finem respice

The Curse (Blessing) Of Anonymous Speech

Submitted by ep on Sun, 05/17/2009 - 23:49
they'll kill you one of two ways

These pages have commanded a great deal of attention (not all of it positive or constructive) for relating the recollections of a lone hedge fund manager alleging acts by the present administration that, to these eyes at least, at least flirt with if not outright cross the line between hard negotiation and coercion or, perhaps, even extortion. As has become somewhat routine, attacks directed at finem respice in this connection tend to include references to the reliability (or lack thereof) of anonymous speech. It takes very little analysis to boil down the complaints of such detractors to a basic and simple premise: anonymous speech is prima facie less reliable than what I will call "credited speech." This is a patently absurd and dangerous premise.

In the most recent manifestation of this premise, Adrian Stewart comments on the May 4th, 2009 finem respice piece "Less Than Desired Duplication" thus:

Respectfully, it's hard to credit the anonymous sources of an anonymous author.1

As a first order analysis Mr. Stewart is mistaken when it comes to some fundamental facts. Firstly, I am not an anonymous author. I am a pseudonymous author. I have a reputation going back three years and three months with literally hundreds of thousands of words of my prose with which to assess my political leanings (to the extent these are important), my propensity to offer evidence in support of conclusions, and my view on matters ranging from finance to flying to philosophy. Readers have easy, searchable access to every letter I've written publicly with this pseudonym going back to day one. I dare say this body of text presents a deeper view of me to the critical reader than Mr. Stewart's Facebook page reveals of him.

True, we might suspect he has "leftist" (or at least "anti-torture" if not "anti-Cheney") leanings owing to his entries on Facebook. True, he has revealed that he was a member of the intelligence community on the military side (to the extent this can be verified). True, we can quite easily conclude that he is not a fan of Karl Rove. But let us ask: Does this make it more or less likely that we would credit his word were he to claim that a hedge fund manager told him X, Y or Z without wanting to be quoted? Or to cite the concerns of some intelligence insider on the subject of torture? For the purposes of discussion, hereinafter let us call this theoretical recollection of Mr. Stewart's "The Claim."

I submit to you, dear readers, that Mr. Stewart's political leanings, or his view of torture or Karl Rove are irrelevant to The Claim. Nothing in Mr. Stewart's self-identifying discourse on Facebook gives us any real information about his veracity with respect to the claim that he met an administration official who recollected to him, unless our long-standing online relationship with him leads us to credit him subjectively with a some lack of integrity. Aside from the pure volume of speech (where I think I have him beat), Mr. Stewart and I stand on the same ground in this respect.

True, somewhere there is probably a social security number that maps to Mr. Stewart's name. True, somewhere there is probably a criminal record (or lackthereof) that attaches to Mr. Stewart's social security number. But then, let us ask the relevance of this:

Absent a successful civil action for libel or the like, could we discount "The Claim?"

Absent a conviction of forgery, or fraud, could we discount "The Claim?"

Would you trust your babysitter if she were a tax cheat? Probably more so, actually- and she almost certainly is unless she is declaring that $50 in cash you just handed her as income. (Of course, you will have filed out and submitted the appropriate 1099 forms as well).

But leaving this aside, I should like to explore the premise of Stewart's argument "...it's hard to credit the anonymous sources of an anonymous author." At that point I should like to ask: Why should this be?

One of the profound things about anonymous speech is that it focuses attention away from the speaker and onto the speech. It is no accident that this passage quoting The Economist's legendary Geoffrey Crowther graces finem respice's "about" page:

Many hands write The Economist, but it speaks with a collective voice. Leaders are discussed, often disputed, each week in meetings that are open to all members of the editorial staff. Journalists often co-operate on articles. And some articles are heavily edited. The main reason for anonymity, however, is a belief that what is written is more important than who writes it. As Geoffrey Crowther, editor from 1938 to 1956, put it, anonymity keeps the editor "not the master but the servant of something far greater than himself. You can call that ancestor-worship if you wish, but it gives to the paper an astonishing momentum of thought and principle."

Mr. Stewart does not directly claim that I have, in effect, fabricated the facts behind the finem respice entry in question. He does not, I think, directly refute:

  • That the manager in question was involved in the Chrysler bankruptcy.
  • That the manager had an encounter with "Car Czar" Steven Rattner.
  • That Rattner uttered, in substance, the material I cited.

But his accusation is intended to give the reader this impression with a sort of psychological sleight of hand, and careless critics will be prone to dismiss as entirely without merit these claims without further scrutiny- and this despite similar claims in offered in public by "credited sources."

A similar sort of nonsense appears to be at work with a controversy over at Zero Hedge regarding a Daily Telegraph article by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard that quoted Mark Patterson widely thumping TARP as a farce.2 A Zero Hedge contributor quips to finem respice thus:

It is very odd because in demanding that we take down the original article Patterson's people would have us believe that because the Daily Telegraph pulled the article it must therefore have been totally without even a semblance of fact. We have been accused of knowingly distributing a totally false bit of propaganda. The grounds for this accusation are that the pulling of the article establishes it without a doubt to be totally false. There are any number of reasons the article was pulled. The reporter may have violated internal policy over at the Telegraph. Perhaps the event was supposed to be "off-the-record." Perhaps there was political pressure. Who knows.

Erudite readers of finem respice could be forgiven for doubting that an established writer like Evans-Pritchard would have fabricated entirely the public comments of a speaker at an event uttered in the presence of dozens of witnesses. It is a very short intellectual trip from there to wonder if it isn't precisely Mr. Evans-Pritchard's public profile and the "respectable" facade of his publication (we are giving the Telegraph the benefit of the doubt here, of course) that makes him subject to political pressure to suppress published material. It is again a short leap for the finem respice reader to wonder, given this experience with the Telegraph, if there aren't some cases where anonymous speech might not be more credible than credentialed speech.

It is true, anonymous (and to a lesser extent pseudonymous) speech robs readers of the ability to engage in ad hominem attacks. But what loss is this really?

Would the reader be less likely to credit finem respice on learning that the author had a criminal record for disorderly conduct at Cubs Games? (For the record, I do not).

Would the reader be less likely to credit finem respice on learning that the author voted for Mickey Mouse in the last presidential election? (Just to be clear, I did not).

Any content of sufficient importance to make veracity an issue should be able to stand on its own irrespective of the proclivities of the author. Even permitting the credentials of the author to color this issue is a mistake, much less allowing the absence of reputation to be used as some sort of suppressive trump card. This is, in effect, what Stewart asks of the reader. This is intellectually sloppy in the extreme.

It would be quite easy to defend anonymous speech, particularly dissident speech, and cite numerous and obvious examples ad nauseum (the Federalist Papers are a venerable, if well-worn, example) but I would despair if this should be necessary in the context of finem respice's audience.

Mr. Stewart, chooses to add later in private email his belief that minority secured creditors were, in any event, in a weak negotiating position and that this, somehow, excuses any conduct by any other party. This, of course, misses the point entirely. Without torturing the point, it seems to escape many commentators that a 363 sale is traditionally intended to preserve assets prone to spoilage, like produce and such. Using it to fundamentally alter the distribution of assets in accordance with absolute priority is a strict no-no and makes a mockery of the very premise of Chapter 11. I find it incredible that anyone would argue otherwise, particularly given that the majority of senior creditors are so badly conflicted by their status as TARP wards that it could not possibly be said that anything approaching fairness is present here. It will emerge to anyone willing to spend the time learning the law that we don't need Mr. Stewart's social security number to realize that his understanding of bankruptcy here is fundamentally flawed.

  1. 1. As Mr. Stewart selected a public forum (Facebook) to air his grievances, finem respice assumes he has no objection to their re-publication here.
  2. 2. "Daily Telegraph Removes Mark Patterson Interview," Zero Hedge (May 15, 2009).
[Art Credit: RW Goodwin "The Blessing Way," Film (March 1, 2001), From The Author's Private Collection. The irrepressible John Nevelle as The X-Files' "Well Manicured Man" though likely better known for his role in "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," it is difficult for any fan to suppress a chill on hearing him intone "I am a member of a kind of consortium. We represent certain global interests."]

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