The Hemingway Paradigm Is… The Opinionated "Impertinente Curioso", So Quick To Judge"Nothing gives more pain to Spaniards than seeing volume after volume written on themselves and their country by foreigners, who have only rapidly glanced at one-half of the subject, and that half the one of which they are the most ashamed, and consider the least worth notice."— Richard Ford, Gatherings from Spain (1846)So every 25 entries or so (who's keeping track?) I try to reflect on the mission statement of this blog, to write about the "Hemingway paradigm" stereotypes and tendencies out there that gets tourism in Spain stuck in a rut. Today's entry is my 75th. I _was_ going to write about Washington Irving's "Tales of the Alhambra" (1832), which I became aware of thanks to Spain blogger Sangria, Sol y Siesta, and which I had planned to read since my wife and I are visiting Granada soon. But then I had a flaming Valentine's Day, providing me juicy content for an entry. No, it's not what you think. By flaming I'm referring to the social network experience of "flaming" on public forums. A couple of weeks ago, on Valentine's Day, I decided I would lobby the About.com "Spain Travel" guy Damian Corrigan on Twitter about the line on this page where he says: "First the bad news. Valencia, Spain's third biggest city, doesn't have that iconic, must-see reason to visit." And, depending on his response (which some longtime blogger-tweeple friends of mine hinted would be off-key and negative), I would commence operation shame-and-blame. In short, I thought I would try out a twitter war as an online social experiment and see what happens.
The page in question. I put it to you, do you think this is an insulting way
to characterize a city, or am I overreacting... or both?
I know what you're thinking, "This guy is a total troll" (another word I only recently learned). Even in my early blogging days I picked fights with Spanish Sabores over how "un-Spanish" a mojito is. I'm always ranting about how underappreciated Valencia is, like here on my first entry about the city, or here, in the comments where I reply to Kaley... y Mucho Más. Heck! My post on the "Paella Hall of Shame" even prompted one Spanish blogger (from Madrid, I believe) to say I was "becoming a real 'taliban' of the paella valenciana"! Why, only a few days ago I was joining the ranks with Mr. Grumpy himself, laying into Mo and others on her blog SpainStruck who celebrate Spanglish as "code-switching", when a lot of what I hear expats speaking here is more like "pidgin". So fair enough. I guess I can be a bit of a troll about "getting it right" when it comes to Spanish culture. But these were all spats with people who's opinion I respect and whose blogs I like. So all of this is silly pittance and prologue to my concerted effort to shame Damian into removing what I saw as a singularly insulting depiction of my beloved Valencia.
Did I mention that Fallas season has started? I recorded this video
of the first March mascletà yesterday. Awesome!
this year"First the bad news..."?!? I felt this was too flippant a way to open about one of Spain's most important cities. But the reaction I got from him when I tweeted said this was so outrageous that I had to share. So today I dedicate this entry to those "Impertinente Curiosos", those outsiders/foreigners/expats out there who float through Spain, get a first bad impression, and then replicate it all over the place like a bad rumor. I won't say they are "wrong". Let's just say they do a lot of damage to local pride, and more often than not they don't _really_ know what they are talking about. Let's walk through my flaming-shaming campaign... to make this a teachable moment, as Obama once so eloquently put it. Like all social forums, there is apparently something known as "Twitter etiquette", and I definitely learned a few things from this scrape with About.com Spain...
My opening appeal
1) Lesson 1, don't start a flame war on Valentine's Day if you hope to reach anyone:You're probably (understandably) wondering, "Does this guy have a life?" I'll plead the fifth on that. But I can say that my wife and I don't celebrate Valentine's for a couple of unarticulated reasons, but mostly because we find it cheasy (why encourage people!). (Instead we celebrate romance every other day of the year... "A very merry unbirthday to you. Yes, you!") But at first I did feel kind of bad... was I ruining Damian's Valentine's Day? Was he too busy wooing his love to put out fires started by grumpy online secret admirers? But no, alas, he also didn't have a date on Valentine's, or if he did, he must be that killjoy guy with the smart phone at the restaurant, texting away madly instead of "being there in the moment". But if he and I didn't have any special plans, everyone else did. Nobody in the twitterverse wanted to engage in sour grapes on a day for mushy hushpuppies. So even if I did have any sympathies from my followers (probably a big if), they were too busy selling love that day to sully themselves with my scurrilous cat fight.
2) Lesson 2, weapons of the weak or, in Twitter you've won if you get them to respond:
The "argument" between Go Spain and I was clearly uneven. He had something like 5000 followers on twitter, and I had around 100. His website's location in About.com also meant that he had institutional legitimacy, whereas I'm just some silly blogger with an ax to grind. I'm not going to go overboard and pitch myself as some kind of David versus Goliath, but... well, I'm just say, it wasn't a square fight. But in grad school I read a little about social movements, and had one book, James Scott's Weapons of the Weak (1985), particularly in mind. Social movements have certain tactics like "shaming" available to them, and they can use humor and their weaker position to appeal to the wider community. Moreover, I really had little to lose. Even when I started I assumed I would lose followers (amazingly I didn't), but I wasn't worried about that. Whereas I suspect Damian didn't want to alienate his readers. Indeed, one of the key characteristics of this online flaming trend is that one is anonymous... in this respect I had Damian at a disadvantage. The "right" move on his part would probably be to ignore me. This is the "social death" by way of silence. In effect I had to bait him into replying, but make sure not to alienate disinterested third parties and wayward audiences.
And he made a mistake… he did respond… [I think its a debatable point whether this was a "mistake" or not on his part. It certainly made him seem less aloof and corporate, but it also made him more human. He clearly cares about what people tweet to him, even if he does not _care_, as you will see below, about what they think or feel.]
3) Lesson 3, be prepared for a long war:
The reality is that a lot of nonsense gets published out there. And most people don't bother to say anything about it because it's just easier to ignore it. I assumed that this would be Damian's robe of power - sit through and weather whatever appeal I made, and assume I'd lose interest and give up. So you see, I had this whole plan thought out, with multiple stages to the flaming experiment: Stage 1) Appeal to Reason, Stage 2) refer to his peers and competitors, Stage 3) Reason by analogy, Stage 4) appeal to better nature. And so on. This was going to be my first flame war, and I wanted to see it through properly.
Stages 1, reason by pointing to his own words which show sightseeing worth reasons to visit Valencia,
and Stage 2, refer to his peers. I pointed him to Lonely Planet's more favorable review of Valencia,
and Travel & Leisure's estimation of the city rising.
I had fun with Stage 3: lifting the offensive quote from Go Spain's website,
and inserting other "third biggest cities". Some of them surprised me.
(Learn something new everyday.)
4) Lesson 4, look to your natural allies:I then sent a tweet into the void that is Twitter, directed first at my followers, and then specifically at Valencia people's twitter accounts, asking them to weigh in. And got nothing. (Review lesson number 1: don't flame on Valentine's Day.) But maybe it also says something about the "weak ties", as sociologists call them, on social networks (another name for them might be "fair-weather friends"). I suppose I could have made more of a campaign about it, by tweeting all the posts out there which celebrate Valencia as an amazing, dare I say "iconic" city to visit... like the fact, which Culture Spain posted, that the City of Arts and Sciences beat out the Prado in Madrid and La Alhambra in Granada for most visitors last year, or Mr. Grumpy listing Valencia's Fallas as one of the Seven Wonders of Spain. Even the Chicago Tribune out analogized me recently, by starting its description of Valencia off by comparing it to Paris!
I think at this point he would have just ignored me, until one blogger friend and twitter follower spoke up. Thanks Chic Soufflé for getting my back! And also indirectly The Spain Scoop for a retweet on Fallas being iconic! (I also got some belated indirect support from a couple of others, who I won't name to protect them, but thank you!)
5) Lesson 5, Try to avoid needless digressionsAt some point the conversation took a turn, and we started to talk about what is meant by "iconic". (I can almost hear Alanis Morisette's song in my head, but with iconic instead of ironic: "Isn't it iconic. Like rain, falling on Spain's plains.")
Damian: "No, I have a responsibility to be honest to my readers about
where I believe tourists should and shouldn't go in Spain. End." Ouch!
"I try to believe in as many as six [iconic Valencian] things before breakfast."
Maybe I'm a little obsessed with the implications of the self-fulfilling prophecy,
but I feel like it's Spain's worst enemy at the moment.
How did he get the idea that I'm a citizen of Valencia? If only!
6) Lesson 6, let the other side dig his own grave:As I said, I think other people weighing in got GoSpain's attention. Note his reply to Chic Soufflé: "If you think that is negative, you should see... [Worst Cities in Spain] My job is to differentiate and highlight what I like." I suppose this is his way of trying to show magnanimity and deference. I can't speak for Chic Soufflé, but it strikes me as absurd. Have you looked at the cities on his site he recommends people _not_ visit?: 1) Gibraltar, 2) Málaga, 3) Valladolid, 4) Marbella, 5) Algeciras, 6) Ciudad Real, 7) Huelva, 8) Albacete. Now I haven't been to any of these, so I'm not in a position to judge. But it strikes me as a bad business model for travel advice to categorically dismiss towns like these. I just had friends visit Valladolid, and liked it, and I've been meaning to go there for a while to see its film festival, one of the oldest in Spain. (I invite you, the reader, to make an argument for any of the others.)
"Get over yourself and your city, please!" Suggestion to all: don't use unnecessary
personal attacks when arguing with people online. If you don't know them,
it's better to give them the benefit of the doubt. Here he also writes to Chic Soufflé:
"If you think that is negative, you should see... My job is to differentiate and highlight what I like."
His concession that he at least did not put Valencia on this list is, well, weak. Here he falls into a common trap for travel writers: vanity, that he has the ultimate authority, judgment, and say in what is "worth it" and what is not. If he told his audience to flat out avoid Valencia, that it was not "worth it", his readers would know that he has no impartiality or taste whatsoever. This is because the subjects one chooses for travel writing make the writer as much as the writer makes the subject. This was something that Hemingway understood well. He helped to make Pamplona iconic, because of his amazing vivid prose. But he knew that it was Pamplona speaking through him, not just him alone...
I should add that at some point in all this he went private... sending me private messages on Twitter rather than public ones. In both public and private, he wasn't above ad hominem (personal) attacks. (Class, it is now time to review the twitter rule: If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.) At one point he flattered me by mistaking me for a Valencian citizen. Funny how personal attacks can say as much or more about those who lobby them than those they're lobbied at. He clearly didn't take the time to look at my blog and read up about me, before rushing to judgment about what I was saying.
"High minded Valencians". This is a new one for me. Usually Valencians
are accused of provincialism. I think he really thought I was from Valencia. Suggestion #2:
Read up a bit on the person you are smearing. My "About" states very clearly that I'm American.
7) Lesson 7, Twitter and Blogging work best when everyone keeps it positive:Now at some point in Day 2 (February 15th) I lost my drive. And I can tell you exactly when it happened. I was checking the link he sent Chic Soufflé on cities _not_ to visit... And then he went there… The featured entry on his site for Wednesday was "Paella". Yes, paella, my weak spot. Needless to say I couldn't resist checking what he put up, and offering corrections.
This had to be baiting me, or some kind of indirect concession to my argument
that Paella is one thing that is Valencian and iconic.
As it turned out it, his entry had a lot of good information, though mixed in with some real fallacious bombs. I was pleased to see him get right the fact that "paella valenciana" doesn't have seafood in it. And the extra line about how to pronounce it correctly. Kudoos! His picture had the red peppers in it, the hallmark of a Castellon paella rather than the traditional Valencia one, but that's nitpicking. But the page also had some serious misinformation. The big one that stood out for me was "paella negra". What the f...? I pointed this out to him, that no local I've ever known has called "arroz negro" "paella", even though it is a paella. To which he responded that there were sites online that did say this. (I also pointed out that "fideuà" is _not_ called paella, ever. This he accepted easily, and changed immediately.)
The "jihad" against paella misinformation: paella (de) marisco,
paella negra arroz negro, paella fideus fideuà... Argg!
In good faith, I ran a google search on paella negra, and sure enough Wikipedia itself appeared among the links that show for "paella negra". But wait, Wikipedia English! So I did what I always do when I have doubts about what I see written on Spain in Wikipedia, I clicked the tab on the left for Español and Català... and sure enough, no mention whatsoever of paella negra. (Hint, hint: because locals don't call it that.) I pointed this discrepancy out to GoSpain on twitter, and he relented.
Open to reasoning, when the evidence is overwhelming.
And here I started to have that change of heart. I realized, he's doing his best with the limited knowledge and indirect exposure that he has. (Okay, so I also lost interest. I'm sure many of you are already thinking: there have got to be better ways to spend one's time than yelling at internet walls.) Perhaps the humble lesson I had realized was that I, too, can be an online impertinente curioso, quick to judge without taking time to understand. Once I sat down and looked through his site, I realized a lot of work had gone into. Don't confuse this for a recommendation. "I have a responsibility to my readers to direct them to good sources of information on Spain..." Forgive my vanity, but you'll still learn more from my Valencian rice entry, than his paella page... he fails to discuss arroz al horno, arroz meloso... In short, his site offers pretty standard and often cursory info, and can be misleading and biased by its authors limited understanding of the subjects he tackles.
His site suffers that common weakness of all writing about Spain by an outsider who only partially understands what he is seeing. He makes many mistakes, like the paella/rice mistake, which a local would _never_ make. Again, I don't see this as a personality flaw. I also make mistakes on my entries, which my wife or in-laws catch, or which my local friends or readers point out to me. There is a vast difference in knowing a city because you've read up on it online versus knowing a city because you've lived and breathed it your entire life. (Indeed, one of the wisest things my older sister once told me was that you don't really know a person until you've been with them through all four seasons of the year.) Locals can also miss things in their own city, but many of the mistakes we expats and outsiders make would leap off the page to them.
"He can be taught!" The About.com Go Spain page on Paella after Damian incorporated my suggestions.
8) Lesson 8, Stop using Wikipedia as a source but then writing like you know what you're talking aboutOf course, maybe the real question is what has been the fallout from all this. For one, I'm pleased to say he updated his Paella entry removing the errors I pointed out to him. I also took the opportunity to create a Wikipedia account, and I edited the English entry so that Anglophone Hispanophiles wouldn't continue replicated that mistaken notion of calling "arroz negro" "paella negra". [Let this be a lesson to all of you Spain bloggers out there: when doing your online research for entries, take the extra step of seeing if the Wikipedia entry is different in Spanish (or Catalan) than in English. This is a _big_ clue about the pages' sources of (mis)information.]
That's the good news. The bad news is he has not (as of the posting of this entry) changed the page on "Things to Do in Valencia". I suspect Damian is a proud man, perhaps inflexibly so, and my campaign might have further ossified his opinion of the city and that page's depiction of it. -Sigh-. What's a Valencia lover to do? I'd tell you and other readers to boycott the page, but I doubt I have the kind of internet influence to have much of an impact on his online traffic. -Sigh-.
Even Wikipedia makes mistakes! Here the "arròs negre" entry in English
before I went in and edited it.
My first wikipedia edit... Brave New World!
And, of course, in a way "All news is good news" in the Twitterverse (or at least that's what this web article says about flaming). By tweeting left and right to him, I was giving him free advertising. And likewise, by responding to me he put my name on his readers' radar. So I suppose I should thank him for that. A major fallout was that I picked up some new followers, a couple of which sent me sympathetic tweets. (I'm not Damian's first broken heart.) All of this inspired me to add a new gadget on the left side of this blog: a Twitter window where you can see my lastest tweets. Clearly I'm spending too much time on Twitter, so I may as well share that with you here, too.
And, please, if you ever read anything here that rubs you wrong, don't be afraid to tweet me (or email)... heck, I'd even enjoy a good flaming, if it's for a just cause. ;-)