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The Second-Hand Dealers in Ideas

by Gene Callahan

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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