Real names, nom de plumes and Narcissus

narcissus

Narcissism is the lake which every creator traverses a tightrope over when managing their public image. More than ever, the realities of self-promotion in the twenty-first century make it almost inevitable that every author, videographer, podcaster and journalist, whether fully independent or associated with a larger organisation, runs the risk of being labelled an “attention-seeker”. Continuously promoting one’s own work, trying to insert oneself into any public debate or discussion, relentlessly directing potential readers towards the servers hosting your own domain, carries with it a strong personal involvement in the labours of publicity. By definition it instinctively appears “unprofessional” to be doing it by oneself and without the work of a PR and advertising machine or an established media outlet promoting your work. As per the dreadful case of the self-establishing “media commentator”, “lawyer” “theologian”, unmasked fraud and extremist Mo Ansar who “tweeted himself into existence”, there hangs a question of moral legitimacy over which authors should be considered worth listening to, particularly when their relevance to a conversation is one asserted solely by themselves.

Unpublished and unsigned writers, indie journalists and anyone without the backing of an institution runs an operation wide open to accusations of being one of another random voice in the street simply being amplified by an unusual desire for attention. Without the gatekeepers of editors and content managers, blogs and online platforms remain the open entrance into the world of ideas for every unchecked, unconsidered and unconsidered opinion as well as opinions which might have some value. Everyone reckons something and the blogger is assumed to be just another reckoner who has decided to aggressively assert their reckonings into public discourse without consultation or approval by the established gatekeepers. Complicating this is the question of anonymity and online personas (names like ‘Guido Fawkes’, ‘Popehat’ and ‘Armoured Skeptic’) versus named and identifiable writing under a legal name, with the middle juncture being a recognisable pseudonym – a pen name with a public face, accountable for the content published under it but without projecting the creator’s personal details into the public domain.

Publishing under one’s own name carries not only the risks associated with personality cult and narcissism accusations but the pressing concern of security. If you have a fairly unique and uncommon name as part of your public persona, it can be particularly difficult to conceal yourself from the troll underworld as many politicians and political commentators in the 2010s have learned the hard way. But why should an author seek to hide themselves with a bland or search-result-buriable pseudonym?

These jumbled thoughts were part of my reasoning as I have recently been trying to revamp HistoryJack and get it to the right part of the runway for taxiing in advance of takeoff. Soon I will be publishing an extremely long article, one fitting the length of an academic journal entry but one I expect is too journalistic and everyday-speech laden to pass any peer review. Though in the age of @RealPeerReview, one must always wonder and shudder at the thought of what is possible.

The conclusion of my recent work to make HistoryJack ready for a much wider audience is the question of whether to use my own name. I have a professional life mostly separate from writing and no desire to see it or anything else interrupted and interfered with by trolls and the legions of the damned, raining frogs and all. Likewise, the pitfalls of Narcissus made a pseudonym the more appealing – to deny my own name any glory resulting from the blog and give all the credit to a partly fictive online persona would gel more closely with the current consensus. Maximise security and minimise unwanted personal attention – what could be wrong with that? Hence, for a while, I briefly adopted a nom de plume of ‘Jack S. Willis’. Taking some ancestral maiden names and some minor tweaks on my own, I thought this would be my means to get everything written here out into the world without any annexation by or of my ordinary life.

However, for a variety of reasons, the pendulum has swung towards full disclosure and the roll of the dice on my own name. I am fortunate and more recently quite grateful to be the one and only Jack Staples-Butler in the world; registers for every English-speaking country I have been able to locate online record nobody else sharing that full name. My previous writing for Nouse, The Yorker, OpinionPanel and my broadcasting work for University Radio York was all done under my own name. Of course, this was all edited and run through the gatekeepers – nothing risky or troublesome for future professional prospects. However, what explanation could I give to any satisfaction as to why I had chosen to do all this under my own name but then fled under the cover of Mr. Willis when it came to my own original content?

The confusion in the end was too much. After making the appropriate adjustments to my personal records and putting up as many security barriers as can reasonably be expected – in reality, it is not trolls but the automated data-harvesting plagues which are the main threat – I have set everything back to my own name. From henceforth, I will be writing and publishing the HistoryJack Blog under my own name and tweeting under the Twitter account I first set up in July 2012, @jstaplesbutler. Everything I write will be done with the sincerity of a willingness to defend it from all critics and if necessary before a court – though I tentatively say that the possibility of this remains extremely remote. The New York Times test for writing and blogging, that you should consider whether you would want to see your writing printed on the front page of the Times under your own name with your profile photo next to it, is one I would happily take.

Provided they would remunerate.

… – Jack

A major post coming soon…

There will soon, on HistoryJack.com or possibly another medium which will be linked to here, be a long-form article of 8,000 words in length on a subject of immense importance which has until now escaped the attention it should be getting.

It will be published in the New Year for 2017.

For now, enjoy an image of the White Mountain National Forest region of New Hampshire taken at the end of summer.

… – Jack

Revival, Redirection and Writing What Exactly?

HistoryJack as a blog has been noticeably silent for the past year save for the occasional reblog and a drip-drip of Twitter activity. Whilst the primary reason for this diversion away from regular updates has been the completion of my undergraduate studies, there has been a secondary concern pressing against the existence of the blog itself; namely, the benefits or purpose of continuing to maintain a blog in my own name on an academic subject. In fact, I now write under a slight pseudonym partly for the excitement and anticipation of one day joining the illustrious list of pseudonymous authors, but for the more practical security concerns raised by the realities of modern publishing. Expanding this blog into more regular and opinionated political writing has been a prospect considered with great trepidation. Online abuse and trolling has become more prominent throughout 2015 and 2016 and even a leading theme in the UK Labour Leadership contest and even the U.S. Presidential Election. Now everyone, whether controversial or not, has the potential to become a new Salman Rushdie, Jyllands Posten or Charlie Hebdo.

 

One article published this week in the American conservative magazine National Review details the horrific and systematic campaign of intimidation, abuse and harassment suffered by the columnist David French at the hands of Trump supporters displeased with his opposition to the candidate. His detailing of the terror launched against him and many other writers from within the conservative opposition to Trump makes for stomach-churning reading. The work was done by hundreds of different accounts and IP addresses, attackers combing the Internet to rake up the personal information of victims and invade their lives before deluging them with abuse; this ranged from fantastical obscenities like portraying French’s children in gas chambers, to credible threats of murder citing home addresses and breaching telephone lines during private conversations. This reflects the experiences of seemingly every writer, commentator and public figure who isn’t a True Believer of the anti-establishment, anti-mainstream, anti-everything ascendancy on the political right and left in the Western Hemisphere.

 

Having witnessed many authors and public figures I admire and follow being driven to secrecy, pseudonyms or even offline altogether, the purpose of running this blog became more questionable. Writing is the harvest of thought, whether of ripened or poisoned fruits, and abandoning it for future security considerations alone would be a betrayal of those who persist in the face of the tsunami of hate and violence. While I remain in what Richard J. Evans called the “decent obscurity” of the historian, a sheltered existence of academic spats not reaching public consciousness, keeping the blog going would seem self-evidently safe and justified. However, renewing the license for this domain name was a decision taken with some apprehension. Refocusing the blog away from academic history and towards current affairs was a plan I had envisaged should I decide to give the archives and conferences a heave-ho in favour of something else. As it happens, since my last major activity, I have been pursuing a legal career and gave strong consideration to retiring HistoryJack to the archives and keep any future political and cultural writing to larger, more impersonal forums such as Medium, eventually graduating to editorialised platforms like the brilliant Little Atoms or the likes of New Humanist, Left Foot Forward or Standpoint. This is done in the awareness of the tightrope that writers in the digital age walk between the necessity of being an self-publicising, self-proclaimer of importance and relevance on the one side, and the self-inventing fraudulence of “tweeting oneself into existence” on the other. Any successful writer must, whilst walking that delicate balance of humility and self-publicity, be an attention-seeker towards their work and a successful articulator of why their voice should be heard – how else would new writers get a foothold in commentary and reviews? But the aggressive, social media-based self-marketing now expected of any would-be author of note makes it difficult to follow The Cash and Walk the Line.

 

A good rule of thumb to start with would be to avoid involving oneself in, or deliberately starting conflicts by Twitter handle, the unpublished and unknown opinionator punching to the weight of professional journalists, academics and broadcasters and demanding to be let into their world with their musings on an equal footing. This is not to disregard the work of amateur bloggers and writers who can produce major criticisms and improvements on the work of the professionals; some of the greatest works of human insight were produced by autodidacts and non-scholars like Eric Hoffer. Long-read critiques and discussions are quite different to charging into existing discussion spheres demanding recognition; with the right commitment of energy and intellectual dexterity, a previously obscure author can produce work of praiseworthy quality and relevance.

 

One of my own favourite everyman commentators, a non-scholar with a knack for producing incisive and original content is the podcaster Godless Spellchecker, an office worker named Stephen Knight who makes no pretences to theological or historical grandiosity. He recognises as a given that he does not possess the professional standing or qualifications to challenge religious leaders to public debates, insist indignantly that the Journal of Contemporary History publish an article detailing his thoughts on global jihadism or demand a platform on BBC’s Hard Talk. Instead, GSpellchecker plumbs the depths of pseudo-scholars, quacks, frauds, woo peddlers and Internet wisdom warlocks whom professional journalists have neither the time nor the wherewithal to devote resources and column-inches to refuting and debunking. He fights the intellectual battles that need to be fought, against the avalanche of pseudo-knowledge defined by Brandolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry Principle. It takes little work for a self-proclaimed expert or ‘journalist’ to pump garbage stories about chemical trails, miracle cancer cures or the melting point of steel beams into the online atmosphere – and much time-consuming work to refute it satisfactorily for the general public. GSpellchecker excels at this, and does so with wit. One post from November 2015 in particular highlights with brevity how diluted and easily applicable professional and honorific titles have been made by the digital age:

“Now anyone can slap ‘Journalist’ or ‘Social Commentator’ in their Twitter bio and away they go. It may even earn you an invite to the telly studio as a talking head if you build a significant following.”

Consider ‘the curious case of Mo Ansar’. As LBC’s Iain Dale stated, “He invented himself as a rent-a-quote commentator”. Or even within the professional ranks of established media figures, the lamentable case of Johann Hari, the once-vaunted Independent columnist and young Orwell Prize winner whose exposure for plagiarism overshadowed additional troubling evidence of intellectually dishonest practices. It was not just the taking and driving away of other writers’ work, it was the systematic self-promotion by sockpuppets, Wikipedia editing and manipulation of his own public image, along with harassment of critics, that makes him a cautionary example. The pitfall from the tightrope faced by any new author is to avoid following in the footsteps of the Ansars and Haris, whose elevation from authorial obscurity to fame and relevance in little time seemed to preclude any question as to why they were being made to, as Nick Cohen put it, “seem one of the essential writers of our times”. As a counter-example of an author genuinely engaging in a field outside their immediate specialism, the thriller and espionage novelist Jeremy Duns has a splendid sideline in exposing plagiarism, fraud, sock-puppetry and abuse by authors and other public figures in his spare time and has written extensively and quite bravely on Ansar, Hari and many others whose desire for a place in the history books led them and their readers into the discursive abyss.

 

In every online dispute or argument  between an established author and a new critic, or a political figure and an angry upcoming cultural theorist, rests an unsolved dilemma regarding equality of opportunity or outcome in the selection of ‘real’ writers and critics. Just who should be taken seriously and listened to? When does an online commenter become a respected and panel appearance-worthy commentator? It is rather similar to an unanswerable question of what constitutes fame and the status of a celebrity or ‘real’ celebrity. Who is a ‘real’ writer fit to be part of a public discussion? There being no objective standard or any litmus test measurable in metrics, we are left with the perennial uncertainty of the fairness as to inviting on one proponent of a perspective over another. At the very least, certain conduct should preclude one from a serious role in mainstream culture, not least the abuse and cyber-terrorism which has driven respected authors into hiding and behind walls of personal protection.

 

All of this should be on the mind of any author in the English-speaking world setting out to establish themselves. Presumptively dragging individuals you do not know into contrived Twitter rows, lassoing different figures together in arguments started by yourself, as Ansar frequently did (and still does) is not a decent way to ‘burst onto the scene’ as a writer or anything else. The wells of discussion and notification alerts have been poisoned enough long before a new writer sets out to create a buzz by compulsively tweeting their own thoughts, comments and hit-pieces to politicians and columnists on an hourly basis.

 

With all this in mind, anyone reading this blog should expect to see more direct critiques appearing soon and any inevitable response from critics appearing in the comment sections. My plans for the next few months of posting are still under wraps however, considering the cautionary position outlined above which I hope will help me steer the blog through the choppy waters of ‘new author’ status. There will be critiques and responses to the works of others and a long-read of sorts is currently planned which, if it gained wide attention, will attract harsh criticism in its own right for its treatment of the contemporary Corbyn-supporting British Left. I plan also to take part in public debates on various topics, taking HistoryJack on the road as a home for ideas rooted in the Enlightenment tradition. These will include expositions of thought on some quite controversial topics including the present culture wars taking place mainly on campuses and in the publishing industry over safe spaces, trigger warnings and the ‘social justice’ culture which broadly encompasses the new authoritarian discourse on the political left across the Western Hemisphere. All works in progress which I hope will reflect the value of caution briefly outlined above.

 

This is the first of what I hope will be many posts here reflecting an active role in political and cultural writing. One day I hope to expand to writing for larger and more widely circulated publications and platforms but it will be a long road to walk before I can go a few rounds with writers like James Bloodworth, author of the fantastic new tome on British social division, The Myth of Meritocracy and a prolific chronicler of the many moral catastrophes which have blighted the left in recent years, not least the foreign affairs of Jeremy Corbyn. May this blog be tempered by humility and a perpetual err to the side of caution.

 

Lest I or anyone involved in contributing to HistoryJack becomes another self-inventing ‘essential writer of our times’, or fall into dismal and indecent obscurity, may we return to Freud’s less apocryphal and more truthful aphorism; “The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing.”