Sunday, February 11, 2007

Why I love to hate the current Internet debate

I received some good questions on my post yesterday that I will attempt to answer here.

Anonymous wrote:

The kind of stuff [Diana Hsieh] said makes even the worst Speichers stuff tame by comparison, and she's aided by abominable viciousness from Mayhew and Boeckmann, all piling together into one big mass of seething vituperation . . . [w]hat gives?
I don't see it that way. For example, I thought it intriguing that Stephen Speicher quoted an almost two-year-old HBL post by Tore Boeckmann in one of his FORUM threads. Leaving aside the whole "was Speicher authorized to do it" issue, I found it remarkable that anyone would remember anything anyone said on HBL from two years past--until I looked at my HBL archives and saw that Boeckmann and Mayhew were disagreeing with Speicher's wife, Betsy over the perennial "how goes the world" question. Mayhew had made a strong case against Betsy Speicher's overly optimistic view and offered his opinion that hope for the future will be for naught if Objectivists spend all their time in Internet discussions over more laborious (and productive) thinking and reading.

Sure, "ouch," but Mayhew is 100% right, and Boeckmann came in later for the assist when another HBL'er objected, adding his own observation that the Objectivism is best learned under the tutelage of an expert followed by private thought.

In reading though it all, it was clear to me that Boeckmann wasn't arguing for "authoritarianism," he was arguing for structure and the benefits of a master's helpful guidance. And he's right; the Internet is great for meeting similar-interested people, sharing camaraderie, and exchanging the occasional deep thought or two, but an Internet bull session is absolutely no substitute for formal instruction in any field. The Internet must not be viewed as the poor man's way to learn philosophy--it's simply too ad hoc and there is too much noise to signal for it to serve as a good substitute for formal learning.

Fast forwarding to today's debate, all I can infer is that these old posts by Mayhew and Boeckmann really pushed Stephen Speicher's buttons, hence the elephant-like memory and the seeming hair-trigger hostility. Yet far from being "abominably vicious," I say Mayhew and Boeckmann make a truthful case in both their past and present criticisms.

So how then has this criticism been met? In one of his more recent responses, Stephen Speicher listed Mayhew's academic articles and the number of documented citations of these articles (which he says is none) on the implicit grounds that this somehow proves that Mayhew is a lout (and worse, a lout that no one cites).

I call it the "Late Great Smear by (Lack of) Citation" and when I read it last night, I recoiled in embarrassment for Speicher. Without knowing the citation ratio for other Objectivist scholars (and Objectivist scholars in the classics), and without knowing what battles Mayhew has had to fight in his career as a scholar, Speicher's list is meaningless. It's nothing more than a cheap and ugly shot. If it was an attempt to take the high ground by proving a material fact, it utterly flopped dead with me.

As for Diana Hsieh, I look at it like this: if you are going to go after her, you damn well better make sure it's good. Some (especially her former pro-Kelley allies) have certainly turned sliming Hsieh into a cottage industry and it only seems that others are jumping in on the action. Nevertheless, Hsieh has convinced me that she's far too thoughtful a writer to deserve being subjected to that kind of treatment. Furthermore, I don't see "seething vituperation," in Hsieh's writing; I see someone laying it out as she sees it and who is right, both in a broad sense and in terms of the particulars. Hsieh may often be pointed and tough, but in my estimate, her targets have convinced me that they deserve it.

Darren wrote:

I read your post on Noodlefood that you think that the "real cause of this debate is Robert Tracinski's positions over the past several years," but I don't see how Tracinski's pro-Bush ideas played that big of a role . . . [also], I have yet to see one Objectivist claim, on The Forum or anywhere else, that "Bush is a war leader beyond reproach" and that the conservatives are not a threat to our liberty.
I take it all back to Jack Wakeland's claim in TIA that when Objectivists criticize George Bush for fighting a "half-war" on totalitarian Islam, they are doing the enemy's work. Up until that point, I was merely indifferent to what I saw as a shift in the focus of TIA's reporting, but from that point on, I took it as an outright shift in TIA's view of philosophy. Tracinski's subsequent writings clearly bear me out on this.

Because Tracinski is not a flip thinker and because many Objectivists seem to agree with him, I think his positions demand thoughtful and sober-minded examination. That said, I don't think that these examinations will come out of Internet discussion boards and I point to the current sad debacle as proof. In fact, I urge all serious-minded participants to argue their positions and examinations by longer-form essays over short cut-and-pastes with an attack premise--in the hopes of reestablishing a proper sense of polite etiquette and a devotion to ideas over personalities.

In my view, Internet pile-ons are simply unbecoming given what most of the participants aspire to be.

Update: Apparently, Stephen Speicher’s list of Robert Mayhew’s journal articles and their citations has been removed. I was able to find no mention or explanation for this removal. Additionally, other posts in this thread also seem to have vanished without explanation.


Tom Rowland said...

I have posted the first part of what I think is a thoughtful analysis at "The View From Here"

I welcome comments and will reply as time permits.

Tom Rowland

Anonymous said...

If I were to offer Stephen Speicher unsolicited advice, it would be stop writing, take his wife to dinner, walk the dog, whatever he needs to do until he can come back and take it down a notch. I read though my own HBL archives and I see exactly what Nick is talking about—it seems Speicher took some general comments made by Mayhew and Boeckmann almost two years ago and turned them into a personal affront, and has been playing them in the 8-track of his brain ever since.

Take the high ground and let the feeding frenzy end. If your own esteem is in good order, who cares what anyone else says about you or your website? Is it really worth all that energy to be on the winning side of a flame war?

Endless Mike888 said...

I'd like to hear more about Speicher's post on Mayhew that has now vanished. If your summar is accurate (I assume it is), I think that would tell us all we really need to know about Mr. Speicher.

Anonymous said...

Let me make sure I have this right--Speicher writes an out of context hit post attacking Robert Mayhew's record as a scholar, withdraws it, and says nothing more about it.

If Provenzo is straight in his telling, Speicher needs to come clear about it. If not, he's revealed himself to be a real slime ball. You can't just take back a bullet like that and pretend you didn't fire it.

Darren said...


Thanks for responding to my question. I did not know Jack Wakeland said the things you brought up, and I'd disagree strongly with Wakeland's statement.

But still, I think the issue with TIA (and the 2006 election) is separate from the fight between The Forum and Noodlefood. No matter whether one sides with Noodlefood or not, I don't think it's fair to group the The Forum with TIA.

Anonymous said...


For example, I thought it intriguing that Stephen Speicher quoted an almost two-year-old HBL post by Tore Boeckmann in one of his FORUM threads. Leaving aside the whole "was Speicher authorized to do it" issue, I found it remarkable that anyone would remember anything anyone said on HBL from two years past


Fast forwarding to today's debate, all I can infer is that these old posts by Mayhew and Boeckmann really pushed Stephen Speicher's buttons, hence the elephant-like memory and the seeming hair-trigger hostility. Yet far from being "abominably vicious," I say Mayhew and Boeckmann make a truthful case in both their past and present criticisms.

What about Stephen Speicher's claim in this post that Boeckmann wrote a private letter to several Objectivist intellectuals on Jan. 21, 2007 attacking The Forum, and that therefore Speicher was not bringing him anew into the current debate?

Jack Galt said...

> What about Stephen Speicher's claim in this post that Boeckmann wrote a private letter to several Objectivist intellectuals on Jan. 21, 2007 attacking The Forum

Ok, what about it? Is it suddenly impermissible to “attack” the FORUM in a private letter? In any case, all we have is Stephen Speicher's statement that it was a foul letter—and of course he’s going to think that given his own contributions and the corner he’s boxed himself into.

And besides the fact that Boeckmann probably needs to update his address book with actual friends, I’m at a loss to see how a private letter sent in confidence becomes actionable in public circles, or what it has to do with Robert Mayhew’s scholarship (or lack thereof). I didn’t see the list that Nick describes in his post, but its sounds like too outrageous a thing to make up. And as they say on the farm, what the hay . . .

I saw that one FORUM poster argued that Speicher should delete the entire thread where all these things are discussed on the grounds that none of it is actually helpful. I think she may just be right—even if Speicher is 100% right, winning this very mean-spirited game of one-upmanship is a pretty hollow victory. You’ll know Objectivism is winning when a debate that gets this ugly and personal people don’t fan the flames—they stop debating and let cooler heads prevail.

Swimmy Lionni said...

This is completely off-topic, but I couldn't find any email address that I could use to address Nicholas specifically on the moral defense website, so I thought I'd post a comment.

Nicholas (or Mr. Provenzo?), this is Tim McGowan, a GMU econ student. We met once in professor Rustici's office. I'm taking an english comp class that requires students to invite a (non-academic) speaker within their fields. The topic is strictly professional writing, so it unfortunately wouldn't be a good opportunity to lecture on economics, but it might give you a chance to pass around some of your excellent articles. If you think you'd be interested, please send me an email: . Thanks!

Nicholas Provenzo said...

> I'd like to hear more about Speicher's post on Mayhew that has now vanished.

It was a list of Mayhew’s scholarly essays, each with the number of times they have apparently been cited by other scholars (which Speicher individual reporting each as being zero, as if for added effect), and two clips from negative reviews of Mayhew’s books on ancient Greece.

As I said before, I was embarrassed to read such a post; it clearly dropped all context and came off to me as little more than an attempt to kick a man in a very mean-spirited way. If Speicher was as right as he claims he is in this dispute, he doesn’t win his case with this kind of argument. If you are called a SOB, you don’t refute your opponent by saying that he is a SOB too.

And in my view, deleting such a post is simply not enough; I say you have to come clean and acknowledge that you lost the guide of your better judgment. I find that when I get really mad and insulted over what I perceive to be a personal attack, I can come off sounding a lot less than I should when I attempt to respond to my opponent in the heat of the moment. To me this underscores one reason why people use attorneys or other third parties to represent them when their interests are at stake—the third party can take the passion out of the equation much better than you often can.

Anonymous said...

I saw Speicher's post listing Mayhew's article too, sometime Feb 10, late night in the UK. Pressed F5 to refresh and it was gone from the thread. He must've read it over and decided it revealed too much. But I find that he can be very biting and hostile to posters with whom he disagrees, so it's not like that post came from out of the blue.

Up until I read that post, I found this whole thing slightly amusing, as in the "do please continue (to make an ass of yourself)" kindda way, but that post was just plain ugly. No argument, just mindless venom. Wished he would just bite the (I would guess for him) sour apple and admit he made a mistake. Won't hold my breath for that too happen though.

Galileo Blogs said...

I am glad this entire controversy is dying down. Everyone should apply common-sense etiquette in discourse.

I am a recent observer of this controversy and do not know most of the principals involved, nor whatever unstated reasons may have given rise to the tremendous animus displayed. Just judging strictly from what I have observed, I am appalled at what I have seen.

On both sides, people need to have a thicker skin, not commit ad hominem, and show each other basic courtesy and respect. I might add, this includes the earned respect that a professional academic who has earned a Ph.D. deserves. A teacher or professor deserves the benefit of the doubt and politeness. Having said that, I have to thank Mr. Speicher for pulling his post that apparently mocked the academic achievements of Prof. Mayhew. I did not have the opportunity to read it before it was pulled. I am glad I did not see it. In my opinion, it represents a low point in this entire discussion.

Anonymous said...

Nick, I am the original Anonymous that you had quoted. Thanks for answering my point, because I think it is worth considering.

Let me be the first to acknowledge that the current argument was in part fueled by the Speichers; they weren't just pedestrians standing by, and they didn't all just "take it", but most definitely gave some back.

But if Speicher did something inappropriate in the heat of the moment, aren't Diana, Mayhew, and Boeckmann, guilty of entirely the same? And whereas he's merely one, they are three, all reinforcing each other? Take a look at Boeckmann's essay, where he reads Speicher's mind, attributes to him a a google search and implied ignorance, and goes practically all the way to morally condemning the man, all based on the concoctions of his own mind!

How is that not a hit job? And yet why aren't you here writing about it? Other parts of the essay aside, in that section he appears a completely unhinged person, with a very bitter private grudge, and a humongous ax to grind. Stephen's transgressions aside, under no light can Boeckmann's comments be seen as "sober-minded"; Mayhew makes similar comments towards Tracinski and even tries to incriminate his character; Diana declares Speichers forum to be boycotted based on no philosophical principle (as was with Kelley) but on her own personal antipathy.

So you tell me how is all of this sober-minded? And why aren't you here commenting about it, making it public, so that both sides of the matter may be revealed? You berate internet pilings-on, but don't you see that you yourself are doing exactly that, piling on one person whom you make out as all to blame, and absolve everyone else from all censure?

If Diana doesn't like the Speichers, fine she can say so on her blog and make an appropriate suggestion for her readers, which is a far cry from boycotting a place and declaring a moral crusade on it. Mayhew doesn't like Tracinski's points, fine, he can criticize them, which is a far cry from incriminating the man's honesty and moral stature. Boeckmann and Speicher may have a private grudge, fine, but why is it that the faults of one are magnified, and the faults of the other cheerfully disregarded?

Lyssa said...

Of course nothing that Stephen Speicher says about this thread obliviates the hostility he revealed in his original post. Maybe one of his members called him on it--so what? He is still a snarling wimp, even if he deleted one particular vicious example.

Nicholas Provenzo said...

Anonymous wrote:

>[I]f Speicher did something inappropriate in the heat of the moment, aren't Diana, Mayhew, and Boeckmann, guilty of entirely the same?

Anonymous then offers arguments in support of his view.

Boeckmann makes two statements regarding his view of the Speichers; one posted publicly on Diana Hsieh’s blog and one circulated privately. A copy of Boeckmann’s private memo was forwarded to me with the caveat that I do not forward it further and that I keep name of the person who sent it to me anonymous. Mr. Speicher has also seen this memo via his own sources and has noted his disagreement with it on his website.

When it comes to the philosophic essentials, I judge Boeckmann to be right and the Speichers to be wrong. Sadly, Boeckmann chronicles a strange form of rationalism in many of the Speichers’ posts at the FORUM that one would not expect given the Speichers’ long association with Objectivism. Taken in total, this trend toward rationalism is problematic and off-putting. It diminishes the ability of the Speichers to be consistent and thoughtful advocates for Objectivism.

At the same time, I don’t think a philosophic integrity check necessarily need be the gut-wrenching procedure that some make it to be. I am reminded of instances in my personal history where critics disagreed with some posts CAC’s writers had written for this blog that did in fact reveal the writer’s misunderstanding of an Objectivist principle. Despite some harsh criticism (including one person’s public condemnation of CAC on HBL) it took me time to properly frame the issue and resolve it properly. In my case, I had to resolve my personal loyalty to my friends and my hopes that they would reach the right conclusion on their own with my responsibility to keep the larger organization on the correct path. Sometimes it just takes time for one to think an issue though in order to be able to face the necessary answer.

In that experience, I did learn one thing: people can be philosophically right and still be personally obnoxious. As a result of one person’s long-running and excruciating habit of basically going apoplectic every time he encountered resistance to his views, I terminated a long-time friendship. Sometimes that is just the way it has to be.

So if I am totally incorrect in my assessment of who was nasty and who was nice in the current debate (which is obviously important to some, but less so to others), I respect that some people will have every reason to hold it against me. In my mind, there still is the non-trivial problem over some of the philosophic statements that the Speichers have made on their FORUM. Since I disagree with the content of these statements (as well as the conduct surrounding them), I think it is only fair to note it, as well as the fact that I think these statements are influencing the tone of the debate for the worse.

Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that people will be able to sort the philosophic issues out with the benefit of time and thoughtful introspection. If not, we’ll just have to act accordingly.

Anonymous said...

Nick, I have no doubt that Speichers will try to correct things said in the heat of the moment, just as I have no doubt about your personal character and motives. But it saddens me that, even despite this benevolent patience you're willing to afford Speichers, you still refuse to condemn any obnxiousness on the other side. Because the fact is, that BOTH sides had been obnoxious. And by choosing to criticize only one of the two wrong sides, you implicitly sanction the inappropriate behavior on the other. It's the fallacy of omission.

By reading your thoughtful posts, and your patient willingness to let Speichers fix their mistakes, one would have to conclude that in your opinion only Speichers have to fix theirs.

And that is injustice, plain and simple. Because any sane person who reads the off-the-wall comments of BOTH sides must conclude that Tore's inflamatory psychologizing, and Diana's aimless belligerence are at least as bad, require as much apology, and raise just as much indignation, as Speichers' heated comments issued in response. And, unfortunately, by focusing just on Speichers' comments at the exclusion of everything else, you participate in precisely the kind of internet pile-up that you yourself lament.

Lyssa said...

It's quite a balancing act, which the Speicher's are carrying out: a sustained series of potshots against Leonard Peikoff, "the DIM Hypothesis", Robert Mayhew, Tore Boeckmann, and now Dave Harriman -- all while maintaining that they are still "pro-ARI".