I’ve linked to Steven Den Beste almost since I started this site, not because I agree with his viewpoints — more often than not, I don’t — but because even when I disagree with him I find him very thought-provoking, and generally enjoyable to read. It’s not uncommon for me to finish reading one of his posts and think, “He’s wrong”; but not until the last few days have I read a post of his — two, in this case, here and here — have I said afterwards, “How disappointing.”
Den Beste’s strength is almost always in the formulation of his arguments. He presents his viewpoints with a great deal of logical rigor; he shows that he has carefully considered his premises and frequently he’ll provide extensive justification for them alone before proceeding with his conclusion. This can lead to some very long posts indeed, but that’s fine with me. (For the most part, anyway. His recent epic analysis of the scientific plausibility of the film Reign of Fire went over the top, but even he admitted so.) I find it sad, then, that he so eagerly employs rhetorical misdirection, non sequitur, and argumentum ad hominem in a recent flap with Demosthenes.
He recently announced that he was planning to search for “an intellectually honest antiwar voice in the blogosphere”. Judging by the post in which this announcement appears, he considers “intellectual honesty” to consist of logical argumentation, presentation of alternative courses of action, and avoidance of fallacious reasoning and fuzzy thinking. And judging by the two posts that disappointed me, he has not found those things in Demosthenes. The problem is, he does not demonstrate this. Instead, he goes another route: he questions Demosthenes’s sincerity and background, now basically insisting that because Demosthenes does not post under his real name, nothing can be known of his background and thus his arguments cannot properly be evaluated. But more than that, he ascribes certain motivations to Demosthenes for wishing to remain pseudonymous, motivations that he creates out of whole cloth. Steven says the following:
When someone won’t even reveal his name, it should set off alarm bells unless he provides a legitimate reason for keeping it secret. If someone is confident about what they’re saying, they should be willing to own up in public to holding those opinions. A person who debates anonymously may not be wrong, but you should certainly be far more skeptical about anything they say.
All of this is, though, totally irrelevant. A logical argument is a logical argument, regardless of who advances it or why. I am disturbed that Steven, who is normally so stringent in his own logic and insistent on similar rigor in his opponents’ arguments, has drawn the line here. It seems to me that I should be equally skeptical of Steven and Demosthenes; not because one posts under his own name and one doesn’t, or because one uses a quality commercial program to update his blog on a server that he himself owns and one uses a free (if temperamental) blogging tool to update his blog that is hosted on a free server, or for any other reason. I should be equally skeptical of both because both are advancing arguments. That is the only reason for skepticism.
Now, knowing someone’s background can certainly illuminate their motives. Knowing the business background of George W. Bush, for example, I am skeptical of his motives for wishing to drill for oil in ANWR and for his general ambivalence about conservation strategies. But that still has no bearing on the actual question of whether we should drill there. Likewise, I am skeptical about President Clinton’s decision to launch a military strike on the very day that the impeachment vote was to be held — but that does not imply, in itself, that the military strike in question was unnecessary.
Secondly, Steven interprets Demosthenes’s decision to use a pseudonym as “shame”, as in, “D. is ashamed of what he writes”. This is simply not borne out by what D. has written of his pseudonymity. It could be true; but then, I could also think of any number of other possible motivations based on what he has said on the subject. Thus, in the absence of a definitive word on D.’s motivations, Steven employs a Strawman. (And as he demonstrates here, he is quite aware of what a Strawman is.) And still, it has no bearing whatsoever on the logical validity of his arguments or, more importantly, the moral authority of his arguments. This seems to be Steven’s real sticking point: he provides no analysis at all of D.’s arguments as logical constructs (at least, not in these posts; he has done so in the past and now I must wonder why he has suddenly stopped). Instead, he questions D.’s moral authority. This is a red herring. As Plato argued in the Euthyphro: “What is moral is not moral because the Gods love it; rather, the Gods love what is moral because it is moral.” Or, put another way:
Moral authority does not come from whether or not one uses one’s real name. Moral authority comes from advancing a view that is morally correct.
If D.’s position is the moral one, then that is all the moral authority that he needs. To insist that he provide background information, to properly demonstrate his moral authority, is to ignore the logic and instead focus on the person. This is utterly fallacious. In Steven’s words: Demosthenes would, I suspect, respond to that: “Listen to the arguments, not to the arguer.” But if the arguments are convincing, then why doesn’t the voice who presents them act as if he believes them? Well, consider the reverse: if the arguments are not convincing, then why does it matter in the slightest how the voice who presents them acts? If a token of sincerity is to be demanded before an argument will even be listened to, then I wonder how Steven can justify disregarding what might be the ultimate form of sincerity: the willingness of the Palestinians to blow themselves up, as long as they take some Jews with them. But, as Steven adroitly points out here, logic has little to do with sincerity. Or some illusory standard of “moral authority”.
Finally, I must ask one more thing: what would knowing D.’s real name actually prove? What would it establish? You don’t really know anything about D. right now, and knowing his real name wouldn’t change that (unless, of course, he happens to be someone famous — but then that would probably fall under Steven’s qualifier of “a legitimate reason” for pseudonymity). Steven says, By posting under a pseudonym, Demosthenes in his person is accountable to no-one. He can lie, cheat, distort, deliberately deceive, or libel with impunity, because there are no potential consequences for him in doing so. But all of this is true of people who use their own real names; witness some of the invective spouted by such shoddy thinkers as Jerry Falwell or Ann Coulter. A real name no more implies “truth” than a false one suggests the possibility of “falsehood”. In fact, this is something that Steven once even admitted in this post, in which he writes in part: You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me. You can’t tell what kind of person I am from what I write here. I only show you what I want to show you, and some of what I show you is deliberately faked. You can’t judge my behavior by what you see here, because you don’t know what I do in real life. Steven, it appears, wishes to have it both ways: when convenient, he can claim, “You know nothing about me because I make some it up”; and when convenient, he can ignore an opponent on the exact same grounds.
And finally: I myself post under a pseudonym, which I assume is OK with Steven because I rarely if ever delve into the political world. But even so, I feel I should perhaps say why I do so. It’s not out of embarrassment, shame, or anything else. I use this journal to explore my own ideas about art — mainly books, music and film. Just about all of my close friends know about the blog, and they know who I am. My pseudonym is taken from a comic book from the 1980s called Six From Sirius; I started using it as an AOL screenname and I’ve grown used to it. I don’t conceal my background, but I don’t include a bio, either; perhaps I should. Suffice it to say, though, a casual reader of my blog knows that I write fantasy and horror (although I am as yet unpublished) stories and am working on a novel; that I live in Buffalo, NY; that I am a fan of the Buffalo Bills an the Pittsburgh Pirates; that I love figure skating; that Berlioz is my favorite classical composer; that I adore film music; that my favorite author is Guy Gavriel Kay; that my favorite movie is Star Wars (and that I consider The Phantom Menace a good movie); that I attended college in Iowa (specifically, at Wartburg College; that I majored in Philosophy and minored in Music; and that I am married with a daughter who is three. I’ve probably revealed even more than that about myself, and I’m sure I will reveal more as time goes on. I’m not “concealing” my name; I just don’t find it terribly relevant to what I have to say here. Of course, that will change when I finally break into print, because I plan to publish under my real name — at least to start with, because there are vagaries of the publishing world that make pseudonyms necessary for business. (To assume that writers use pseudonyms as a means of “avoiding the pressures of fame” is, quite frankly, an example of ignorance of realities in the publishing world. Many authors use pseudonyms because their early works, published under their own names, didn’t sell and therefore publishers won’t take the chance on publishing more under that name. It’s an effect of the “blockbusterization” of publishing, where the backlist is nearly dead and the midlist is shrinking ever faster, and where authors used to be given six or seven books to get into best-seller territory, now they have to do it in two or three.) When that happens I will, of course, plaster a gigantic announcement to that effect here. And now, on with The Show.