving priority whenever possible to Honduran scholars.

The blog was born out of the frustration in the first 24 hours at seeing media circulating images that were easy shortcuts, but not true. How did I know they were not true? As I have said throughout many posts (and yes, I know, I cannot ask new readers to go back and review everything) I am a researcher with more than thirty years experience working in Honduras. I was there for the entire month of June, up to the Friday before the coup, engaged with colleagues in Honduran universities and government agencies in exciting participatory work unlike anything ever attempted by any previous government. RNS and I were supposed to return in July to continue collaborative work, and in August for a symposium that is one of the cultural events cancelled in the wake of the coup. I left over a dozen students in the country, the last of whom came back to the US in late July.

And of course, as that last sentence suggests, I am a university faculty member. I am a tenured full professor holding an endowed chair, with a string of books to my credit and pages and pages of journal articles and book chapters. My dissertation research was carried out in Honduras, as has been the work of six of my PhD students to date (with two more aiming to complete their dissertations this year, both having to change aspects of their work due to the coup). While our reader assumes I am not tech-savvy, in fact, I have a long history of engagement with what are now called "new media", including collaborating on a major hypertext work published online back in 2000. Before 1994, I was collaborating on teaching students in my field to adopt digital media, and in 2001, was part of a team recognized for creating a teaching program in this area.

So, why the anonymity? Simple. On June 29, when I started the blog, I was already receiving emails from colleagues in Honduras, reporting on frightening levels of government repression. I realized then that one resource I had was this network of connections. Yet, to publish material they provided me could quite easily put them at risk, even if I protected their identities, because what I do in Honduras creates easily visible tracks. I gave up the greater authority I would have had by using my real identity in order to muddle the trails leading to my friends and colleagues. I relied on the fact that the information I was producing was completely absent elsewhere, and developed the practice of linking to mainstream media and steering clear of unsourced blogs (which makes the current complaint an irony, but again, one post? of a document easily available from the UN?). And I realized that by being less identifiable myself, I had a chance-- small as it was-- of putting the spotlight on the Honduran scholars whose work I was translating: Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle; Leticia Salamon; Edmundo Orellana; and many others.

As it happens, as the coup has proceeded, most of those I have been working to protect from responsibility for my actions have suffered retaliation anyway for their principled positions against the coup. Some have been physically attacked, and some have had their reputations besmirched and their livelihoods imperiled.

I look forward to the day when I think that being entirely open about who I am will not risk endangering anyone sending me information. But that day has not yet come. Until then, I will rely on what, as a scholar, I think should be more important in judging what I say than who I am: are there verifiable sources for what I report here; and do the arguments I make form logical and coherent wholes? Are my critical perspectives clear enough that readers know what biases to expect? (As a feminist scholar, I do not believe in the idea of complete objectivity, but rather, that everyone's knowledge is situated and taken from a perspective he or she needs to recognize and reveal.)

On my own criteria, for this post, our reader is right. The UN press release should have been linked to the source. There was no published source yet. I knew when I posted it that I was running ahead of the news. But: it was reliable. I knew that. And for me, the risk of having someone question my reliability was the least important thing, not because I am writing only for myself-- although this blog has helped us work through a major trauma in our lives-- or for colleagues-- although a surprisingly large number of people who could be so described have written at some point to say "are you the people behind Honduras Coup 2009?".

The UN press release was critical news that people in Honduras and those working with them needed. Most of the people who needed this urgently either know who I am, or know from experience that they can rely on what we publish.

Blogs like this, Honduran readers assure us, are helping. Ultimately, we are writing for them, as a small contribution we can make as scholars devoted to improving knowledge of Honduras. And I will hope that thoughtful new readers, like this one, will let the quality of the content convince them of the merit of the publication of news, analysis, and opinion that they find here.


rjnagle said...

Thanks for your explanation.

A person whose opinion I respect forwarded an article by James Kirkich about the Library of Congress report to me. That article didn't smell right, and after googling I came across the critique of the Law Library report on your blog which seemed like a persuasive reply. (I could tell that you were probably an academic and were reasonably informed about the issue but wasn't sure if you had a background in law). In web parlance, people typically preface their statements with "IANAL" to denote their level of legal training (if any).

Note that I don't discount opinions about law simply because someone lacks a law degree. For example, I frequently write about esoteric issues about copyright law and I think my analysis is generally sound. On the other hand, I would not want someone to be replying solely on my analysis to make business decisions.

The Internet lets you access all kinds of knowledge, and with regard to international politics, no one can keep up with the different politics in each country. I once received a comment on my blog from someone defending Bill O'Reilly's politics. I was indignant until I learned he was a college student in Brazil watching the Oreilly Factor on Satellite TV. I know a lot about Albania (I taught at a university there for two years), but on the other hand, I would probably defer to a native Albanian currently in the country for most political questions.

Like many other bloggers, I often have to scramble around the Net to learn more background about a topical event after it occurs. By definition, I have a superficial understanding about the special issue and have to make snap judgments about credibility (ironically, I've found that the blogs with less traffic and fewer comments can often be more credible). Even though PDF reports may be available, the typical blogger doesn't have time to go through
the complete report and must rely on secondary accounts of them (that is not to say that I don't consult the original source; but in most cases I don't take the time to do it).

I realize you linked to many outside sources in previous posts, but at some point, people rely on a special interest blog less for links than analysis. At that point, the identity of the poster becomes relevant (especially if it's clear that the blogger is not linking to certain things).

Finally, when I'm scouring the web, I'm trying to figure how actively partisan a website is. That is not always a bad thing. For example, the very partisan Electronic Intifada publishes/republishes many distinguished pieces about Middle Eastern politics. On the other hand, it would be naive for me to rely on just this one news source (even though EI links to a lot of external sources). As superficial as this sounds, sometimes it's hard to tell if the information on the blog reflects the blogger's opinion or was simply pasted from another news source.

By the way, a few minutes after posting the cautious remark about the UN statement, I was able to find it through google. So thanks.

I have written before about credibility issues facing journalists and bloggers . As counterintuitive as it seems, I think independent bloggers can be trusted over mainstream media in many cases. MSM is often too cautious and late to the game unless there's good video footage for CNN.

Finally, I wish to show support for your blog which I generally found informative and useful. Thanks.

eam said...

I can understand why to keep your identity, but it does have its problems. I've been blogging regularly at TPMcafe under a pseudo
"neoboho" and I often circulate your material there.

Sometimes the issue is raised about sources - one commenter named KGB rejected outright Adrienne Pine and Al Giordano because neither of them has tried to hide their political positions, and he also rejected your material on the grounds that "she only publishes material that she wants the reader to know." To compensate, he runs the golpista news and legal docs thru Google translator, and thus extracts his particular truth.

I think you're doing an outstanding job - I check your web site several time a day. I deeply appreciate the unique material you publish. It's a lot of work for you, obviously. Thank you.

And yes, I'm curious to know who you are - but I would never push it. My private email is

Erik Mattila

phoenixwoman said...

RAJ, this debate regarding anonymity vs. full transparency in blogging is an old one. It's one that the corporate media raise to impugn the characters of people who blog anonymously.

So, here are a few things in addition to what you said:

1. Corporate reporters use anonymous sources all the time. The reader has to use his/her judgment on whether to believe what those sources allegedly claim. For that matter, named sources often lie (and are very rarely called on it).

2. Pseudonymous writing is an ancient and well-respected form. Plato, Ecclesiastes, Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, George Sand, O Henry, Dear Abby... pen names all. Nor is this limited to novelists, philosophers, and advice columnists. Mark Twain was a journalist. National security maven George Kennan wrote under a pen name.

3. We live in such a brazen age that public figures, including journalists, often lie shamelessly. Merely placing one's name on public record is no guarantee of anything much except that the reader may not be so credulous the next time. But that is accomplished just as well by using a constant pen name.

4. Nor are degrees or rank or honors a guarantee of reliability. John Yoo, war criminal, is a professor at a respectable university. Justice William Rehnquist, previously our senior-most jurist, almost certainly perjured himself in his Senate hearings. The Nobel laureate whose brilliant work on transistors won him fame, William Shockley, was notoriously racist. People who rely entirely on the visible signs of success of a speaker or writer to form an opinion are easily misled.

I sense that you are not fully comfortable with pseudonymous writing. I have been writing under a pen name for 10 years, in my case for a purely selfish reason: I value my privacy. If people choose not to believe what I post, that's certainly their right. They are receiving free the benefit of my wisdom, which under other circumstances they might pay a lot of money to obtain. That's the case of a lot of stuff on the Internet. One can get the thoughts of Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz absolutely free. If one had to pay, such advice would come very dear. If people do not understand what wonderful deals are to be had for the canny shopper, then they are the losers.


Ossama said...

Dear RAJ
I wrote a comment long ago and it was not published.
But I am an avid reader of your blog and I just want to congratulate you on the precision and meticulousness of your writings.
I am a professor of Media in The Arab world. I am using this blog as an example of real work and information without distortion or newspeak as Chomsky might put it.
I am presenting a paper about alternative sources of information and your blog comes first for me as it provided me with lots of insights and important valuable information.
Thanks a lot
from an Egyptian scholar who was enlightened and informed by your work.
Ossama Elkaffash

RAJ said...

My goodness. I didn't expect this amount of reaction.

Clarifications: I am not a law professor. I am an anthropologist. But I have read the legal analyses in Spanish and English, published in the US, Spain, and Honduras, and compared these to the actual contemporary law codes that can be downloaded by anyone from public sources. I lived in Honduras throughout the transition to the current Constitution (arriving on Dec. 31, 1981 and staying until August 1983 for my longest field season, having spent January-June 1981, June-July 1980, and June-July 1979 in the first phases of fieldwork; after being an undergraduate on an eight-week project in summer 1977 as my first time in the country). I have made a habit of keeping informed about changes in Honduran law and society, and worked with government agencies throughout my entire career. My knowledge of Honduran constitutional law at this point is good enough that I have been able to offer corrections to some of the published analyses (which missed more recent law), but overall, when I speak to the legal issues, I am drawing on Spanish language analyses by Honduran and Spanish constitutional law faculty whose work simply does not circulate in English.

With deep respect for the emerging culture of the web and blogging, as a faculty affiliate of a program studying emergent digital media and digital cultures, I am less interested in using coded labels like IANAL, because (again drawing on my academic work using the analyses of Russian philosopher of language Mikhail Bakhtin), these usages, which are not transparent to those not already part of the community, are part of the way a group maintains its boundaries. As a teacher (I originally wrote award-winning teacher, then took it out, then questioned why I am loathe to self-promote, so: award-winning teacher) I have worked hard to move toward deliberate usage of common language whenever possible to lower the barriers to participation. Even more important in the present case because, with all due respect to everyone else here, my main goal is to represent views of Hondurans passionately resisting the destruction of constitutional order in their country.

rjnagle raises a point with which I actually disagree, and with which I have had to wrestle multiple times, in his comments on positionality within a country or as from a country and the level of authority it does or should confer. In the first days of the Honduran coup, I was driven to question whether I was insulated from real Honduran opinion, when so much talk on the internet was so thoroughly pro-coup (even to the point of endorsing the idea that Honduras could not afford to follow the rule of law as a less-developed nation). Eventually, the CDI Gallup poll confirmed that there was a more diverse opinion in the country, and majority against the coup. But even before that, I resolved my dilemma by anthropological analysis: no country is a uniform social fabric. Internal diversity is irreducible. No person speaks for the whole of a country. The Hondurans who were writing to me protesting the breakdown of governance-- which as an adherent of the rule of law, I condemn on principle-- had a legitimate right to their opinion, even if it had been a minority one. More: since those individuals were educated elites, scholars and academics, the opinions I was echoing were informed ones. And the values they expressed: civil participation, respect for the law, respect for differences-- are those I, as a progressive, endorse everywhere.

RAJ said...

I think Charles and I agree that there is always a point of view in every utterance. This Bakhtin, among many others, tells us. So for me, there is never such a thing as information without perspective. My main complaint about the mainstream media is the pretense of having no position. Blogs, blessedly, free me from this. I described blogging to a reporter on my campus as a form of teaching; I am trying to explain how I see things in the hope that you will see how my analysis works. If you agree, so much the better, but mainly, my hope is to help others clarify their way of speaking.

And yes, anonymity/pseudonymy makes me uncomfortable. But only when, as often happens, people think I am using it to obscure a weakness. I want what I write to stand on its own. I think it does. I will make (have made) mistakes. But the work has its own autonomy.

Greg Weeks said...

The authors of the Federalist Papers did not disclose their names, yet were immediately the center of debate over the constitution. They also pushed one point of view. That should not be seen as problematic.

My point is just that a convincing argument (and, as RAJ argues for blogs, links to primary material as well) matters more than pinpointing an author. It is actually unfortunate that we would rate arguments higher simply if we know, for example, that the author is a professor. I say that even though I am professor...

RAJ said...


phoenixwoman said...

RJNagle, I would point out that the reason that the Law Library/LOC article doesn't smell right is that it relies very heavily on one oral source. One need not be a lawyer to understand that this is very dangerous ground: first, because the source is oral, the precise statements cannot be independently interrogated, and second, because the use of a single source to the exclusion of other sources of equal quality amounts to bias, even if it is not intentional. (It is also bias to elevate inferior sources to the level of superior ones purely so that one can seem balanced). Good analysis necessarily involves presenting two or more sides of an argument, explaining why each party holds the position it does, and then explaining why one position is superior. Alternatively, as in the natural sciences, it is possible that there are no significant opposing opinions, either because a topic is very new or because there's a wide consensus. In that case, presenting the history of the evolution of a position can serve.

I would add a bit to RAJ's statement that every source has a viewpoint. First, very often eyewitnesses provide the worst testimony. The closer one is to the event, the more one's emotions and self-interest are engaged. Often historians or outsiders provide the accounts that are self-consistent and consistent with known facts.

That's an important point. Many times accounts of events are not self-consistent. That guarantees that there are some errors. The golpistas own account of the coup contains internal contradictions. RAJ uncovered an important one in finding that the Supreme Court had begun the process of discovery directed toward the indictment of Zelaya when he was inexplicably-- and this remains unexplained-- seized by military forces and deported.

Sometimes, accounts are not consistent with external facts. For example-- and this is a flaw ith the LOC report-- the entire international community, including many Honduran legal scholars, declared that this was an illegal coup. The people who commit the coup deny this, and mirabile dictu, so does a key researcher in the LOC. So, either the LOC researcher is a legal genius or she is terribly wrong. But the position that there was no coup is not consistent with external facts.

Second, professional analysts can be terrible witnesses. In mid-20th century anthropology (and other social sciences) a pseudo-scientism gripped the professions. Everything had to be described by statistics and theories rather than by anecdote and experience. Granted, some of the greats of social science were very wrong. But pseudo-scientism was not an answer. The amorality inherent in that rationalizes what is now called "human terrain mapping:" social science in the service of empire.

Third, I do agree with the statement that every utterance contains a point of view. I would add, though, that the best students of rhetoric can explain to you their opponent's arguments in detail.

Finally, neoboho raises the issue of what is called "confirmation bias." We all would like to be right, so we naturally look for reasons why our opponents might be wrong. We scrutinize their arguments more closely than we do our own. But there are plenty of people who take this to the extreme: they argue from the conclusion backwards to the facts. This is a flaw in the LOC report. Ms. Gutierrez took the point of view that the Congress must have acted lawfully and reasoned backward to figure out how they must have done so. She had no difficulty finding a supporter of the coup to help her do so. But the facts necessary to her desired conclusion do not square with what the Congress actually said at the time (a point excavated and carefully proven by RAJ).

Oh--and thanks to Greg Weeks for reminding us of the most prominent American example of the use of pseudonyms. What the heck was it the anti-blog carpers were complaining about again?


rjnagle said...

I am glad my comment provoked a discussion. Again, I recognize that this is sort of offtopic.

I'm definitely fine with pseudonyms as long as you give a sense of why you're using a pseudonym. Also, it would help to provide some sort of context for why a blog came into existence and to provide some kind of label/category for your blog for the casual web surfer.

The explanation RAJ provides is more than sufficient.

RAJ said...

And we give rjnagle the last word on this thread. The issues raised are clearly worth thinking about; but it is time to return to the topic of the blog: contextualizing the reality of Honduras resulting from the coup. Thanks to everyone (and anyone else who wants to add to this thread, my apologies: it is truly time to move on).