Let “Common Sense” Prevail

As you may have seen, CNN is caught up in a social media controversy. One of its reporters unmasked and confronted the pseudonymous originator of a “meme”/”gif” that sees U.S. President Donald Trump standing next to a wrestling ring and suddenly smashing to the ground – World Wrestling fashion – another suited man whose head has been replaced by the CNN logo. The “gif” attracted CNN’s attention due to the fact that Trump himself tweeted it on July 2:

The CNN reporter writes that the channel would not make the person’s name public – he is not a “public figure” – as long as he does not “repeat [his] ugly behavior on social media again”:

CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.

That assertion has set a lot of the internet’s hair on fire. Some are terming it “blackmail” – and that’s perhaps the “polite” reaction.

Meanwhile, others are scribbling that because he wrote nasty stuff he deserved to be embarrassed by CNN and even “outted.”

According to CNN, the “ugly behavior” was that he had regularly posted “anti-Semitic, racist and anti-Muslim” statements.

In response, a prominent political journalist tweeted this:

Which is actually a remarkably myopic, and even naive, view coming from a journalist. Some opinion-sharers have been concealing their identities under pseudonyms since the invention of the written word. Using pseudonyms has been, and is at times still, sometimes necessary to avoid prison or worse.

The Trump/CNN video is really just a political cartoon by another name. Political cartoons are by definition cutting and satirical. Judged by that yardstick, the Trump/CNN “cartoon” is, frankly, almost bland.

The only thing that led it to stand out from a gazillion others much like it is because Trump himself saw it and for some reason tweeted it. Trump had also previously stated repeatedly that he does not consider CNN a serious news organization any longer. Because Trump tweeted it, clearly CNN felt the “cartoon’s” pseudonymous, “non-public figure” originator himself to be investigative “fair game” in terms of everything he had posted to the net in his entire life.

In a determination to get at pseudonymous trolls (and we should remember as well that pseudonymous trolls are found on ALL parts of the political spectrum), some seem to forget that some of what we consider great works on U.S. governance appeared anonymously or under pseudonyms. Just two examples. A pro-independence, early 1776 pamphlet was originally published unsigned by someone who came to be known by its title: “Common Sense.” In the late 1780s, a New York newspaper series defending the new Constitution while the legislature debated ratification, was written by a “Publius.”

We need to remind ourselves that “Common Sense” was not written in song and dance circumstances akin to the musical 1776. Many Americans believed those who backed independence were violent, traitorous radicals who deserved to be hanged, or at least thrown into dungeons. The author was risking his life in writing as he did.

Some sixty years later, pamphleteering for the abolition of slavery could have gotten you killed, too. Given that reality, early 19th century abolitionists regularly wrote using pseudonyms. For a time, William Lloyd Garrison was “Aristedes.

Recalling that, should Thomas Paine, who was tied to the authorship of “Common Sense” some months after its publication, and Garrison have had to “sign their names”…

…in order to, as that CNN anchor tweeted, “own what they said”?

One suspects, well, not, uh, err, them.

And now, we have this:

Which is, again, sadly, no surprise.

Actions, reactions, and then counteractions…

If you write for the public, when firestorms like this arise you do think about yourself and your family and friends.

I publish fiction under a pseudonym. I am well-aware it would be easy to uncover the name on my birth certificate should someone really wish to. A few of you know my real name already; and some of you have also done a little “detective work” and even guessed (correctly) who my novelist uncle was.

However, I had decided to write under that pseudonym (call it a “pen name” if you will) initially to protect the privacy of my uncle (although that he has since died, there is less reason to), other family, friends, and others who provided sources for the fictional characters in my novels.

I employed the pseudonym also because I found I felt “freer” in writing my book while using one. (As it turned out, it wasn’t to be the only book I wrote; but I decided to continue using the pseudonym.) For instance, this comes from an actual mid-1990s conversation I had about writing and my uncle that happened much like this in Paris’s famous Tuileries Garden:

[Excerpt from Passports on Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

I would not write quite as “candidly” using real names. I’ve done lots of that in four novels this far, and expect to continue to do so. It is what fiction writers often do: we harvest personal experiences and fit them into our tales. If you write, you may do much the same thing.

Are we presumably to believe this issue isn’t about novelists? It’s only about net trolls such as that “cartoon’s” creator? Fascists? Racists? Bigoted, nasty people?

As in Mr. Frum’s tweet, we are again (because this issue crops up again and again) seeing assertions that everyone will offer up far more “reasonable” opinions online if they write under their real name – meaning if they can be easily identified. I have always felt that, yes, you should write as if the entire world might see it; but even being “reasonable,” whether on the net, or in a novel, is not necessarily always going to protect you. For even if you think what you write is eminently “reasonable,” your opinion could still end up infuriating somebody or a group of somebodys who believe it is not.

Try to have a good weekend – and perhaps a pseudonymous one if you feel it is necessary – wherever you may be in our world.

Posted by

Author: “Conventions: The Garden At Paris,” “Passports,” “Frontiers,” and “Distances.” British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains...and the 1700s. New novel of 1797-1805, "Tomorrow The Grace," due out in 2019.