Monday, September 15, 2008

Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce III, RIP

Ambrose Hofstader Bierce III, who brought us the occasionally amusing historical rumor-mongering at The Broad-Gauge Gossip has bid us adieu. Those wagons have been circling for several days now as Bierce's anonymity had become an issue. And when a blogger's anonymity becomes an issue, a blogger's anonymity tends not to remain a reality.

In his brief moment in the spotlight, Bierce drew a large following among historians who, let's face it, love to read about ourselves and better yet, about our betters. Bierce wrote well and amusingly about a pretty small sample of the profession, the elite swaths ensconced in the Ivies, the research I's, and an occasional elite liberal arts college or an aspirant to one of those categories.

I enjoyed Bierce's ruminations. I really did -- I blogrolled him largely because it provided me with an easy way to check up on him a couple of times a week. He tended not to drop a lot of revelations -- most of his information was not new, but it consolidated the inside skinny on his chosen prey in an easily digestible form. He provided one-stop-shopping for shop talk.

And his (choose a male pseudonym and I'm referring to you with a male pronoun) anonymity always seemed to me to be problematic for at least two reasons. For one, I fail to see its necessity. Yes, he was dishing on historians, but my understanding is that he has tenure. And if grad student and untenured professors overstate the jeopardy they put themselves in when they speak out (blogging, writing op-eds, what have you) tenured professors have almost no leg to stand on other than cowardice when they claim that they need the protections of anonymity. Unless of course they desperately want to ascend into the rarefied air of the very places their work criticizes. Bierce's pithy skewerings always gave a hint of aspiration: He had a notable tendency to shed light on those elite departments in supposed decline. And of course what better way for them to rise again than to hire someone insightful and engaging and in tune with the profession and able to write for both scholarly and educated brtoader audiences? In short, I wonder if he got the sense that he was biting a hand that he sort of hoped would feed him.

But the second problematic aspect of his anonymity comes down to the root of my problems with anonymity to begin with: If you are saying things that need protection, should you be saying them? And if you should be, what right have you to say them without the targets being able to face their accuser? Which brings us right back to the issue of cowardice. (For those of you relatively new to dcat, you might think that I am anonymous. But given that I link to books, op-eds and other publications on the side, that I have never hidden my identity, and that my name is Derek Catsam and I am a history professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, you would be mistaken.)

Perhaps we'll see an unmasked Mr. Bierce someday in a glorious but accountable return. But for now this seems like the best course of action.


Ralph Luker said...

Derek, I think you and I have disagreed about blogging anonymity before. You might ponder the fact that about 40% of female history bloggers do so anonymously or pseudonymously. Given that high percentage, there might be perfectly reasonable cause for some people to blog anonymously. Anonymity is, in itself, ethically neutral. What makes all the difference in the world is what one does with one's anonymity. If it hides the identity of a liar, a libeler, a fraud, then it is a disgraceful shield. But it is the fraud, the lie, the libel that is the fundamental problem -- not the cowardly shield. Some of the very best history blogging -- by Invisible Adjunct or New Kid on the Hallway, for example -- has been done by anonymous women and they were anonymous for reasons far removed from cowardice.

EB Soph mom said...


There are cases where anonymity is necessary. However, even though I use a moniker on EB, my identity is known to the authors. My moniker serves to protect me and my family, from those who might take advantage.

If you noticed, I have already been harrassed by a pissed off troll. Not only did he hurl some very raunchy insults my way (since deleted) he also made a thinly veiled threat by insinuating he knew the identity of my child.

So, I disagree with you. While I understand your disdain for anonymity, especially when it is used to cloak cowardice, I also believe that there are cases where it is warranted.

dcat said...

Ralph and SophMom --
I don't think I disagree with either of you on the specifics of your case: there are times when anonymity is fine. But particularly when it comes to bloggers (as opposed to commenters on blogs) many of the justifications for anonymity fall short.

I just can see very, very few justifications for a tenured professor to hide behind a pseudonym. Especially in the case of someone who is being critical of other academics. That really does seem cowardly. Of course we need the exceptions for the Anonymous Adjuncts. But when Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce went after princeton, and then a journalist followed up, and Bierce claimed that he would have been incapable of doing so, thats an attempt to hide behind shoddy work: I couldn't possibly ask the questions that would have allowed my work to be accurate; it would have blown my cover. In that case the anonymity concretely got in the way of the quality of the work.
SophMom -- what you went through is all too common. But one way to think about it is that the anonymity that might not even have succeeded for you, if the troll in fact did know the identity of your child, merely served to protect that person. (By the way, i think Ephpundit was a great diea that has not worked in execution largely because it has subsumed the whole endeavor -- Ephblog has become little more than another place for political commentary rather than a place for Eph-related stuff where occasionally Ephs who know about politics weigh in with posts. I'll fulfill my duties on this front, hoping it improves.

Best --