Sunday, February 15, 2009

In Defense of Pseudonyms

Dana Houle, the formerly pseudonymous blogger at dKos DHinMI, has a long and wonderful post defending the age old practice of writing under a pseudonym. Here's a taste.

Pseudonyms have long served writers whose voice would be otherwise suppressed or who, because of professional or political constraints, would not have been able to bring their thoughts to the public. Until the 20th century women would often have to use a pseudonym to ensure their works would be read, or even published.  Popular writers such as Stephen King and Anne Rice have used pseudonyms, especially for fiction outside their normal genres. Nobel laureate Doris Lessing wrote two books under a female pseudonym to highlight the difficulty unknown writers have in garnering an audience. Authors of erotica often use a pseudonym. Revolutionaries and political agitators often use pseudonyms. And people have long used pen names and pseudonyms to avoid using their foreign-sounding names.  

Other writers have used pseudonyms to separate their professional life from their published works. David Cornwell, an agent in the British intelligence services MI-5 and later MI-6 wrote three novels under a pseudonym. After the success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John Le Carre' left MI-6 to devote himself full time to writing. A few years ago the New Yorker ran a terrific series of articles by a NYC police officer writing under the pseudonym Marcus Laffey. When no longer a beat cop, the writer eventually "came out" as Edward Conlon, author of the memoir Blue Blood and now a detective with the NYPD.  

As anyone with even a smidgen of knowledge American history can tell you, our most famous pseudonym is Publius, the name used by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay for The Federalist Papers, their articles published in newspapers urging adoption of the Constitution. The Anti-Federalists, too, used pseudonyms from Roman history such as Cato and Brutus.  In the eighteenth century using pseudonyms was widely accepted in public political discourse. Among other virtues, it helps focus attention on the argument instead of the person advancing it.  

Pseudonymous writing can, of course, lead to abuses. A few years ago I was managing a Congressional campaign in New Hampshire when the bloggers at three separate blogs (which have since been merged in to Blue Hampshire) figured out that a commenter urging readers to support Democrats in other states was really a staffer for the Republican incumbent we were trying to beat. (That case is used as an example in the Wikipedia entry for concern trolls.) Certainly at DKos we have to ferret out a decent number of sock puppet and other miscreants who hide behind pseudonyms.  

Pseudonyms are also used for more dubious reasons. It's hard to argue that anything other than his privileged position in the Washington press corps and unquestioned access to inside sources with the Clinton administration were put at risk when Joe Klein published his loose roman a clef novel Primary Colors under the pseudonym "Anonymous." And it can sometimes be harder to assess public and historical figures because their writings include lesser-known works published under a pseudonym. The writer of alchemical works who published as Jeova sanctus unus would probably deserve to be little more than a historical oddity if his real name wasn't Isaac Newton (who himself pulled a John Lott/Mary Rosh and wrote letters under fictitious names vouching that he was the inventor of calculus).  

The Klein case probably contributed to the frenzy of activity trying to figure out the identity of a blogger who back in 2003 seemed to know everything. "Is it Sidney Bluenthal?  It just HAS to be Sidney Blumenthal," thought a lot of people. But no. The guy blogging as atrios was an academic economist with a temporary appointment who wasn't a mouthpiece for DC insiders, but rather a guy who had a computer, internet access, read a lot and had a terrific wit and an eye for hypocrisy and cant.  

The atrios situation should probably have told some of the hide-bound and insecure journalistic protectors of decency and promoters of "transparency" that their fevered beliefs about the identities of these new pseudonymous bloggers were probably crazy. Like most people who write comments on political blogs, the pseudonymous bloggers—who are also sometimes anonymous; the two are not the same—were often people without any particular inside access, but simply informed readers who wrote well and could attract an audience.

I recommend reading  the whole thing. I especially recommend that Bob Heisse,  who whines incencently about anonymous bloggers and commenters, read it and then reread it each time he is temped to vent over something an anonymous blogger or commenter did.

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