Sunday, December 27, 2009

Reflecting on 2009 (Beth)

Beth: In 2005, I volunteered to be the ombudsperson for this site. At least, I think I did. More and more, I believe C.I. maneuvered me into the position -- and I'm only half-joking.

What have I learned in all that time?

Someone's always going to be offended.

It may be over a word, a joke, an omission, something stressed, you never know. But someone's always going to be offended.

And I probably should have known that. Certainly, I was one of the community's biggest complainers until I became the ombudsperson. And maybe did. But I learned something else which I didn't know before: Most people just want to be listened to.

In this community, it's not: You must agree with me!!!!!!

That's not how C.I. set it up. Please, this is the site created by the woman who often writes, "I may be wrong -- and often am."

But what really matters to those who are offended is: Am I being heard? Is the other person listening?

When I used to write a sentence like the last one, I would immediately cringe if I noticed it and change it. But sometimes I didn't change it. And then I would think, "Oh no . . ." Because we do have community members who are deaf, hearing disabled or hearing challenged and the term "listening" might be insulting.

About the sixth or seventh time I'd included "I'm here to listen" in my column at the gina & krista round-robin, I knew I'd have to address that. I was happily surprised to discover that no member took offense at that.

When you're the ombudsperson, you can get very wary about every single word. Certainly, though I wasn't attempting to be non-inclusive, that was a word that could be seen as such.

I think I was cut a lot of slack and it was understood that the phrase/statement was just popular vernacular. I also know C.I.'s transcripts make clear that community members with hearing issues are welcomed and valued members.

For the holidays, I'm at my parents. They think they have state of the art information highway. They've got dial up and a computer that's running a very old version of Windows. I'm mentioning this for a related reason. I visited a site Saturday that I enjoy and that posts a lot of videos -- it's a political site. But I visit at home, where I have DSL. And I watch the videos and get the whole point of the post. But Saturday, on my parents computer, I couldn't stream videos. It wouldn't work due to the connection (dial up) and the operating platform. There were some interesting posts, I'm sure, but I have no idea because they talked about how the video made them angry but didn't explain why and I couldn't stream the video.

The streaming issue is another reason C.I. provides transcripts. I'm glad Joe Biden says he's serious about internet access throughout the country but the reality is nothing's really improved for rural areas in some time -- as rural community members consistently point out.

But back to the issue of listening or registering the complaints.

That's all most people really want. They want to know that their complaint registered. That they were not dismissed or mocked for raising an issue that was serious to them.

And that's been the big lesson I've learned as ombudsperson.

"Ombudsperson." We tried "ombudsman" for about two minutes and neither C.I. nor I were comfortable with that term. I'm glad, I'm proud actually, that if I've done anything online, it's maybe made people think about that term "ombdusman" and how it's used even when the person is a woman. It's non-inclusive and when you see one man after another put in that position, you have to wonder if the term is part of the problem?

2009 the big issue and concern was religion in terms of this site. C.I. takes no side regarding religion and none of us know if she's even religious or practicing or whatever. (Elaine and Rebecca know and I'm sure Ava does as well.) But due to the Iraq refugee population make up and the continued attacks on various religious minorities in Iraq, C.I. explained that this was going to have to be addressed and issues like religious freedom would have to be addressed from time to time as well. She promised to do her best in tackling the issues and urged anyone who had a problem to immediately "e-mail Beth and me." (Again, I frequently feel I was maneuvered into this position.) When there was a problem, C.I. and I both addressed it -- we both addressed it in e-mails and I addressed in my weekly column.

But the biggest problem came not from members but from drive-bys or visitors. In one snapshot, C.I.'s translating -- from Italian -- some Papal media outlet. Shirley and Martha forwarded me over 40 e-mails questioning that the report said that. Did they think it said something else? No. They didn't know what it said. They were objecting that C.I. translated Italian because, unless they learned Italian, they didn't know if C.I. was translating correctly.

That's why it has to be a really important article -- such as the one on the Sahwa that C.I. translated from Arabic a few weeks ago -- for C.I. to translate it. It's just not worth it otherwise. She doesn't see these e-mails, but she knows they clog up the public account and that Martha and Shirley or Eli or someone's stuck sifting through them. Which is a real shame because when C.I. has emphasized an article in French, Spanish, Italian or Arabic, it has ended up being on a pretty important issue and a topic that existed for more than one snapshot.

The first years, I did dabble in the drive-bys and the visitors. I really don't now. I'll read them if Martha and Shirley forward them and I may weigh in on it in my column. But that's really it. Our community's grown so large that I really have my hands full with just community members.

For new community members, the biggest issue is always that I have to explain, "Yes, that is an issue. However, before you became a community member, the community had already voted that the emphasis at The Common Ills would be on Iraq." There are some topics that other websites cover and I will steer people to those sites, I'll say, "That's actually a topic Rebecca has long covered so you should take that up with her." Ruth has always been very good about saying, "I will grab it," when I've raised in a roundtable that there's an issue numerous members are bringing up but none of the sites cover. If it's the last minute and I just want to be able to be done with it and reply, "___ is dealing with it," I know I can call Mike and he'll work it into his post in some manner.

Along with complaints and topics, I also get e-mails from community members about other people's sites. I am only the ombudsperson for this site. I'll make a call on the way something was covered here. C.I. may or may not agree with me. (And we have disagreed before.) But that's what my role as ombudsperson is. I am not the ombudsperson for any other site. If there's a Third issue, for example, Jim will say, "Call me! We can discuss it." He means it. He will discuss it and discuss it and discuss it. He loves to disagree. But when that's included in my column, I make it clear that those are his opinions and that any opinion I have is my own personal opinion and I'm not the ombudsperson of any other site.

But I still get e-mails. The biggest topic there in 2009 illustrates how something can be good and bad. The big complaint about another community website in 2009 was about Betty's site. Betty's was also the most praised community website in e-mails to me. For the same reason.

Members miss Betinna (Betty does as well and I've told her before, "Mention that!"). If you're late to the party (I love how we all say that now, it just rolls off the tongue), Betty started her site as a comic online novel. Betinna was the lead character. A dazed woman who was unclear on her past but married to Thomas Friedman who insisted upon praise ("Thomas Friedman is a great man") but really didn't deserve it. As the chapters added up, we discovered he was drugging Betinna. We also discovered she was not, in fact, from another country, but from New Jersey and had been kidnapped by Thomas Friedman and Nicky Kristof. As Betinna put together all the pieces (from 2005 to 2008), she wanted her revenge and that was heading to big ending. Which would not have been pretty for Betinna. Betty had an outline of the entire story before she ever did her first chapter. She knew how it ended. Clues were dropped in various chapters throughout to prepare people for that ugly ending.

In the end, Betty couldn't kill Betinna. She loved the character too much. And she was also outraged by the Cult of St. Barack online. So she decided to halt the novel and just turn her site into a blog.

People love Blog Betty (a name Rebecca gave her back in 2005 at Third). But they miss Betinna. It's one of those trade-offs. You can't have both. Betty can't craft a chapter and also run a blog. Betty would prefer to leave Betinna where she did because it's open, it's up in the air and readers can write their own ending for Betinna whereas, if Betty writes the ending, it's not a happy one.

When I wrote in the round-robin that I'd be doing a column here Sunday to give Isaiah a day off (he'll have comics on New Year's Day, FYI), Susan e-mailed and asked if I would offer what my biggest surprise about the community was?

There's that most people just want to be listened to. After that, it's probably how large the community has become. I have Brady and Kayla helping me now with the e-mails. Then it's probably how large the community's become online.

There's this site and there's . . . .

The Third Estate Sunday Review
Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude
Thomas Friedman Is a Great Man
Kat's Korner (of The Common Ills)
Mikey Likes It!
Cedric's Big Mix
Like Maria Said Paz
The Daily Jot
Trina's Kitchen
Ruth's Report
Oh Boy It Never Ends
The World Today Just Nuts
Ann's Mega Dub

I could be remembering wrong but, as I recall, this site, Third, Rebecca's and A Winding Road were the only community sites when I became ombudsperson. A Winding Road folded, shuttered its doors and it is missed. But it's amazing to realize how many sites have sprung up in this community. With Kat and Ruth and Isaiah, they were already contributing here before they began their own sites. Mike probably stands out the most because I remember him being outraged. I don't remember what it was now. But it's when I first became aware of Mike as a member. Someone had done a word for word rip-off of an entry C.I. had written a week before and Mike was furious. I think I got 25 e-mails from him in one day on this topic. He was enraged. And I remembered thinking, when I learned he'd decided to start his own site, "Oh boy, what's that going to be like?" It actually is a great site and one of its best qualities is Mike's sense of fairness. I've seen him apply that same rage for theft of the work of community members and theft of the work of non-community members. Mike has a very strong ethical code.

Like most members, I knew Betty was starting a site. She was testing it out with test posts that she shared with various community members and working with Third each weekend to see what a website entailed and all of that. So I knew she was coming. I knew Kat was being guilted into doing a website by a number of community members. Mike's was the first that sprung out of nowhere for me.

I look at that list above and think, "Damn."

There really has been something done by this community. We really have had a code and stuck to it. We've remained a diverse community and that's probably why we grew so much.

But, to Susan's question, when I think about what my biggest surprise is . . . In 2009, it requires dropping back to 2008. I still marvel over what happened in this community during the 2008 craziness.

Like a number of community members, I am of the left but not a Democrat. I self-identify "independent" (and am registered in my state as such). I did consider Socialist but after what went down in 2008, you can forget me ever claiming that.

C.I. had always said, "Your vote is your vote." We'd heard that it was up to you who to vote for and "I'm not going to tell who to vote for" and all of that.

Easy words when your site starts in 2004, right after the November election, right?

But C.I. stuck to that. We still do not know if C.I. (or Ava) voted for Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney? We know they didn't vote for John McCain because, in 2005, at Third, they'd noted they could never vote for him. We know they didn't vote for Barack because Elaine has, since 2005, told the story of her and C.I.'s face to face with Barack the 'peace candidate' who told them he did not support withdrawal from Iraq.

If John Edwards had been the Democratic Party nominee, for example, I would probably be writing, "We still don't know if C.I. (or Ava) voted for Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney or John Edwards."

When there was an active Democratic slate of candidates in 2007, C.I. covered them all. Including Dennis Kucinich who I had no idea C.I. disliked. I never got that from the coverage. C.I. played it fair and when so many community members endorsed him, C.I. didn't slam them or disagree with them or anything. (Those still not getting how Dennis is all talk should read Helen Redmond's article on how Dennis helped kill single-payer.) Now I can put two and two together and, yes, I caught what Rebecca was saying with regards to John Edwards and that she was explaining why C.I. would never support John Edwards. (Rebecca's teased out that blog post four times now.) But even now knowing that C.I. had always found John Edwards to be filth, you couldn't have gotten that in 2007 (and C.I. decided John Edwards was filth in 2003 -- as Rebecca's long documented). He was a candidate and if he spoke about Iraq, he was quoted. If he spoke something this community agreed with it, it was noted. If he distorted reality, he was called on it. If he proposed a withdrawal, it was addressed.

C.I. played it fair with all the Democratic candidates. She didn't play favorites. When people would endorse, she'd run their endorsement here or if they'd endorse in newsletters. (And if they endorsed in newsletters and wanted it noted here, she would include it.) She was actually surprised how Barack had no, NONE, support from this community. But why would he? We'd heard Elaine's story repeatedly. So we knew, the minute he declared, to really examine his pretty words. We weren't fooled as a result.

But a lot of other people were tricked by the Cult of St. Barack.

It's really amazing the space that was created here. As a non-Democrat who had voted for Nader in 2000 (I voted for John Kerry in 2004), I was told I was welcome and certainly everyone was nice to me and the other non-Democratic members but there's the talk and the walk. In 2008, this community endorsed Ralph Nader.

That's walking the walk. Ava and C.I. didn't endorse, they don't believe in telling people who to vote for and I have pretty strong hunch this site will go dark without us ever knowing if they voted for Ralph or for Cynthia. But that this Democratic-majority community could go for Ralph in 2008 was really something amazing to me.

That we could walk away from fear and walk away from propaganda and vote for what we believed in really amazes me.

Now six weeks before the election, Oklahoma community members suddenly had a problem. They couldn't vote for Ralph, they learned. He wasn't on the ballot. Okay, they'd vote for Cynthia. She wasn't on the ballot. Their ballot only allowed them to vote for either John McCain or Barack Obama. They rejected the Corporatist War Hawk with the Democrat label. They used their vote strategically; arguing the left would be better mobilized if McCain was in the White House because they'd already seen the left lose it's spine as it rushed to prop up Barry O.

That was a huge deal. It's something that, months after it happened, still surprised me. Democrats rejecting a corporatist War Hawk whose own adviser had bragged to the BBC that his Iraq promises were meaningless and he'd decide what he was doing after he was sworn in.

As big a step as that was for life-long Democrats in Oklahoma, think about what it says about the community? Yes, C.I. made very clear that Oklahoma members only had a choice between Barack and McCain and, yes, C.I. made very clear that no one was to attack them for their decision and that their vote was their vote ("as true if they decided to vote for Barack as their decision to vote for McCain"). But that didn't mean anyone had to listen. I waited and waited to see some griping, carping or at least a few jabs. It never happened. Not even in 2009.

Everyone was respected for their choice. That included if someone decided they were not going to vote. Starting in 2004, we got a lot of nice talk about how we own our votes and we can and should use them as we see fit and blah blah. Pretty words. 2008 was when we saw those words were true. Not only did C.I. mean them but the community did as well.

I don't think we'll be around in 2012 except for the newsletters. But if we are, I have no doubts that third parties would be covered, that independent runs would be covered, that Republicans and Democrats would be covered. I have no doubt that we would listen to each other and respect one another's votes even if we all split on who to vote for.

In 2009, that's why I still marvel over 2008, still think about it.