November Diary
What is Derb doing in Russia?


John Derbyshire

On failing to be an ideologue. Hanging around the main lecture hall to figure out technical stuff Wednesday, I caught the last half of a lecture by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Project, talking about data freedom.

Stallman made some good points about Internet snooping and data mining, but kept raising my hackles with side remarks about politics. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, a raving lefty. The phrase “the empire of the megacorporations” kept coming up; and at one point towards the end he prognosticated casually that “hundreds of millions of people are going to die as a result of climate change.” Uh-huh.

He really pushed me into the red zone when, after an hour or so of defending our data liberties, he got on to file sharing. In his mind, that is one of the liberties. Books, music, movies — they should all be shared freely on the Internet.

Stallman is smart enough to see that this raises issues of remuneration for us content providers. Why make a movie if people can watch it for free? He offered two solutions: (1) payment of content providers to be taken over by the government, (2) payment all voluntary, via a click-button on the computer screen.

That was it. Seething quietly, I got in line for the after-lecture questions. Did Stallman really imagine, I asked him when I reached the mike, that handing the payment of content providers over to some state Bureau of Culture would lead to an increase in creative freedom?

We got into what diplomats call “a full and frank exchange of views” (i.e., we were just short of a fistfight) before the moderator cut us off, leaving me no time to point out the problem with Stallman’s second proposal. Problem: If running a bookstore on the voluntary-payment principle — “How much is this book?” “Oh, whatever you feel like paying” — is a viable business model, how come no one has ever implemented it successfully?

I left still seething. Liberals talk a nice game about freedom and the, yes, often malign machinations of big corporations; but if you listen carefully, in the background you can always hear the rumbling sound of ever-increasing state power. A liberal is always a totalitarian at heart, though half of them don’t know it.

Then, the following day, I was sitting next to Stallman at an informal gathering. We got to chatting. I found out that, those lefty hang-ups aside, he is a thoughtful and witty man, a good listener, and by no means a closed-minded ideologue.

This happens to me a lot. I meet someone whom, on ideological grounds, I ought to hate, but I end up getting the hate all charmed out of me. As an ideologue, I’m a total failure. I bond too easily with people, even people whose ideas I find obnoxious. Career-wise, this is a weakness, but it’s at least one I share with the founder of National Review, whose circle of friends included the likes of Ted Kennedy.

I won’t be seeking out any more of Richard Stallman’s lectures, and I very much doubt we’ll ever see him on a National Review cruise, but it was a pleasure to meet him nonetheless.