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.