The Second-Hand Dealers in Ideas

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Paulina
Borsook has been in the news lately as a result of her recently
released book, Cyberselfish:
A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High
Tech
. This book contends, in the words of Thomas Scoville,
“that technolibertarianism is a rhetorical projection of control-oriented,
non-communitarian, arrested-adolescent urges of the preponderantly
male geek technocracy.”

Borsook’s
book is very badly written, featuring prose gems such as “…articulating
the funnest, extremest, most tear-down-walls/two-four-six-eight,
organize-to-smash-the-state,” and is rife with errors. Brian Doherty
has done an excellent job of highlighting some of Borsook’s many
factual and theoretical gaffes in “Cybersilly,” his review
of the book for Reason Magazine. And Eric Raymond makes
a strong case
that Borsook has “geek” culture all wrong.

Both
of these critiques of Borsook score, but the real problem with her
book (which Doherty points out as well) is that she is employing
an invalid method of argumentation, intended to preempt, not to
engage in, debate. By attacking high tech libertarians as selfish,
sexually twisted, and uncaring people, her message is that no one
need pay any attention to what they are saying. By logic similar
to Borsook’s, we can dismiss the calculus because Liebniz and Newton
engaged in a nasty political dispute over who should get credit
for it, and refute the theory of relativity because Einstein was
an eccentric who wore slippers to his daughter’s wedding.

The
Marxists perfected this style of “debating.” Unable to answer the
anti-socialist arguments of the classical economists, or to show
how a workable society could be created using Marxist precepts,
they instead slandered anyone who challenged their ideas as a vicious
tool of the capitalist exploiters.

Borsook
is not alone in employing these tactics. I recently read an interview
with Borsook
by Salon writer Thomas Scoville, from which
I extracted the quote in the first paragraph. Rather than bring
up the unpleasant fact that Borsook had gotten the most elementary
facts about her subject wrong, and didn't seem to have even bothered
trying to comprehend it, Scoville threw Borsook one puffball question
after another. He employs the same sort of meaningless but important
sounding blather as Borsook, for example: “[She] has broadened her
investigation with a volume of even more scathing ontological critiques.”

I
e-mailed Scoville, curious as to how he would defend himself and
Borsook. As a journalist, wasn't he obligated to ask his subject
how she had gotten so many simple facts wrong? I pointed out a number
of these factual errors and egregious misunderstandings from her
book and from their interview.

Scoville,
however, failed to respond to a single one of my points. Instead,
he offered, on the basis of a few hundred words of text… a psychoanalysis
of me! His one item in defense of Borsook was that she had, after
all, appeared on CNN – and that therefore she must not be completely
off the mark. These are the standards of intellectual debate that
Borsook and Scoville offer – a theory is valid or invalid based
on the amount of attention it attracts from the mainstream media.

Scoville
told me that I was just the sort of “angry, abusive pedant” that
he and Borsook were talking about. (His definition of “pedant” seems
to be someone who demands that a journalist get her basic facts
straight.) In fact, he said, I was merely confirming that he and
Borsook are correct about “technolibertarians.” He had predicted,
in the interview, that these were just the sort of people who would
get mad about being characterized as immature, perverse narcissists.
I imagine that if Scoville called the Irish a bunch of drunken bums
ruled by their emotions, any angry response on the part of any Irishman
would confirm that hypothesis as well.

I
must admit that I'm not particularly concerned about whether Mr.
Scoville “likes” me. And as long as my family and friends are able
to tolerate me, at least some of the time, I don’t go in much for
self-analysis. But, while it amazed me that Scoville was so perspicacious
that he could divine my personality based on such scanty evidence,
I couldn’t help wondering why this was relevant. I may be the biggest
jerk in the world, but how does this defend Borsook's dreadful ignorance,
or Scoville’s granting her a complete pass on all of her blunders?

It
doesn’t, of course, nor does Borsook's book contribute anything
to the debate on how society should be organized (or, as a libertarian
would contend, allowed to organize itself). There are serious questions
about libertarian ideas, and there are those on the left willing
to raise them and listen to the answers. Borsook and her appendage
Scoville are not among them. They are what F.A. Hayek referred to
as “second-hand dealers in ideas.” They are warmly welcomed in the
mainstream media because they formerly worked in high tech and will
feed the media the story about high tech that it wants to hear.
Their goal is not to engage and challenge libertarian thinking;
rather, it is to dismiss libertarians as inferior human beings,
whose ideas need not even be considered. This way, the ruling elite
can rest easy at night, knowing that the sleep of the masses will
not be disturbed by those nasty, perverted freedom lovers.

July
26, 2000

Gene
Callahan is a regular contributor to mises.org.

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