Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Ethics of Outing "Publius"

Just another episode in the long, sad, ugly decline of National Review, that once-formidable, now-cringeworthy home of American conservative thought: Ed Whelan outs Publius, the formerly-unidentified blogger at Obsidian Wings.

Whelan, who is the president of a right-wing think tank called The Ethics and Public Policy Center (home to such luminaries as the brilliant former senator Rick Santorum), apparently threw quite the hissy fit because Publius committed the horrible offense of noting another blogger's demonstration that Whelan's demagoguery regarding Judge Sonia Sotomayor was disingenuous bullshit.

Basically, Whelan was riffing on the right-wing refrain that Sotomayor is an activist judge, and he used as evidence a joke she made three years ago (no, I'm not kidding). Eugene Volokh, publisher of the prominent legal blog The Volokh Conspiracy and a law professor at UCLA, wrote that there was nothing wrong with what Sotomayor said. Even when Whelan revised his criticism, Volokh wrote that it "still isn't quite apt." Publius noted this exchange, said that Volokh had "decimated" Whelan's argument, and criticized Whelan (a Harvard Law grad) for "playing the role of know-nothing demagogue" in order to advance dishonest right-wing talking points. 

As it turns out, Ed Whelan does not like to be criticized. He wrote an email to Obsidian Wings and told the site he had sources about the true identity of Publius. Publius responded, saying he blogged pseudonymously for private and professional reasons, and that he preferred to keep it that way. 

That, it seems, was when the president of a think tank whose stated mission is to "reinforce the bond between the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the public debate over domestic and foreign policy issues" decided to defy the explicit wishes of Publius. Calling Publius a "coward and idiot" (and, oddly, making a hurt reference to having been called a "legal hitman" by a totally different blog), Whelan proceeded to expose the identity of Publius on NRO's The Corner. 

Publius, it turns out, is the pseudonym of John Blevins, a graduate of Yale and UVA law and a professor at the South Texas College of Law. Blevins had many reasons for remaining pseudonymous, reasons which Whelan decided to disrespect because his feelings were hurt. "One bane of the Internet," Whelan whined, "is the anonymous blogger who abuses his anonymity to engage in irresponsible attacks."

Clearly, Blevins had succeeded at getting under Whelan's (apparently thin) skin. Whelan's decision to "out" Publius brings some interesting questions to the fore. Because blogs are a relatively new medium, there is a certain ambiguity about which practices conform to blogging's etiquette. I think, though, that Whelan's actions clearly cross the line. I think bloggers - or anyone, for that matter, who is publishing original material - ought to reserve the right to remain pseudonymous in all but the most extreme of cases. What Whelan did is hardly about "exposing" an "irresponsible" antagonist, because all Blevins did was point out a third party's criticism of Whelan

No, Whelan acted for a far more sinister purpose: to silence a major critic, one whose effectiveness was undermining his credibility. He rightly assumed that Blevins had important reasons for insisting on pseudonymity, and by ending that pseudonymity, he thought he could shut Blevins up. The ability to speak freely is, in some cases, dependent upon the ability to speak pseudonymously. Whelan's think tank claims to be devoted to "individual freedom," but apparently Whelan only wants that freedom for people who agree with him. If they disagree, he'll do as much as is in his power to silence their voices.  

Furthermore, consider Whelan's weird reaction to being criticized: he informed the team at Obsidian Wings that he was "reliably informed" that Publius was a pseudonym for John Blevins. Where did Whelan get this information, and for how long was he sitting on it? Did he know, for example, that Publius was a law professor when he asserted that he lacked basic legal knowledge? The bullying, disrespectful actions he took against a legitimate critic are sadly typical of what's left of the conservative movement today: a small (and ever-shrinking) group of thin-skinned, demagogic, dishonest hyperpartisans whose devotion to political power far outweighs their devotion to even the simplest standards of decency. 

Whelan should be (but won't be) ashamed of his actions. Hopefully he won't intimidate Blevins into keeping quiet - and hopefully others won't mimic his despicable tactics. 

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