Reality bytes

by Suw on May 30, 2003

Salam Pax has been getting some shit lately, from people who don’t believe he’s real. The rumours are that Salam’s some sort of agent or spy, or maybe not even in Baghdad at all but quietly forging his blog from some comfy pad in Kansas.

Then there’s a bevy of other pieces quietly affirming that Salam Pax is real, is in Baghdad and isn’t an agent or spy but a simply architect with attitude. Chief amongst the believers is Rory McCarthy at The Guardian, whom one would imagine probably has the inside story considering that he’s managed to persuade Salam to write a column.

Somehow, I doubt very much that the Guardian would be publicising their newest, shiniest recruit if he was in fact some bird called Dorothy from Kansas.

The thing is, I don’t know jack shit about Iraq really. I know that I didn’t like the war, and that I wasn’t (and am not) happy about the way that the government lied to us, or the way that Blair has allowed himself (and thus the UK) to become the lapdog of the maniac Bush.

I know that I was astounded (in a good way) by the number of people who protested against the war, and I know that this whole affair has been a wake-up call for the apathetic who have suddenly discovered that they are not willing to sit by and watch whilst atrocities are committed in our name.

I also know that I do not trust the media to tell me the truth, nor the government. Both have lied and been caught lying throughout the entire episode, and I have no doubt that both will continue to lie for as long as they can get away with it.

Salam Pax is a lone voice in all this. One man telling his story, explaining his reality as he sees it, and he sees it in a way that no one else (online) does. His intelligent prose goes a long way towards showing us what life is really like in Iraq right now, for him, his colleagues and his family.

Salam also goes a long way to undoing some of the propaganda that’s been forced down our throats (and which some netizens seem only to eager to swallow with pride and patriotic fervour) by the American and British governments and media.

See, I know I’ve said this before, but it seems to me that the authorities want us to view Iraqis either as The Enemy, to be exterminated and shown no mercy, or the Poor Pitiful Peasants incapable of doing anything for themselves and therefore reliant on ‘our’ kindness and generosity. Oh, look at us, the redeeming forces here to save your souls from the foul evil of your own culture and country.

Salam gives the lie to this – he is intelligent, articulate, well informed and savvy. He presents his viewpoints in an articulate and engaging way and we get to see through his eyes a human story. It’s just one of the uncountable stories in Iraq right now, but it’s the only one we’ve got.

And this is, I think, why certain individuals have an issue with Salam. He’s smarter than they are, more intelligent, more articulate. In fact, that’s what makes them so suspicious – how could an Iraqi be so intelligent and speak such good English? How could he possibly know so much about American culture?

Er, hello? Wake up! Smell the roses! American culture gets everywhere, like creeping slime mould. I’d be more shocked if the obviously well educated Salam didn’t know about American culture.

But in all the furore over Salam, people have really lost sight of what he is doing. He’s writing a blog – a personal account of his life. He’s not there to document the war and post-war collapse of Iraq. He’s not there to uncover Saddam’s crimes and those of the Ba’athists. He’s telling us what goes on his world, what’s happening in his life, and we need to remember that in order to keep things in perspective. This is one man’s viewpoint, not some history book in the writing.

A happy side effect of Salam’s blog is that he’s educating some of us as to what life is like outside of our cushy little countries, those of us open-minded enough to take in what he’s saying of course. The others he’s just pissing off, which is frankly scores some serious points with me. Anyone who pisses off narrow minded racist middle-classes elitist fat-bellied Americans is right at the top of my party invite list.

So yeah, Salam, you’re welcome round mine anytime, although I can promise you that you’ll not be overly impressed at what passes for architecture round here.

All this discussion about whether or not Salam is real, though, has bugged me today. Not just because I’m a Salam believer and sympathiser, but because this whole online reality thing is major food for thought in my own life right now and has been for some time.

I really am fed up of people telling me that you can’t get to know people online, and that online friendships are somehow flawed.

“Oh, but you never really know them,” they say. “How can you tell that they are who they say they are?”

Tell me something, please. Email me – my address is over there on the left… no, the other left… ( 😉 ) and it works, really. Or leave a comment.

How do you know that anyone is who they say they are? I’ve been taken in by people before, people I’ve met, people that have seemed perfectly normal and reasonable and nice. Then three months down the line, or three years, whatever, they have shat upon me from a great height.

On one particularly notable occasion, I employed a guy as a sales rep for a company I was running. Seemed like a charming enough guy, had a reasonable CV, couldn’t immediately see anything wrong with him at all. So we gave him the job. Things didn’t go so well, he didn’t get any sales and the company was floundering, so we ditched him, as you do.

So, in a perfectly natural reaction, he harassed us by phone. He’d ring up several times a day and as soon as anyone answered the phone, he’d hang up. To start with, you don’t think anything of it, but when it keeps happening again and again and again it starts to bug you. Then it starts to worry you. Then is starts to piss you off. Then you realise that if you keep reacting to it, he’s fucking won.

We did a bit of research then, and oh boy, oh boy, do I wish I’d known some of the things I found out then before I’d given the freak the job! He’d been fired from his previous job for sexually harassing the boss’s wife. He was running a dodgy business from a non-address… oh I could go on, but I won’t.

The irony is that I would never have found out this stuff if it weren’t for the fact that I was now in the same boat as his previous employers. They were all rather unwilling to talk to me until they knew that I was suffering the same thing that they had. If I had rung up before giving him the job, they would not have spoken to me, because giving references now has become so dodgy in terms of slander/libel that may people simply won’t do it.

So my point is this – at which point in the past were people ever always who they say they are? Why has this issue of identity been flagged up as unique to the online environment when it’s an ages old issue that’s never gone away and probably never will?

On the one hand, you could say that the internet makes it easier to be someone you’re not, but on the other hand, it’s the internet that allows people to check their facts, if they can be bothered to look. The resources are out there to help you find out about someone if that’s what you want to do, and it’s infinitely easier to do precisely because of the net.

I’m no expert on digging for personal information online, but even I managed to find out stuff about our ex-employee that gave me pause. I never would have located that info offline, that’s for sure.

Within most of us there is an inherent instinct to trust. It’s hardwired into us, a part of our physical make-up. If you have oxytocin in your brain (which you do) then you have trust, according to the New Scientist (password required but you can get a free 7 day trial).

This instinctive trust is what makes the world work – without it, you can’t be a part of any kind of social group. And that’s just as much the case online as it is offline. Ok, so you’re missing the visual clues online, but you have other clues in the way that people write, the language they use and the way they react, and with a bit of experience you do get to pick up on whether or not someone is talking shit.

I’ve been online for seven years, and I’ve met a lot of people online whom I have subsequently met offline and I don’t think I’ve ever been wildly wrong about any of them. This is not to mean that I’ve not subsequently misjudged people, but on the whole the number of nutters per square inch has been pretty low. One, actually, and although he was hammer-wielding he wasn’t in my presence at the time and it was only his computer which suffered.

I’ve met some pricks, obviously, via the net, but then I’ve met many more in real life. No environment, or country, has a monopoly on pricks nor is anywhere exempt from their presence. It’s just one of this irritating things in life, like the way it rains whenever you don’t have your umbrella, or the way that you wait for hours and then three buses come along at once.

The internet isn’t full of axe-wielding murderers. It’s not full of liars. It’s full of people, the majority of whom are simply saying it as they see it. You may disagree with them, you may not like them, you may think that they are pricks. But that doesn’t mean that they’re all Dorothys, pulling the wool over your eyes from Kansas, and if you really think that it does, you need to see a psychologist pretty soon about your paranoia.

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