Free Markets, Free People

Whelan/Publius – Round 2

I enjoy analyzing arguments. Not two people shouting at each other mind you, but arguments people make to support their positions.

Yesterday I posted about Ed Whelan of NRO outing Publius of Obsidian Wings (no, I’m not going to use Publius’s name). I found it to be a very juvenile reaction to what appeared to me a fairly typical blog war – someone wrote something, another disagreed, and they went back and forth hammering each other’s arguments. But in terms of provocation that might warrant what Whelan did, I found nothing.

Simon Owens, at Bloggasm, contacted each of the parties involved and talked to them about what had happened. If you’ve read each of their blog posts, the reasons given are mostly a recapitulation of those. However there were some other interesting arguments used, one of which I found very wanting.

Ed Whelan:

Whelan even objected to the term “outed,” which has been used by many (including me) to describe what he had done to Blevins. “I think the word ‘outed’ confuses understanding here. I think people are drawing on the ugliness of identifying that someone is homosexual. In this context, to say I outed publius, well publius doesn’t exist. I identified who’s hiding behind publius. I think to identify someone who is blogging behind a pseudonym is very different than exposing some private aspect of a person’s life. I think that the term outing confuses things.”

I don’t think it confuses anyone but Ed Whelan. He claims that publius didn’t exist.  But neither did the person pretending to be straight. In the case of the homosexual, both personalities may have had the same name, but one of them certainly doesn’t exist in reality.  It is a pseudo-personality. Outing is a completely apropos description of what Whelan did and nonsense such as this argument is just epic rationalization in an attempt to justify the unjustifiable.

Publius makes the argument that he’s not really anonymous, but is instead an established personality with a reputation. And the reputation, achieved while writing under that name and on that blog is of value to him and something he doesn’t take lightly.

“It’s one thing for an anonymous commenter to come in and just be a flame thrower, but what I do is I write pseudonymously, and I have a reputation of my own. It’s an online reputation. It’s a reputation that I care about, that I’ve invested a lot in, and I don’t want to be embarrassed in the blogosphere. I try to think through my arguments. To say there’s no real world effect, I don’t agree with that, because if I write something stupid, I’m going to get called out for that. In fact, I have written stupid things and I got called out and it affected my reputation. So I do have some reputational incentives to be honest, to be respectful in all these things.”

Given that, the arguments on both sides should have been dealt with on their merits and nothing else.

Whelan opines:

“A law professor should especially be held to minimal standards, and I was surprised that this guy was a law professor given the poor legal understanding of his posts. Let me be clear, I have no objection to bloggers who want to hide behind pseudonyms, but if someone is hiding behind a pseudonym to take cheap shots at me, I don’t think I owe him any favors.”

And outing him did what to enhance Whelan’s arguments or counter those of Publius?

Zip. Zero. Nada. Nothing.

The fact that Whelan’s outing of Publius added nothing of weight to his arguments nor took away from those of Publius smacks of petty vindictiveness. He knew he could hurt Publius by doing something to him that Publius had carefully avoided over the years. In a word it was petty. Juvenile. Something a 10 year old would do.

The more I read Whelan the less I care for him. He may be a heck of a bright guy intellectually, but socially and ethically he’s still in grade school.


28 Responses to Whelan/Publius – Round 2

  • The only time a pseudonym becomes relevant is when the author expresses differently than what he/she would actually express if authoring under his/her actual identity.

    Other than that, the expressions made carry what they will.  No matter if the expressions are made under a pseudonym or not.

    Now if a pseudonym carries expressions of a pseudo-personality, yet the author makes different expressions under the authorship of his/her actual identity, the expressions made also carry what they will, but the credibility of the author becomes questionable.
    Nevertheless, if the expressions made carry the same weight as they would if made by either an author with a pseudonym or an author with a pseudo-personality, then the credibility of the author remains irrelevant.  Only the credibility of the expressions made.


    Now, if one were to ever have the pleasure to meet me in person, and I introduce myself by my actual identity, and one were to ask me to repeat that, I doubt I could.

    Which makes me…




    • The only time a pseudonym becomes relevant is when the author expresses differently than what he/she would actually express if authoring under his/her actual identity.
      Two points:  this is a great deal broader than your previous stance that criminality was the only excuse for an unmasking.  What’s the distinction between ‘relevance’ in this case and unmasking in the other?  I ask, because I think that acting the ass behind the mask of pseudonymity is actually excuse enough to be unmasked.

      Which brings up the second point:  how would we know if someone is expressing differently?  If the pseudonym’s at all effective, it would take at least some sleuthing to unearth the real identity.  There’s the joy of being “Phil Smith”; even if you know where I live to within a 5 mile radius, you still can’t ID me conclusively with any ease.

      • What’s the distinction between ‘relevance’ in this case and unmasking in the other?

        McQ made that clear.
        Did Whelan’s argument benefit from making the identity of plubius known?  No.

        As far as the pseudonym becoming relevant when the author expresses differently than what he/she would actually express if authoring under his/her actual identity, an example would be if … say… Howard Dean authored a piece in support of the Iraq war, yet he authored it under a pseudonym.  In this hypothetical situation, Dean’s argument may not necessarily be voided by his identity, but his credibility as a leader in the Democratic party would be in jeopardy.

        Making Dean’s identity known in this hypothetical is not necessarily justified.  Every situation is different.  And if you believed that Dean’s actions were reckless enough to cause great harm to a nation or even an individual, and you believed that outing Dean would benefit your position, then it would be hard not to recognize the justification.
        But this is all of course hypothetical.

        In this case, Whelan’s annoyance at a particular blogger is not IMHO, reckless enough to cause harm.  Therefore, his disrespect for someone’s wishes of privacy is unethical, rude, and crosses the border into douchebaggery.

        If, as another example, I were to write here that I were to strangle individual X, then there would be no question as to the ethics of making my identity known.

        When Whelan writes, “biting at my ankles.”  …  Well, I’ve been “biting ankles” here at QandO for quite some time.
        I’ve introduced myself to McQ with my real name.  Hell, I’ve given him my cell phone number.  But I know that there is no way that McQ would violate my wishes at anonymity because,
        a)  He has no desire to
        b) to do so would neither help or hurt disagreements between us in the comments
        And most importantly,
        c)  He’s not a douchebag.

        Unlike Whelan.


        • People like Oliver Willis accomplish greater acts of douchebaggery than Whelan merely by getting out of bed in the morning.

          That doesn’t excuse Whelan’s pique, but it puts it in perspective. And the criticism of Whelan’s “ethics” continues to be a load of crap. Whelan had no ethical obligation to Blevins, period.

  • I disagree with the criticism of Whelan.   I could agree as long as the debate were civil, but  “Publius” reproduced this paragraph  from Anonymous Liberal:

    “This is Whelan’s role in the conservative world, his niche. He’s the guy Republicans look to when they need to discredit a Democratic legal or judicial nominee. He pores over their record, finds some trivial fact that, when distorted and taken totally out of context, makes that person look like some sort of extremist. Whelan knows this is what he’s doing. It’s willful. He’s essentially a legal hitman, someone who provides the “expert” opinion that the right wing echo chamber then uses as the basis of its attack campaign.”

    That stopped being debate and became ad hominem.  It is cowardly for both Publius and Anonymous Liberal to hide behind a cloak of anonymity when they descend to that level of ad hominem.    In fact, one wonders if either of them would have used that phrasing if their real identity were known.

    Part of my rebellion against the conventional wisdom castigating Whelan is that I think the cloak of anonymity reduces the level of discourse.  


    • No, it,s not Rick, because knowing who they are doesn’t change the argument between them one iota. And, as pointed out, they each have pseudonyms with a reputation which means, just like Ed Whelan, they can destroy their credibility with worthless arguments. Or, just as Ed Whelan has recently done, with stupid and ill-conceived actions.

      • they each have pseudonyms with a reputation which means. . .they can destroy their credibility with worthless arguments.

        I dunno, Bruce.  I think you overstate that case.  There are plenty of bloggers on both sides with a great deal larger audience than the quality of their arguments really justifies. 

    • Bruce,  I was not claiming that the argument was affected.  I am claiming that the ad hominem was the problem.  Just consider this whole saga.  There was this huge attack on Whelan for his “outing”, but nothing about the anonymous ad hominem coming from Publius (via Anonymous Liberal).    But, by exactly the same token that outing Publius did not advance Whelan’s argument, the ad hominem from Publius did not advance his argument, either.   Indeed, it was not an argument at all. 

      My claim is Publius showed concern for his reutation (in real life)  by blogging anonymously.  It is not much of  a stretch to believe, Publius would have limited himself to his argument, without the ad hominem, if his real life reputation were at stake. 


      • I think that’s an assumption that you really can’t make, Rick. Obviously we have no idea whether or not Publius would have used an ad hominum if his name were on the line instead of a pseudonym. However what we can decide is whether or not an ad hominum is grounds for the action Whelan took. I say no. And Whelan himself stated the grounds had more to do with annoyance and “ankle biting” than any legitimate reason. His apology, which I just posted even admits his outing of Publius was “ill-considered”.

      • Bruce, it turns out the Powerline boys agree with me.  I realize that only shows I am not an outlier.   I saw Whelen’ s apology last night, but it does not affect my opinion on anonymous ad hominems in search of an argument.


  • I can’t say I paid any attention to either of these characters until this was originally posted up here.  I went and did a bit of reading, and didn’t see anything “outing” worthy… just lots of typical blog fighting.

    Jim Zumbo kept coming to mind as I read this stuff, particularly Whelan’s defense of himself.

  • interesting… question.  For starters there is the fact that almost nothing which occurs on the Internet is truly anonymous… some things come close – but even there over time anything meaningful is rarely truly anonymous.  For most of us anonymity is based more on the fact that it’s not worth it for someone to pursue our actual identity to ‘disclose’ who we are – sort of an implicit privilege of the medium.

    So lets do a quick analogy – about once every 3 or 4 years the local ‘youth organization’ does a tagging run through my neighborhood.  They deface property and generally ruin the reputation of my neighborhood.  They often leave identifiers… part of me would like to find these individuals and knock some sense in them – but given the infrequency of the problem I just pull out some paint and/or paint remover and clean up the ‘mess’ they’ve made.

    On the other hand if they started showing up every Sat.  and were only hitting my property and the messages started getting personal – you can bet I would find a way to retaliate….  In the real world that retaliation might take the form of me tracking them and reporting them to the police, it might take the form of the police staking out my home, it might take the form of me jumping out of the bush with a baseball bat… the key is the taggers don’t get to dictate what I’ll do.  Sure certain of those options might be considered more socially acceptable – but when you start harassing an individual you should expect some form of retaliation at some point and you don’t get to dictate directly what your target might do… thus if I did show up with a baseball bat and smack someone in the head putting them in the hospital I would undoubtedly regret that my retaliation was out of line – but probably not as much as the person who was harassing me.

    Now let’s be clear EW didn’t whale on his harasser with a baseball bat, but did he essentially go beyond a resonable response?  I don’t think so, EW was by revealing his identity essentially reporting Publius to the authorities – which by the way is exactly what Publius is complaining about.   “Its not fair that the world knows who I am, I’m an anonymous tagger, and if the authorities knew who I was it might impact me negatively.” yep and too bad in this case.  You picked a fight and the person you harassed decided to report who you were to the ‘authorities’.  Stop whining, if you weren’t big enough to take the heat you shouldn’t have been in the kitchen.

    When it comes to retalitory response there is an old saying that can be paraphrased – “Be careful you didn’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”

  • Have people got a right to anonymity?

    I say that they have unless they abuse the right by hiding criminal behavior behind the mask.

    As near as I can tell, Publius did nothing criminal.  He made heated and perhaps insulting comments.  Does this give Whelan the right to expose his real name?  There are few (if any) regular commenters here who haven’t written some pretty insulting things about others from time to time; should our real names be revealed to punish us for these infractions?

    I agree with McQ: what Whelan did was petty and juvenile, rather like losing a playground scuffle and running to tell teacher.

    • Have people got a right to anonymity?

      Sure. You have a perfect right not to identify yourself.

      Does this give Whelan the right to expose his real name?

      Whelan has the right to expose Blevins’ real name because in a country that values freedom of expression people get to do these sorts of things. Blevins has the right to not identify himself. He doesn’t have the right to prevent other people from identifying him.

      As I said in the other thread, there is no ethical or legal principle that obligates A to respect B’s desire to maintain a semblance of anonymity on the Internet. If A voluntarily undertakes such an obligation, that’s one thing — but here, Whelan didn’t. He didn’t owe Blevins anything, and the fact that Whelan appears to have acted out of pique is hardly some mortal sin.

      • I disagree.  Your argument sounds to me rather like, “A has a right to not tell anybody his social security number, but there is no moral or ethical reason for B not to tell everybody what it is if he can find it out.” In other words, one’s “rights” become only what he has the strength to assert and protect.  I have the right to free speech only so long as I can stop people trying to muzzle me.  I have the right to vote only so long as I can defeat others’ efforts to keep me out of the voting booth.  It’s law of the jungle. 

        People assume a pseudonym for much the same reason that they don’t publish their social security number, lock their doors, or don’t go about telling everybody their sexual orientation: because they have some fear that somebody might wish to do them some harm, be it by identity theft, burglary, or “outing” to family, friends and coworkers.  See capt joe‘s comment: his job could have been in jeopardy had the wrong people known who he actually is.

        If Whelan owes Publius nothing, then the converse is true, no?  So, would it be OK for Publius to publish Whelan’s address?  Or photos of his family?  His bank account info?  Or any other information that Whelan would prefer NOT be in the public domain?

        • docjim – I called you out tonight on another post, and I wish to make this exhibit A.  When you leave out the (spit!) you are and enjoyable read…

        • What my argument sounds like to you, and what my argument actually is, appear to be two different things. So let me try to make things clearer.

          Whelan is constrained in what he may say about Blevins by tort law. Invasion of privacy and intentional infliciton of emotional distress torts may — may — provide a remedy for truly beyond-the-pale disclosures of private information. However, neither tort is applicable here. The facts Whelan revealed about Blevins were not private (they had already been published, as Whelan obtained them from a third party); their publication would not be offensive to a reasonable person (reasonable people don’t get their panties in a twist over the public revelation of their name and employer); Whelan’s disclosure was not beyond the bounds of conduct tolerated by civilized society (civilized society routinely excuses far more significant disclosures); and there’s no indication that Blevins has suffered severe emotional distress as the result of the disclosure.

          Any ethical obligations that Whelan owes Blevins outside the requirements of the law can only be the result of a voluntary undertaking by Whelan. If Whelan had promised to keep Blevins’ identity confidential, then breaching that promise would make him a scumbag. But Whelan made no such promise. He owed Blevins nothing more or less than what the law requires.

          • I think your argument is legally correct.  However, I continue to disagree on moral grounds (and I recognize that morality is quite subjective). 

            Whelan and Publius had a heated exchange, which happens quite a lot in the blogosphere.  Rather than confine himself to continuing to debate Publius on objective grounds, or even get in some gratuitous insults of his own, Whelan released personal info about Publius in an obvious attempt at petty revenge.  Whether or not the info was already public knowlege is beside the point: he did it out of malevolence.  This, while (apparently) not illegal, is certainly not moral.

            I would ask rhetorically what any of us owes to anybody else and why.  If, for example, there is no law that says that I ought to hold the door for a woman, or give up a seat to an elderly person, or call somebody if I find his stray dog, then should I do it?  If so, then why?  Isn’t it because I owe some level of courtesy to them as fellow human beings?  Or even that I owe something to myself to try not to be a total d*ck as I go through life?

            I’m reminded of one of my favorite movies, “The Magnificent Seven” (paraphrasing):

            Chris – “We have a contract with these people.”

            Vin – “Yeah, but not the kind that any court would enforce.”

            Chris – “That’s exactly the kind you have to keep.”

          • I do not share your view that revenge (petty or otherwise) is inherently immoral, nor do I agree that we each necessarily owe our fellow humans some basic level of courtesy outside the requirements of the law. I don’t know you; I don’t care about you; I don’t owe you anything more than what the law requires.

          • BCI don’t know you; I don’t care about you; I don’t owe you anything more than what the law requires.

            Ooooo-K, then.  Glad we got that cleared up.

          • docjim505 — Well, you seemed to be starting from a different premises. So I thought I’d make my own premises clear.

            For the sake of further clarification: I’m not some misanthrope who passes the days looking for excuses to snarl at people. Like Martin McPhillips elsethread, I simply see no need to extend courtesy to people who don’t warrant it.

          • BC – … I’m not some misanthrope who passes the days looking for excuses to snarl at people. Like Martin McPhillips elsethread, I simply see no need to extend courtesy to people who don’t warrant it.

            I can certainly understand that and agree.  But I think a line was crossed between “not extending courtesy” and “doing harm”.

  • How exactly is sexual behavior between 2 men who implicitly/explicitly agree to be intimate partners equivalent to 2 men writing columns/comments/analysis read by as many people as they can convince to do so?

  • I started using an anonymous id several years ago because I was doing contract work with an army intel agency and did not want my comments to relieve me of a job.  🙂

    However, I moved on to other things since then and now the anonymity is no longer required.  But I got used to having this as my somewhat unmedicated online personality so I continue to use it.

  • I must TOTALLY disagree here.  Whelan was perfectly justified in this.  It is one thing to use a handle to comment on a blog because you don’t want someone spamming you. It is quite another to attack someone, including attacks on their occupation, and use the cowardly veil of anonymity to hide behind.

    When you elevate yourself from casual blogger, to writer, or professional blogger, then you ought to make yourself known, or else others will reveal you, and I am OK with that. Anonymity in general (unless its on a goof site like Fark) is not good policy for serious discussion.

  • kyle8Anonymity in general… is not good policy for serious discussion.

    Why not?  Are one’s work, ideas or opinions any better or worse if he decides (for example) to publish under the name “Mrs. Silence Dogood” rather than “Dr. Benjamin Franklin”?  Or “Publius” instead of “Alexander Hamilton”, “James Madison” or “John Jay”?

    John at Powerline opines that, “Anonymity is the curse of the internet, and the principal reason for the dismally low level of discourse that generally prevails online… If you can’t muster the gumption to say who the hell you are and stand behind your words, my view is: get lost. You have nothing to contribute.”

    I understand his opinion, but I can’t say that I agree. 

    1.  People who don’t blog for a living may have something to risk by blogging.  I would wager that many people blog during work hours; it would not be so good for them if their boss found out;

    2.  Bloggers who are popular tend to be so because people agree with their ideas and appreciate the eloquence with which they express them.  It doesn’t matter to me, for example, that I know that the real name of the popular blogger at Hot Air is Ed Morrissey; I’d respect his work even if I only knew him as “Cap’n Ed”.  By the same token, there are regular commenters here whom I know only by their pseudonyms; knowing their real names wouldn’t alter my (ahem) less than favorable opinion of their ideas.

    3.  While it MIGHT add to the level of civility if people had to give their real names (and hence had to fear a very real punch in the nose from somebody they insulted!), I suggest that anonymity is rather liberating: there is no pressure to “be polite, smile and nod” when one disagrees with a post or comment.  This is not to say that there is no standard that must be met.  Far from it: in order to be taken seriously on the better blogs, I’ve found that one had better bring his “A game” and be ready to defend his ideas with facts and a certain amount of eloquence.  There’s nothing to stop a blogger or commenter from calling people a pooh-pooh head if they disagree with him, but nobody will take him seriously and his traffic will dry up pretty quickly.

    I must say in closing that I’m surprised at the number of conservatives and libertarians who seem to think that what Whelan did is acceptable.  Punishing people for disagreeing or even being insulting is the stuff of speech codes and hate crimes legislation, in short the sort of thing I expect from narrow-minded and intolerant liberals.