Blogging Anonymously and Decorum

I guess I should be writing a political blog; I would get a lot more comments.

But this isn’t a political blog.

When I wrote,

“Here’s my approach to these interviews; I think that verbal combat is an important element of the fire that forges better ideas. But I want that verbal combat to center around the ideas that are under discussion, not the people who voice the ideas.”

I did not intend to censor anyone (I have a hard time seeing how the comment could be read that way, especially when most of the comments are coming from people who have their own self-published blogs). I just meant that Bill Schambra has some ideas that are worth discussing. Namely, 1) attacking the root causes of social problems is a waste of time, 2) foundations don’t examine the work they do and instead he believes there is a “conspiracy of silence” when it comes to their “grand failures”, 3) that nonprofits and foundations should not strive for business-like efficiency, because the current “messiness, amateurism, and the sloppiness” serves a critical need of civil society. Read/listen to my interview with him for his thoughts on each subject. Holden Karnofsky has been highly critical of Schambra’s points (here, here, here and here), but he’s addressed the points on their merits.

I think that each of these viewpoints is worthy of discussion. Does Bill have a political motive behind his views? Yes, and frankly I don’t really care. Understanding his political motives may shed light on his thinking, but each of the three topics above can be addressed directly instead of de-legitimizing his arguments by exposing his “ulterior motives”.

Phil Cubeta wants this conversation to be an alley fight. I don’t. On Phil’s blog, there is a carnival atmosphere, where the fun is in the masks people where. I like a good carnival. But I’m not holding a carnival here.

I got an email today from the person who writes Gates Keepers Blog. This is an anonymously written blog that is highly critical of The Gates Foundation. I’ve objected to their anonymity in the past and they noticed my disapproval of a recent anonymous comment. They asked:

I can see that you don’t like anonymous comments on TP. You’ve just re-iterated your point in the Schambra comments. I see your point that there is more value to an anonymous posting when the context if not the identity of the commenter is given.

Would you consider making a posting outlining points that anonymous commenters should provide as *context*. I can’t speak for others but I need to completely protect my identity while adding value to the my comments for the good of the community.

Great question. I think that anonymity should be avoided whenever possible. However, I can think of lots of cases where it is unavoidable and the statements are better made anonymously than not at all. For instance, if you were an employee of the Gates Foundation who felt that there were some ways the foundation could be doing things better. Or if you were a fundraiser who thought there were a lot of ways that fundraising is done that is wrong and that donors don’t know about. Or if you are at a Carnival and playing various roles is the way that truth is told. If the Gates Keeper Blog would simply say, “We are employees of the Gates Foundation”, or “We are Microsoft Employees”, or “We are consultants who were previously engaged by the Gates Foundation. The relationship went sour when we saw how bad things were under the hood and we decided to write this blog to let the world know. However, we’d never get another consulting job if other foundations knew we were writing this and frankly being foundation consultants is how we pay the bills.”

What I object to is anonymous comments that appear to be someone saying something that they don’t want to be associated with. Let’s look at the anonymous comment from the comment thread:

Don’t blow out the lamp yet. Says Bill about evidence that foundations do not conspire to remain silent: “…first I’ll have to read…ummm, reread the reports so it may take a while.” Bill, how convenient. You make an accusation. Sean points out that you might be off base. You acknowledge you read the reports, but claim foggy memory. And, then say you’re obviously too busy to refresh your memory. It’s not just your memory that’s foggy. It’s the way you won’t own up to being wrong. Could that be the “root cause” of what makes other of your claims suspect?

Frankly, I was disappointed that Bill was unable to comment on the reports as well, since his complaint that foundations don’t examine their failures rings hollow when he says he hasn’t read two recent, major examples of foundations doing exactly what he has called for. There’s nothing wrong with saying that. I would guess that the anonymous comment came from someone who has a job to protect, but if you don’t want to be identified with your views, than maybe you need to take a pass this time. If the anonymity allowed you to say something that few other people could say (like in the examples of acceptable anonymity above) than the compromise is worth it. But it is not worth it to use anonymity so that you can say something you aren’t willing to put your name behind when the comment is a simple observation that people in other roles could say as well.

I mentioned I don’t mind anonymity in the context of a Carnival, such as when “Missy Proctor” mocked me (note: that link is to a website that is probably the only philanthropy website that might be considered “not safe for work”). But on that site, the Carnival context rules. As I said, I like Carnivals, but I’m not throwing one on Tactical Philanthropy.

I have to admit to a mistake of my own. Before the interview, a discussion occurred on Gift Hub about potential questions to ask Schambra. I posted a comment objecting to the pre-planed questions on the grounds that the questions should be in reaction to the interview (which had not been posted yet). That’s when Phil told me, “Don’t wimp out, Sean. Either you play Bill or he plays you. That is his job.” The fact is, I shouldn’t have objected. Gift Hub is Phil’s blog and in the Gift Hub context, Schambra’s potential ulterior, conservative motives is highly relevant.

William Schambra is a conservative. Phil Cubeta is a liberal. Great. Now let’s talk about philanthropy.


  1. Holden says:

    Who cares about anonymity? Just judge whatever people write on the merits. Problem solved.

    None of the critiques of anonymity I’ve seen explain why that isn’t an a good solution.

    Anyway, it’s not as though the quality of questions and criticisms from the non-anonymous posters has been any better on that thread. If anything I wish Mr. Schambra had done the interview anonymously; then perhaps we might be able to have a conversation about what he said.

  2. Fair enough. I like your point about Bill having been anonymous. It is not so much the individual anonymous comment that is the problem, it is more of a policy issue. People say very different things online than they do in person. Even with your name attached, you are shielded to some extent. There are good and bad things about this. Anonymity makes the poster even one more step removed from the fact they are speaking with other real humans. I think it is an important tool that the internet age has brought along with it. But if used regularly, without much reason, it leads to a breakdown of communication.

  3. Phil says:

    To insist on the literal, when it comes to personal identity, is ill-bred. Below is from The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde:

    Jack. It isn’t Ernest; it’s Jack.

    Algernon. You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to every one as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn’t Ernest. It’s on your cards. Here is one of them. [Taking it from case.] ‘Mr. Ernest Worthing, B. 4, The Albany.’ I’ll keep this as a proof that your name is Ernest if ever you attempt to deny it to me, or to Gwendolen, or to any one else. [Puts the card in his pocket.]

    Jack. Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country, and the cigarette case was given to me in the country.

    In the world where money, legislation, philanthropy, and secrecy converge, for all we know I am Earnest. Just calling myself Phil does not make it so, except in town. I accord Mr. Schambra that same privilege. We are none of us what we pretend to be, exept, maybe Holden, and he is still very young.

  4. Phil says:

    In the spirit of the literal, I have tried to reprise some of Bill’s themes in a Game for 13 Players, here.

  5. bUM fREE says:

    Hi Sean

    A small point.

    Isn’t participants going sub-rosa (a virtual inevitability I’d say) similar to commenting anonymously, in that the sub-rosa conversations could/can/do have an effect on the “public conversation” that is not “owned-up-to”?

    I’ve often intuited gaps or abrupt endings in public conversations to be attributable to that. A little frustrating, but acceptable, as is anonymity, to me.

    But to accept sub-rosa without also accepting anonymity, wouldn’t that be insisting on a tilted playing field? What equal advantage does the isolated outsider have?

    As this anonymous bodkin said moons ago in comments over at the carnival site:

    They say WB’s suffering from loop-us. That’s where a blog attacks itself by splitting into public and private conversations.

    He later went on to say, in answer to the question “What is the World You Want?”

    You know, good God almighty, I can answer your question with one word: Transparency. An impossibility, it seems. Your attempt to encourage it on this site through masquerade was/is admirable. My sense is that there were few takers over the years, short of the ‘usual suspects.’ You certainly have a better sense of that than I. Interesting, that I recently have become even *more* convinced that anonymity is essential to this desirable end, while WB is soft pedaling it out of ‘necessity’.

    Who was that masked man? No one in particular. But mystery enhances the debate, IMO.

    What Haden said is the essence of what Albert said last year in a guide-to-bloggers post (that I cannot find to link. He said a lot more, of course, but this was a key point.) He went on to say that anonymity may give certain writers a creative/intellectual freedom they might otherwise never reach. (Correct me if I’m wrong 😉

    And it just occurred to me, let’s say, that those of us who have (out of personal peculiarity and/or social necessity) played necessarily-distinct multiple-simultaneous roles in our lives, we might actually find it more natural and effective to speak from many mouths.

    And, having stated it this way, it surprises me that more people aren’t compelled to do it. It don’t seem that exceptional. 😉


    Rachel Tension’s Guide To Commenting On Blog Posts


  6. I was joking about the interviewee being anonymous. I found it ironic that we probably could have debated the points more if Bill had been anonymous.

    Here’s a key point that I missed in the post; the bar for anonymous posting jumps significantly when you are attacking/being critical of someone.

    Awhile ago, Phil and I talked about a “persistent pseud”, a continuously used fake name. Like M who blogs Inside Foundations, or “a fundraiser” who writes Don’t Tell the Donor. Or bUM fREE. However, the first two have also given context about who they are.

    Here’s a question. Why is it that the people that think that who Schambra is, is more important than his points in the argument, are the most frequent users of “alter egos”? I don’t mean that as a criticism, there seems to be a disconnect, but I’d like to hear their explanation. I’m open to certain types of anonymity, as I’ve laid out.

  7. Holden says:

    Anonymity helps cause some problems, and helps avoid others. My solution: get rid of useless commenters and keep useful ones, whatever they call themselves. Hard to go wrong with that.

  8. Phil says:

    The question, Sean, in any speech act is what that act is – is the act full literal speech of one civil person to another in a shared space of good faith, or is it a send up, or is it a fraud, or is it a strategic effort to convince by providing to a Dupe or General Public talking points that are conducive to a particular un-avowed purpose.

    What has been missing in this conversation is uptake. You come across as “once born,” as a good hearted but young and naive person committed to the childlike notion that those who work in DC in political think tanks are committed to learning, knowledge, truth, and candor. That is precisely the view that Schambra himself brilliantly deconstructs in his work on Pew, Ford, Gates. He himself sees these foundations as mystified, as implicitly ideological. They are ideological without knowing it. That allows us, in fact forces us to ask, “Well, then, what about you, Sir?” What is Bill’s own rhetorical stance? What is the position from which he is speaking, is he conscious of that position and can he avow in public what he would affirm in private about his rhetorical goals, what counts to him as winning? What his job calls for? How he is incentivized? These are important framing questions that cannot be settled by reference to “civility” or “good manners,” or some blogger code of conduct. You don’t know because a) you didn’t dare ask and b) Bill would not have told you the straight answer since it would tend to discredit, or unmask his own efforts. Nor, could he have consistently said he was pursuing truth, since he has already deconstructed that notion. So, he was in a corner, a box, and you let him out, for fear of being rude. As a result a significant cultural opportunity was lost. This is a shame. We won’t know how Bill would have handled the issue, had he not been given an out.

    If Bill’s work is a Trojan Horse, you can’t expect him to say so. Whether or not it is a Trojan Horse, a war engine, a strategem, requires hermeneutics, a careful analysis of not only his work, bio, and funders, but also of the game board of conservative philanthropy, liberal philanthropy, and the role it plays in the larger game of public policy and taxation and legislation in areas of interest to funders.

    You can’t decide apriori what the right frame is to hang around the picture. You have to try various frame until the picture comes into focus.

    You keep insisting we discuss the banal content of your post. It was talking points, Sean, bromides. It was hackneyed. Eugenics, as an ill perpetrated by big foundations, for crying out loud. This by the man who was program officer at Bradley when they funded The Bell Curve.

    By point is maybe this: Bill’s work is a Trojan Horse. I admire its craftsmanship and would like to put it in Museum of Art, preferably outside the walls.

    Whether that interpretation is correct is not a matter of manners, mine or his. His are fine, mine too. He is a master craftsman. Long may he proser and his designs fail.

  9. Lovely. All of it. If philanthropy conferences ever achieved this kind of frankness and depth, there would be little left for philanthropy to do.

  10. Albert says:

    I too will be frank. I agree with Phil, not because of his dashing good looks—although he has those too—but because what he says is spot on. Please let’s do some background reading before the next interview with Schambra (if anyone’s contemplating such a thing):

    1. Let’s go to the Media Transparency website and read about the Hudson Institute, home of the Bradley Center: here, here, here, and here. Let’s not neglect to pay close attention to the company it keeps, its sources of funding, etcetera.

    2. Now let’s go back and reread Schambra’s op eds and other publications in light of what we now know—or think we know—about the organization’s ideological commitments, about it’s methods and it aims. Let’s not neglect to read the publications commissioned by the Bradley Center. How do they square with our evolving, necessarily imperfect and incomplete knowledge of the goals of the Hudson Institute?

    I’ve done this exercise before, and I’ll keep doing it. But at present I’m convinced that just about everything Bill writes is smoke and mirrors.*

    To take one example, for all of Bill’s stated fondness for “‘mediating structures’ – families, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, houses of worship, local community institutions,” I’ve never once heard him mention the fact that the citizens of our nation’s capital have no voting representative in Congress, and that Congress frequently overturns local decisions. The man works in the District of Columbia. What a wonderful way for the Bradley Center to demonstrate it’s high regard for “local community institutions,” by championing the cause of DC Vote. But this doesn’t happen. Not a peep on the issue. Apparently it’s a case of local institutions be damned when they’re controlled by non-conservatives (largely Democrats, in this case).

    This is just one inconsistency among many I’ve already discussed.

    Don’t be fooled. Be a sensitive reader and a critical thinker. The idea that we can or should limit this discussion to the gutless tidbits Bill happened to throw out during the podcast is absurd.

    There’s a lot riding on Bill’s ability to establish a beachhead in so-called “mainstream philanthropy,” and so far he’s doing extremely well. He’s affable, he’s good-looking, he’s wicked smart, and he’s abetted by the fact that people in mainstream philanthropy want to avoid the kind of discussion that Phil and I have been urging here (sorry, Phil, I don’t mean to speak for you: please feel free to disagree). Bill speaks on substantive issues that excite people and light up their imaginations. We’re mired in philanthro-twaddle, on metrics, on foundation payout, on the question of whether or not we should permit anonymous comments. I think we’re doomed if we persist.

    * There are some exceptions. I resonate strongly with his “metrics schmetrics” theme, for example, and (there are others).

  11. I’m deeply troubled by your statement: “Does Bill have a political motive behind his views? Yes, and frankly I don’t really care.”

    That leads me to ask whether, at the end of the day, you see your role as nothing more than serving as a conduit for other people’s points of view, regardless of the truthfulness or motivations of what they have to say, and with the hope that those who don’t agree (or see the hidden motivations) will criticize, critique, and challenge? Or do you feel some responsibility for what you post?

    Years ago the journalism profession realized the trap it set for itself by simply seeing its role as being “objective” reporters. Below is an excerpt from a Columbia Journalism Review article that described how coverage of Senator McCarthy’s spurious — and politically motivated claims — showed the danger of simply reporting and not questioning:

    “Straight, ‘objective’ coverage of McCarthyism … had failed the public, leading Alan Barth, an editorial writer at The Washington Post, to tell a 1952 gathering of the Association for Education in Journalism: ‘There can be little doubt that the way [Senator Joseph McCarthy’s charges] have been reported in most papers serves Senator McCarthy’s partisan political purposes much more than it serves the purposes of the press, the interest of truth.'”

  12. Holden says:

    Early in this adventure, I was ready to agree with Albert that Sean wasn’t giving us the whole story. From the stink made by Albert and Phil, I assumed that Mr. Schambra had a track record pushing some extreme agenda, and that his views on philanthropy were just code for it. You can’t interview in a vacuum – you have to give all relevant context.

    But reading Albert’s links, I see very little. The Hudson Institute is conservative. It’s had some people get in trouble (not including Mr. Schambra). It promotes conservative values and gets its money from conservative funders. Big deal.

    (Regarding Conservatives spend a lot of money promoting their ideas, just as liberals do; get over it, and get a new name while you’re at it – one with “liberal” in the title, since “media transparency” doesn’t warn the reader that only one side of the funding equation will be examined.)

    Conservatism, like liberalism, is complicated. People mean all sorts of things when they call themselves “conservative,” from capitalist libertarians who’d love to wipe out religion to religious fanatics who’d love to wipe out capitalism. I’ve seen it conclusively demonstrated that Mr. Schambra is a card-carrying conservative, but I really haven’t seen anything else. Being skeptical of “root cause” style philanthropy (because of the classically liberal implication that people are a function of their environment) is probably statistically correlated with opposing gay rights, but that doesn’t make it a “cover” for it. If you could show that Mr. Schambra is in fact saying thing A when he really means thing B, I want to see it, but I haven’t so far – in fact, the “ulterior motives” you are ascribing to him don’t even make any sense, as I’ve argued already, which just further rams home to me that you’re stereotyping rather than listening.

    By the way, I have no fear that talking about one thing will give someone a “beachhead” to make other arguments, because I have confidence in my ability to defend the borders that matter. I don’t mind anonymity and I don’t even really mind talking with people who have ulterior motives, because as soon as someone’s argument starts getting unfair, I’ll notice. I have trouble understanding people who take the opposite attitude – seems to me that they’re using names and labels to figure out what people’s speech they need to be “protected” from, which there would be no need for if they could critically evaluate that speech.