For the past week or so, I’ve been debating my forthcoming book, Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism, with an anonymous Democratic activist who writes at FrumForum under the pseudonym Eugene Debs. Even without reading my book, Debs has taken strong exception to its claim that President Obama is a socialist. (You can read our latest exchange, “Debs Rushes In,” below.) I chose to engage Debs’s attacks, so I can hardly demand that he identify himself. Nonetheless, I think it’s important to at least register some concern about his anonymous status.
Except where weighty considerations tell in the other direction, those engaged in public debate ought to identify themselves. Taking responsibility for your public remarks is a hallmark of a free society. There are a variety of reasons for this. A public writer bears the full consequences of his remarks, while an anonymous writer does not. Honesty, civility, and equality are effected by this. From the public’s perspective, our judgment of a given argument is deepened by our ability to compare and relate it to a given author’s larger body of work.
It’s true that, in principle, any given argument ought to stand on its own and, if valid, carry through independently of the political history of its author. Yet it is, paradoxically, equally true that our ability to trust and be persuaded by an argument is, rightly, at least partly a function of its author’s reputation and record. Nobody should be obliged to provide a detailed personal history before offering a public argument. At the same time, the requirement to at least identify yourself in public debate rightly provides a basic guarantee of good faith and a check on possible abuses.
I can think of a number of strictly hypothetical reasons for Eugene Debs to seek anonymity that would not suffice to justify writing under a pseudonym. Maybe Debs has an accessible body of published work, perhaps at a liberal blog or magazine like The Progressive or The Nation. Maybe he’s even written on the subject of President Obama, or even Obama and socialism. If so, readers ought to be able to compare his writings as Debs with those under his own name. Readers should also be able to come to whatever conclusion they’d like about the relationship between Debs’s writings at FrumForum and his connection to, say, some well-known left-leaning opinion outlet.
As a “Democratic activist,” Debs might have connections to Barack Obama or his administration, perhaps readily recognizable once his identity was known. If so, that would also be something readers should be permitted to take into account. The recent Journolist tempest calls this issue of coordination between journalists and politicians to mind.
Under his real identity, Debs might also have some sort of public relationship to socialism itself, another consideration readers could legitimately take into account.
By no means am I arguing that if Eugene Debs was a high profile left-leaning author with an easily accessible public record, known links to the Obama administration, or public and friendly relations with socialists, he could not legitimately criticize me. Any or all of those factors could tell both for and against his case. Readers will judge the matter differently, and some might dismiss the relevance of any of these hypothetical factors.
Yet barring some very serious considerations to the contrary, shouldn’t readers have the opportunity to come to those sorts of conclusions for themselves? I think they should. And of course the strictly hypothetical factors I’ve sketched out are but a partial list of the considerations that might be invoked when we know who a writer actually is. So while I am not asking “Eugene Debs” to reveal his identity, I would like to know, at least in broad terms, the reason why he has chosen to write under an assumed name. Presumably, it is something more compelling than the sort of considerations I’ve listed above. Right? I’d also be interested to hear David Frum’s thoughts on this matter.