The Internet… and causes

“The best cause (still) requires a good pleader,” reads a Dutch proverb. “Huitang said: What has been long neglected cannot be restored immediately,” according to a letter to Master Xiang.

No, not “causes” as in reasons why the Internet continues to grow and sprout new ventures, but causes in the old-fashioned sense: concentrated campaigns around wrongs that should be righted; justice waiting to be done; dangers we must avoid; threats that call for reaction; initiatives we should rally to; bedrock principles we will defend. Surely the Internet, especially its powerful Web component, is tailor-made for illuminating and ventilating causes today, just as pamphlets, newspapers, books, radio and television were during earlier waves of technology-based mass communications. Why not, then, Latvian causes?

Do “at-home” and diaspora Latvians—together and sometimes in disagreement with each other—suffer from a shortage of painful, controversial causes? Hardly. The list, historical and current, is a long one. Do hostile and ignorant elements position their causes to discredit and attack ours via the Web? Constantly. Whether we like it, or not. Do we possess information that would refute such attacks and forcefully resent our own case? Certainly. Content is not an issue. Selecting, translating, arranging and displaying it on Web pages are essentially “mechanical” tasks. Not trivial, certainly, but no cosmic force stands in the way of getting them done.

Do we face serious technical obstacles in generating a response? Not one. Is expertise a problem? Not judging from the number and quality of Latvian Web sites. Is “campaign money” a concern? Not in the diaspora—when you look at amounts spent on “informing” in other (mostly ineffective) ways, especially by organizations with self-styled “mandates” to do this kind of work; and at expensive projects proposed to/supported by charitable foundations and funds. In Latvia nothing prevents appropriate government ministries from including modern “information objectives” in budget plans. Availability of means and resources is not an issue. But applying both intelligently—recognizing changing priorities and eliminating tolerance for delays (which translate into political damage) when provocation calls for response—is a strategy that continues to elude us.

Perhaps we lack a common approach. Most diaspora Web users are individuals and small enterprises, with organizations coming on board more recently. In Latvia PCs and Web links remain concentrated in the hands of government, its agencies, academic/educational institutions, businesses (and associated personnel). “Private users” are a minority, and hardware/Web access costs (together with unreliable communications in rural areas) will keep it that way for some time. So… while in the diaspora a small, enthusiastic Web community can see what is going on, and aims demands at its “representative” organizations to become more pro-active, there is no equivalent pressure in Latvia. There major sites (public and private) can promote their own separate agendas undisturbed, almost in isolation one from another. In this way we stand divided. Individuals are not in a position to mount and maintain large-scale public-issue Web servers, nor should they be asked to do so. Meanwhile, causes all of us have in common will not be served so long as potential “big guns” remain self-centered, silent and immobile.

Cause-wise, as Web gurus like to say, Latvians should and can be “players”. But we are not. Nothing prevents us from joining the fray. But we do not. There are many reasons to take advantage of how the Web can amplify our voices. But we tend to discount evidence of how others do so.

We know, or should know by now, that the Web can inform a potential audience of millions. Instantly. Around the world. Every day hundreds of thousands of individuals, organizations, trade associations, lobby groups, educational institutions and governments “present” themselves on the Web—through their products, services and programs. E-commerce is expanding rapidly. On a more abstract plane, news networks post reports, stories, digests and bits of analysis. There are sites dedicated to culture in various forms, popular entertainment, sports and special events. Some publish their own e-zines. A growing collection of archival and reference material—speeches, committee hearing transcripts, academic papers, legal verdicts, treaties, regulations, maps, resolutions, voting records/patterns, constitutions, research findings, statistics and so on—is available. Fire up that search engine, and away you go! Most of this content, though inviting “user response,” is meant for one-time consumption. There is no shortage of Latvian sites in all of the above categories. LatBits reviews them regularly.

Around the edges of this “mainline universe, however, there is a secondary galaxy of sites dedicated to projecting influence in the competition of claims and ideas. Make no mistake: there is such a competition. There always has been, only now it has found a new venue. An electronic Hyde Park is wide open to anyone who wants to get up on a soap box and dispense his/her particular brand of “truth,” ranging all over the lot from logical to outrageous, practical to extreme, theme-driven to consensus-building, vitriolic “rant” to pure gossip and smut. That “truth” could be—often is – -reaction to somebody else’s version of it.

Perhaps the best current example of the genre is the amazing variety of Y2K sites. On the one hand we have straightforward technical reports and fixes, government readiness evaluations, national and international coordination efforts, sober warnings about unsafe airports and so on. On the other—predictors of millennium doom, survivalists/bunker-builders, anti-technology humorists, scaremongers. Who to believe? Who to trust? Awash in contradictory “information,” we search desperately for reliable “knowledge.” Often, we end up with nothing but more questions.

This is the uncontrollable “dark side” of the Web. Rummaging around in it we begin to realize that basic assumptions can be questioned, every thesis elicits a dozen different responses, excited emotions can be mobilized, historical records can be edited and slanted to suit a particular purpose, selective arguments (and “facts”) can be used to mislead opinion and distort situations under scrutiny. It happens every day.

A year or two ago punching in “human rights+Latvia” as search keywords brought up a site hosted by a spectacularly naive U.S. university…apparently “academic friends” smoothed the way…where the contents turned out to be a one-sided whine about Russian migrant privileges in Riga, put together by a Russian-owned computer store in that city. Quelle surprise! I reported this “beacon of truth” in the series about Latvian Web sites that ran in Laiks at that time. The Latvian diplomatic service knew about it, had received complaints, and we discussed it. But the point is nobody (here, in Latvia) did anything to counteract this squirmy packet of lies when it floated to the surface as “legitimate” Web content. Suddenly—in a vacuum of our own making—the notion of universal “human rights” in Latvia had devolved to…“a Russian minority” being “oppressed.” We know where that “party line” originates. We grumble when it appears in print. But a poisonous flanking manoeuvre on the Web bypassed our positions entirely. Getting mad post-facto is useless. We should concentrate on getting even, and making sure events like this don’t happen again. What about Latvian human rights?

Our reputation and our causes are ours to take care of. Exclusively. No one else will do the job for us. If the Web can convey new threats, it can also offer new opportunities. We have to understand the way it works.

An accusation is made. A half-truth is posted. How many times have we read that “Latvians (as a nationality) are anti-semitic”? Against “minority rights”? “Secessionists” (from the collapsed Soviet Union)? “Separatists”? “Fascist sympathizers”? Whatever. Gradually repetition of phrases like these begins to take on a life of its own, fabrications start to look like “facts.” Why? Because there is nothing to challenge them.

I will elaborate later, but I put this proposition to readers now: we urgently need a Latvian Anti-Defamation League (LADL) with a Web site (or group of linked sites) that presents facts, skewers nonsense and is not afraid to point the finger at those who have done and are doing us harm. Self-respect demands nothing less. You will know that such a model already exists, operated by a nationality that takes its causes seriously.

Reality in “the global village” is stark and simple: if the Web is not working for you, it is probably working against you. In the absence of easily accessible countervailing “posted truths,” verification of Web-based claims takes effort. Individuals may “hunt” just a minute or two, equivalent to browsing a half-dozen simple Web pages (if they are properly indexed and can be found; there are so many now that Yahoo, Lycos and other search engines can keep up with, or “point to,” only 30 percent to 40 percent of thematic Web content). That effort may not be made at all—even in larger arenas, by organizations with major resources. Four years after Latvian independence was re-established, a flurry of e-mail messages to Canadian Broadcasting Corporation TV Sports was needed to dissuade its hockey commentators from continually calling Arturs Irbe a “Russian.” CBC resented “interference” in their “business,” ignorant though it was about one (to its staff) “small” point of fact.

This laziness and indifference—the natural mind-set of bureaucracies and mainstream media “outlets” nowadays—will prevail in the realm of serious issues…unless vigilant people sound the alarm, using all means at their disposal. “Balance” and “fairness,” long-held goals of democratic media to which we grant practically unrestricted liberties, become casualties in a milieu where the quick, loud and sensational grab the initiative—if “the other side” does not exercise its right of reply. That is not the way it should be, but that is the way it is. Initiative expands into advantage when mainstream media pick up “Web flashes” and report them as “actualities”. A correction notice on page 102 of the local paper, or angry letter to the editor (if published), will never undo the original error, or misconception, and the damage it has caused. First impressions remain. The Web hosts a fast-moving, bare-knuckles competition for “mind-share”—which spills over into other info-domains.

What bothers me personally and professionally is the fact that many Latvians continue to pretend that this Web dynamic has nothing to do with them, does not affect them. It does. It has. It will. Certainly “print culture” maintains a strong hold on older and middle generations. There is much to be said for the elegance of arguments made in persuasive language (even when ours is mangled in translation to English). But “leaving it to print,” with its built-in time delay and narrow audience, is not enough. Increasingly, there are other options, which should be explored. Abstaining is not one of those options. It is, rather, an expression of inertia and ignorance.

Meanwhile we continue to protest—mostly to each other—that “those people are blackening our name.” We say loudly—in small rooms, to sympathetic audiences—that “they don’t understand.” Someone exclaims, “That is a lie!”…without posting the truth as we claim it to be so that others can see it. We write long, futile letters to editors of our own papers…which those we complain about (and those judging us) don’t (and can’t) read. These tempests in our own little teapot are irrelevant. “Political” arms of organizations hold talks from which flow resolutions and press releases that sink without a trace once fax machines stop spinning. The diplomatic service of the Republic of Latvia has been stunningly absent in the public domain (of which the Web is a key component) where issues/causes important to us are raised, discussed and trashed every day. Then academic dissertations and books dryly analyze situations long past—for tight circles of “experts,” and for a “record” that matters only to ourselves. For practical, immediate purposes, it looks like Latvia (and Latvians) can offer no coherent point of view to outsiders, even when insulted and maligned.

The bottom line: Latvians are non-players on the world controversy stage—while opponents take pot shots at us and spread disinformation. We can all share the blame for this state of affairs. Sometimes diaspora Latvians enjoy the victim’s role too much, or have been too comfortable in it too long—expecting automatic understanding and sympathy. Experience should tell us that this habit is an illusion. In Latvia—so acquaintances say—many who could speak up shy away from doing so because their own actions (or inaction) as components of the departed soviet regime would come into play. But true democracy is not possible without responsible leadership. There can be no privileges without obligations.

Either way, the past doesn’t matter so much. Inaction and complaining—sports fans will understand the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” mentality—are losers’ habits. Our reputation and interests are ours to take care of. No one else will do the job for us. Only those who put their causes front and center first, forcefully, then again and again, get a hearing in the court of local and world opinion. Sun Tsu teaches that a well-defended position is not worth attacking. Let us establish that position. On the Web.

This is not an original concept. Some actively promoted causes should be familiar: Greenpeace, the National Rifle Association, anti-nuclear, anti-poverty, pro-environment (“green”) and famine relief coalitions, pensioner (“gray power”) and women’s rights organizations, Amnesty International, various “liberation” groups. These are “standing lobbies” (with Web sites) for advocating particular causes. Others come and go—like conflicting slav and muslim interpretations of what was happening in Bosnia. Still others lurk below the surface, ready to bubble up—for example, currents of neo-nazi and neo-communist activity. Old grievances—Kurdish, Armenian—never go away. Jews have used the Web to publize efforts aimed at tracking down those they consider to be war criminals. The domain of “human rights” offers a changing smorgasbord of who did what to whom, when, why, and who should be responsible for setting things right. A brand-new category is “anti-sites”: cleverly ironic, always nasty, these are set up by individuals and small groups to attack specific products, services and/or companies (as presented by their sites), even ideas or legislative proposals—because “no one there was listening.” That independent speaker’s soap-box again.

So…prepare a brew of percolating elements—strong group/ethnic interests, sharpened by selective points of view, a prejudice or two, particular “takes” on history, current events and issues of the day, a dollop of religion, suitable conspiracies/plots, a standing grievance, an old score that cries out for revenge, looming “enemies” and “traitors”, a laundry list of handy “proofs” and “refutations,” a seasoning of accusations—and you have a typical “cause” site. This is not to say that all causes are such volatile concoctions. Far from it. Many are tragically legitimate. Most should have been settled long ago. The point is that all have found a user-friendly home on the Web. It is the Web, now, that keeps them visible and alive. Scattered though supporters of a cause may be, they can have one common voice. One far-reaching “presence.” An “umbrella” under which adherents can gather.

I put it to you that Latvians, without further hesitation, should jump into this scrum with both feet. Let a strong, uncompromising LADL begin work and make its mark. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Actually, that is an imprecision. Positive work in this direction would erase a good portion of our “complaining habit”, re-activate a sense of shared responsibility and channel collective energies toward a result that says to others—so, you wanted to know…well, here it is, finally. Dispute and debate if you wish, but don’t say you had no idea where we stood.

In no particular order, then, here is a list of “Latvian causes,” or themes, that would make life more interesting. At the least, such a collection of material would save us having to find various bits and pieces over and over again, each time an occasion arises.

Crimes against the territory and people of Latvia:

  • German, Swedish, Polish, Russian colonization, exploitation
  • Sheremetyev’s expeditions
  • Peasant revolts, 1905
  • The World War I struggle for independence against Russian and German forces
  • The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and the aftermath
  • Drafting of troops in occupied territories by Nazis and Communists (contrary to the Geneva conventions)
  • Deportations (1941, 1947), These Names Accuse (in full)
  • Handing over of Latvian soldiers to Russia by Sweden
  • Theft of the Latvian gold reserve in London by the United Kingdom
  • The rule of terror (Gestapo and NKVD) liquidation of leadership figures, including President Kārlis Ulmanis
  • Abandonment of Eastern Europe (and the Baltics) to Russia by the West
  • Elimination of “national communists,” russification, dissidents
  • 50 years of Russian exploitation
  • Attacks by Mikhail Gorbachev’s OMON troops

The truth about “minorities” in Latvia:

  • Pre- and post-war demographics
  • Citizenship and language laws, compared to other European countries
  • FAQs and answers regarding the Holocaust in Latvia (reference Andrievs Ezergailis’ book of the same name)
  • Soviet “human rights” practices

The true nature of Russian “promises” and “openness”:

  • Vladimir Lenin’s repudiation of the czar’s USD 4.5 billion World War I debt
  • Jospeh Stalin’s trampling of the Latvian-Russian World War I peace treaty
  • Full text of the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop protocols
  • Soviet theft of land (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Moldavia, then Poland—moved 100 km west)
  • Abdication of responsibilty for Soviet actions by “the new Russia”
  • Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, Afghanistan
  • Russian imperial ambitions and its “sphere of influence” (historically, and as granted by the West after World War II)
  • Continued Russian economic and political pressure
  • Soviet military and economic colonists—now abandoned by Russia (which still complains about their “rights”)
  • Chernobyl, Sverdlovsk and other disasters
  • the Gulag, for which no one, apparently, was responsible
  • Russian lawlessness and theft of International Monetary Fund aid

The question of World War II (and post-war) reparations owed to Latvia for:

  • Loss of life (victims of terror, repression, forced service in foreign armed forces)
  • Loss of property, and income from property
  • Loss of raw materials and resources
  • Loss of productivity refugees/exiles would have contributed
  • Forced Latvian labour in Russian and German camps, factories
  • Correcting sovietization of customs, language and culture
  • Scaling back forced industrialization, repairing environmental damage
  • Decommissioning and cleaning up ex-Soviet military installations
  • Fifty years of exporting its domestic product to the Soviet Union
  • Supporting a flood of unwanted migrants
  • Defacing and destroying national monuments, parks, archives, churches
  • Stolen land (Abrene) and property (embassy, legation buildings)

This section should make clear that Germany and Russia share responsibility for making reparations as the co-conspirators who destroyed the first Latvian Republic.

Reform in Latvia:

  • The first Republic, the Soviet era, the second Republic compared
  • Pro and con political, economic, social reform in various sectors
  • Reforms necessary for moving toward integration into the NATO defense alliance and the European Union
  • Conditions under which reforms can take place
  • Impediments to reform (bureaucracy, corruption, education, etc.)
  • Rebuilding a sense of citizenship and responsibility
  • Top priorities

The case for re-integration into Europe:

  • Latvia (the first Republic) in Europe, the League of Nations
  • Baltic and Scandinavian co-operation
  • The European Union
  • NATO
  • The basic need for security


  • The Latvian constitution
  • Maps (from colonial to modern times)
  • A brief history
  • Economy
  • Language, culture and traditions
  • Appropriate government, business and cultural links
  • Text (or graphic) of the document that declares U.S. non-recognition of Latvia’s forcible incorporation into the Soviet Union
  • Latvians in exile—a concise history, achievements, organizations
  • The true, complete story of the strēlnieki
  • The true story of Latvian conscripts fighting on both sides in World War II

This list of causes and/or themes, of course, is not meant to be all-inclusive, or exclusive. The same goes for bulleted content items. Together, it is a v. 1.0 outline of elements in our “case.” One thing to remember, though, given that 80 percent of Web content/traffic is based on English, today’s lingua franca, is that any LADL compendium should be in English as well to achieve maximum audience “reach.” Latvian, Russian and French-language versions can come along later.

Well and good, you will say, but who should be responsible for mounting such a campaign? All of us are. Hold on! That doesn’t mean we should immediately start work, each in his/her own direction. To begin with, consider: looking at proposed content items, do not most of them already exist in one form or another, in public and private hands? In archives, museums, encyclopaedias, atlases? As parts of existing Web sites (and their downloadable files)? We can start by taking inventory and identifying missing pieces. Some will have to be (re)written and/or translated. Surely we have experts and academics (and entire institutes, organizations) who can do this. They may say—but I don’t know anything about writing for the Web (a different proposition than writing for print), or designing Web pages. Again, there are people who have these skills; they can “transform” existing material and make it appealing. It seems to me that gradually putting together content should not a major problem. We could think of it as an electronic “talka.” Yes, leadership and co-ordination will be needed. And historians can provide it in their domain, ecomomists in theirs, diplomats in theirs, graphic artists in theirs, and so on. It is mainly a question of focus and commitment.

Financing this work, hosting such a site (or sites), keeping contents current, establishing objective editorial control—this requires some “new thinking”. This cannot, should not be a private enterprise, with inevitable hidden agendas and personal axes to grind. A public-service task calls for public support, resources, and accountability. How much is the government of Latvia prepared to contribute? PBLA, LNAK, ALA, DV (out of their “information budgets”)? The Latvian Foundation? It does not always have to be straight-up cash. Experts can be paid (and some are already being paid) to research, write, design specific pieces. A business can underwrite the cost of establishing and maintaining several Web servers. Perhaps—in return for discreet advertising placements. Volunteers can collect response e-mail and identify comments worth analyzing. Members of foundations and organizations can ask (and vote for) better info-initiatives. Newspapers and community bulletins can spread the word. Creative, combinational possibilities are limited only by our imagination and willingness to co-operate. In the end, an 80/20 proportion will probably hold: content, the important component of such a project, will take 80 percent of time and resources, the technical component—20 percent. Further: within that critical 80 percent, considerable economies are possible via intelligent (re)use of existing (but scattered) material.

I should close with some remarks about the LADL concept. Do we need another, new, “formal” organization? No. Logically, this league should bring together active elements from “information departments” of the Latvian government, business and organizations already named above, with room for all comers, especially experts and volunteers—but never in a bureaucratic structure. The last thing we need is more meetings! Participation implies—also contributing means and resources. Doing actual work. Having a say (but not “the final word,” which is reserved for democratic consensus). Always serving the common (not the parochial, class, geographic or momentary political) interest. And it is entirely possible that some initiatives participants take on under the LADL “umbrella” would not quite fit under guidelines set out by their “home” organizations—so this could be an outlet for “sharper,” leading-edge work.

Naturally, many questions remain. There are no magic solutions. There will be procedural objections. But the idea that we can all be—and finally should be—“stake-holders” in telling our story effectively is important. It can be made real in practice. It is within our power to mobilize around a modern-day version of Draudzīgais aicinājums. Our ancient, common heritage and the challenges it faces in today’s world after all it has gone through and survived—our cause—can stand on the shoulders of new technology and make itself heard. Can demand answers. Can defend itself. Can bring us together. Can make us proud.

(Editor: This article originally appeared on the LatBits site.)

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