Critical Journalism and Janaozen

by Michael Hancock-Parmer on 1/7/2012 · 36 comments

Prologue

 

Criticism and Critique are often confused. This might be partly because their adjectival forms are usually written the same way. Is a critical report critical in the sense of important? I think that definition is the least confusing from context. But what about other meanings? Is the report critical because it judges the merits of something? Or is it part of a larger discourse? I definitely prefer the latter to the former. This introduction is my equivalent of putting my toe in the water before committing to a swim…

Mark Ames, of the eXile,  now of the eXiled, recently published a piece regarding Janaozen titled The Massacre Everyone Ignored: Up To 70 Striking Oil Workers Killed In Kazakhstan By US-Supported Dictator. Mark Ames has a very complicated past of writing hard-hitting, but often morally questionable, hardball journalism. Following that, Registan’s Joshua Foust questioned the death toll that Mark Ames provided, which in turn (together with other motives of which I remain blissfully ignorant) lead to Ames writing another piece, ostensibly on how Joshua Foust is both actually and symbolically terrible. Since then, Joshua has been listed at eXiled as one of a group of corrupt bloggers:

The outpouring from readers in light of our recent exposes of people like Glenn Greenwald, Ezra Klein, Joshua Foust, Adam Serwer, Megan McArdle, David Weigel, Jane Hamsher, Malcolm Gladwell and many others has been fantastic — we know you’ve got our back. We’ll need it.

A side note in this exchange between Joshua and Mark Ames is the matter of the numbers and anecdotes contained in Elena Kostiuchenko’s interesting news story written after visiting Janaozen after the riots, which are linked below and whose translation is the motive for this post.

Ames’ piece about Joshua mentions that his ignorance of Russian is evidence enough to call into question his claim to expertise in the region. As someone not wholly ignorant of Russian, I would like to provide some context to the argument. Mr. Ames’  own claims to authority on Russia have never, to my knowledge, derived solely from his linguistic abilities, so I’d rather not get into who knows what languages how well, or which languages Joshua needs to share opinions about Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are much more his ‘area’ than Kazakhstan. As someone who has labored for several years in learning the languages of the region, I personally do not think knowledge of the languages is a prerequisite to asking questions and expressing opinions.

I’d also like to say that this is not going to evolve into a point-by-point refutation of Ames’ article – though there’s a lot to question in his version of events, particularly regarding the relationships between Chevron, KazMunaiGaz, and various other oil/gas businesses in Kazakhstan and elsewhere. Suffice it to say that it is much more complicated than Ames has characterized. The existence of good guys and bad guys is much less clear than that of violence, wrongfully killed, and misinformation.

I will, however, offer a critique that may offer support for Joshua’s criticism of Ames. I’d rather not have this construed as an attack on anyone – this is a part of discourse. Mr. Ames did everyone a real service by translating his source, the first of two articles in Novaia Gazeta on the events in Janaozen, written by a female correspondent, Elena Kostiuchenko. To be clear, I’m not intending to defend or attack the actions of the government of Kazakhstan,KazMunaiGaz, or anyone else. I will admit to having been very upset when I read Ames’ piece on Joshua. The level of vitriol made no sense because I feel like I know Joshua – and the person described in Ames’ piece was ostensibly about the same person. And so, the worst of my motives for writing this piece is the desire to defend a friend with my own limited knowledge of Kazakhstan.

To Begin: “ОБС” или Одна Баба Сказала

In Russian there is an expression, perhaps not so common but one I’ve heard before – ОБС standing for Одна Баба Сказала, or “A grandmother said some woman said.”* This is used to describe the spreading of rumors, whether on the street or in newspapers. Rumor is important – it tells us a lot. But rumor is no more or less dependable than other sources of information – it comes with its own biases, its own spin, its own problems. The reporter that Ames is quoting saw none of the events herself. That’s a key element of this story – she is a foreign reporter asking, in many cases, incriminating and uncomfortable questions. Reading between the lines, one can see that she is having mixed results and causing more than a little discomfort. The people to whom she is speaking are unsure of her motives and nervous about the intrusion – because they rightly doubt whether this journalist actually cares about what happens to them. Journalists are not aid workers or doctors, and while it’s important to know what’s happening in the world, sending in a journalist to “find the story” will often produce more of a story than originally existed. At the risk of repeating myself, I again say: I do not doubt that horrible things happened to good people in Janaozen on December 16th. But I also know that Elena Kostiuchenko is not the best, or only, source of information for what happened that day. In fact, there are many odd omissions from her story, which I’ll get to in the analysis after the translations.

Instead of dropping the quotes into this post, I’ll link to .pdf files. Interested readers are invited to be as nit-picky as possible – I am by no means fluent in Russian. In addition, every translation is in reality a new work. Translating between Russian and English involves: selection of appropriate synonyms, management of word order for comprehension by an audience with no Russian experience, and the nuances of style.

Mark Ames’ abridged translation is here. I have used italics + underlining to highlight the areas that I take exception to in my own translation. He introduced that translation in his post about Joshua’s career. I am including it here as a guide – I will bold those statements I’m about to critique.

Let’s start with the death count I reported in my article, which upset Foust more than anything else. When I wrote my article about the massacre in Zhanaozen, I went on the assumption that the least credible account would naturally come from the murderers themselves—the regime in Kazakhstan. Which happens to be Joshua Foust’s only source. Unlike Foust, I relied primarily on independent sources, including the only independent report I know of to come out of Zhanaozen: An article published in Novaya Gazeta, Mikhail Gorbachev’s famous muckraking newspaper (where Anna Politkovskaya published until she was assassinated in 2006). Novaya Gazeta sent a correspondent into Zhanaozen, Elena Kostyuchenko, who reported counting a total of 64 dead bodies in the main hospital morgue in Zhanaozen, all victims of the massacre, as of 9am on December 17th; the correspondent added to that another 23 dead who, according to surgeons, died on the operating tables, bringing her total to 87 dead; and she reported at least 400 wounded from her reports. Novaya Gazeta also reported bodies seen piled up in the main police station—where scores of locals were savagely tortured, some released to the intensive care ward in the main hospital, others either buried out of site or unaccounted for. More victims of the massacre were reported to have died while being transported by ambulance from Zhanaozen to the regional capital, Aktau (the local hospital was overflowing with dead and wounded, and the ambulances were stuffed with three or four patients at a time).

Because I’m dealing with a paid liar like Foust who people still take seriously, I urge everyone, even Joshua Foust, to read Elena Kostyuchenko’s harrowing dispatch. I know that Foust doesn’t read Russian, despite calling himself an “expert” on the region–so I’m providing my own rough, abridged translation at the end of this article.

This is the only part of the Ames piece that I will deal with directly and I will only comment on those things about which I have some personal knowledge. To start with, I think Ames makes an excellent point regarding considering the source of information. Indeed, we should collect as much information as possible. However, I think Ames would be willing to admit that everyone has their own motives for sharing their version of events and that these motives rarely stop at a desire to share the truth. In other words, when political opponents to a particular regime use their own resources to propagate and spread certain numbers and versions of events, whether with regard to the events in Janaozen, or in Andijon as Ames later brings up in his article, the concerned reader should be just as critical. One should not expect to see the whole truth in any report, whether it’s from the murderer, the victim, or St. Peter himself holding the Book of Life. Our justice system has both defending and prosecuting lawyers for a reason and I do not think Ames is ignorant of this fact. I do not know why he is so critical of Joshua Foust, or if this was the original annoyance that inspired his article.

I take issue with the following in Ames’ characterization of the events and Joshua’s reaction to them:

  • He claims to know exactly which sources Joshua used in his own coverage of Janaozen
  • He is willing to entirely dismiss the official version of events from Kazakhstan’s government
  • He is willing to entirely accept the version reported via hearsay to Novaia Gazeta
  • He claims that Novaia Gazeta is an independent source
  • He claims that the footage of the event, provided by news agencies vocally and publicly acknowledged to be in opposition to Kazakhstan’s government, is an independent source
  • He misinforms his readers as to the nature of the Novaia Gazeta story – accidentally or willfully. The reporter does not claim to have seen anything herself and merely relates the anecdotes she collected after the fact. Elena Kostiuchenko, as far as I can tell, wrote a typical piece of social journalism, the kind for which the eXile itself used to be famous. She goes in, describes what she sees – she is very clearly separating personal experience from hearsay. She tries to define each source in turn. She acknowledges the lack of evidence for the claims of her informants. I do not hold Elena Kostiuchenko responsible for Ames’ characterization of her article.

Ok. Now, here’s my own translation.

  • Sections which Ames left out of his abridged translation are in italics
  • Sections where Ames’ translation significantly differs from my own are in bold
  • I added footnotes to explain some references to those unfamiliar with Kazakhstan – which may have also been unfamiliar to Ames

This is merely the first article of two. If readers without Russian would like me to translate the second article, please say so in the comments. Unless I missed it, which I could have, I don’t believe Ames read the second Kostiuchenko article or referred to it in his own coverage of the events in Janaozen.

Some Analysis of the

Kostiuchenko Article

 

There are few things which Elena Kostiuchenko seemed to omit or misconstrue in her article. I do not think it is a bad article, but these omissions were compounded by Ames’ own reading.

Independence Day

First, there is no mention of the fact that December 16th is Kazakhstan’s Independence Day. Elena Kostiuchenko does mention that it is a holiday – perhaps her readers would be aware already that it was Independence Day. In any event, I am not assuming that is true. If one is ignorant of the importance of that specific day, it seems strange that children are being asked to meet at school early on a cold December morning, to march in columns, to hold placards and banners, to attend a large celebration in the square. My understanding is that none of this was strange or impromptu, but exactly what I would expect in any good-sized town or city throughout Kazakhstan. The strange variable in the equation is the persistence of the oil-worker strikers – who apparently did not want to be in the center of the square, or the focus of the amount of attention they received. This apparently was partly due to decisions made by the mayor’s office, according to Kostiuchenko:

Especially worth mentioning are all the yurts that were erected to house snacks and holiday gifts. The locals said that the yurts are usually placed on the other side of the square, in a vacant lot behind the main stage, but this time the mayor of the city decided to put them right where the protesters were holding their meetings.

The Youth

Ames seems to have misunderstood, accidentally or willfully, the nature of “the youth” in the Kostiuchenko piece. It is my belief, as a reader familiar with Russian and Kazakhstani opinions on the problems facing the largely unemployed and violent young men, that the ‘children’ in Ames’ translation are not all children. They are not all young children, though some of them are. Ames omits from his translation the fact that young men were a concern for the oil-worker strikers, and possibly a tool, unwitting or otherwise, of the local government. And why not? There are many stories of listless youth being coerced into actions by local elites, as much out of boredom as the threat of punishment.

Part of this is the problem of vague Russian vocabulary. But, I believe that Ames is mistaken in his translation, and that not all of the blame need be on the Russian language. Which brings me to a final point:

Riots and Pogroms

Ames decided not to translate the Russian term pogrom (погром), writing it instead in English (“pogrom”) on two occasions. This, I believe, is not an accident. Whatever its heavy history and connotation in the English language, it does not have an identical history in Russian, particularly because it is a Russian word that predates anti-Semitic violence. Its use does not jump out of the text like it does in Ames’ translation. It is one clear of example of Ames’ tone and selectivity of translation when presenting this story to a Russian-ignorant English-speaking audience, one that is likely more familiar with the history of Jews in Russia than the etymology of the term pogrom. Did Kostiuchenko use the term specifically for its cachet of ethnic violence? I don’t know. Is it possible? Yes. But I do not believe that Ames knows either way for certain, though I’m willing to be corrected. The use of the term pogrom in Russian texts is very interesting and itself worthy of a lot of study.

Some Analysis of

Ames’ Use of the Article

 

The point that I believe most irks Ames is Joshua’s denial of Chevron’s involvement in the Jazaozen strikers, riots, and deaths. Here’s what I know and can say about Chevron – it is a big player in Kazakhstan. It’s involved, as partner to varying degrees, in the development of two of the largest petroleum fields in Kazakhstan: Tengiz and Karachaganak. It is likewise involved in pipeline development projects. KazMunaiGaz, on the other hand, is more or less involved with every single element because it is the national oil company in a socialist, formerly communist republic. Not at all unexpected or shocking, nor would it be to Ames. However, it’s a bit much for me to accept that Chevron has blood on its hands in Janaozen because, simply put, KazMunaiGaz does not need Chevron’s help to control its assets, fields, and workers. This is mischaracterizing Ames, but it reminds me of the typical trope in Western movie and novel plots – the big bad guy leading the anti-Western terrorist world-destruction plot always ends up being the renegade old white guy, because they are the only types capable of such acts.

Finally, the Tengiz oil field and the Karachaganak oil fields are quite distant from both Aktau and Janaozen. I’ll be honest – I don’t know for sure that Chevron has nothing to do with the oil fields around Aktau and Zhanaozen, but I welcome evidence from Mark Ames. This would not be private information hidden in a black cabinet behind the Chevron CEO’s desk. From the public materials on the internet (available via Google) I can see that there are many subsidiaries of KazMunaiGaz operating in the area, and they follow the typical naming scheme of taking a region or town’s name. UzenMunaiGaz, MangistauMunaiGaz, KarazhanbasMunaiGaz, KazpolMunai, TolkynNefteGaz, etc. Now, let’s be perfectly, 100% clear on one thing. I have no knowledge or information stating that Chevron Owns, Controls, or otherwise Dictates the Policies of KazMunaiGaz. I welcome evidence more than conspiracy theories, but I’m not even familiar with conspiracy theories that claim Chevron owns KazMunaiGaz. It has some subsidiaries that are joint ventures with Chevron, but also with Chevron competitors Exxon-Mobil, Rompetrol (Romanian Oil), Lukoil (Russia’s #2 Oil Company), CITIC Group (China’s state-owned investment company), etc. Saying that all these actors are partially or totally in cahoots is a bridge too far for me, and most readers, to cross – and I’m not convinced Ames is sure of anything beyond Chevron’s supposed culpability.

This allows me to raise another question: What direct evidence do we have that the oil strike and the riots were even connected? If he really wants to dig into Elena’s article, he’ll see that the strikers don’t believe they’re connected. Dauren, an oil-worker on strike whose name Elena changed to protect his identity, explained his suspicion about the rowdy young men, most likely unemployed, who showed up in the square directly before the riots to join the strikers in solidarity.

Dauren and others on strike say that not once during those seven months of striking did the ”youth,” the young men of Zhanaozen, come to them. It was particularly after the managers of ’UzenMunaiGas,’ together with the mayor’s office, decided to put a grocery stand right where the the strikers were sitting. “These young guys said, It hurts us just to look at you. C’mon, let’s show them our strength.’ So we said, ‘This is our fight, you’re not a part of the oil companies, just go home.’ “

The wives of the strikers, according to Kostiuchenko, went to the mayor of Janaozen prior to the riot and complained that the situation was likely to drive the young men into a rage.

The wives of oil workers went to the mayor. “We told [the mayor] that we’re not responsible for those young guys. And then the mayor said, ‘the youth will be angry when they see that.’ He just brushed us aside.”

I’m harping on this point because this is the independent source of which Ames made so much. It’s pretty clear that there is a lot more here. I think, and again this my opinion, that Joshua’s dismissal of Ames’ take on the Janaozen affair is justified by Ames’ own sloppiness with this particular story.

Epilogue

 

In closing, I’d just like to disclose some information about myself. I’m much less of a known entity than either Joshua Foust or Mark Ames. I plan to be a professor of Russian and Central Asian history. I am a PhD student at Indiana University with a Master’s Degree in Central Eurasian Studies. I have no plans, nor desire, to transfer my limited blogging abilities into a career. My wife is a PhD student in Spanish Literature. We are boring academics that will most likely become lame theater-goers in some small college town in rural Michigan or Kansas. And hopeful to do just that.

My thesis was written on the historiography of 18th century Kazakhstan. I am no threat to Mark Ames’ career, so I hope to avoid serious consequences with this article. I think that what I wanted to show the readers of Registan was that, while Joshua Foust is as flawed and fallible as the rest of us, I don’t think his treatment of the Janaozen affairs demonstrates that he is more flawed, nor more corrupt, than the rest of us. I don’t believe he works, publicly or privately, for any oil-company’s PR firm. As someone that appreciates Josh’s work, I’d go so far as to say he would not be the ideal candidate for such a job. If anything, he’s shown he’s able to change his mind after receiving new information – and toeing a party line must needs be a priority for a PR employee.

So, I welcome a response from Mark Ames, but I also am apprehensive. I do not expect it to be pleasant, if it comes.

*Thanks, Mark Ames, for the correction.


Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 20 posts on Registan.net.

Michael earned an MA in Central Eurasian Studies in 2011 and remains a student at Indiana University pursuing a dual PhD in Russian History and Central Eurasian Studies. He served 6 months in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan in 2005. After the events in Andijan and the subsequent closure of the program, he served 2 years in southern Kazakhstan, returning to the Midwest in 2007. His general area of interest is on post-Timur Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, centered on the Syr Darya river valley.

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use

{ 36 comments }

Oldschool Boy January 7, 2012 at 2:20 am

Michael,
I do not know if you are familiar with this but there is a number articles by Kazakh bloggers who visited Zhanaozen after the event and were shown around the town in a government organized trip.
http://yvision.kz/post/214963
http://sadenova.yvision.kz/search/%D0%96%D0%B0%D0%BD%D0%B0%D0%BE%D0%B7%D0%B5%D0%BD/
http://www.voxpopuli.kz/post/view/id/546
http://www.samizdat.kz/post/489
http://horde.kz/blog/zhanaozen

Thanks,

Michael Hancock-Parmer January 7, 2012 at 2:33 am

Thanks, I’d heard about the trip on some forums and things. It will be good to look these over.

Alex January 7, 2012 at 9:48 am

Masterful.

AS January 8, 2012 at 7:40 pm

holy. shit. who has the time to read all this. when clicking on this story I didn’t know I was getting a wannabe legal brief by the blogger formerly known as michael hancock (did you really take your wife’s last name). besides the fact that this writing is terrible – about half of your sentences add no value except attempting to qualify, clarify and explain away every little thing – this piece is extremely BORING. I honestly don’t know why you wrote this, but if you think this is supposed be your smarmy grad school FU to Mark Ames you clearly have a lot to learn not just about writing…but also LIFE.

Michael Hancock-Parmer January 8, 2012 at 8:11 pm

In response to your question, yes, I did take my wife’s name. We’re both Hancock-Parmers.

David January 9, 2012 at 4:51 am

It is a bizarre post. Your translation appears to my unprofessional eye to be pretty slap-dash, and your remarks about the Novaya gazeta article appear to be quite unfair. You don’t address the key point in her article, which is the evidence gathered from at least one eye-witness suggesting that the official death-toll is incorrect. Journalism is not a court of law – she’s reporting what people tell her. If you have some alternative evidence, then publish it. Otherwise, I don’t really see what point you are trying to make.

Michael Hancock-Parmer January 9, 2012 at 10:50 am

I’m not convinced that you read my post, David. My positive review of Novaia Gazeta’s article was somehow unfair? I’ll admit that my Russian is far from native, but I spent a lot of effort on making the translation – so it’s hardly slap-dash, and certainly one would have to say worse of Ames’ translation. Care to give an example of my slap-dashery?

As to your other remarks, I do not regard journalism as a court of law, nor do I think my post reflects that opinion – could you show me what part of my writing in particular demonstrates this problem? You mention that I don’t address the key point of Kostiuchenko’s article regarding the eye-witness accounts of killings. I believe I made it clear that I have no problem with her take on the events – the entirety of my criticism was for Ames, who made it sound like Elena saw these things herself. She did not. If you read the stories in the links Oldschool Boy provided above, you’ll see there’s been a lot of great effort to sustain legitimate journalism: say just what you saw, give name and details for all quotations, and qualify all hearsay as such.

I am not denying any massacre or pogrom or whatever Ames wants to call the events in Zhanaozen. I’d rather just call him on his loose grip on the reality of the reporting and his subsequent flying-off-the-handle towards my colleague Joshua Foust.

David January 9, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Well, if that’s a positive review, I’d hate to see your negative ones. Here are just a few things you said about a reporter working in a difficult environment:

‘Reading between the lines, one can see that she is having mixed results and causing more than a little discomfort. The people to whom she is speaking are unsure of her motives and nervous about the intrusion – because they rightly doubt whether this journalist actually cares about what happens to them….Elena Kostiuchenko is not the best, or only, source of information for what happened that day. In fact, there are many odd omissions from her story, which I’ll get to in the analysis after the translations.’

You now seem to think that some bloggers on a government sponsored tour are ‘legitimate’ journalism – so I really have no idea what your political point is. I mean, ‘Give name and details for all quotations?’ Really? That’s your definition of legitimate journalism? In Kazakhstan? When people are telling you that they saw dozens of dead bodies that the government is denying exist?

As for your translation, well, you might want to start with paragraphs four and five, where you lose some of the sense of the piece, which is that in principle the woman should be on the side of the police. But she is clearly not. When boys who are fighting with the police ask for food, she asks them into the house. The way you have it is misleading: ‘It was some kids who had been fighting with the police. I told them to leave, to go get something to eat like normal people’

It’s not a big deal perhaps, but you made such a thing of the accuracy of the translation being key, so you might have taken a bit more care to get it right.

Michael Hancock-Parmer January 9, 2012 at 2:14 pm

The internet just ate my original reply. To wit: thanks for the correction. It should be as you said, “I told them to come in and eat like normal people.” That makes more sense, of course, since their response is that they don’t have time.
I am especially curious about the actions leading up to the riot police opening fire. I do not accept out of hand they are automatons accustomed to terrorizing their countrymen. The oilworkers admitted to nervousness regarding the actions of the young men around them – I believe there is a lot more to this story.

Alima Bissenova January 9, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Dear David,

I think the fact that the tour is government-sponsored does not discredit the facts that the bloggers have revealed! I also think you underestimate the degree of freedom that exists in Kazakhstan regarding expressing political views. Also, let me remind you that such “independent” sources on Central Asia as azzattyq are sponsored by the government of the USA and they do often publish completely ungrounded and unsubstantiated things…Should we then assume that they are “paid” to publish these news/opinions?

Alima Bissenova January 9, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Regarding Michael’s coverage of the NG piece, I tend to agree with him, that quite a few journalists in their zeal to “find atrocities” and to “reveal atrocities” rely on the hearsay. And there have been some examples of embarrassing situations with that — like, for instance, the story of this FB Uzbek activist allegedly tortured and killed by the Uzbek government who then turned out to never have existed in the first place. I would suggest that you pay attention to the bloggers WITHIN Kazakhstan without assuming that they are paid commentators. There are indeed different views of Zhanaozen events in kazakhstan and many people within Kazakhstan do not sympathize with the methods chosen by the Zhanaozen oil workers. Many people in Kazakhstan are truly invested in law and order and stability and they know how fragile these things are and they don’t like people “rocking the boat” it in the pursuit of their narrow interests.

Alima Bissenova January 9, 2012 at 2:34 pm

the last point…

In Kazakh there is a saying “Kisige qarap soz alma, sozine qarap kisi al”…

Perhaps, we should look not at WHO is saying what, but WHAT is being said and whether what is being said makes sense. For instance, the fact reported by NG that one doctor tried to unsuccessfully reanimate 22 people and there have been added many more tables to a few surgery rooms…Does it make sense to anyone familiar with medical practice and hospital environment in Kazakhstan? Also, reports of crematorium in Zhanozen? How many people use crmatoriums in Kazakhstan? is there a chance of crematorium existing in Zhanaozen???

Alima Bissenova January 9, 2012 at 2:36 pm

correction “Kisige qarap so’z alma, so’zine qarap kisi al” is not a saying, it is a quote from Abai :-) :-)

Jay Lulzby January 17, 2012 at 10:33 am

Hancock-Parmer calls Kazakh/Chevron shill Joshua Foust his “colleague.” But earlier he said he was just a simple academic with no conflicts of interests.

Now that Ames has replied comprehensively (and Kerry Kennedy just wrote about Chevron in Ecuador), Hancock-Parmer owes it to his readers to be a bit more forthcoming and candid about his motives in attacking Ames and belittling the dozens upon dozens of massacre victims.

Michael Hancock-Parmer January 17, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Do I need to write a special post, or just respond to you in the comments? Joshua Foust is a colleague in the sense that we both write for Registan. To my knowledge, that is the end of our affiliation. Do you see a briefcase of money behind every instance of someone criticizing Mark Ames?

Tim Hole January 17, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Poor, overly verbose writing aside, that is some pretty unfair criticism of the reporter.

Minty January 17, 2012 at 6:30 pm

You were cruising for a bruising with this one. Since Mark Ames’ main criticism seems to be that you intended to called the NG reporter a cheap, babbling whore for using the word “Баба,” you should probably rectify the record to reflect the correct expression: Одна Бабка Сказала.
Бабка _ with a “k” _ just means granny, which is pretty inoffensive, although Ames could probably find the hidden agenda behind that too.

Elise Anderson January 17, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Michael, I have a number of comments for you. I’ve contemplated various ways to share them, and I ultimately decided that coming to this post was best. We can exchange emails or chat in person about any of the issues I highlight below if you would like.

First, commenter Jay is not ridiculous for suggesting that you owe it to readers to describe why it was you wrote this post. Above you write, “[T]he worst of my motives for writing this piece is the desire to defend a friend with my own limited knowledge of Kazakhstan.” I’m not really sure you successfully defended him, though. And what’s more, it seems to me—based on my reading of (1) what is “between the lines” in this post and (2) your current tracking of the backlash via Facebook—that you wrote this post because you wanted Ames to take offense with you. Did you hope to be pulled into the internet-based drama?

Second, please learn to reply to commenters with a more gracious and open spirit. You begin one reply above with an accusation (e.g., “I’m not sure you actually read my post”) and another with a dismissal based on your perception of someone else as absurd (e.g., “Do I need to write a special post, or just respond to you in the comments?”). Your snarkiness is palpable in both instances. You undermine yourself by coming across as both spiteful and incapable of handling dissenting viewpoints. Yes, criticism hurts (and there are indeed many cases in which commenters can be more gracious themselves), but please own up to the fact that you are interacting poorly with others and projecting a very negative image of yourself. In the past, I’ve actually posted comments about your pieces under pseudonyms because I didn’t feel up to being flippantly dismissed for my disagreement with you.

Third, this post is poorly written. It is overly long and ambling, and as a result I find it difficult to discern what your real point is. On the structural and organizational level, please know that no blog post needs both a prologue and an epilogue—and particularly not when the former is merely an attempt to shrug off criticism and the latter a way to let your readers know irrelevant facts about your wife’s and your academic backgrounds and aspirations. Neither of these sections is necessary, particularly in the ways they function in the piece. What’s more, many of your paragraphs are poorly composed, and your analysis wanders at times. You also misuse dashes with high frequency. I know that it hurts to read critiques of writing, particularly when it’s something on which we all spend a lot of time working, but going forward you might consider ways that attention to clarity and focus can help to increase effectiveness.

And fourth, in the future, please think about the [often negative] press that drama-generating blog posts can bring not only to you but also to our department. The name and reputation of CEUS have been drawn into all of this quite unnecessarily, in a way that they might not have been were it not for the epilogue to this post.

Michael Hancock-Parmer January 17, 2012 at 8:59 pm

Thanks for your comments, Elise. I’ll take them seriously. I openly admit that my writing is flawed and part of the reason I blog is to improve the same. Clarity and focus are important for me, particularly because they so quickly get lost in the shuffle of what I want to say. I certainly apologize if you feel that I have unnecessarily drawn CEUS into this. I was really hurt by the attacks on Josh (previous to this post) and wanted to give credible evidence that I, for one, am not some corporate shill. Blogging does not produce publishable papers… I definitely spent a lot more time on the translation than on the post that accompanied it. I will try to be more polite and gracious in the future. But I do not agree with your method of sharing this information with me. I do not dismiss people that disagree with me, nor do I agree with all criticism sent my way. Blogging (and commenting especially) is made up of at least some performance – not just information transfer. I am aware of that – more so all the time.

Elise Anderson January 18, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Michael, I chose deliberately to make my comment a public one, as this is a public post on a public blog in which you publicly critique someone else’s work. You must hold yourself to the same standards to which you hold others.

Katy Pearce January 18, 2012 at 6:48 pm

Maybe it is different at IU or in folklore studies, but in my discipline and at my university, grad students treat each other as colleagues — (dash) with respect.

Joshua Foust January 18, 2012 at 9:55 am

Elise,

Some blogging etiquette.

1) Part of Michael’s posting this in the way he did was to defend himself from questions about his motivation — which you do anyway. So, congratulations on that. He was also very explicitly concerned with how Elena Kostyuchenko’s reporting was being, in his mind misused, to attack me. Frankly, since this is a blog, Michael owes no one, especially you, an explanation for writing anything. He can do whatever he wants.

2) These comments are only part of a much larger sphere of venom that’s been unleashed by this topic. In you look at both his Facebook page and his twitter account, I’d actually say Michael has gone out of his way to be polite to people I would classify, without hesitation, as almost criminally insane morons. So cut him some slack for getting snippy with people casting aspersions on his motivations, or his background, or his skills. He is allowed to defend himself on his own blog, including with ridicule.

3) Your comments seem to miss an important aspect of blogs: they can be whatever the fuck you want them to be. Know why? Because they’re blogs. No one edits or controls them, and Michael can figure out for himself if your complaint that he included both an intro and outro is really the CRIME AGAINST WRITING that you make it out to be. But really, grow up — you’re being petty. Complain about organization and argumentation all you want (really, I’m all about letting people sink or swim here) but at least make your complaints about something real and not your clutching your pearls because he had the temerity to bold a section title you wouldn’t have.

4) This is the major one: Michael is not bringing CEUS into this. You are, and frankly, the batshit insane assholes who think he’s a secret employee of Chevron, or whatever, are doing that. Place blame where it’s due — and that’s not on Michael.

Last final note of blogging and commenting etiquette: if you’re going to argue that something is poorly argued, bother to copy-c and copy-v at least a token example of what you’re talking about. Because otherwise you’re just bitching for the sake of bitching and really — that couldn’t be more boring if you wanted it to be.

Otherwise, keep plugging away. I’d love to see some specific criticisms of where you think his writing or argument went off the rails.

Minty January 18, 2012 at 11:20 am

Not sure I would word it as strongly as Joshua. But I do agree it is seriously unfair to dump on Michael in this way, especially since he has typically always displayed courteousness beyond the point when most people would have abandoned it.
Indeed, while I have never met him and am only aware of him through his posts here, Michael strikes me as genuinely good-natured and utterly committed to his subject of study.
If you want to see some really offensive “ambling,” I would direct you (at your peril) to the exiledonline website, which is run by a washed-up, crotchety, whore-monger (by his own admission, if you care to read any of his previous “journalism”), who has engaged individuals on this blog to some truly foul abuse and undocumented allegations.
Apparently, Joshua Foust and Michael are working for Chevron, the Kazakh government, the DOD, Smersh and heaven knows who else.
If you want to get a sense of where bottom is, and how far above is Michael is, just pay them a visit.
Incidentally, do recall that Mark Ames, of exiledonline, worked for the Kremlin’s Russia Today propaganda outfit.
The suggestion that somebody with those credentials should be passing moral judgement about supposedly working for morally dubious operations on wholly concocted grounds is, well, somewhat hypocritical.
Michael walked with his eyes open into an almighty hammering by coming to his friend’s defense; that seems to be the worst of his crimes.

Elise Anderson January 18, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Joshua, the equally wonderful thing about comments sections on blogs is that I can and will post to them what I see to be fitting and valid critiques. Re: writing, form matters at least as much as substance. I simply attempted to offer some examples of where I think Michael went astray in his approach to writing this post, as the structure and form sometimes do little more than obscure his point. It’s not that I simply disagree with “prologue” and “epilogue” as titles; rather, I don’t think much of what is in them is necessary. They detract from rather than add to. And the misused dashes? They chop up thoughts. Michael himself admits to blogging as a way of improving writing—but how will that improvement happen without critique or guidance of some sort?

To be perfectly honest, I am far from the only person to feel as though the department has been dragged negatively into this mess. I am emphatically not responsible for bringing the department in. Nor does blame rest solely on the other blogger, who, yes, might have gone digging for information anyway, but in this case had open and immediate access to information about Michael because he included it quite irrelevantly at the end of the post.

I am very much in agreement with all who have noted the extreme vitriol in part of the “exchange” that led to this post. I indeed know that Michael is not a Chevron lackey, and I feel that I can safely presume that others associated with Registan are not, either. I also agree that the volatile personal attacks that have been leveled in this mess are wholly unfair and uncalled for.

Finally, I can accept that some people find my post inappropriate or done not in a spirit of “camaraderie” by which I did not even know I was expected to abide. That said, I stand by my public critique of a public post on a public blog that seems to exist for the sole purpose of critiquing, quite publicly and harshly, other people’s work.

Sarah Kendzior January 18, 2012 at 11:58 pm

I’m an occasional Registan writer. Contrary to your characterization of the site, I have never written an article that harshly critiqued someone’s work. Nor have I ever gotten involved in an altercation on this forum. But what you are doing to Michael is so wrong that as a writer, a fellow academic, and a CEUS alum, I have to speak out.

The only person here who is making CEUS look bad is you, Elise. I assume, since you bring up your academic affiliation so frequently, that you intend on making a career as a scholar. I pity those who have you as a teacher or a colleague. A good teacher – and, as Katy correctly noted, a professional colleague – would not use a public blog as a forum to harshly critique someone’s writing. A good teacher and colleague would make a sincere, private offer to help that student with his writing, and not condescendingly lecture him on punctuation after he had been the victim of a cruel attack by another blog.

If your post was truly meant to offer critique and guidance, then you have a lot to learn about how to be a good teacher and scholar, not to mention a good person. (A good person, by the way, does not refer to and distort comments made on a private Facebook page, which you also did to Michael.)

I agree with you that this post is embarrassing for CEUS, and I have spoken with alums who felt similarly. But everyone felt like the embarrassment was you, not Michael. I’m not going to respond to anything else on this thread, but you are welcome to email me privately. I am happy to offer tips on your writing too.

Sarah Kendzior

Elise Anderson January 19, 2012 at 12:04 am

Point well taken. I indeed have much to learn about being a colleague, an instructor, a writer, and a human being (and I say all of this in complete seriousness).

Nathan Hamm January 19, 2012 at 1:04 am

Though I’m at risk of piling on, this is not so much directed as you as it is at anyone else at CEUS who has the vapors over this.

See, I’m from the internet, so let me tell you a bit of our ways. Surely the many anthropologists among you will find this interesting. When we engage another wanderer of these digital wastelands for the first time, we often consult out Great Oracle for information on the new stranger to put them into context. Sometimes, we even flaunt this information to make ourselves seem threatening or, as has been the case with Michael, isolate others from individuals and organizations with whom and which they are affiliated.

Michael’s only sins were not staying opinions in a public forum anonymously, having a unique surname, and not taking steps to hide himself from the servants of the Oracle.

All this is to say that had he not mentioned CEUS, it probably would have taken one of us internetians about 60 more seconds to make the association.

As someone who has wiggled his toes in the North American Central Asian studies community, I’ve often thought the CEUS community a bit cultish and found its members often to be terrified to be seen as non-conforming or to state controversial opinions. We all can use criticism around here. And I know it’s totally CEUS’s thing to be a monastery with limited connections to the unwashed. But to make as a scolding point in the criticism that the collective has been dishonored doesn’t do the organization’s image many favors.

Katy Pearce January 18, 2012 at 2:58 pm

IMHO, comments on overusing of dashes might be better left for a conversation in one’s office or grad lounge.

And moreover, PERSONALLY, I’d be deeply saddened if one of my classmates chose to respond to me in such a public way. Classmates/future colleagues should have your back.

Just my 2 cents.

David January 18, 2012 at 8:01 am

An interesting interview with the journalist that you have been criticising….

http://campaignkazakhstan.org/?p=199

Michael Hancock January 18, 2012 at 9:35 am

David, thanks for the link. The interview is very interesting. Thank you for sharing!

Joshua Kucera January 19, 2012 at 2:40 pm

Hoo boy! Sure has been an eventful few weeks in the Central Asia blogosphere, hasn’t it? I don’t want to stir things up any further (when they seem to be calming down) but did want to chime in. While it’s not correct to say this blog’s “sole purpose” is to critique others’ work, you have to admit that that’s a pretty prominent feature of it. And when it is, you have to take it as much as you dish it out.

Also, as a journalist, I want to defend my tribe a bit and add that I thought nitpicking Kostiuchenko’s work was a bit distasteful. Especially since she’s not a DC hack with a cushy gig but is out there trying to do a really important job in a very difficult environment. I don’t know if her report is right (other good journalists seem to be tentatively accepting the official line) but she was there and none of us were.

Michael Hancock-Parmer January 19, 2012 at 4:56 pm

I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m afraid that Elena’s side got lost in all the shuffle — because she was a tool, first in Ames’ attacks on Joshua (but mostly on Chevron), and then (I admit) in my defense of Joshua (but not of Chevron, but whatevs).

She did a Great Job. I think I should have reiterated that a lot more than I did: “Elena Kostiuchenko, as far as I can tell, wrote a typical piece of social journalism… She goes in, describes what she sees – she is very clearly separating personal experience from hearsay. She tries to define each source in turn. She acknowledges the lack of evidence for the claims of her informants. I do not hold Elena Kostiuchenko responsible for Ames’ characterization of her article.”
I do still think it’s weird to not mention KZ independence day in the article itself, but I meant that as an aside and I think that came out. I 100% respect Elena. I didn’t know then, nor does it negatively affect my respect for her now, that she is a common target for homophobic BS in Putin’s Russia. If I didn’t think Ames’ response was so ridiculous, I would have been really hurt by his assertions that I hate on lesbian Russian bloggers… but who on earth would expect Ames and his lot to support them?

In short, Thanks Joshua for speaking up for your tribe. By no means was any of this crap aimed at you or your cohort. :) See? Smiley face!

just askin' - you a prude February 3, 2012 at 1:59 am

Morally questionable? Really, he pays for a whore, she’s OK with him, and somehow there’s a moral failing on his part? Which part? Just aksin’

M February 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm

I want to thank Michael for his post. Regardless of his analysis or writing style, I appreciate that he came to the defense of Joshua Foust. I found the vitriol of The Exiled’s article disgusting. Certainly no one is above criticism, but what has journalism devolved into when the way to criticize someone’s writing, analysis, or motivations is to refer to him/her as “scum,” a “massacre-denier,” and a “shill,” or to imply that he/she is somehow sexist or homophobic?

I’m not a total stranger to such accusations. I was in Osh, Kyrgyzstan during the 2010 ethnic violence. I was interviewed by a Russian language news website for the one year anniversary of the violence, and they published an article about my experiences in Osh. Many people from Kyrgyzstan left comments, and I was accused of variously being a bigot against the Kyrgyz, a spy, (my personal favorite) an agent sent by the US government to provoke the violence, and, of course, a plain idiot. But this was all done behind the cover of pseudonyms (which is what I’m going to do in this comment).

What frightens me is when these kinds of vitriolic accusations are published openly by people purporting to be journalists. If that’s what independent media looks like, I think I’ll stick with the mainstream.

FiveNineteen March 27, 2012 at 9:50 am

The rococo phrases “I tend to agree” and “as I see fitting” all make you think of a bunch OxBridge wannabees read this blog, and not too many others. As soon as the blog author said ” “I definitely prefer the latter to the former “, I knew he didn’t have jack shit of worth to say.

Nathan Hamm March 27, 2012 at 10:02 am

Come on, dude. If you’re going to critique with 50 cent words like “rococo,” I really expect less clunky phrasing and punctuation.

The rococo phrases “I tend to agree” and “as I see fitting” all make you one think of a bunch OxBridge wannabees read this blog, and not too many others. As soon as the blog author said ” wrote, “I definitely prefer the latter to the former,” “, I knew he didn’t have jack shit of worth to say.

You’re welcome. One wouldn’t want to sound like a drunk OxBridge wannabe while commenting, would one?

Previous post:

Next post: