Why I Write as Eugene Debs

August 13th, 2010 at 8:20 pm | 24 Comments |

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Stanley Kurtz remains interested in why I choose to write under a pseudonym.  He says we can’t judge the “reputation” of a writer if we don’t know who he or she is.  He wonders whether I have some kind of conflict of interest — maybe I work for the Obama administration, or maybe I’m a socialist myself, or maybe I’m a well known writer under my real name.  Any of those things, Kurtz argues, could “tell” against my argument one way or another.

Almost everything that Kurtz observes about my use of pseudonym, save his own understandable curiosity about my real name, is irrelevant or just wrong.  Still, to answer Kurtz’s question:  I use a pseudonym because, on behalf of my employer, I speak, when I do, in an institutional voice.  The work of “Debs” represents my own opinions, not necessarily those of my employer.  I’m doing a form of moonlighting, and I normally don’t like to mix my two voices.  If Kurtz wants to contextualize my work — a valid desire — he can simply read the ten or twelve other essays I’ve written as “Debs” on FF.

And, although this is entirely off point, I will note that, no, I do not, nor have I ever, worked for Barack Obama or his presidential administration (I did, like hundreds of thousands of others, go door to door for him during the election).  I am not a high profile writer or high profile anybody.

But, again, all of this is off point.  The argument really is the thing, and Kurtz’s focus on the “reputation” of the writer is exactly wrong in a way that a former academic should readily understand.  Kurtz’s biography notes that he has written many, many articles about various subjects and that he taught at Harvard and the University of Chicago.  He has a PhD in anthropology from Harvard.  Surely, then, he knows about, and has probably participated in the system of refereeing articles via the double blind system, a standard protocol for almost every academic discipline.  The way it works is simple:  a writer submits an article to an academic journal.  The article is then evaluated for possible publication by two or three anonymous scholars.  Those scholars, in turn, do not know the identity of the writer of the article.  The entire purpose of the double blind refereeing system is to eliminate, at least ideally, the prejudicial effect of known reputation on a dispassionate analysis of the actual argument put forward by the prospective contributor.  Thus, upon the conferring of his doctorate, the novice anthropologist, Stanley Kurtz, might be assured (barring some unethical violation of some kind or, sure, somebody recognizing the style of a well known scholar) that his article for publication was given every bit as much consideration as that of, say, the distinguished, world renowned anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins. Conversely, the anonymous referees could freely express their criticism of Kurtz’s essay without wondering whether they might be offending the top student of a good friend.   Kurtz will likely respond by saying, “You, Debs, are not an academic referee.”  But the principle stands:  if we want to truly engage an argument qua argument, without the baggage of pre-judgment, the anonymity of its author best serves the interlocutor.

Reputation is the very thing that most distorts the lens by which we view an argument.  We tend to give the benefit of the doubt to arguments written by writers we like, and trash those of writers we don’t.  This is why I was at pains to tell Kurtz that I barely knew anything about him when I read his posts about Obama.  We can’t eliminate every distorting predicate, of course — I know Kurtz is a conservative of some kind, based upon where he writes, and based upon the very brief remarks my friend told me about him.  But I don’t really need to know anything more about Kurtz to judge his argument, nor would it help me to do that.  Yes — and here he conflates two separate forms of judgment — it would help me to know who Kurtz is, in order to judge the complete corpus of Stanley Kurtz.  That would be useful, indeed essential, in order to write a profile or biography of Stanley Kurtz.  But I don’t care about Stanley Kurtz — I only care about what he writes and proposes to write about Barack Obama and socialism.

Kurtz neatly proved the point about how unhelpful relying on the reputation of a writer is when he responded to David Frum’s essay on Obama and socialism.  Kurtz assumed cogency and erudition simply because Frum wrote the essay, and Kurtz knows Frum’s work.  But Kurtz had a problem:  in this case, he didn’t agree with Frum.  So all he could do is compliment Frum for his customary intelligence, without then engaging Frum’s argument on this occasion.  If Frum had written under the name “Edmund Burke”, Kurtz would have had no choice but to actually attend to his argument, actually explicate what he agreed with and disagreed with.  But Frum’s reputation served as a scrim which obscured for Kurtz Frum’s argument.

We want people’s names on their articles so we can cheer for people we like, boo people we don’t, and, yes, put those articles into the larger framework of their intellectual history.  We develop relationships with various writers, grow comfortable or outraged by their writer’s voice.  But, if the purpose of an article is to make an argument as devoid as possible of extraneous information, then anonymity is actually of great intellectual value.

At last, and for the last time, to Kurtz’s argument itself.  Kurtz says, not unreasonably, wait for the book.  And I will.  But my point was to suggest that his posts about the subject of the book indicate that it will be of limited value, no matter the quality of Kurtz’s empirical findings or his skill as a writer.  That was the point of my stipulation that Kurtz could have a smoking gun tape of Obama “confessing” in the most ardent terms, his socialism, and the book would still lack any efficacy.  The problem is the nature of the project, not how well Kurtz accomplishes it.  Thus, I don’t need to read the book to reject the logic Kurtz gives for writing it in the first place.

In summary, yet again:

(1)  I doubt very much that Kurtz can prove anything more than that Obama — like countless young people living in big cities over the past decades — came in contact with, even liked, people to his left on the political spectrum. And that he fruitfully argued with them, and even agreed with them at times. In short, I don’t think Kurtz knows more about Barack Obama, a very well investigated figure, than does, say, David Remnick, and I don’t think association is necessarily approval.  If that were the case, then you might as well assume that Obama is a Republican because he‘s spent time with conservatives at Harvard Law School, a corrupt real estate developer because he knew a few of those, or a sports addled jock, stuck in male adolescence, because he loves watching sports on television, is a rabid fan of various professional sports team, and especially loves to golf and shoot hoops.

(2)  But even if Kurtz were to “prove” that Barack Obama was a socialist 20 or 25 years ago — has not just one smoking gun transcript, but dozens of them —  it still won’t matter.  Obama isn’t a socialist today and Kurtz concedes the point by saying that, well, of course, stealthy Obama doesn‘t talk about his socialism anymore.  A pity:  it then becomes difficult to, you know, actually confirm his socialism, then, doesn‘t it?

(3)  Most importantly, the word “socialism”, as Kurtz uses it in a contemporary, as opposed to historical, context, is meaningless; the sheerest anachronism.  We’re not sitting around shooting the bull in a Paris or Berlin café, circa 1906 or 1920.  Nobody thinks Walmart and Target should be nationalized or even “publicly owned” by ACORN.  Nobody argues for anything but variations on the mixed economy — those variations are critical inflections of public policy, but, once you realize that the free trading, private ownership supporting Danes, are just as supportive of a mixed economy, rather than a command and control economy, as John Cornyn, then you also realize that socialism’s day is done.  Calling somebody a socialist today is like calling them a Platonist or a Copernican — the word no longer has any analytical purchase outside of Havana.

To reiterate again — and I continue to hope that Kurtz can actually respond to an argument, rather than wonder whether I’m really Rahm:  Prior to his nomination, the party already agreed with Obama’s politics — because they were also Clinton’s, Edwards’s, and Biden’s too, prior to nominating him.  Like most presidential nomination fights in the modern era, the fight was merely over which carefully crafted persona did the Democrats wish to lead them into battle — the brilliant 21st century bi-racial cosmopolite, the tough as nails, battle scarred Thatcher of the left, or the angry, (white male) Southern populist — but the policies of, respectively, Obama, Clinton, and Edwards were only a smidgeon different from each other, if that.  Therefore, if Obama’s politics are socialist, then the Democratic party is a socialist party, and all of its major figures from both Clintons to George Miller to Harry Reid to Chuck Schumer are socialists.  All of these people entirely agree with Barack Obama’s policy agenda.  So do all of the key figures in the Obama administration.  If Obama is a socialist, there is no difference between socialism and the present day American version of liberalism.  And, therefore, Kurtz might as well have written a book about Reid, Hillary Clinton, Schumer, Pelosi, Kerry — any major Democrat — because they all share the same political platform.  But that would make Barack Obama ideologically mundane (something every person to his left already thinks!), rather than a unique figure, cultivated in the hot houses of Chicago radical politics in order to “bring” socialism to the Democratic party.

Just today, I read that Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, slammed Obama’s leftist critics, declaring that they should be “drug tested”, and further observed that they wouldn’t be happy if Dennis Kucinich were president. Leave aside the point that people like Paul Krugman, probably Obama’s most prominent leftist critic, aren’t socialists — nor is Dennis Kucinich.  The point is that remarks like this don’t trouble Kurtz because, as I must emphasize again, he has made a non-falsifiable argument.  Some people might think, based upon his record and contentious relationship his administration has with its critics, that Obama is actually to the right of, say, the leftist blogosphere.  But to Kurtz, remarks like Gibbs‘s, or Obama’s appointment of a conservative to run the budget commission, or his refusal to nationalize the banks, or fight for even a public option, let alone propose single payer health insurance, only demonstrate how clever Obama is — he fools Americans by pretending to be to the right of Fire Dog Lake, while it’s really the case that he’s a socialist and thus well to its left!  But Kurtz can’t prove by anything he says or does today while in office that Obama is anymore of a socialist than Hillary Clinton would have been had she been elected president.  Nor can he prove that Obama is any more of a socialist than Harry Reid, who faithfully seeks to execute Obama’s program in the Senate.   So, no matter what Kurtz has uncovered, his analysis of Obama is merely an example of a distinction without a difference.

And it’s disappointing to me that Kurtz has not even engaged any of my examples or arguments — if Obama is a socialist, then his selection as his “Minister of War” and “Minister of Economics”, respectively, of Robert Gates and Larry Summers, are self-sabotaging.  Fidel Castro, after all, selected his brother, Raul, and his most charismatic aide, Che Guevara, for those positions.  All Kurtz can, apparently, say in response is, “I can’t prove it to you, you’ll just have to trust me that people whom Barack Obama talked to 20 plus years ago in Chicago are more important to his presidency and current world view than are Gates, Summers, and Emmanuel.”  That’s simply an absurd argument, and, if knowing who Stanley Kurtz is has, in any way, made me think about his argument in a different way, it is only as follows:  It gravely disappoints me that a trained scholar could revel in a non-falsifiable hypothesis.   That’s a rookie mistake–shouldn’t Kurtz’s dissertation director or even his senior thesis adviser have instilled in him better scholarly habits than that?

As I said earlier, I look forward to Kurtz’s book proving that liberalism is really socialism and that, therefore, the Democratic party is really a socialist party.  That is both an internally logical hypothesis and one that is falsifiable.  Whether Barack Obama secretly joined the DSA in 1988, and is, thus, to this very day — as he sits, feet up in the Oval Office, plotting the route by which the sequel to ACORN will “publicly own” the American economy — an officially certified socialist is neither.

Recent Posts by Eugene Debs



24 Comments so far ↓

  • TerryF98

    Kurtz will not engage your argument for one of two reasons.

    (1) He knows you are correct in your statements and is unwilling to admit same.

    (2) He is intellectually inferior and is unable to grasp your reasoning and arguments.

    Not sure which one it is but its one of them.

  • Oldskool

    This Kurtz guy gets an awful lot of ink to be a straight-up loony. I suppose it’s not about what you write as much as it is how often you write and where it gets printed/posted.

  • ktward

    On David’s Aug 9 thread, my final thought was as follows– and given all that’s been said it’s really all there is left to say about Kurtz:

    Kurtz simply can’t publish anonymously: any perceived legitimacy he enjoys is completely dependent upon his institutional persona. Absent that, his cred would dissolve and he’d be just one more polished but vacuous voice in a sea of them.

  • busboy33

    There is nothing wrong with using a psuedonym as long as you stand by what you write.

    I’ve been busboy33 since 1990, so for two decades I have used no other name on the Internet or other online service (for what its worth, my real name is Mike Koughan). There are people I’ve known for decades who only know me as busboy33. My identity with them is as permanent as if they knew me by my “real” name.

    Use whatever name you like . . . just stand by what you write.

  • drdredel

    @busboy33

    wow, man! 1990! That’s well into bulletin board territory. I thought my handle was old (I’ve had it since 1997, but then I was very much on the internet).

    hat’s off!

  • drdredel

    @Debs,

    I am thrilled that you continue to make your, extremely well articulated arguments. It only saddens me that we live in a world where people who have the credentials to teach at Harvard are guilty of either
    a) being so desperate to make money as to take advantage of the most feeble minded amongst us, and sell them books about how they too might have an immaculate conception or where they can go to get anally probed by aliens (my suggestion is Tijuana).
    or
    b) just being completely out of their f**king minds!

    In either event, it speaks of something far more sinister than just one misguided author. Or maybe that’s just how it appears at face value. I hope that’s the case.

  • busboy33

    You had to mention BBSs . . . I’m starting to have flashbacks . . .

    Thx for the compliment. Cuz’ I don’t feel old enough on this site already ;)

    I will admit looking forward to sitting in a rocking chair and complaining to my neices and nephews:

    “You kids today. You don’t appreciate what you have. Why, when I was a kid we were the first on our neighborhood to go from 1200 baud modems to 2400 baud modems!”
    “Unkle Mike, what’s a baud?”
    “Shaddup. Why, when the Intertubes first started rolling, we used to check to soda machine at Carnegie-Mellon because it was the only thing on that you could find!”
    “Why would you hook a soda machine to the web?”
    “Shaddup!”

    I can’t wait!

  • jorae

    “I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five people that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department. “Joseph R. McCarthy

    This Kurtz guy is scary….It’s sad that socialized democracy is being interpreted as Pure Socialism by him. Two different things. At this time Kurtz is playing offense and attacking the messenger.

    As former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Army one said…”A fundamental premise of politics is : We can make this work if people just never figure it out.”

    Breitbart and Kurtz both work with this premise.

  • jg bennet

    barry goldwater said in his farewell interview from the senate to charlie rose back in 1986 that….

    ronald reagan was a lefty left back in the 40′s and if not for nancy’s conservative father and barry goldwater himself reagan would have stayed a lefty.

    in this clip of a charlie rose interview at the 21:45 mark you will hear goldwater saying how reagan worked with the communist union and was way left.

    coming from goldwater you know it is no bs.

    kurtz is a propagandist using the socialist marker and he is trying to make a buck off of the bandwagon of the bamboozled.

    http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/4912

  • jorae

    Well, Mr. Army may have stolen the line from Mr. Goldwater then …You can see him saying this at 1:53 on the video.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8JDRiwoiZw&playnext=1&videos=R3tAEgUcC3g

  • jg bennet

    in todays kurtzian political bamboozling reagan could have been turned into a socialist

    integrity is long gone from the gop

    the dems always have more intelligent arguments

    GOP Gullible Obfuscating Propagandists

  • ktward

    GOP Gullible Obfuscating Propagandists

    That’s quite excellent. I’ll have to remember that one.
    (How you be, btw? I’m decompressing from one crazy-ass summer. The twisted part is that FF is part of my decompression. Serious crazy, that.)

  • WillyP

    honestly “eugene,” who gives a shit who you are. you’re out of your mind and wrong. if you aren’t able to see the sea change that’s about to occur in the american experiment you’re as worthy as identification as the “real mickey mouse.”

    this isn’t about you, it’s about the fact that our country is going to hell under obama, pelosi, and reid. is this an accident?

    do you really think we’re all stupid drones like “eugene debs” ??? we’re not. get over yourself, first. and second, go on the offensive, not the defensive,for this atrocious and evil administration and congress.

    sick, i tell you, sick. the world is changing before your eyes and your tunnel vision vanity keeps you freaking blind.

  • ktward

    I’m fairly certain WillyP didn’t intend such a response, but damned if I didn’t bust out laughing.

    He does the GOP proud, no argument there.

  • Carney

    Debs has not addressed whether he himself is a socialist, and, if not, why he has chosen the moniker of Eugene Debs. It’s like calling yourself Eugene Terreblanche and then stoutly refusing to discuss whether you’re sympathetic to radical Afrikaner nationalism.

  • Slide

    busboy33 // Aug 14, 2010 at 2:00 am “You kids today. You don’t appreciate what you have. Why, when I was a kid we were the first on our neighborhood to go from 1200 baud modems to 2400 baud modems!”

    damn, I can actually remember 300 baud modems. I’m going to bed. All of a sudden I feel very very old.

  • easton

    We are still debating if Shakespeare really wrote his own works, and I remember when Stephen King wrote under the pen name of Richard Bachman. And, of course, there are many, many authors who have used pen names. What an utterly childish argument this Kurtz loonie is engaging in.

    By the way, Carney does bring up the only valid point, why choose as provocative name as Eugene Debs? Better to go with your own original pen name.

  • satkinsn

    Respectfully ED, I disagree.

    Though I think claims that President Obama is a socialist are foolish in the extreme, I don’t believe the biggest danger lies in, as you put it:

    *Reputation is the very thing that most distorts the lens by which we view an argument. We tend to give the benefit of the doubt to arguments written by writers we like, and trash those of writers we don’t.*

    The second sentence is largely true, but what’s missing from your argument is a sense of balance. ‘Tend’ is not the same thing as always doing it, and reputation can serve as a check on rushing to judgement as well as a push in that direction.

    For instance, the WaPo’s massive national security series of a few weeks back. It got remarkably little criticism in conservative ranks even though it was the project of a much hated paper. I think that’s because WaPo has a reputation for good investigative work, as does the reporter, and they disclosed a lot about how the work was done.

    You cite the way in which some academic papers are vetted; I’ll argue that’s a special case, based (very loosely) on the idea of scientific method, and not widely transferable to the outside world.

    There is no question but that smearing arguments based on reputation is a big problem, but I think the real issue is asymmetry: the writer discloses and the long tail of commentators bite and bite and bite without having to put any real skin in the game.

    Look, I understand your reasons for writing without using your own name, and maybe I would feel different if my employer placed the same requirements on me. But the most important point (to me) is what disclosure does for the writer himself: unless you are being paid to be publicly stupid, knowing your name is on something generally has the effect of making you take a second look at what you’re writing and what it says about your attitude toward other people. It doesn’t always work, but you only have to open up most political threads on most sites to see how anonymity does “work,” almost 100 percent of the time.

    Scott A.
    Watertown NY

  • ktward

    @satkinsn.

    The proof is in the pudding['s eating.]

    While Debs has focused on (and shredded) Kurtz’s Obama-Is-Socialist argument, Kurtz, in the end, chooses to make his case over Debs’s use of pseudonym– a tradition inaurguably long-respected. (That Kurtz takes such a tack in rebuttal leaves me seriously questioning his rationality.)

    I read Kurtz’s rebuttals.
    He has yet to viably support his own Obama-is-Socialist argument in the face of Debs’s specific challenges, so he resorts in juvenile fashion to a picayune point that, in his mind, blanketly invalidates Debs’s entire challenge. (How convenient.)

    Check that pudding out, dude.
    Debs’s identity is utterly irrelevant. And Kurtz, as I’ve long known him to be, is a supremely articulate ideologue bent only on furthering his SoCon agenda; he wouldn’t know a viable argument if it hit him on the head.

  • satkinsn

    No argument about the relative merits of the arguments, and – as you note – there is a long tradition of anonymous political speech.

    I just viscerally dislike the ability of people to say mean, stupid things and not man up about it.

    s.

  • ktward

    I just viscerally dislike the ability of people to say mean, stupid things and not man up about it.

    No argument from me on that.
    But Debs said nothing mean or stupid, though he did lay down a mean argument to reveal Kurtz’s stupidity.

    Wait. Was that mean and stupid of me to say? ;)

  • Rudy2shoes

    I applaud what you are doing. I also agree with your logic. I have used EVD’s 1920 Socialist Party presidential campaign button as an avatar for a few years now. We were robbed of Mr. Debs’ influence and legacy by historical revisionists and political and intellectual assassination. He was part of the only ray of light for America after we opted out of the “Age of Reason” and if it weren’t for the forward looking campaign issues of “Convict #9653″*, stone age policies like no voting rights for women and blacks, child labor, the 48 hour work week and minimum wage and workplace safety would have been much later in coming. That particular period of history (1880-1932) needs to be elevated to the forefront of modern American political and economic analysis. It is certainly the most relevant period for understanding modern U.S. political and economic dysfunction.

    * NOTE: Eugene Victor Debs ran for president in 1920 while a political prisoner at Atlanta Federal Prison. His campaign lapel button simply stated “Vote for Convict #9653″ above his picture.

  • franco 2

    “To reiterate again…” Wow! Find an editor, please!

    As to the substance, which is mostly assertion disguised as reason, whatever dude! Just substitute the word RACIST for Socialist and the argument works, although would be considered quite lame, just as this one is.

    Debs is SURE Obama isn’t a socialist. So what?

  • TeriPettit

    I was somewhat disappointed with this article, because it doesn’t even attempt to answer the question posed in the title.

    I navigated here from some of the author’s other FrumForum articles (which I basically agree with), hoping to learn why he (or she) specifically chose “Eugene Debs” as his or her nom de plume for the article series, and instead found only a discourse on the very different question of “why I write under a pseudonym.”

    But what vantage point or thematic emphasis, if any, was intended by picking that particular pseudonym? If none was intended, then why choose the name of any historical figure at all?

    Indeed, considering the general concern expressed in this article that reputation too often becomes a lens that distorts the way readers interpret an argument, one would expect the author to choose a neutral name that would serve as a clear glass window. Doesn’t any pseudonym that carries a cloud of associations with it also introduce a potential distortion in the reader’s mind?

    (Aside to drdredel and busboy33: I’ve been using my real name on every online account since 1975, back in the days when it was the Arpanet. And my first programs were written on punch cards, in 1972. Beat that! :) )