Tuesday, January 20, 2004


Adam Thierer's latest blast -- incompetent or dishonest?

You should read Adam Thierer's essay entitled Collectivism In, Property Rights Out. Argument aside, it is noteworthy for its language.

Larry Lessig quotes Howard Rheingold saying, “[Thierer's essay] is either intellectual incompetence or intellectual dishonesty." David Weinberger votes for "intellectual incompetence." He calls it "One of the sloppiest pieces of thinking I've ever seen from an organization named after a Roman." Lessig, on the other hand, avers that Thierer is quite intellectually competent.

I agree with Lessig. Look at Thierer's language. Or should I say, "language"? You can discredit something just by putting quotes around it. I could make a case, or I could, "Make a case." Such a phrase without quotes says what it means straightforwardly. In quotes, the same phrase imputes something unsaid, something sinister, or maybe something merely incompetent. Is Thierer a Libertarian or a "Libertarian"? I'm just reporting. You decide.

Thierer uses the quotes ploy at least ten times on phrases like, "democratic rule," "commons," "nondiscrimination," and "openness". It keeps him from having to explain why, "democratic rule", for example, is a bad thing. Or why it is a bad thing when used by FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, Stanford Professor Larry Lessig, underdog Presidential Candidate Howard Dean or the New America Foundation.

Which brings us to the second of Thierer's rhetorical devices. He spins three or four individual views into an on-the-fly axis. He asserts that there's a unified view, then chooses statements from the most convenient individual as if it represent the whole. For example, Thierer suggests that, "They want to water down IP rights and greatly expand fair use rights and the public domain." Lessig points out that Copps didn't say anything like that, nor did the Dean Campaign stake out any such position, so he concludes, "I guess this one is for me."

Thierer's third device is excessive hyperbole. If he were presenting a rational argument, he would not need so many emotionally loaded terms like, "concocted," "master plan," "heavy dose," "crusaders, " preaching," "lambaste," and so on. He could have used, "assembled" instead of "concocted," and "plan" instead of "master plan." The essay needs what John Perry Barlow once self-effacingly called a hyperbolectomy.

I think Thierer knows what he's doing. His underdeveloped sense of shame shows briefly in his penultimate paragraph, where he leaves himself a big out. He says, "The commons crowd would be quick to respond that this mischaracterizes their argument . . . they see markets and property rights as a means to an end that must be tempered with a [] dose of collective decisionmaking."

But instead of analyzing how it might mischaracterizes the argument, he pulls out yet another rhetorical device when he goes on to say, ". . . they make it clear that they are not advocating the overthrow of the capitalist order and the empowerment of the proletariat, or any other neo-Marxist nonsense." By the same token, I am glad to report that Thierer's essay does not advocate torturing innocent babies.

I'm not addressing the content of Thierer's essay. That was eloquently done by Lessig and Weinberger. I'm just pointing out that Thierer's language is emotional language. It is not crafted to appeal to logic. It addresses more primitive forms of "reasoning".

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