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ESR: Paranoid Dismissal of Criticism Considered Harmful

May 24, 2005, 20:30 (27 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Eric S. Raymond)

I'm writing in reference to The Heartland Institute: Minnesota Botches IT Bill."

"There is an "Editor's Note" attached to Linux Today's précis that reads "While the list of donors to The Heartland Institute is no longer completely known, it is worthy to note that the donors who are known bear a striking resemblance to the major donors of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution. -BKP"

"Speaking as the person who took the lead in publicly refuting the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution's bogus study, I say shame on you, Brian K. Proffitt! You have descended to an unworthy, ad-hominem argument. Especially since, in this instance (and unlike AdTI) , the Heartland Institute is essentially correct in its criticism.

A reasonable person differs with Heartland over whether it is legitimate for legislators to "micromanage" IT procurement policy. My own opinion, speaking as the founder and President Emeritus of the Open Source Initiative, is that using procurement rules to achieve policy goals is legitimate, and that the legislators' intention was worthy. However, my pro-open-source convictions do not change the fact that the legislators truly did screw up their execution by getting the definition of "open source" wrong. Open source and open standards are intimately related, but not the same--and sometimes (as in this case) the distinction really matters.

I'm not making a point of this because I want to beat up on Brian Proffitt. I know Brian; he's an honest and idealistic man who works hard to serve his community. But this is typical of the kind of error idealism can lead us into, and exemplifies the reason that in some quarters open-source advocates are thought of as blinkered zealots. We don't serve our cause well by validating that stereotype.

Open-source advocates should not fall into the trap of assuming that every argument against us is motivated by a nefarious Microsoft-led conspiracy. The Microsoft-led conspiracy certainly exists--I think I can safely claim to have done more to expose it than most--and there is little doubt as to its nefariousness. But we'll doom ourselves not to be taken seriously if we get lazy and begin attributing every criticism and every attack to evil masterminds in Redmond.

"That's an especially grave error when the "attack" points out a real problem, which the Heartland Institute has in fact done. Besides making us look like a bunch of tinfoil-hat fanatics, the effect of Proffitt's too-easy dismissal is to divorce us from that reality. Even if "Minnesota Botches IT Bill" were inspired by a Microsoft bribe, it would be better for us to pay attention and address the confusion about oprn source and open standards that they have pointed out.

For open-source advocates, it is both tactically and ethically valuable to keep to the high ground in argument--this maintains our image as the good guys by making us the good guys in fact. Sometimes this will even mean keeping silent when we know or have strong reason to suspect that our adversaries are corrupt, because any short-term gain from pointing that out would be outweighed by the long-term loss from being seen as just another mudslinging special-interest group.

I think Linux Today should apologize publicly to the Heartland Institute. I would like it to be clear that our advocates are capable of recognizing legitimate policy disagreements and critical truth-telling rather than dismissing these as FUD.

[Editor's Note: My original intent in the first article was to point out the potential bias of the linked source, for the education of the reader. It was not my intention to lower the issue to name-calling and conspiracy-hunting. If I did so, then I submit my apologies. -BKP]