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Book Review

‘Now I Know Who My Comrades Are’ by Emily Parker

Emily Parker is a former reporter and State Department policy adviser.

Ronna Gradus

Emily Parker is a former reporter and State Department policy adviser.

One can practically overdose on the levels of intrigue at play in this account of “netizens,” bloggers turned social crusaders turned Internet rock stars. The premise plays well with our DIY technological times: Bad governments can be, if not brought down, affected where it counts with prose that anyone, in theory, is free to slap up on the Web — albeit with some risks in certain parts of the world.

Emily Parker, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and State Department policy adviser, focuses her cyber investigations on China, Cuba, and Russia, where she profiles grass-roots bloggers advocating civic change under harsh government watch.

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In Russia, we meet Alexey Navalny, a blogger with a Sherlockian flair for the dramatic. “I started another Holy War” he chirps to Parker in an e-mail, a reference to his blog’s quest to expose how government officials had been part of a $4 billion embezzlement scheme against an oil-transport company.

Big changes are intended, but seemingly smaller ones are frequently produced — the sort we might take for granted here, but which represent significant gains elsewhere. One example: A reader of Navalny’s blog gets inspired to complain to local police about the condition of the road outside of his house; the road duly is patched up; and the street repair represents a kind of civic empowerment.

Matters are more dramatic in Cuba. That section features a cautionary tale of one Alan Gross, a 60-year-old American USAID subcontractor whose job it was to deliver computer and satellite equipment to Cuban Jewish groups, only to be arrested for “subversive’’ activities and sentenced to 15 years in jail, with efforts by US officials to free him proving useless.

None of which gives Cuban blogger Reinaldo Escobar any pause. Escobar, who has become a well-known activist for change, struts about like he’s John Wayne, and there isn’t anyone in the country, from Castro on down, who can touch him.

He seems to believe that maintaining this attitude accounts for a self-fulfilling prophecy, and he doubles as the blogging conscience of Cuba’s netizens. Neophtye bloggers pepper the great man with queries as to how best to write their material, which leads to a “That’s your problem” dismissal — in other words, sort out your own voice, writer — and a directive to keep each blog post centered on a given theme.

But here we encounter one of the book’s flaws: Matters like this are fuzzy, and you wonder what the content is of so many of these writings. Escobar comes off almost as a blog-centric media critic in love with the self-stylized mentor role. He teaches his charges how to connect to the Internet in hotel rooms, and this, it seems, is meant to count as a victory.

More interesting is He Caitou of China, an Internet crusader with a moralistic streak. “Some people don’t like me,” Caitou posits. “I hurt a lot of people. I caused a lot of fights on the Internet.” Caitou is a firebrand, a guy who goes off on other netizens, acting as a one-man ethics police, while mixing in casual racism and sexism himself.

In one of his more shining moments he speaks out against bloggers trying to catch a wave of fame, as when a woman solicited donations to help pay for treatment of her mother’s liver disease.

A rogue blogger goes after the woman, arguing that he thinks the funds aren’t being used properly. This causes Caitou to get downright biblical. The cool thing is that there’s nothing vaguely sententious or self-promoting about Caitou's efforts here, which is rare in this book. Change may well be part of the bloggers’ goals, but there’s always this pull of self-aggrandizement, inspiring some skepticism by readers of what everyone involved here — writer included — trump up as big time change. Much ado about something. But what?

Colin Fleming can be reached at flemingcolin@comcast.net.
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