I Lend You My Name: Anonymous Politics Can Work

When I was a graduate student at Penn, I was part of a dialogue between the University’s Asian American students and its Oriental Studies Department, whose name some students found objectionable. Some people tried to use this for political gain, and it seemed they would do anything to get their name in the student newspaper. When reporters showed up at one of our meetings (uninvited) I made a spontaneous decision to welcome them to the discussion, but to prohibit them from reporting the meeting. I later circulated a position paper with a strong warning, “not for citation or attribution,” although I gave readers permission to borrow ideas from it freely, and even to quote freely, as long as my name was never mentioned and I was never given credit. Several numbered versions circulated, with increasingly minor refinements, and increasingly strong warnings. Faculty asked my permission to show my paper to the Deans, as a springboard for discussion, and my Department’s student critics politely asked my permission to xerox and distribute this document, which undeniably stimulated constructive debate on campus (as I made the case for both the status quo and change). I permitted my name to be published only once, on a signed letter. This had rather dramatic and positive effect. I have heard that a Dean resigned within a week. I never learned his name, because it was not a personal matter. The dialogue continued and a name change for our Department was eventually negotiated. My role in this is now a matter of public record, because a professor gave a public lecture on these events, in which he respectfully broke my rule of anonymity.

My choice to enter politics anonymously was unusual enough to attract a lot of attention, including interviews by the student newspaper, which I did not let them publish or write about. We insisted on quiet, civil, face to face dialogue, rather than public spectacle. One student in our group made the mistake of speaking too freely in an email chat group, in a posting he designated a “flame.” He called for a Dean’s resignation, among other things. My libertarian friend’s message was xeroxed and posted in the Oriental Studies Departmental office, without his permission, and a lecture he was scheduled to give was canceled, apparently in retribution. Graduate student government, of which I was a part, was prepared to fight on his behalf, but he backed down and left the school. Too bad. Had the student not left, I would have written and sponsored a resolution defending him, and I would have been willing to co-sign his “flame” (although I had no opinion at all of the Dean in question, and held different views on some of the issues). Had I done so, I might never have made it out of graduate school. Free speech is a principle worth the sacrifice of one’s career. It is our civic duty to sacrifice everything we have for this principle.

Later, when I was made President of a graduate student association, and when I had a secure job, I permitted my name to be used on strong letters to the University of Pennsylvania Administration, written by aggrieved students who would otherwise have been afraid to write. Some took me up on my offer, and to this day, I have no idea what was said in my name. I had, by that time, apparently inexhaustible political capital, spent freely on behalf of my constituents, the students.

Now, I find myself in a very dissimilar situation, with no security at all, and uncertain political capital. Even so, I lend you my name, which adorns every page of my website. One of my first students here gave me a generous token of his respect: he designed “Shevek Nagarjuna Kundakunda’s Religious Studies Website,” and I accepted his gift and his compliment. Because he put my name on every page, nobody could mistake this for an official website (although envious people may think I style myself the Program Chair, which I most certainly do not want to be).

My student made my name prominent when I was reluctant to do so. Now, you are welcome to use my site to air your views on education reform, worker’s rights, harassment, free speech, and similar issues of concern to our community. If you wish, I will publish these anonymously. You may, under certain circumstances, even publish under my name, if you are afraid to speak freely for fear of retribution (a very real possibility, here and now).

I lend you my name. Please use it with respect. Don’t be a victim, fight lies with truth. Never subtmit to censorship, never give in to a bully. Walk tall and stand up for what you believe, like the heroic physicist Shevek in Ursula Kroeber LeGuin’s ambiguous utopia. And please remember, anonymous politics can work. So can a transparent pseudonym…