June 7, 2009

Pseudonymity (UPDATED)

Some bloggers use their full, real names when the blog. I say, good for them that they can do so freely and without fear of overt consequence.

Most of the bloggers who do that are well-established in their careers or are in careers which lack substantial review processes in which one's peers or one's superiors (or worse, one's would-be superiors) have real effects on their real lives. Examples include editorial journalists, self-employed writers, and tenured professors.

I also read a number of blogs that are not political. Culinary-focused blogs, for instance, are a secondary form of advertising for chefs looking to not only share ideas but also to demonstrate their abilities. They are most instructive to the amateur when they discuss experiments that did not go so well as well as their triumphs, but either way they're a good source of ideas. And since these chefs work in a creative industry, unless they air out personal disputes rather than talking about the theory, process and results of their craft, there is no particular consequence to their disclosure of their identities.

Others in the world of blogging, though, do not have these sorts of luxuries. In a lot of professions, forthright expression of oneself on the Intertubes can carry real-life consequences. Case in point, "publius" at Obsidian Wings. Publius is generally a left-leaning blogger; he has undertaken a defense of the Sotomayor nomination recently and of conservatives inveigling against "judicial activism" generally. Having launched a series of critiques of counter-critiques at one such right-leaning blogger, Ed Whelan, he managed to score some points, of varying degrees of penetration. Either individually, or cumulatively, Whelan eventually had enough and undertook the necessary detective work to track down the true identity of his critic, which he then publicized on his own blog.

For all of the above, with very few exceptions, blogging is a hobby and not a profession, job, or even avocation. Despite its "hobby" status, blogging is something done a public forum, indeed, the Internet is probably the most public forum yet created at any time in human history. And people who evaluate others use it to learn things about their evaluees. Publius turns out to be a non-tenured professor at an educational institution. He is rightly concerned that his blogging will be taken into account when he makes his bid for tenure.

I do not include the real name of publius here or links to the real posts -- it should be child's play for anyone interested to find these things with simple Google searches. If you do that, you'll also know that publius used an e-mail account registered to "Edward Winkelman," which is not publius' real name, again for the purpose of corresponding without directly identifying himself.

I do exactly the same thing. I understand publius perfectly.

He wants to get tenure, he wants to have the ability to advance in his profession. Once his blogging identity is known, the blog becomes part of his lexicon. The blog is just a hobby for him; he does not want to offer it as part of his "official" body of work, which in his case is largely academic. Academic work can be quite politicized, as well -- or not, depending on the subject matter.

For instance, an extensive body of academic writing on Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code does not necessarily lend itself to "liberal" or "conservative" labels -- at least not easily, and particularly not in the present economic situation in which both liberal and conservative politicians have taken a variety of stances on a variety of issues dealing with the subject matter of Article 9 and the bitter political truth is that no one has a clue about what to do. (If you aren't following why I picked Article 9 for this example, that just goes to show why this area of academic inquiry is not necessarily political in the left-versus-right sense of that phrase.)

Unlike publius, I've not made any person -- particularly any other blogger -- the subject of a crusade. In going after Whelan so hard, publius risked making an enemy out of an object of criticism. Which is not to give Whelan a pass for "outing" publius; that elevated the dispute between the two from a battle of ideas to a personal attack. Perhaps Whelan thinks publius crossed that line first; publius agreed with a characterization of Whelan as:
...the guy Republicans look to when they need to discredit a Democratic legal or judicial nominee. He pores over their record, finds some trivial fact that, when distorted and taken totally out of context, makes that person look like some sort of extremist. Whelan knows this is what he's doing. It's willful. He's essentially a legal hitman, someone who provides the "expert" opinion that the right wing echo chamber then uses as the basis of its attack campaign.
Note, though that publius was not the author of those words; he agreed with and reposted them. He also agreed with and reposted a critique of Whelan by Eugene Volokh, and Whelan seems to have no beef against Volokh. Query, though, as to whether even if this constitutes a personal attack by publius on Whelan, whether "outing" publius' identity was the appropriate response. I think not -- "outing" publius demonstrates to me that Whelan had run out of ammunition with which to defend his previous writings.

Personally, I'm much more sympathetic to publius' situation than to Whelan's. Most of my own friends and family know of this blog and know of my reasons for writing under a pseudonym. I've shared my true identity with a few people who have earned my trust online -- who have proven worthy of that trust. No regular Reader here, despite whatever running disagreements we might have, has undertaken a Whelan-like search to "out" me.

Now, I suspect that a regular follower of this blog could probably do exactly that. There are more than enough clues in these pages for an intelligent, motivated person to track down exactly who I am to a high degree of certainty. If they do, and I'm confronted the way publius was, I'll certainly own my writings; I'm not ashamed of what I've written here. What I'm hoping is that no one ever bothers to do that.

The reason for that is not that I'm ashamed of my writings or that I need to be anonymous to attack anyone. My reasons for writing psedonymously are manifold:
  • I might want to be a judge one day. As a judge, I would need to refrain from personal participation in political issues or from pre-opining on issues which might come before me. While I don't think I've pre-judged any particular issue that I might in theory have to handle as a judge on these pages, some might think I have because I've expressed an opinion.* While I think that I can pretty easily set aside my own preferences and look at the law as it applies to a given situation† some might think otherwise. So it's better and more prudent to establish a separation between my professional work and this blog, which is a hobby.
  • Even if I'm never elevated to the bench -- and right now, with mandatory judicial furloughs caused by the budget crisis and the prospect of judicial salary reductions being imposed as judges are re-elected, that career move appears to have a downside -- I am still a lawyer, charged with representing my clients, and some of them might disagree with my opinions here, and take their business elsewhere because of that. Again, there's no particular reason why my own personal opinions should interfere with my ability to represent my clients,‡ but it's simply more prudent to avoid the issue by, again, establishing a separation between my personal musings and my professional activities.
  • The world is full of creepy, unbalanced people who do weird things. The opinions I address here might cause someone to deem me their enemy or a threat. I don't mind being criticized for my opinions, but I do mind it if someone slashes the tires on my car or threatens me with a gun. I have enough personal risk of reprisals from the hundreds of people I evict in my landlord-tenant practice and regular litigation practice from the people with interests adverse to my clients who demonize me. I don't need any more of that from the blog, which is supposed to be fun.
  • If I'm going to write about ideas and concepts and thoughts, writing under a pseudonym, in my opinion, depersonalizes those ideas. The ideas have to stand and fall on their own merits. If I'm Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I articulate an idea, then that idea comes from Arnold Schwarzenegger. But if I'm Transplanted Lawyer, someone who lacks a face and a real-world identity, then my ideas must either be valid, or not. Pseudonymity forces me to articulate and nuance my idea such that it can stand on its own, free from my own personality, reputation, or identity (whether that would help or hurt the idea's credibility is debatable). So too must critiques of what I write be focused on the content rather than the source.
Now, if you write under your own full, real-life name, good for you. But I do not think that's the right way for me to write. And if you correspond with me, which you're welcome to do, you're likely to get a response that is also a pseudonym. I hope that you'll not be Whelan-like in seeking to "out" my real identity, even if you have the ability to do so -- if for no other reason to avoid making yourself the kind of asshole Whelan demonstrated himself to be.

UPDATE (June 9): Whelan apologized to publius. It was a good apology. Publius accepted his apology, and quite gracefully. Given that, this particular controversy ought to be over. Hopefully the debate continues but the tone between the two simmers down. And I can see a difference between disagreeing with but tolerating another blogger's pseudonymity and "outing" that blogger.

* News flash: every judge on the bench, at every level of the judiciary from Chief Justice Roberts right on down to your local juvenile traffic referee, is a human being, and every one of those human beings have political opinions and preferences. One hundred percent of them. One is not disqualified for judicial office simply by virtue of having, or even expressing, political opinions.

† Example: I favor same-sex marriage as a policy. Nevertheless, I have opined that the recent California Supreme Court decision upholding Proposition 8 was a correct application of law to a particular case, despite the fact that I would have preferred, on a policy basis, to see same-sex marriage reinstituted in California.

‡ Example: I am an atheist. Nevertheless, I have and have had churches and other religious institutions as clients -- for instance, with regards to disputes between the church and insurance companies or contractors. Why not? My lack religious faith has nothing to do with my appreciation of the transaction at issue and the church has as much right as anyone else to have its contracts enforced.

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