Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Rosh to judgment

From time to time I worry about the permanent virtual paper trail created by a decade's worth of e-mails, listserv postings, Usenet postings, and now blogging. I have moments of wondering: "When I'm trying to impress readers of my book, professional colleagues, etc, do I really want to be worried that they might turn up x bit of writing from a thorough web search?" I know people who, for that reason, use online pseudonyms for everything that's not stictly professional. A few academic bloggers, especially junior faculty whose political views differ from the mainstream of their disciplines', blog pseudonymously to protect themselves. I've never gone that route; as a result, if someone wants to discredit an argument from my academic writings by quoting from something I once said on rec.arts.comics.dc.vertigo, they're able to do so. As I said, I sometimes wonder about the wisdom of this.

But the cloak of anonymity is sometimes too tempting; the liberation provided by no one knowing you're a dog can loose internal constraints that really ought to stay put. To wit:

Julian Sanchez noticed that his comment section included a number of defenses of John Lott by one Mary Rosh; and that some of these defenses depended on non-public knowledge about who had or hadn't personally corresponded with Lott. Julian then noticed that Rosh's IP address matched Lott's precisely; and that Rosh's voluminous Usenet postings were entirely made up of defenses of or posts about John Lott. Indeed, some of them provided character testimony ("Lott was very nice when he taught me in class," that sort of thing).

Lott subsequently confirmed that he used the Rosh sock puppet "as a way to respond to points in online discussions... without the time commitment posts under his real name might have required."

The lesson, I guess, is that it's probably wiser to make the time commitment to say what you have to say under your name, and not to be tempted by the laxness that's possible behind a cloak of pseudonymity. If you use such a cloak-- and I do understand that there can be good reasons for it-- use it to talk about things other than yourself. But that cloak can offer false safety, and I'm going to stick with the business of attaching my name to what I write.

I've been doing reading about Destutt de Tracy and Thomas Jefferson. Tracy's book-length commentary on Spirit of the Laws couldn't safely be published in Napoleonic France. Jefferson translated it and arranged for its anonymous publication in the U.S.-- that is, neither Tracy's nor Jefferson's name appeared. Jefferson then wrote a great many letters praising the book, commending it to students and universities and friends, and generally talking about how wonderful and impressive it was. And, frankly, those letters now seem a little weird, almost creepy-- even though keeping Tracy anonymous was clearly necessary. (NB: I haven't been able to determine whether Jefferson derived any financial benefit from sales of his translation, but I suspect that he did not.)

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