ESR: Paranoid Dismissal of Criticism Considered Harmful
May 24, 2005, 20:30 (27 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Eric S. Raymond)
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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
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
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
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]