Yesterday around cocktail hour the sun was slipping over the virtual mountains when we at Tenured Radical heard the sound of galloping pony hooves. Sitting on our front porch, surrounded by boxes and half-full L.L. Bean sail bags, we squinted into the glare and saw that it was Historiann. “Hellzapoppin!” she yelled, in that instantly recognizable voice that is a cross between Dale Evans and Mary Maples Dunn. She swung handily over the pommel, skirt barely in place as usual, and dropped her reins (we were impressed to see that cow pony come to an immediate halt, like they do in the movies.) “I’m getting crazy numbers of pings from your blog!” she said, as we put a bourbon and branch in her hand. “When in ‘tarnation were you going to tell me that you were moving?”
Oops. There is so much going on at chez Radical we had neglected to announce that we are migrating from the Blogger site where we were born and raised to a Word Press platform hosted and maintained by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Tenured Radical: the 3.0 Edition will debut there shortly.
So, without further ado, I want to anticipate and answer a few questions.
Are you leaving a forwarding address? Yes. You should be able to click whatever link you are using and be forwarded directly to the new site. Over time, you might want to replace that link, but don’t worry about it now.
Will you be behind the pay wall? Nope.
Will you be edited, or censored, in any way by The Chronicle? Nope.
Will your archive move with you? Yep: hence the pinging over at Rancho Historiann. The computer people have been opening the links in 723 posts to make sure they still work on the new platform. Any problems should be reported to the management here, and we will forward them to our virtual IT friends over at the Chronicle.
Do you ever edit your posts subsequent to publication? Yes: I am a notoriously inaccurate typist, and frequently leave words out in my zeal to get ideas onto the screen and out to the world. I also occasionally edit something to assuage hurt feelings: I edited a series of posts after I “came out,” removing a few made-up stories that were versions of the truth. Even though the focus of Tenured Radical has changed dramatically since those early days to avoid the personal as much as possible, I still have to edit from time to time when people mistakenly see themselves in a post. My policy is to be attentive to the feelings of friends, students and colleagues. People I don’t know, and who I haven’t named, who claim they have suffered harm from one of my blog posts might want to look up “narcissistic personality disorder” in the DSM IV.
Have you ever taken a post down completely? There are five posts I have taken down completely. The first was about something that happened in class, a post which rightly came back to bite me in the butt, because I had no idea that everyone at Zenith knew that I was the Tenured Radical. I then removed three others that had the potential to do similar damage. However, I have since come to believe that it is simply wrong to write about students, or any other private person, without their permission — this includes children, spouses, parents, colleagues, neighbors, siblings and (fill in your relationship to me here ________.) But posts about students are the worst: written as amusing anecdotes that showcase our wit, wisdom and sorely tried patience, they are all exploitative and mean to some degree or another. I always make a point of telling my students in the first class that I will not write about them.
The other post I took down was, ironically, the post that originally brought me to the attention of a larger audience: “Where Credit is Due: Rutgers Basketball, Don Imus and Drive Time Shock” (April 2007.) In that post I asked why the national success of a team of African-American female scholar-athletes had caused them to be called sluts and whores by a major media figure. I compared the gender and racial dynamic in play at this moment to the significant support for the white, male members of a prominent lacrosse team, who were fighting felony charges that they had raped and beaten a stripper hired to entertain at the end of an all-day beer fest. It was a small part of the post, but the blogging equivalent of a hand grenade: referring to the symbolic importance of a college athletic scandal I knew little about made me the object of an ongoing attack organized by an academic blogger who was writing a commercial book about the case because he believed that the charges were false. The lacrosse players were eventually exonerated due to gross inconsistencies in the evidence, as well as multiple transgressions on the part of the prosecutor. This public official was subsequently disbarred, and is one of several parties, including the university, who have been punished by civil lawsuits filed by the young men and their families.)
What did Tenured Radical have to do with this case? Exactly nothing, except that the effort to achieve justice for the athletes dovetailed nicely with said blogger’s campaign against so-called liberal scholars. It was quite the experience to be sucked suddenly, and without warning, into a full-on battle against the forces of political correctness. Members of this blogger’s apparently vast audience threatened to sue me, maim me or get me fired. They filled my comments sections with crazed invective. They left threatening messages on my voice mail. They sent me vicious emails about what a terrible person I was, copied to numerous faculty colleagues who I am sure had no idea what a blog was or why they were supposed to care about a southern lacrosse team. They fired off numerous letters demanding my immediate termination (often with false return addresses and written in block letters) to university officers, colleagues and the Board of Trustees.
It was a strange introduction to the blogosphere. But it was also like getting an unasked for internship in a culture war I had thought was over, and that had certainly never touched me at good old Zenith. In retrospect, it was a little glimpse of that libertarian nest of snakes that would emerge a few years later as the Tea Party movement, and of the “gotcha” politics that would snag people far more important than I. On the plus side, it garnered me a ton of great readers, proving once again that there is no such thing as bad publicity as long as you don’t send anyone naked pictures of yourself.
So the question is, if there is so much good news associated with this moment, and it boosted me to academic blogosphere superstardom, why did I take the post down?
Was it because I was afraid of a lawsuit, as said blogger implied in a recent series of attacks at a neoconservative website? No. I left the Rutgers post up for a long time so that the selective quotations that made me a punching bag could be put in the context of the whole argument by a reasonable reader. However, the post came down (I still have it, actually) after a reputable source and a blogging colleague told me that the mother of one of the accused athletes had been inconsolably distressed by it. Subsequently, a pseudonymous contact claiming to be the wife of a civilian contractor in the Middle East and a friend of this woman contacted me. She amplified, in a very moving way, on the distress my post had caused in a home already under strain from the son’s legal troubles. In response, I removed the post. I asked this correspondent to convey my deepest apologies to her friend and to put us in touch if a direct apology would be helpful, something she was unlikely to get from any of the thousands of other journalists who had vilified her son and his friends.
Whether these messages ever got through, I do not know. Subsequently, I came to wonder whether the story about the mother was real or invented, because I came to wonder who this “friend” actually was (impersonation is quite common in the virtual world, as are “sock puppets,” a single person claiming to be many different commenters.) The pseudonymous correspondent abruptly cut off contact when, as part of my effort to reach out to her “friend,” I questioned the motivations and mental health of the activist blogger who had, in my view, amplified any original harm by out of context quotation and endless, public cyber-bullying of anyone who suggested that long-standing problems of violent conduct on this team had made the false charges believable to begin with. It has happened more than once that someone, operating out of the anonymous email accounts that are so easy to open, has made and cultivated contact with me and then disappeared when I voiced my view that the manic activism of this blogger, and an over the top obsession with women and people of color as chronically unworthy and/or dishonest, might be a symptom of a personality disorder.
So what have you learned, dear? When in doubt about whether a topic is combustible, stay away from it, and be very, very careful when treating statements made in the media as factual. Particularly when commenting on a topic that is likely to draw unwelcome political attention, always hedge your bets with those words we history scholars use when making an argument from inferential evidence: “perhaps,” “it seems,” and “although we cannot be sure” are all useful phrases that permit the blogger to revisit an analysis later, or make a theoretical argument that stands up to new facts and reinterpretation of old facts.
Know your enemy, and don’t reason with people who have an ax to grind. Easier said than done. However, unpleasant as it was, this episode was a great turning point for my own critical thinking about why I blogged, what I blogged, and with whom I got into pi$$ing matches.
Even when you don’t know them you are writing about real people. What one academic blogger thinks or says can’t really matter, can it? The answer to that question is that it is hard to know, and every post should be read prior to publishing with an eye to how it might be misunderstood. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write it, but when flame wars start, the intelligent work you are promoting on your blog is obscured. It is a hard, but true, fact that you only get one chance in the blogosphere, and that chance is in the original post: no amount of explanation or clarification will be adequate for your critics, who are only interested in promoting their own views. Even if we bloggers were inclined to apologize or retract in the face of unjust criticism, we live in a society that now sees every error, every slip, as evidence of severe and permanent character flaws.
Assume that you are read by everyone in your life. Half of your acquaintances who take umbrage at a post will never tell you; and half of these people also insist they would never be caught dead reading any blog, much less yours.
Is this the last post over at 2.0? Yep. The final box just went on the virtual truck. I’ll see you all over at the Chronicle in 3.0, and Historiann? Hope that pony got you home all right last night. Ponies always know where to go, even when bloggers don’t.