Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Not Quite A Flame War

When intelligent, opinionated people discuss ideas on the internet, there will be angry arguments and even, when the arguments get out of control, flame wars and insults. Objectivists, who believe ideas matter and are not an intellectual game detached from life, are as prone as any to heated arguments. The 2006 election disagreement between Leonard Peikoff and those who agree with him and Robert Tracinski and those who agree with him has been propelled so far into February, 2007 by Mr. Tracinski’s still uncompleted essay, “What Went Right?”

I agreed with Mr. Tracinski on the election, but I’m disagreeing with him more every day on President Bush’s mostly sacrificial military actions (they don’t rise to the status of war) in the Middle East. His “What Went Right?” series, which I think is being written in response to Dr. Peikoff’s election endorsement, has so far raised more questions than it has answered. I’m still unclear as to what point Mr. Tracinski is making, which sets off alarm bells in my mind. Is Mr. Tracinski dancing around his real point? What is he really getting at? One thing I have always liked about Objectivist writing is that you know what the [bleep] their point is, but I don’t know in this case and I’m not sure Mr. Tracinski knows.

Since the election there has been sniping between Noodlefood and The Forum for Ayn Rand Fans over all this. Robert Mayhew criticized Mr. Tracinski’s account of the Ancient Greeks in a piece I found persuasive. Stephen Speicher criticized Dr. Mayhew in four posts, 1, 2, 3 and 4, that I found unpersuasive. (Are you bored yet?)

Robert Mayhew responded on HBL by calling the Forum a “dubious Objectivish internet forum.” This is an inaccurate characterization. There is nothing dubious or “Objectivish” about the Forum. It is an Objectivist internet forum with many different opinions, some brilliant and a few idiotic – that’s the nature of a forum. It’s a place where people voice their opinions and read other opinions, nothing more. It is superior to the old usenet forums where you read all kinds of smears of Objectivists, and where debates deteriorated into ad hominem flame wars.

Stephen Speicher responded to something Tore Boeckmann wrote on HBL, to which Mr. Boeckmann responded. I don’t think either is characterizing the other’s position accurately. The whole thing is getting tedious.

After Mr. Boeckmann’s post Diana Hsieh says the Forum deserves to be boycotted. I disagree. One can stay away from any web site one dislikes, but recommending a boycott is going a bit far, unless there is evidence of dishonesty or immorality. I’ve been reading Stephen Speicher on the internet since alt.philosophy.objectivism. He has always been in the thick of it. He’s not afraid to make enemies. He is contentious and sometimes wrong, but never immoral, dishonest or irrational.

UPDATE: I deleted the paragraph about the anonymous attack on Stephen Speicher. It wasn't made in a public statement.


Dismuke said...

Myrhaf wrote:

I’ve been reading Stephen Speicher on the internet since alt.philosophy.objectivism. He has always been in the thick of it. He’s not afraid to make enemies. He is contentious and sometimes wrong, but never immoral, dishonest or irrational.

I agree. I posted to h.p.o. on Usenet for several years and on many occasions found myself right in "the thick of it" with the Speichers - and they were always staunch allies and comrades in arms. Both Betsy and Stephen have been very kind to me down through the years and, while I have never known them in person, I consider them to be friends.

About a year and a half ago, I had a rather strong private disagreement with Stephen Speicher about a matter that we never were able to see eye-to-eye on. Nevertheless, during that disagreement, which played out over the course of several weeks, Stephen went out of his way and spent quite a lot of time trying to address my concerns and to make his position on the matter understandable to me. In the end, I realized that there was no way that we were going to ever be in agreement on the matter. I still staunchly disagree with him on that matter and have concerns regarding it - but, nevertheless, by virtue of the way he conducted himself, my respect and regard for him personally remained intact and untarnished.

I find all of what you describe in your posting to be very depressing and disturbing. The rate at which the world is going to hell has suddenly started accelerating to a very significant degree with neo-Stalinist statists on the prowl and in power trying to shove global warming, socialized medicine and censorship via the Fairness Doctrine down our throats while doing everything they can to bring about a Vietnam style defeat with an opposition party that seems to be worse than useless. And while all this is happening, the grown-ups, the people who DO know what is necessary to save the world, the people who usually give me grounds for holding out long term hope, people I have come to respect and admire over the years are now at each others throats. Imagine returning to Galt's Gulch after a period of absence only to discover that a civil war is in progress.

I am usually the optimistic sort who always gets a bit annoyed when people chose to view a glass as being half empty when it can be just as accurately viewed as half full. But in the past 5 months or so, that glass has been looking less and less full all the time - and I cannot recall in my adult life ever being as gloomy about our culture's prospects for the balance of my lifetime as I am right now.

I know in the long run I am going to have to come to certain conclusions about the controversies whirling around Tracinski and the one the Speichers are involved with. But in the meanwhile, I think I am just going to sit back and wait for the dust to settle. Things will be a lot clearer then. And rational people do modify their positions when they are provided with clear evidence that they have made an error. Nor are rational people exempt from sometimes saying things in the heat of passion that they end up taking back later on. I still regard the people on both sides of the debate highly enough to believe that they have the capacity to view their own behavior and their positions - and the evidence that is put forth against them by others - in an objective manner.

Inspector said...


You wrote,

"One can stay away from any web site one dislikes, but recommending a boycott is going a bit far..."

I had a similar thought in a comment over by GVH. I mused why fights between Objectivists always seem to come out as moral accusations. Aside from known moral breaches, there are plenty of perfectly valid reasons why you wouldn't like or want to have anything to do with a person.

Myrhaf said...

The argument has been heated and nasty and some insults have been thrown. That's certainly enough reason to stay away from a web site, but it's not enough of a reason to call for a boycott.

As Dismuke says, it will be clearer when the dust settles. I'm still not entirely clear what the Robert Tracinski's point is.

softwareNerd said...

Myrhaf said: " I'm still not entirely clear what the Robert Tracinski's point is."

I've been trying to figure this out too. From reading his articles, I sum up his point thus:

People act according to the ideas they have; but, people also change their ideas based on the results of their actions.

For instance, teachers used to follow a traditional style and then followed a more progressive style, based on Dewey's mix of legitimate criticism of older methods and false ideas. On the other hand, many teachers have since moved away from the "total freedom for kids" approach, based on the lack of results they see.

Similarly, whole-word ideas led to whole-word teaching; the poor results made people re-think and one sees that the guy who produced "Hooked on Phonics" has done well and some type of phonics is being re-introduced into many schools.

One might react to this by saying: "Duh! Wasn't that obvious! Did he think otherwise?" and say that he's creating a strawman. However, if one ignores the question of who said what, one is still left with a subject that is worth exploring.

It would be interesting to understand the various factors that go into the propogation of ideas, the adoption of ideas, the realization of failure, and the rejection of incorrect ideas. I don't think any Objectivist scholar has attempted this.

Kriegsgefahrzustand said...

Until then I rely on Goethe:

"For usually people resist as long as they can to dismiss the fool they harbor in their bosom, they resist to confess a major mistake or to admit a truth that makes them despair."

As for this whole debate:

"He who has a task to perform must know how to take sides, or he is quite unworthy of it."

Myrhaf said...

I know in the long run I am going to have to come to certain conclusions about the controversies whirling around Tracinski and the one the Speichers are involved with.

I can see that an understanding and judgment of Tracinski's essay is necessary, but not the dispute between the Forum and Noodlefood. It seems more like a personal spat than anything. There have been nasty shots from both sides, hurt feelings and anger. Is it important? Are they arguing over a philosophical principle? Would it be wrong to dismiss it with a wave of the hand?

Dismuke said...

Myrhaf wrote:

"It seems more like a personal spat than anything. There have been nasty shots from both sides, hurt feelings and anger. Is it important? Are they arguing over a philosophical principle? Would it be wrong to dismiss it with a wave of the hand?"

I think one does to the degree that one has dealings with the principals involved and to the degree that one has an active interest in the success of the Objectivist movement.

In my case, I have known and interacted with the Speichers online for very close to ten years now - and to the degree that it is possible to regard people one has never met as friends, I consider them as such. I don't know Diana - I have had one, maybe two, email exchanges with her. But I have followed Noodle Food on and off since the time she became disenchanted with the Kelleyites and have been a regular reader for over a year now. I have a lot of respect for her and I occasionally participate in the discussion in the Noodle Food comments. I know very little about Mayhew or Beckmann - I have not read their works nor taken any lectures by them. But I do know their names from ARI conference and bookstore literature. And since I do have an enormous amount of respect for the principals involved at ARI and know that they have very high standards, the fact that both are presented under the ARI banner earns them, in my book, a certain default level of respect and benevolence until and unless I have any evidence to the contrary.

Considering the sorts of accusations and insults that have been tossed back and forth, at the very least, one or both sides have crossed the line into the realm of a public display of emotionalism. And, then of course, there is the issue of whether the behavior constitutes an injustice - as both sides are claiming.

If I were to accept the Speichers' view that Diana is engaging in a vicious smear campaign against them - well, would it be proper for me to continue to participate in the comments section of a website that smears my friends?

On the other hand, if I conclude that the Speichers are at fault - even though I do not participate in their Forum, that is something I need to know especially if I continue to regard them as my friends, which I suspect will be the case regardless of my judgment. The fact that I like someone does not exempt them from the facts of reality - and, for obvious reasons, it is far more important to have accurate evaluations and knowledge about people you regard as friends than it is with people you already know you don't like or trust. If a friend has demonstrated a tendency to cross the line into public displays of emotionalism - well, that is something I need to keep in mind before I join forces with them in some sort of online debate, which I have done with the Speichers on a number of instances. If a friend commits an act of injustice towards someone else - well, it would be an act of injustice on my part to deny that fact in my dealings with the victim. And how your friends treat other people can be an important warning sign of how they might eventually treat you in a similar context.

So for me - and for anyone who participates in either Noodle Food or the Forum or who has dealings with either party - I do think a judgment of some sort is going to be necessary. The judgment does not have to be "I condemn thee" or "I boycott thee." It could be as simple as: "gee, I am disappointed - I thought he/she was more mature and had better judgment than that."

For those who are not as involved but still have an interest in the success of Objectivism, I also think a judgment is necessary. I personally believe that if a person is going to put himself forward in public as an advocate of Objectivism, he has a moral obligation to conduct himself in a manner which does not cast a bad light on the philosophy. Quite frankly, certain blogs and online message boards which are hostile towards Objectivism are having a field day with this. For instance, Stephen Speicher has become quite the hero to these people who are trying to paint it as an example of Evil ARI trying to "excommunicate" a "heretic." That makes me want to puke. In that respect, the whole mess is rather embarrassing.

By the way, I of all people do not have a problem with flame wars per se I participated in many during my hpo days - and my postings in which I ridiculed and lampooned my opponents actually earned me a bit of a following. But such behavior has to be kept within its proper place and circumstances. The people I ridiculed on hpo deserved it. They were people who deliberately and dishonestly twisted and misrepresented Objectivism and Objectivists and could not be reasoned with. And hpo was not a civilized forum - it was like having a conversation in a low class bar in a rough neighborhood. When you find yourself in the middle of a barroom brawl you don't put on your spectacles and deliver an erudite dissertation - you had better put up your fists and keep a sharp lookout for knives. And Stephen Speicher was an active fellow participant in many of those flame wars - and in them, I learned that he has a great sense of humor and a sharp wit.

Such behavior, however, is NEVER appropriate in civilized venues - which both Noodle Food and the Forum claim to be and, in fact, are. Furthermore, it is never appropriate to flame somebody that is respected and admired by a significant percentage of an audience whose respect you hope to earn and keep. Anyone who writes to an Objectivist audience ought to have the common sense to recognize that there are going to be many people in that audience who have respect for or who admire people such as Diana, Mayhew, Beckman, Tracinski, Speicher, Peikoff, etc. Flames directed at such people not only attack their targets - they also attack people in the flamers' own audience.

Bottom line is the whole mess is rather disgusting. And, at some point, it will be necessary to ask who started it, who fanned the flames further and what does that mean in terms of the respect that we have for each person involved.

Myrhaf said...

If you get it figured out, Dismuke, maybe you can explain it to the rest of us. ;)

Your standard should be your happiness, not your duty to Objectivism. This is not an endorsement of subjectivism, but a recognition that everyone's time is limited and we have to set priorities. And keep in mind that in any contentious dispute both parties often think they are victims of injustice. That is why we have courts of law, to provide an objective arbiter. But in something like this, where no philosophic principles are involved, but two sides are arguing such things as whether Thales predicted an eclipse or whether Stephen Speicher showed proper respect for someone with expertise -- well, good luck. I do agree with your original point that it will be easier once the dust settles and we gain perspective from time.

Inspector said...


You are once again a font of wisdom.

Dismuke said...

I just think it is too bad it is not happening between two groups of people that I dislike. When you dislike people and they are there hitting each other over the head in public - well, I consider that to be fun and high entertainment!

Hey, Nancy Pelosi! Ted Kennedy just said that your plastic surgery makes your face look like it has been attacked by a comprachico! And, Ted, Nancy just said that if it wasn't for your corupt Daddy's money and power, you would have done hard jail time without access to booze and bimbos for what you did after the lady drowned!

Probably bad examples as they are but statements of fact. But you get the idea.

Dismuke said...

Inspector - gee, thank you for the very nice comment. It looks like we both put up postings within a minute from each other - so I did not even see it until a number of hours later despite the fact that my posting followed yours.