What’s with Foreign Policy magazine?

Think before you print

What’ with Foreign Policy magazine? It is making it a habit of publishing misleading, blinkered or amateurish commentary on India. Late last year it accused India of ‘helping Iran build the bomb’. Then it published an anti-India diatribe by Barbara Crossette with factual errors: and refusec to correct them when pointed out. Most recently we saw a post by Preeti Aroon on the magazine’s blog, about why the urban poor prefer TVs over toilets, that showed a severe paucity of reasoning skills

And now we have this from its latest edition:

India Offline
By Preeti Aroon
India is known for its vibrant public discourse on everything from politics to Bollywood. But in this nation of 42 million Internet users, those conversations aren’t happening online. Recent research suggests India has just 1.2 million bloggers. By comparison, China has around 30 million. One northern India-based blog-hosting company, Ibibo, has even resorted to offering cash prizes to entice people to blog regularly. Indians’ tendency to be bashful about blogging appears to stem in part from a problem of perception. “The perception [is] that blogging is for people possessing superior writing skills,” says Ibibo executive Rahul Razdan. In a country where nearly 40 percent of people are illiterate, that perception spells trouble. Before blogs can burgeon, Indians may need to learn their ABCs. [FP]

Here again is a paucity of reasoning. The number of bloggers in a country depends not just on literacy but on the number of internet users, the number of personal computers, substitutes for blogging, level of computer literacy, level of computer literacy in the language that a person is literate in, availability of hardware and software in that language to name a few.

At 137 million users, China’s internet penetration is 10%, as compared to about 3.5% (or 40 million people) for India. But India’s literacy rate is 60%, which means that 56.5% of the population—or 9 out of every 10 literate people—are not even using the internet. For blogs to burgeon, Indians may simply have to acquire computers and internet connections. Network effects mean that the number of blogs will grow much faster than the number of internet connections.

Even if internet penetration becomes comparable, arguing that India and China should have the same number of bloggers as a percentage of the population is absurd. That’s because the availability of substitutes—a free media, for example—and differences in social and behavioural patterns come into play.

One of the blogosphere’s favourite rants is the sheer amount of drivel that gets published each day. So surely it’s a the good thing that Indians expect better quality of writing from their blogs. And that about 1.2 million of them feel—rightly or wrongly—that they’ve made the grade. [See Spaceman Spiff’s findings]

Foreign Policy magazine is entitled to retain its bias. But it hurts its own credibility by publishing superficial polemic and poorly constructed arguments which even half-serious bloggers would avoid making.

33 thoughts on “What’s with Foreign Policy magazine?”

  1. How about the dichotomy that exists in India between mother-tongue and internet-tongue? My Korean, Turkish, and Chinese friends boast that they can, and do, spend hours on the internet browsing purely native language content, using English only for operational purposes. They are thinking in the same language they read stuff, which encourages them to blog. Unfortunately, many Indians who grow up with a flaky familiarity with English cannot do so. It is a pity that most Indian bloggers, being English speakers themselves, rarely point out the lack of Indian language content on the internet.

    Your statistical argument (3.5% compared to 10%) is robust by itself, but if you dont look at other factors, you too will end up with the poorly constructed argument that you criticize Foreign Affairs for.

  2. etlamatey,

    You are right about the mother-tongue/internet-tongue gap. East Asians have had keyboards and operating systems in their own languages for several years now. Indian language keyboards and OS variants are far less common.

    You’ve elaborated on what I’ve already mentioned in the post
    level of computer literacy in the language that a person is literate in, availability of hardware and software in that language to name a few.

  3. Glad to know that the kind folks at ‘Foreign Policy’ care about the number of bloggers in India. But seriously, doesn’t the magazine have anything worthwhile to discuss? I mean c’mon! Number of bloggers? Who cares!

    – Sri

  4. This Preeti Aroon — is she related to Pankaj Mishra or perhaps Arundhati Roy? Spiritually if not physically, perhaps.

  5. Sri,

    Cant blame the people at Foreign Policy for that one. In social sciences in general, “number of bloggers” is now frequently being used as an index of personal liberties, education, enlightenment, internet access etc etc. It has almost taken a place up there with indicators like child mortality and primary literacy.

  6. You are right Atanu. Might even be Mishra and Roy alternating. At least the P and the A in (P)reeti (A)roon match! One more mobile republic who wants to secede.

  7. As you stated – there appear to be multiple alternatives to blogging; wonder why Preeti is frothing. Even she acknowledges we have a “vibrant public discourse.” Perhaps, because the Chinese don’t have this opportunity, they blog more!

  8. Nitin – Why does the “Are you gay” ad pop up below this post?
    Does the computer know something I [we] don’t?

    Anuj – Google Ads are contextual. That means that what you see depends on what Google thinks this site is about and what you might be interested in. Among the things it’s been selling me are Musharraf’s memoirs, Pakistani matrimonials and for some inexplicable reason, those “Sexy Rubber Bracelets”. – Nitin

  9. Oh, she [ the beautiful and wise one, who walks on water,esp, when her durga swaroop mothe is in town] tells me that she got the “one liner” from the comedian, Don Rickles, who during one of his acts used the line while describing his lawyer or agent named, Joe Michael.

  10. The person who wrote the blurb, also posted on the blog about the matter – http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/node/4616 and offers other possible reasons as well. The tone seems to be to be “isn’t this curious?”. Not sure what was so offensive to you, but whatevs.

    As for FP bias – the blog in the past 2 weeks has also posted (india wise) on- cracking down on corrupt politicans, the richard gere kiss, a rise in IT wages, the nuclear deal, travelling without ticket on mumbai local trains and Ivy leagues coming to India. Not seeing the anti-india bias her either.

    Oh and this might irk you further – they JUST won an Ellie (oscar for magazines) for General Excellence in their circulation category.

  11. Brown Magic, I would like whatever it is your are smoking. Must be a pretty amazing trip you are on — being unable to write coherently is a sign of a fabulous trip.

  12. Brown Magic or Ms.Aroon or “whatevs” yo handle be – Your comment reminded me of a remark Fareed Zakaria made at a private event a few years back – “Foreign Policy is the stupid man’s Foreign Affairs……Forever the brides maid, never the bride.”

    p.s. in case you are wondering, this was after his stint at the CFR publication.

  13. Atanu – I’d totally share (and the substance in question is a big ol’ chill pill) if you would be kind enough to respond to my original query, which (since it was so incoherent – i’ll repeat) was a perfectly benign remark asking what was so offensive to Nitin because he is not just disagreeing (which is what I am doing here), he seems incensed, which is what puzzles me. And if you’d mosey on over to their blog and read the posts I reference – you’ll see no anti-india bias. Or perhaps you will, and I’ll still be wondering what the hassle is.

    Urvashi – Uh ok. Trash talking your competitors (though not really, FP isn’t a journal in the least) is a fun thing to do. I am sure Mr. Zakaria got a chuckle from the comment.
    Oh and I suppose I must state this clearly – I am not Ms. Aroon. Just familiar with D.C. think tanks and their publications.

  14. From what I have noticed, an overhelming majority of bloggers write pointless drivel [exhibit A – Brown Magic], which only their mothers would like; that too after downing a few martinis.

  15. Yes, Anuj. That is an astute observation. How very clever (but not as clever as your wife with that hackneyed joke) of you to come up with it. The blog is called GIN-soaked and POINTLESS, implying that the pointless drivel is the raison d’etre.

  16. Brown Magic,

    Make no mistake, despite Mr Zakaria’s certificate, regardless of the Ellie and despite my criticism of the magazine on this blog, I think it is a good magazine. It helps makes international affairs more accessible, especially to an American public that is dangerously unaware of the world outside (FP itself had an article on this). That’s why I bothered to criticise what’s coming from that end.

    What I’m appalled by is “misleading, blinkered and amateurish” commentary about India. I chose those words carefully. Do take a look at the articles I’ve linked to and let me know if they don’t fit that description. As for your point about it featuring many articles about India, that may be true. But bias is not about quantity at all. In fact, the worst possible way of pushing your bias is by making it obvious (if every post is anti-X, people know you are anti-X and hence discount your opinion. At the extreme, they discount you completely).

    Btw, thanks for pointing out Preeti’s post extending her piece. Can’t see why they should be scared of linking to this post, though. (I’m indulging myself by believing that this post is what triggered off the defence). That’s similar to their refusal to publish a rejoinder to Barbara Crossette’s atrocious piece.

  17. Andrew Leonard refers to this post at Salon.com (link)

    But what I really want to know are the relative numbers for Chinese and Indian bloggers blogging in English. Because I’m sure that India, where English proficiency is widespread, wins that comparison easily. And in a world where English is the lingua franca, that makes a significant difference.

    Or at least it does so for me. I spent a decade studying Mandarin in the 1980s, but my current fluency is frustratingly inadequate for efficient consumption of Chinese-language blogs. Thus, in terms of my blog-feeds, I rely mostly on outsider takes on China from native-English speakers to keep me abreast of what’s hopping in the culture. Whereas for India, I gorge myself every day on commentary and analysis of Indian affairs by Indians. Thus, paradoxically, though I have spent a significant portion of my life studying China, I feel increasingly closer, via the blogosphere, to the subcontinent than I do to the Middle Kingdom.

  18. Brown Magic, it is cool to be gin-soaked and pointless on your own blog. Incoherence is hip among your friends. A stranger like me will take your run-on sentences, incomprehensible and ambiguous references, and general drivel as a sign that you are just an idiot trolling for attention.

  19. Far as I can tell (no time stamp on your post), her post published before yours, but that is besides the point. She is responding to some criticism – yours or whoevers.

    And yeah the TVs over toilets was a silly post. It was lacking so I didn’t disagree with your post. The two paragraphs about indian firms working with Iran – the crux wasn’t about India being a proliferater or even saying India wasn’t a responsible nuclear power – It was about the inconsistency of U.S. foreign policy and how it favours whatever country is the flavour of the month – which is a pretty common and justified charge. You may be all about the nuclear deal (which I am) but you have to acknowledge it is a reversal. As for the Barbara Crossette piece – It was their Think Again piece. That IS the format – to challenege popular notion. The idea is to ruffle feathers.

    Basically, being wrong (accepting for sake of argument – your take on the matter) and holding a bias against India are hardly the same thing.

    Psst Atanu – What you see above is a civil disgreement. Thought you might want to see what one of those looked like. Interestingly enough the author of the post didn’t seem to have any trouble parsing my “incomprehensible and ambiguous references”. And he managed to respond without attacking me, my friends, or my father. Look at that!

    And a teensy tip from someone who “never learnt English sufficiently well to express (herself)”: A run-on sentence is when two or more sentences are mashed together without proper punctuation. Be a dear, scroll up and notice the commas and parenthesis.

  20. BrownMagic,

    Run for your life! The self proclaimed Indian blog Police is here.

    Atanu claims to be arguing for freedom of everything, but he doesn’t minds pulling the trigger on anyone who doesn’t sees what he sees. Only an eye doctor can statistically tell what he really sees.
    Many people here give a new meaning to the saying “NOT practising what they preach”.

    I’m hiding under the stone until the police sirens are gone!

  21. Atanu:

    Have some respect. The lady knows far more about foreign policy than you will ever do (not that it should matter when you consider how to responding to her comment, but this is just a little factoid that you should know). And her English is a lot better than yours too. I can say this because I am acquainted with you personally and know about your work, and appreciate it.

    That PhD didn’t give you the right to close your eyes and ears and shut out people who dissent. Contrary to what it seems to have done to you, it was supposed to let you approach things with an open mind.

    Some of us saw your comment before it was edited. It was nasty, and totally unwarranted. Looking at the thread above, it seems clear to me that you started this and that your first response was highly inappropriate.

    Be a gentleman and apologize. And remember that things you say and do in the comment-spaces of blogs affect how people view you in real life – the same people who you might call on to do favors for you.

  22. Brown Magic –
    Jokes aside; What is the big deal about the number of blogs in a society?

  23. “Never trust a person with two first names”

    There is a Yes Prime Minister episode in which Bernard Woolley actually says “Never trust people whose first and last names are interchangeable” with reference to a BBC official called Crawford James who resorts to blackmail after Sir Humphrey Appleby is caught making some embarrassing statements on tape. Just throwing it out there.

  24. Hi all,

    This discussion has gone entirely off-topic. No more personal attacks please.

  25. Somewhat off topic; pl. free to delete if it is completely irrelevant. Here is an article by the editor-in-chief of FP:

    Excerpt: “Democratic governments have their own gongos, too. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is a private, nonprofit organization created in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts. It is a gongo funded by the U.S. government. In several countries, receiving money from the NED is considered a crime. President Vladimir Putin’s government has denounced foreign-funded support for political reform by groups such as NED as subversive and anti-Russian. A Chinese newspaper called U.S.-backed democracy promotion “self-serving, coercive, and immoral.”

    For the sake of full disclosure, it’s important to note that I serve on NED’s board of directors. I, therefore, disagree that its activities are criminal, immoral, or a tool of the White House. Its programs, decisions, and sources of revenues and expenditures are perfectly transparent, and its directors, who serve without pay, are completely independent. But why should you believe me?”

  26. Stopped reading Foreign Policy’s views on India after that Barbara Croisette article. Nice blog you have here.

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