Banned in Syria - and at Auckland museum
At least one reader of the Scoop Review of Books is pleased that the site has republished my blog post defending Mohsen al Attar from the attacks of Chris Trotter. Commenting under the republished article, 'RKM' reveals that Reading the Maps is banned in his homeland of Syria, 'and so Mr Hamilton must be tracked via Scoop'.
The greatest compliment any writer can receive is censorship at the hands of a dictatorship. I was delighted when Sinologist Michael Arnold informed me a couple of years ago that this blog had been banned in China, and then disappointed when he went on to explain that the suppression of my feedom of speech was nothing personal, but instead part of the increasingly shambolic attempts by tens of thousands of poorly-paid government agents to keep the dodgier parts of the internet out of Cathay. I suspect that the unavailability of Reading the Maps in Syria stems from the same sort of generalised campaign against the unregulated and non-corporate parts of the internet, but I'd like to believe that this blog has been singled out for attention by that country's monarchical Ba'ath regime. Perhaps President-for-life Bashar al-Assad considers my posts on burning issues like the unpublished writings of EP Thompson, wacky theories of New Zealand pre-history, and the art collection of Alan Gibbs to be desperate threats to the stability of his rule?
Bashar is clearly a bit of a tech geek: before he inherited the presidency from his father in 2001, he was the head of the Syrian Computer Society, a group charged with overseeing the belated introduction of the internet into his country. Is it inconceivable that the President-for-life chanced upon this blog whilst cruising the net late one night in downtown Damascus, and was annoyed by the unrestricted freedom of speech evident in our comments boxes, or by the generally low tolerance we have here for hereditary monarchies that bury their critics under ornamental gardens?
But you don't have to go to Syria or China to find regimes determined to curtail internet freedom for selfish political reasons: I've been informed by a reliable source that this blog has been banned from the Auckland War Memorial Museum, where I worked in 2007 and 2008. Staff members who tried to pay a quick visit to these pages from their work computers have watched their screens fill with an ACCESS BLOCKED sign, and a warning against trying to visit websites with objectionable material.
I suspect that the museum's under-siege boss, Vanda Vitali, began to find this site objectionable back in December, after I published an internal document critical of her, along with a brief memoir of life under her regime. Hundreds of visitors have read the post in question, and a series of former employees have used the comments box under the post to vent some of their anger at Vitali. Current museum staff who have been unable to access my post on Vitali at work have simply read it at home.
The ban Vitali has placed on this blog highlights both her hamfistedness and her intolerance of any opposition to her dictates. During the 'restructuring' process that resulted in the sacking of scores of distinguished and long-serving employees in 2008, Vanda attempted to deal with growing opposition to her rule by restricting the e mailing rights of museum workers. In a large and nuanced workplace like Auckland's museum, where staff can work away for days in the splendid isolation of a library archive or a curatorial storage room, e mails are important source of communication and cohesion. Vanda's insistence that 'all-staff' e mails - that is, messages which were sent by an individual to every other member of staff - had to be filtered through her office succeeded in slowing down communications, annoying many workers, and increasing the size of the museum's union branch.
Vitali's latest attempt to use the internet to bolster her rule has ended, predictably, in farce. After being instructed to write a hagiographical account of the life and works of his embattled master for wikipedia, Vitali's head of communications Russell Briggs made the mistake of doing his job from a museum computer, during work hours. When he was outed in the national media, which slated him for ignoring wikipedia's rule that entries be 'unbiased and balanced', Briggs posted an almost sublimely disingenuous justification for his blunder in a comments box at David Farrar's Kiwiblog.
According to Briggs, it wasn't necessary for Vitali's wikipedia entry to mention any of the numerous scandals she has been involved in during the two years of her rule - the endless clashes with employees, the high-profile stoush with the Hillary family over Sir Ed's papers, the deliberate snubs to Maori and to World War Two veterans, and so on and on - because 'incidents' like these shouldn't be 'singled out'. As far as Briggs is concerned, every director of a museum 'lives in the shadow of controversy', and therefore the controversies that have swirled around Vitali aren't worth wasting time with on wikipedia.
It would be interesting to extend Briggs' logic to other jobs involving controversy. All important politicians are inevitably involved in controversies: should we therefore omit to mention these controversies when we provide summaries of their careers in places like wikipedia? Will Briggs be logging on to wikipedia to rewrite the entries for Hone Harawira and Rodney Hide, so that these entries no longer include references to the controversies over the use of public money which engulfed both those politicians last year? Does Briggs favour altering the entry for Richard Nixon, so that it no longer mentions that insignificant little Watergate controversy?
Unfortunately for Russell Briggs and his boss, wikipedia is not as easy to control as the Auckland museum's computer system. The last time I checked, Brigg's ode to the genius of Vitali had been substantially altered by a series of wikipedia contributors. In an irony which Vitali will probably not appreciate, her wikipedia entry now concludes with an excerpt from the blog post I made about her back in December. I've noticed scores of visitors coming to this blog from the wikipedia entry over the past few days, so I suppose I ought to thank Vitali and Briggs for bringing me new readers.