The Accidental Celebrity

Timothy L. Wood didn't write an essay comparing Obama and Hitler. He shares his story about what happened online and in his life when some people thought he did.

August 24, 2009

“There are two modes of establishing our reputation: to be praised by honest men, and to be abused by rogues. It is best, however, to secure the former, because it will invariably be accompanied by the latter.”

-- Charles Caleb Colton, Anglican clergyman (1780-1832)

One deleted e-mail marked the beginning of my ordeal. It was finals week, just before Christmas break, when I received a strange message asking me to comment on some kind of online political essay that I had supposedly written. Since I’m not a blogger and make it a point to avoid the many rancorous political forums on the Internet, I immediately dismissed it as spam and hit delete.

But the notes kept coming, increasing in their fervor and frequency, until I could no longer deny it: I was receiving “fan mail.” Some writers called me courageous. Others hailed me as a visionary. A few suggested that I was predestined to play a pivotal role in the apocalyptic events foretold in the Book of Revelation. (Seriously.) Now, over the past 12 years I have published a scholarly book and eight journal articles on various historical topics, but I have to admit that through it all I never even attracted one groupie. So with my curiosity very much piqued, I began an online quest in search of the mysterious article.

I suppose it was inevitable that I was not going to like what I found. There, prominently displayed on a rather extreme Web site, was an essay (information about it can be found here) that likened President Obama to ... Adolf Hitler. Underneath the title was the inscription “by Tim Wood.”

To say I was not pleased would be a colossal understatement. However, even though my parents always told me I was special, a quick Internet search will reveal that I am not, in fact, the world’s only Tim Wood. So I ignored the article -- at least until one of the versions of the essay being forwarded via e-mail mutated into a form which included the rather unambiguous phrase “Professor of History, Southwest Baptist University.” The writer of this message also helpfully appended my office phone number and e-mail address.

Stunned, I struggled to regain my bearings and tried to grasp the full implications of this professional identity theft. Beyond the fact that the comparison is utterly ridiculous (anyone who believes that truly has no understanding of the depths of evil plumbed by the Nazi regime), it was now personal. Who had the right to speak for me like that? How dare they hide behind my name! What if my colleagues -- or my friends and family -- read this and believed it?

But the most pressing question seemed to be what kind of damage control would be necessary in order to prevent this from irreparably damaging my career. And that, in turn, led me to begin reflecting on how scholars will need to safeguard their professional reputations in the 21st century. Although I would never wish this kind of ordeal on anybody, the realist inside me fears that I will not be the last professor to fall victim to digital dishonesty. As academics, we must be aware that our professional reputations are transmitted through the technology of a bygone era, and even then are typically shrouded in secrecy or obscurity. Mentors, colleagues, and administrators exchange sealed and confidential references printed out on university letterhead. Editors, referees, and reviewers validate our scholarly work by allowing us access to or giving us coverage in their publications, but the results of that process all too often lie buried in library stacks and academic databases. In the meantime, the malicious or misinformed denizens of the Web have had time to hit the “forward” button about a million times.

So what lessons have I learned through this ordeal? First of all, be proactive. Once these rumors hit a certain critical mass, ignoring them will not make them go away. Indeed, a situation like this becomes the ultimate test of one’s personal credibility in the workplace. Immediately after I discovered that my specific identity had become attached to that particular article, I treated myself to a tour of the university’s administration building. Everybody from my department chair, to my dean, to the provost, to the directors of human resources, information technology, and university relations heard my side of the story within 48 hours. In my case, I was fortunate enough to have retained the confidence and support of my administration. There is no substitute for goodwill.

Secondly, I tried to remain positive and to find the teaching moment hidden within all of this. I posted an item on the university’s faculty Web page that served both as a public disclaimer and an opportunity to emphasize to students (and anybody else who might read it) why it is that faculty constantly warn against an uncritical acceptance of materials found on the Internet. I reminded my readers that in history, scholars are trained to constantly analyze their sources. Always historians must be aware that the documents they are working with may contain errors, lies, omissions, distortions, or may even turn out to be wholesale forgeries. To navigate those potential pitfalls, scholars check facts and look for other documents that confirm (or contradict) the information found in our sources. We seek to identify the author and understand his or her motives for writing. We try to understand the larger historical and cultural context surrounding a document. By doing our homework, we are better able to judge when people deserve to be “taken at their word.”

This episode has also taught me a tough lesson in maintaining a professional demeanor, even in the face of outrageous provocations. Although the majority of people who wrote to inquire about the article were gracious, and many even apologized for the mistake, enough of my correspondents were belligerent and rude to make me dread opening my inbox every morning. Even after learning I was not the author, many readers clearly still expected me to lend my professional credibility to the essay, vouching for its accuracy and validating its interpretations. After reading my denial (where I explicitly refused to endorse the article’s contents), many supporters of the piece became abusive, writing back to attack the depth of my patriotism, the sincerity of my religious faith, and the integrity of the academic community in the United States in general.

Critics of the essay were not above lashing out either -- even in the absence of evidence. One disgruntled detractor wrote to inform me that my brand of “voodoo” and “fear-mongering” would soon be vanishing into irrelevancy, heralding the advent of a new Age of Reason. (Hopefully that individual’s definition of reason will eventually grow to include a commitment to basic research and fact-checking and an unwillingness to take forwarded e-mails at face value.) In the meantime, along with the angry rants, there came from the fever swamps of political paranoia long-discredited conspiracy theories, urging me to consider that the course of history was being determined by Jewish bankers, or the Jesuits, or the Illuminati, or even flesh-eating space aliens. Frequently at those junctures, I felt the temptation to fire back with a “spirited” and “colorful” rebuttal. However, I resisted for many reasons: because I am ultimately a firm believer in civility in public debate, because I did not want to embarrass the colleagues and administrators who had stood by me through this, and because arguing with people who have already made up their minds and have come to demonize those who disagree is almost always an exercise in futility.

Moreover, this incident has led me to reconsider my somewhat adversarial relationship with technology. (I’m the guy who still refuses to buy a cell phone.) But one of the greatest difficulties I encountered in all of this was finding a platform from which to launch a rebuttal. Although I did write personal replies to many of the people who wrote me inquiring about the article, it seemed clear that such a strategy alone was like battling a plague of locusts with a flyswatter. Instead, Internet rumors are best refuted by channeling people toward some definitive, universally available, online point-of-reference (a Web address, for instance) that exposes the lie. In my case, the university was kind enough to grant me access to a page on its Web site, and I quickly began disseminating the link to my posting. However, that solution may not be available to everyone who falls victim to this kind of a hoax, and I am beginning to believe this issue is far too important for faculty to leave to others anyway. A year ago, I would have considered the creation of an “official Tim Wood Web site” to be pretentious in the extreme. Today, I’m not so sure. Like it or not, faculty are public figures, and if we do not take the initiative to define ourselves in ways that are accessible and relevant to those outside the academy, we risk being defined by others in ways that suit their agenda, not ours.

Finally, confronting this situation has led me to take a fresh look at the qualities that make a good historian. In 1964 Richard Hofstadter, an influential scholar of American politics, wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” In this passage, he describes a paranoia all too familiar in today’s political discourse:

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised.... Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the willingness to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated -- if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.

As author Dick Meyer pointed out in a 2005 CBS News article, this mentality has come to transcend political labels:

The great dynamic is that so many people .... are convinced that a malevolent opponent wants to destroy their very way of life and has the power to do so. Evangelical Christians may believe that gay marriage, abortion rights, promiscuous and violent popular culture, and gun control are all part of a plot to destroy their community of values. Urban, secular liberals may believe that presidential God-talk, anti-abortion legislators and judges, intrusive Homeland Security programs, and imperialist wars are part of a sinister cabal to quash their very way of life.

Historians often find themselves compared to storytellers, and are lauded for their ability to present compelling interpretations of the past and to craft powerful narratives. But perhaps equally as important is our role as listeners. In an increasingly divided society, consensus will never be achieved by shouting (or e-mailing) until we drown out all competing voices. Instead, the first steps toward reconciliation come by those who seek to understand all aspects of the question and try to remain mindful of the needs of others.

In any case, my battle continues. Monday I will go to work, try to sort through all the chaos, and do my best to help folks figure out the truth. (Which is probably pretty close to what I did before my identity was stolen, come to think of it....) And I will continue to contemplate the ways in which this experience will change the way I present myself as a professor and a historian. In the meantime, if any of you encounter any online rantings and ravings that claim to be by me, do not necessarily believe them. Things are not always what they seem.


Timothy L. Wood is an assistant professor of history at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri. He is the author of Agents of Wrath, Sowers of Discord: Authority and Dissent in Puritan Massachusetts, 1630-1655 (Routledge).


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