Insulting Our Intelligence

by on May 1, 2008 · 38 comments

I was planning to leave the Lessig/Sydnor thing alone because I feel like we’ve beat it to death, but Tom’s really pissing me off. For those who haven’t been following the now-voluminous comments (and I don’t blame you), Mike Masnick recently wrote the following:

[Lessig] wasn’t praising communism in the slightest — but pointing out how regulatory regimes in the US can impact someone’s day-to-day life quite strongly, while for certain aspects of life in Vietnam those similar regulations do not impact them. That doesn’t mean communism is good or that life is great in Vietnam. In fact, Lessig pointed out that neither point is true. But he was pointing out what the factual situation was concerning certain aspects of day-to-day life.

You don’t dispute those points — you can’t, because they’re true. You merely take those statements and pretend they’re an endorsement of communism. It’s not even remotely a defense of communism. It’s showing the problems with US regulations, something I would think you would endorse.

And Tom responds:

I must distance myself from Mike’s claim that the admittedly deregulatory effect of terrorizing civilians “is something I would think you would endorse.”

And I had to pick my jaw up off the floor.

In case English isn’t your first language, let me dissect this a little bit. Scholars have a basic obligation to represent their opponents’ words accurately. If you put a phrase in quotes, you have an obligation for the quoted phrase to be a faithful representation of what the person being quoted actually said. That obligation counts double if you precede the quote by a phrase like “Mike’s claim” that unambiguously attributes the entire sentence to the person you’re criticizing. And in particular, if you quote half of a sentence, say the verb and direct object, you have an obligation not to change the subject to be something totally different. I if I write “Ice cream is great,” it would be dishonest for you to write “I must distance myself from Tim’s claim that the Holocaust ‘is great.'” Yes, I literally wrote the phrase “is great,” but the subject of that phrase wasn’t “the Holocaust,” and implying that it was is just as dishonest as writing “Tim claimed ‘the Holocaust is great.'”

What Tom did here is identical. In Mike’s comment, the subject of the phrase “something I would think you would endorse” is “showing the problems with US regulations.” Tom’s response plainly implies that the subject of the phase “something I would think you would endorse” was “the admittedly deregulatory effect of terrorizing civilians.” This, of course, is a totally different proposition, and something that Mike never said. Yet Tom has the audacity to precede the sentence with “Mike’s claim” plainly attributing the whole sentence to Mike.

This is, quite simply, a lie. And a stupid, transparent lie at that. I’m really confused about what Tom thinks he’s accomplishing. Surely he doesn’t believe the readership of TLF is so dumb that we’ll be persuaded by these kinds of grade-school rhetorical sleights of hand.

Update: Now that I’ve posted this, it occurs to me that I’ll probably see a post on IPCentral in a few minutes with the headline “Lessig supporter endorses the Holocaust.”

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