Amateurs

AMATEURS…. As disappointing as it was to see the National Review‘s Ed Whelan expose the identity of Obsidian Wings’ publius over the weekend, there was at least one encouraging development of note: bloggers from the left and right who don’t agree on much agree that Whelan crossed a line.

There’s also been some renewed interest in the never-ending discussion surrounding bloggers who use pseudonyms. I was under the mistaken impression that we’d largely resolved the issue, but Whelan’s efforts seem to rekindled the “debate.”

And while I don’t want to belabor the point, Jonah Goldberg had an item on this today of particular interest.

A reader asked Goldberg whether it was “cowardly” of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay to publish the Federalist Papers under a pseudonym. “No,” Goldberg responded. “Madison, Hamilton, and Jay weren’t amateur pundits.”

Except, of course, they kind of were. We understandably think of these three as relative giants of the era, but in the 1780s, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were reflecting on the current events of the day, without compensation, because they wanted to help shape the political discourse. (The parallels between 18th century pamphleteers and 21st century bloggers are, I hope, fairly obvious.) For a variety of reasons — some personal, some political — they saw the benefit of stating their opinions in print using a pseudonym, which for all intents and purposes, made them “amateur pundits.”

Confronted with these details, Goldberg returned to the subject, calling the comparison “silly.”

Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were anonymous not because they wanted opine on the news of the day for fun. They were anonymous because they were heroically successful revolutionaries trying to secure a republic and a constitution.

I was just getting ready to explain why this is wildly unpersuasive when I saw that A.L. beat me to it.

[S]o apparently the way we should determine whether writing under a pseudonym is appropriate is by looking at the actual identity of the writer and judging whether or not that person is important enough to warrant the privilege. […]

Secondly, the suggestion that someone like Publius’ contribution to the general political dialogue in this country is insignificant because he is simply “opin[ing] on the news of the day for fun” is pretty insulting. Publius, like most political bloggers, is attempting to engage and influence the national discussion on those issues he chooses to write about. That’s absolutely no different than what Goldberg does (except for the quality of writing and analysis being much higher). And though he has to compete with a great many more voices due to advances in technology, what this Publius was doing is no different in nature from what Madison, Hamilton, and Jay attempted to do with the same pseudonym two hundred years ago. With the hindsight of history, we now know who the original “publius” was and the significance of his (their) writings. But there’s no way to apply a “significance” test to the present. There’s no way to pick and choose who is worthy enough to write under a pseudonym (because we don’t know who they are!). And without knowing the future, there’s no way to fairly or reliably judge the relative significance of people’s writings.

Well said.