Today, Anonymous Would Be Illegal

Does anybody remember the Primary Colors scandal?  In 1996, the novel of that name (later to become a motion picture) was published.  It is set in the inner circles of Washington, and its characters are thinly disguised simulacra of the Clinton administration’s high and mighty political figures and their opponents.  Its author went by the name of  “Anonymous.” 

For six months after the novel came out, “Who is Anonymous really?” was the favorite cocktail party game in DC, and in the NY publishing world.  Including Newsweek.  Somebody at Newsweek got the idea that “Anonymous” might be their own columnist, Joe Klein.  So they asked him.  Naturally, he denied it.  A couple of months later, it was finally revealed that Joe Klein was “Anonymous.” 

I would have expected the public reaction to be either “So what?” (among those who really didn’t care) or “Hah! You owe me five bucks!” (among those who did.)  Instead, there was another burst of finger-pointing and hand-wringing about “dishonesty in journalism.” 

I’m not altogether clear whether the dishonesty is supposed to have resided in Klein’s use of a pseudonym (anonym?) in the first place, or in his denying it when asked.  But what’s the point of using a pseudonym if one is required to admit it the first time anybody thinks to ask? In any case, Newsweek apologized to the public in general, and Klein apologized to Newsweek. 

So much for George Eliot, George Sand, Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, Patience Dogood, George Orwell, James Tiptree, Malcolm X, J, P, E, and D, and all the Anonymouses who stayed anonymous. (For the uninitiated, in order of appearance, these were the pseudonyms of: Mary Anne Evans, Aurore Dupin Dudevant, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte, Benjamin Franklin, Eric Blair, Alice Shelton, Malcolm Little, and the purported authors of the Yahwist, Priestly, Elohist, and Deuteronomist strands of the Hebrew Scriptures.)  We have apparently decided that, while automotive homicide is a mere traffic offense and failure to tell one’s sexual partner about a positive HIV test is a matter of privacy, using a pseudonym is “dishonest.”

It used to be possible to write for money under a pseudonym that concealed the writer’s name even from the publisher.  The check would come in under the name “Joe Blow,” and the author (Jane Doe, let’s say) would then endorse it “Joe Blow pay to the order of Jane Doe” and deposit it in Jane Doe’s account.  Apparently banks really don’t like that kind of arrangement now.  Aside from which, most publishers now insist on getting social security numbers from their writers, so as to be able to send out 1099 forms at the end of the year and keep themselves and the writers kosher with the IRS.   

So okay, the authors of this blog are using multiple pseudonyms, and, since we’re not getting paid, at least it isn’t a legal hassle.  But it is an infringement on The System’s current mania for total honesty on the part of ordinary people. 

Remember when a plane ticket was the equivalent of a bearer-negotiable document, which you could buy any time, make a reservation on at any later time, return for complete refund any time, or just sell or give it to anyone else to use?  If you paid the proper sum for it, it was yours, no questions asked.  Remember being able to walk into a public building without identification?  Remember not having to have a Social Security number until you were actually working?

Or remember cash?  Remember being able to just walk into a place of business, plunk down your money, and walk out with the desired merchandise? Today, some stores (most notably Radio Shack) ask you for your name and address when you make a cash purchase.  I usually either refuse, or tell them my name is Emma Goldman and my address is Waldheim (the cemetery in Chicago’s western suburbs where Emma Goldman is, in fact, buried.)  This may actually be a criminal act, but so far I’ve lucked out.

We are giving up a lot of privacy with very little thought.  The blogosphere may be one of the last refuges of anonymity.  Let’s hang out here together, shall we?

Red Emma

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2 Responses to “Today, Anonymous Would Be Illegal”

  1. atentia Says:

    Thanks for that interesting read! It’s scary, what is going on, but be assured, this happens all over the place: Austria is big in surveillance (cameras all over the place and spying on Computers) and Germany plans on using a governmental Trojan. Hm, just thinking, that this may not put such a bad view on Pseudonyms as they are able to look them all up on your Computer… or Facebook, or Googles Databases… Anyway, stay alert and as resistent as possible.

  2. wiredsisters Says:

    Cameras actually don’t bother me that much. When you go out in public, you expect to lose some privacy. Your face (unless you’re a woman in Afghanistan) becomes public knowledge, and having it photographed doesn’t really make it more public, just more permanent. But your IDEAS should be private, if you want them that way.

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