WHY THIS BLOG IS ANONYMOUS
[NOTE: This blog is no longer anonymous: see my profile immediately to the right. To see my complete CV, as of 2010 when I retired, click here. To see why I “came out” from anonymity, click here. I keep this post up because: (1) I have a policy of never taking posts down, while correcting errors that I find; and (2) anonymity is still a good idea for people who purport to be teachers but are not yet retired like me.] Friends and colleagues who know who I am have asked me why I keep this blog anonymous. I’ve answered that question many times. It occurred to me that other readers also might want to know the reasons. Here they are, in rough order of descending importance:
1. Ideas matter, not personalities
2. I can’t let my students know
3. Ideology is not thinking
4. You can do some good if you don’t insist on taking credit
1. Ideas matter, not personalities. I am a teacher. When I grade students’ exams and papers, I try to do so anonymously.
Over the years students have surprised me many times. Sometimes good ideas and cogent analysis came from the unlikeliest sources. Sometimes students whose classroom performance was impressive wrote things so “off the wall” as to make me laugh out loud. These things happened often enough that I am now a fanatic about anonymous grading.
I believe this experience applies to the world outside the classroom. I watch in horror and impotence as our nation devolves from a society of expertise to a society of celebrity. With the exception of the Public Broadcasting System, television (including cable) makes who says something more important than what is said. To paraphrase McLuhan, the personality is the message.
Since most people still get their news and analysis from television, this trend cheapens our public discourse and weakens our public policy. The result is policy by bumper sticker—like “stay the course”—whose effectiveness in the real world speaks for itself. (An essay on this Blog covers this subject, so I won’t elaborate here.)
In fighting this trend of celebrity, I know I am pissing into the wind. Yet I would be untrue to my principles if I let my very human desire for my own fifteen minutes of fame subvert my firm conviction that this trend weakens—and could ultimately destroy—our democratic society.
2. I can’t let my students know. My job as an educator is to teach my students how to think, not what to think. If I succumb to the temptation of trying to indoctrinate them in my views, I will fail both in educating them and in convincing them of anything important. The stronger students will reject my indoctrination because they want to think for themselves. The weaker ones will learn exactly the wrong lesson: that my authority as teacher, position and personality matter more than the validity (or lack of validity) of my ideas.
Although my teaching occasionally touches on the great issues of our day, I take great care to be neutral and noncommittal in the classroom. I hope and believe that my students have no idea where I stand personally.
Readers of this Blog know that I am no fan of the Bush Administration. Yet some of my students’ comments hint that they think I support it. That’s exactly how I want it: students have to make up their own minds.
Today virtually all students have access to the Internet. If I put my name on this Blog, my students would know where I stand on a whole range of issues within a week, if not a day. That would destroy my effectiveness as a teacher and my professionalism in the classroom. So I can’t reveal who I am at least until I retire from teaching.
3. Ideology is not thinking. Like religion, ideology today serves as a tribal identification badge. Here at home, you are either a “conservative” or a “liberal.” In the wider world, you may be a small-d “democrat”—a “believer in liberty and democracy.” If not, you may be labeled as an “authoritarian,” a “religious extremist,” or perhaps a “terrorist” or “terrorist harborer.”
These badges trivialize everyone’s views. They force us all to “join” groups with which we may only marginally agree. They divide the political world into unthinking hostile camps.
Tribal identification badges had survival value when we were primates on the savannah. If you couldn’t distinguish friend from foe quickly, you might lose food, territory, health, or even your life. As we evolved, we developed uniforms, flags and other symbols to tell one tribe from another. Ideology is just an intangible version of a flag.
The problem with ideology is that it ignores the rest of our evolution. We are a thinking, problem-solving species. Ideology replaces thinking with tribal loyalty. It neglects our species’ greatest survival value: reason and intelligence. Worse yet, it fosters enmity and conflict between different tribes. Our domestic politics over the last six years has been conclusive proof of this point.
You might think the Cold War taught us this lesson. For four decades the entire world cleaved into two hostile tribes: “Free Nations” and “Communists.” In 1962 our two tribes came within hours, if not minutes, of obliterating human civilization and the Earth’s biosphere. Yet cooler heads prevailed. We understood that the fearsome ideology of Communism—which horribly misperceives both human nature and economics—would eventually burn itself out. No one had any idea how quickly, peacefully, and dramatically that would happen until it did.
Today we have a cruel irony: we Americans are among the world’s last remaining ideologues. Europe, China, Russia, Japan, India, Pakistan, much (but not all) of South America and Africa, and most of Southeast Asia have pragmatic, thinking leaders. Leaders there try to solve problems based on facts and realistic assessments of their and others’ real interests and capabilities. Even Kim Jong Il and Robert Mugabe are pragmatic; they strive not to perpetuate an ideology, but their own twisted absolute rule. In contrast, we line up with Israel, Palestine, the jihadis, Al Qaeda, and Hugo Chavez in dividing the world into warring camps identified by tribal badges.
So what does all this have to do with my anonymity? Plenty. If you don’t know who a person is, you can’t see the tribal badge. Then you might think about what he or she has to say, rather than tribal allegiance.
Readers of this Blog will find both “liberal” and “conservative” views. I’m wholeheartedly for gay rights, i.e., complete integration of every human being into our society. I support a woman’s right to choose, but I see it as a difficult issue and a minor one in the grand sweep of history. I find others’ passionate intensity on the subject, pro and con, terrifying. I think that religion has been among the most uplifting and most destructive forces in human history, and I think it is now showing its destructive face both at home and abroad.
I also believe deeply in personal responsibility, accountability, and the power of intelligently regulated free markets. I think economics is a real science to which we all need to pay more attention. I want us out of Iraq as soon as possible, but not until we’ve tried to be a bit smarter in cleaning up at least some of the mess we’ve made. I’m against military adventurism (meaning ground combat) in Iran and foursquare for diplomacy, but I also urge strategic and tactical deterrence, including a massive buildup of non-nuclear air power.
Am I “liberal” or “conservative”? Am I a “hawk” or a “dove”? Does the tribal badge matter?
In assessing a policy, only three things matter. Does it make sense? Does it conform to our basic national values? And will it work? Answering those questions requires thinking, not faith. Ideology is irrelevant. As soon as we Americans begin to understand these points again, we’ll start recovering the ground we’ve lost to China, India and Russia, among others, over the last six years. Reviewing ideas anonymously, without badges of personality or tribe, is a small step in the right direction.
4. You can do some good if you don’t insist on taking credit. This old saw has more than a germ of truth. I’ve suggested that we use it as one of the criteria for selecting our next president.
I have enough ego to believe that some ideas and insights on this Blog are original. A few of them have appeared elsewhere with suspect timing. Their appearance might have been coincidence, but I hope they were borrowed.
My fondest desire is that this Blog, anonymous as it is, make at least a nano-contribution to more thoughtful and substantive democratic discourse.
So please feel free to take, link to, borrow or steal whatever you want from this Blog—words, ideas, phrases, paragraphs or whole essays. I might enforce my copyright against someone who steals for commercial purposes. But I will never enforce my copyright against someone who uses material on this Blog in a sincere, nonprofit effort to advance public discourse or public policy—whatever his or her position.
I don’t mind if you steal from this Blog and put your own name on the result. I don’t need the credit.
But I’d like to feel, as I age, that I have contributed, in some tiny and anonymous way, to helping our ship of state weather the stormy seas that now surround it. I’d like to help us Americans recover our position as the world’s beacon of reason, pragmatism, and common sense, ideology be damned.