Science & Technology

Pax Man Fever

Why our trust in the Iraqi blogger goes beyond the facts


The world is catching on to Salam Pax. He hasn't yet posted today, which means I and countless others will be compulsively checking his site (also mirrored at every few hours until he does. If he does. As a blogger clacking out posts from Baghdad as the bombs fall around him, he could lose Web access (or worse) at any time.

Lately talk has turned to the question of whether Salam is who he says he is. It's not the first time; Salam got very defensive about the suggestion last fall. But though it may be irritating to pour your heart out and then have people call you a CIA plant, skepticism is not unfair from 50 meters up. Let's look at his basic profile: The man writing under the pseudonym Salam Pax is a 28-year-old, cosmopolitan, queer architect/techie whose lover has disappeared, apparently imprisoned by the government. He does 3-D modeling. He listens to cool music. He's funny, he's charming, and he's well-versed in blog culture. Who better to convince the online world that the Iraqi regime is brutally repressive, ruining the lives of people we'd like to have over for dinner? It certainly sounds like the work of a brilliant propaganda man—if there is such a thing.

But at the same time, while Salam states clearly and often that Saddam is a cruel despot and his government tyrannical, he's also had an arguably ambiguous, mostly negative take on the U.S. invasion. His criticism has gone beyond fearing the physical dangers of war, to wondering to what extent Iraq can be a free and sovereign nation under U.S. occupation. In October, for example, he wrote, "don't expect me to buy little American flags to welcome the new Colonists. This is really just a bad remake of an even worse movie. and how does it differ from Iraq and Britain circa 1920. the civilized world comes to give us, the barbaric nomadic arabs, a lesson in better living and rid us of all evil (better still get rid of us arabs since we are evil)."

Salam's veracity has been addressed by many bloggers; most helpful have been those with technical know-how or extensive e-mail contact with Salam. They all agree that he's most probably who he says he is. After reading his blog over the months, I get the feeling he's legit. Unless the author is a world-class novelist (which makes it unlikely that he's a spook), it's hard to imagine he could pull off such a glorious feat of fiction. The poignant details of his life have not only proven factually correct, they're also emotionally convincing. They pass through the bullshit detector without a beep.

Take an August post about his missing loved one:

It hit me like a six-wheeler at full speed, I was sitting in the car listening to stupid radio when I decided to listen to annie lennox instead. big mistake my Precious Little Angel is gone now for 3 weeks to the day. gone is the wrong word, taken is more like it. I have no idea where H. is he disappeard 3 weeks ago. No one knows where he is, he was supposed to take an exam at french cultural center but he never got there. he was TAKEN. first you feel worried and confused and scared. asked everywhere and everyone. he is not dead. not hurt and isn't in any hospital. then for 2 weeks there is this numbness. I feel NOTHING. I see our mutual friends. I see his brother. I feel nothing. now I feel this unbearable sense of loss. all the doors he has opend for me look un-welcoming and dangerous because he is not standing there ushring me in. I am back to my cynical self. I crave the confidence he gave me. this is too painful.

I admit I get almost angry and certainly frustrated when confronted with the idea that Salam Pax could be part of some disinformation campaign. Besides the fact that the best we can do—rational inquiry—suggests he's for real, there's also the simple fact that it's infuriating to be lied to or manipulated.

But I suspect that my need to believe in Salam Pax goes beyond that. It's connected to a larger anxiety about war, or indeed about foreign affairs in general: If our bullshit detectors can't help us judge the truth of one voice, how can we hope to get an accurate reading about the state of an entire nation, or indeed a region, forecasted twenty years into the future? How can we have any confidence in our position, be it pro- or anti-war, when we're learning about our targets through a kaleidescope—or at best, through the wrong end of a telescope?