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Monday, May 14, 2007

I Love My Navel So Much

by digby

..I can't stop staring at it.

Once again the journalistic elite are up in arms by the fact that they are getting criticism from the pseudonymous polloi. I'm sympathetic. It's quite annoying to have rude critics, as any blogger will tell you. Yes, we get them too, just like the big boys. We get them in the form of rheumy upper class contempt from the likes of multi-millionaire Brian Williams dismissing us as "some guy in an efficiency apartment" and we get them from loyal readers who dislike something we've written and we get them from our political enemies who will sometimes sic their most hate-filled neanderthals on our blogs or email addresses for one thing or another. It's not as if we don't know what it's like to be dumped on by commenters. It's so common that years before the dead tree visionaries came up with the idea of moderated comment sections, many bloggers with high traffic were using them.

One of the things that strikes most of us as so surprising about this drumbeat for using real names online is the specious idea that it will guarantee more civility. Have they listened to Michael "Weiner" Savage lately? Or Ann Coulter? There is an entire industry made up of uncivil, right wing bullies who not only use their real names to turn the discourse into a toxic swill, they make a huge profit at it. The Republican Party and its wealthy benefactors have made a fetish of rancid incivility toward the so-called "liberal media" for decades, but an onslaught of rude pseudonymous readers has the journalistic establishment grabbing for the smelling salts.

But this isn't really about civility at all, is it? I suspect, as Ezra opines here, that a lot of this angst about pseudonymity stems from the discomfort of not knowing which comments they are supposed to take seriously if they don't have information about who is "properly" credentialed and who are common rabble that can safely be ignored. We know that sanctioned political voices, no matter how psychopathically uncivil, can get fawning covers on TIME magazine and raise nary a peep, rich racist radio hosts are treated with utmost respect and loyalty, and lying, rightwing propagandists are given endless opportunities to penetrate the mainstream discourse. But angry pseudonymous readers who cannot be judged on the basis of his or her credentials or social standing are threats to the political health of the nation. It's about class and status, same as it ever was.

I like Marcy Wheeler's observation that many of them can't be bothered to actually read and comprehend the arguments set forth so they depend entirely on authority. And I also think another problem, born of both proximity, habit and deadline pressure, is that many of them come to overly value their personal judgments of people whom they "know." This is a weakness, not a strength, and smart journalists (and bloggers) should work hard to overcome their own heuristic biases rather than rely on them. The sordid revelations in the Libby trial should have been enough to spark a little soul searching on that count.

Anyway, as you might imagine, I've been asked about this issue many times, being a long term pseudonymous blogger. Why did I do it? Why do I still do it? I usually explain that it's not particularly interesting and anyway, I've got enough writing out there for people to accurately judge whether I am credible, interesting, intelligent or just an anti-intellectual know-nothing foul mouthed blogofascist. (I have been reliably informed by people who read this blog that there are many who hold one or more of all those opinions.) I suspect that most bloggers who've been at this a while learn to both keep the compliments in perspective and grow a thick skin against the criticism or they can't do it day in and day out. I know that I'm much less sensitive than I used to be, although sometimes somebody will slice me with a rapier critique and I will have to nurse my wounded ego for a while.

A few months ago I was asked to write a short piece for an obscure magazine on the subject of my pseudonymity and the colonial pamphleteers that never came to fruition. This seems like as good a time as any to go ahead and post an edited version of it here. You might find some of it mildly interesting or it may bore you to tears. Caveat lector:

When TIME Magazine named "you" as the person of the year for 2006, manager Richard Stengel proclaimed that "Thomas Paine was in effect the first blogger" and “Ben Franklin was essentially loading his persona into the MySpace of the 18th century, ‘Poor Richard’s Almanack.’ ” setting off another flurry of columns and internet chatter about whether or not modern political blogging was the 21st century's answer to the pamphleteers of the American revolution. The Washington Post's George Will sniffed, "Franklin’s extraordinary persona informed what he wrote but was not the subject of what he wrote. Paine was perhaps history’s most consequential pamphleteer. There are expected to be 100 million bloggers worldwide by the middle of 2007, which is why none will be like Franklin or Paine. Both were geniuses; genius is scarce." Frank Rich of the NY Times wrote, " 'You' deserve to be Person of the Year because you — 'yes, you,' as the cover puts it — 'control the Information Age' and spend a lot of time watching YouTube and blogging instead of, well, reading dead-tree media like Time. The pronouncements ginned up to inflate this theme include the observation that “Thomas Paine was in effect the first blogger” (which presumably makes the Old Testament in effect the first Facebook)."

Will and Rich don't think much of what I and millions of others do every day and certainly don't sign on to the common theme that we political bloggers are the 21st century's answer to the pamphleteers of the American revolution. (I don't know if any of us can be considered geniuses, but Will's odd logic that out of a hundred million none are even possible is one of the stranger complaints I've heard.)They are not alone among the political cognoscenti in believing that the rise of the internet empowered individual voice is a distinctly uncomfortable development.

I understand that even raising this topic is to tread on somewhat sacred ground. The democratization of print during the 17th and 18th centuries is considered to be perhaps the single most important factor in building popular support for the American revolution and the development of our ideas about democracy and individual liberty. It is admittedly cheeky to say that we grubby bloggers live in such exalted shadows. But there are some important similarities that are worth discussing, even if the blogosphere has yet to foment a world changing revolution.

The most obvious is that the American revolution was enabled by a technology that was suddenly available to those who were not sanctioned purveyors of knowledge. The availability of the printing press outside the capitols made it possible for those other than the clergy or land-owning class to speak directly to the people. Jurgen Habermas persuasively argued that a new political space was created during the late 17th and early 18th centuries that created the conditions for the democratic revolutions that followed. (He further described a modern world in which this bourgeois sphere became diminished as political discourse was dominated once again by elites.)

When political blogging became popular in 2002, it followed a short period of intense activity after internet participation reached critical mass and new virtual community forums were created where 24 hour political conversations raged for days and new alliances and political identities began to take shape. Some remain popular today. Blogs grew out of that newly created political space as, inevitably, certain writers, thinkers and entrepreneurs emerged, new virtual communities flourished and bloggers began to see that this potent communication tool could also call fellow partisans to action. Much as the pamphleteers were limited only by their ability to access a printing press, this new public space had no barrier to entry except a modem and a phone line.

In the early days of usenet and internet communities people adopted noms de plume, sometimes as an affectation, but most often as a function of insecurity about the new medium. Unlike their revolutionary predecessors, they weren't afraid of the crown but they were afraid of losing their jobs if their political views became known. The professionalized and socially sanctioned political space that had existed for decades was suddenly not only liberated by technology that allowed people to interact without any class, gender or geographical restrictions, it was liberated from personhood itself. What Habermas had described as a political space dominated exclusively by elites exploded into a new discourse dominated by ... who knew? This put political thought and emotional commitment, stripped of gatekeepers, front and center for the first time in many years.

As the political internet grew out of this early manifestation, many of us maintained our pseudonyms when we started our own blogs, partly because the people we already interacted with "knew" us by that name. Our identities in this community were more real than our legal names. In the four plus years that I've been blogging I've subsequently revealed very little more about myself other than my thoughts about politics and culture. What began as a function of my temperament and a strong desire for personal privacy, I've kept up largely out a stubborn resistance to the snobbish idea that you cannot take words seriously without knowing the writer's personal history and credentials.

There is also freedom in this kind of writing and an intellectual challenge. Writing as a genderless entity, without history or corporeal identity and without (usually) allowing myself to resort to personal anecdote or appeals to authority, I think my arguments became sharper, more tightly reasoned. The blogging ethic (driven by the technology that allows it) requires that one not only make a logical and consistent argument, but one must document and substantiate one's work by linking to source material. These demands that bloggers "show their work" and the feedback from our highly intelligent audience of pedants and political junkies served as a kind of diffuse editorial check that lends credibility over time to any blogger but especially to pseudonymous writers like me --- at least among my readers.

Ironically, after years of writing this way, whatever mystique I may have had has now largely disappeared. "Digby" is far more famous and more influential (however marginal that fame and influence may actually be) than "I" am in meat-world. And as time has gone on, whatever distinctions might have existed between these identities dissipated. My friends and family know what I do, and those who read me online have an image of who I am that after all this time I suspect is at least fairly accurate.(You can't write every single day for four years in the first person without being "yourself.") Digby is me and I am digby.

Many of the pamphleteers wrote pseudonymously and many of the founders and revolutionaries wrote pseudonymously in newspapers from time to time as well, which meant that nobody knew if it was an "important" or "unimportant" personage making the argument. This was at least partly out of consideration for the fact that they were fomenting revolution and all the risk that that entailed, but it also fulfilled an enlightenment ideal about democracy and political debate. Fortunately we live in less dangerous times (for the moment, anyway) when it comes to the government. But for many who write psuedonymously it is still dangerous for them to write about politics --- after all, the law allows people to be fired solely for their political beliefs --- and in the real world we all know that there can be great risk of derailing your career by going against the bosses wishes. Who among us hasn't pulled our punches in front of the boss? Blogging pseudonymously, for all its drawbacks, has the very particular advantage of honesty, with all that that implies, in a political world that is dominated by elite interests that impact the average person's livelihood as much as the crown impacted the lives of the colonial revolutionaries. There is value in that even if it is, at times, rude and uncivil.

Like bloggers today, the pamphleteers wrote about important ideas in a political space that was not wholly dominated by the leadership class or the prevailing social and governmental authorities. Nobody knew who they were, so readers had to evaluate the material on the basis of the argument or the power of the writer's passion alone. Perhaps the times demanded such voices then. Maybe they demand it now. For many decades the modern political world was dominated by elite journalists and political professionals who live in what many of us see as an out-of-touch Beltway Court. Like our grand predecessors, bloggers are helping re-democratize the political space that brought our new nation to life. How this might be revolutionary today remains to be seen; it's early days yet in our internet rebellion. But I have high hopes.

If you are interested in this topic, the best thing I've read on the subject of the pamphleteers is a book called The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America by Michael Warner, which was recommended to me by Rick Perlstein. (Warner also wrote a fascinating book about sexuality and shame called "The Trouble With Normal" that really opened my eyes to certain provincial values I had always resisted and didn't know why. He's a very interesting and provocative thinker.)