Huff-Po Fashionism and the Authorship Question

Posted By on September 29, 2011


The HuffPo Wishes you a Happy New Year. Now I feel all warm inside.

I’ve always wondered what it must feel like to be an important blogger writing for a celebrated and widely read publication like the Huffington Post, a publication I greatly admire.

Wouldn’t it feel  great to know that your words are actually influencing public perception, and that you have the opportunity to engage in informed and civil conversation with a wide range of respondents, including some who had very different ideas from your own?

Well, now I know the answer, at least in part.

In a recent Huff-Po commentary Howard Kissel  revisits the authorship question, fondly recalling how in an earlier article he had “chastised then Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens for adhering to the cult that thinks Shakespeare’s plays were written by the 34th Earl of Oxford.”

Having –perhaps intentionally — established in that one sentence a rather diminished credibility in anything having to do with the study of  16th century literature by misidentifying the 17th earl of Oxford as the 34th (someone who never existed), Kissel goes on to wax eloquent at the Stratfordian game of assailing the messenger with various pejoratives.

According to Mr. Kissel’s informant, the charming “painter” Ms. Cornelia Foss, seated at dinner next to Mr. Kissel during one of his haute couture research junkets, anti-Stratfordians are engaging in “nihilism.”  What Ms. Foss’s credentials for making such a judgement are, we haven’t a clue and neither, apparently, does Mr. Kissel.

My brother is a charming painter who lives right near Stanford, in Palto Alto, Ca. Can I put his opinion about Shakespeare in my Huffpo column?

Neither Mr. Kissel nor Ms. Foss feels obliged to enlighten readers in any explicit way about why this particular label, nihilism,  applies.  But, reading between the lines, Ms. Foss evidently seems to regard nihilism as the antithesis of genius.

Hmmm?  How did we get there? Well, we said “these people are bad because of x” — and they are “also bad because of not- y, which looks like an antithesis of x but really isn’t.”  Huh?  This may not be nihilism, but trust me, its not genius.  Even I can figure that out.

Not that the bard ever became a nihilist – but the bard saw the things a nihilist sees without endorsing nihilism as the solution.  What is that solution according to Mr. Kissel?   There’s apparently no need for any. As the bard says, “a stick is easily found to beat a dog,” and “nihilism” is always a  handy stick, so Mr. Kissel made use of it.

But this is only the first chapter. Harken to the remainder.

In a series of three carefully written comments on Mr. Kissel’s  blog, I responded to this characterization from the perspective of someone who has studied the history of the debate for nearly twenty years.

I wasn’t nice. I don’t believe in being nice to people who call me names while at the same time failing to get even the most basic facts about their story correct.  I had to write three comments because the HuffPo, probably quite appropriately, limits comment length.

Within the length constraints I believe I even ventured to answer some of Mr. Kissel’s more extravagant delusions — including his words to the effect that it is of course impossible to even consider the idea of Oxford’s authorship since we are so undeviatingly certain that several of the plays were written after he died.

How do we know this?  That’s philosophy, and Mr. Kissel does music. Go ask a philosopher or an English professor.

Now, there is a significant ideology which attaches to the privilege of writing comments on internet publications. Not infrequently Internet writers, like Huffpo’s  Mr. Kissel, are rather informal about the facts. Those who take their craft seriously, and abide by standards of professional conduct appropriate to their calling as journalists, therefore appreciate the value-added nature of any comments section.

“On any given story,” says Minnesota Public Radio’s Michael Skoler, “there’s someone in the audience who knows more about it than we do. Our goal should be to tap into that expertise.”

Not at HuffPo, at least not on articles written by the inimitable Mr. Kissel on the subject of Shakespeare.

In this case, Kissel deleted all my comments, which objected to his promotion of what Richmond Crinkley, writing in the Shakespeare Quarterly in 1985, referred to as the “bizarre mutant racism” on which Shakespearean orthodoxy seems to predicate its existence — Crinkley’s words and point, in the SQ, 1985 — not mine.

Especially in view of the industrious scrubbers employed to keep Mr. Kissel’s blog safe for timid conformists, Kissel’s article is a pretty good illustration of what Crinkley was talking about. Neither he, nor his informant, knows me or (I suspect) any other Oxfordian from Adam (or Eve). Yet all of us can summarily be deported into the journalist’s own private little  Gulag.

“Anti-Stratfordians,” wrote Crinkley summarizing the ideology at play here, which was far more prevalent at the Folger then than it is today,   are “lesser breeds before the law.”

Equally importantly, I also noticed that Kissel had a problem distinguishing between comments that are “hostile” and those that are well-informed but happen to contradict the assumptions of the original writer.

Comment deletion always plays a useful role in such a circumstance.  If you delete enough comments you can always substantiate the HuffPo Happy New Year’s  conclusion that Justice Stevens  (along with et alia ad infinitum, yours truly included) is not only a “cultist” but also a “nihilist.”

This, to Mr. Kissel, is “memorable.”

Fine. Whatever. I’m a nihilist and Mr. Kissel is the sort of guy who thinks that it improves his resumé to boast about having “chastised” a Supreme Court Justice for reading books on a subject about which Mr. Kissel himself knows almost exactly nothing.

My, the carefree life of an internet journalist.  Where do I apply?


About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


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