Ben Langhinrichs

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Genii Weblog

Is there a pinko commie spy among us?

Tue 24 Feb 2004, 09:39 PM

by Ben Langhinrichs
I try not to be overtly political in this weblog, unlike Rocky in his recent post.  This post dances closer to the edge than usual, but it is still mostly about Notes/Domino and IT, even if it doesn't start that way.  That said...

When U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige called the largest teacher's union in the U.S. a "terrorist organization", his hyperbole raised an uproar.  Unfortunately, I am not sure that the many offended teachers (and relatives of teachers, since my mom was a teacher for many years) focused on the right issue.  What Mr. Paige said is appalling in an Education Secretary, but it shows a dangerous tendency that those in the current administration would do well to nip in the bud.  That is the tendency to label anyone opposed to you as "evil".  Now, it is natural to disagree.  I should know, as I am a Unitarian Universalist, and it is said that every group of five UUs has at least six conflicting opinions.  But disagreement is one thing, and labelling anyone who disagrees with you as inherently evil, immoral, or even stupid, represents a serious degradation of our civic discourse.  Actually, some of the responses on both sides to Rocky's post demonstrate this.

When Mr. Paige referred to the National Education Association as a "terrorist organization", he was wading deep into dangerous waters.  If the current administration starts taking advantage of the current "war on terror" to label opponents, or even those who shouldn't be opponents but have a certain disagreement with you, demagoguery is not far behind.  Many a dictator has slipped down that slippery slope, and I don't think that anyone in the U.S. from either party really wants the U.S. to go in that direction.  After all, when the South Africans are lecturing us on civil rights, we should know we have to watch our step.

"Whoa!", you may well say.  "I thought we were going to steer clear of politics.  What place does this have in a technology forum?"

OK, I'll tell you.  Ron Paige is not the only one straying over the edge.  I have in recent months read of jubilation over the security woes at Microsoft.  I have read fierce debates over whether J2EE or .NET was the "true path".  I have heard Linux and the Open Source movement accused of destroying intellectual property.  I have been accused of drinking the "IBM koolaid" for believing IBM when they say they will continue to add value to Notes/Domino.  All of these seem to me to be doing a bit of wading in dangerous waters as well.  Much of the world still runs on Microsoft platforms, and it is bad for all of us when those foundations are shaken by destructive viruses.  J2EE and .NET are two plausible directions, both with a fair amount of support and good arguments for their use, and they are still only two of many possible directions.  Linux and the Open Source movement are powerful forces for diversity in IT, which will serve everyone well, including Microsoft (the last really great innovations Microsoft made in Windows were due to competition with OS/2, and they sorely need a bit of competition).  IBM has demonstrated good faith in talking publicly about not just one, but two major upgrades to Notes/Domino, and occasionally we could actually believe them.

So, while we are right to jump on the Education Secretary for his deplorable characterization and contempt for a large group of dedicated professionals, let us not be too quick to gloat.  It is all too easy to see those on the other side of any issue as "evil".  I am certainly guilty of it myself all too frequently.  Let's remember that those involved in the "red scares" of the 1950's were genuinely scared, and were generally scaring themselves by convincing themselves of the inherent evil of the "other".  Whether the topic is social or political or technological, let's try to keep the discourse civil and skip the perilous view of our opponents as "enemies".

Copyright 2004 Genii Software Ltd.

What has been said:

121.1. Rock
(02/24/2004 09:21 PM)

As UUs, you do realize that many people consider *us* the "pinko commie spies" nowadays ;)

Seriously, you raise a great point - and I sometimes slip into the hyperbole myself, as it just comes naturally to me from writing so much :) However I do try to recognize it when I do it, and apologize appropriately when it does happen (as I have done in the aforementioned thread).

When debating it is always wise to remember to "attack the idea, not the person" - but I feel that with the sensationalism all around us, every day, it becomes almost second nature to use sensational language to try to emotionally make a point. And we should all try to tone it back, myself included.

Thanks for the reminder, Ben!


121.2. Colin Pretorius
(02/25/2004 11:49 AM)

It can be hard to separate emotionally-loaded judgement from civil discourse - for example, South Africa's then-ruling National Party (still active and supported across race groups (surprisingly enough) as the "New National Party") was never prepared to admit that apartheid was wrong. It was just "a different point of view", as justifiable and valid as anything detractors came up with. To them, apartheid didn't end because it was Wrong, just because, well, you know, it wasn't really working as well as it was meant to. That's the opposite danger: civility getting in the way of standing up and pointing out evil when we see it.

Having said that, you're absolutely right, and we're all too often inclined to emotionally charge our arguments to try to get the point across.

Many of the anti-gay sentiments on Rock's site could have been verbatim from the pro-apartheid propaganda we were force-fed as children, but that's another story.

As for us lecturing you, South Africans are so holier-than-thou these days - we can actually be quite intolerable :) In truth, we're very much like Germans (as Joe mentioned on Rock's site), in that we're a little hypersensitive to these issues because of our past.

121.3. Julian Robichaux
(02/25/2004 08:45 PM)

One of the interview questions for the job that I currently have was, "How do you feel about Microsoft?" I'll bet they got quite a range of answers from all the Notes developers they interviewed.

- Julian

121.4. Ben Langhinrichs
(02/25/2004 08:52 PM)

So, how did you answer? I wonder what the interviewer wanted to hear.

121.5. Ben Langhinrichs
(02/25/2004 08:55 PM)

Colin - Thanks for taking the time to post. You write "Many of the anti-gay sentiments on Rock's site could have been verbatim from the pro-apartheid propaganda we were force-fed as children", but I think many of the sentiments could be traced back to almost any hate speech. Hate speech is speech that is not intended to develop or support an idea, but rather to villify the target. It is ugly, but often effective. We are not the most pleasant of species, in many ways.

121.6. Colin Pretorius
(02/26/2004 04:13 AM)

Ben, it's not the hate speech. Out-and-out villification is one thing - and people often see that for what it is, but it's the subtle, supposedly-reasoned arguments that I was referring to.

When we were in school, we were never explicitly taught to *hate* black people - in many respects there was no official sentiment that non-Whites were inferior in any way (although the environment was such that out-and-out supremacists didn't have to worry about what they said).

We were taught that we needed apartheid (which means 'separateness') because whites were a minority and it was the best solution to 'protect our Christian, Western way of life', that we were all just too different to integrate naturally, that if the black majority were allowed to come into power we'd become an atheist, communist country. Sure, the rest of the world didn't like what we were doing, but they didn't understand our situation which was precarious and 'special', and besides, the first-world things we brought to Africa was in everyone's best interests, it's not like anyone was starving, were they? Most black people live lives better than our neighbours, so what if they can't vote or enjoy the same rights we can? They have their homelands where they can do what they want, and live however they like, why can't they just let us do the same?

Those sorts of sentiments, with a healthy dose of fear given what had happened to many ex-colonies in Africa in the 60s and 70s, was all that was needed for many otherwise-decent people to think that apartheid was either perfectly reasonable, or at the least, a necessary (not-really) evil.

Sound familiar?

121.7. Ben Langhinrichs
(02/26/2004 07:22 PM)

Unfortunately, far too familiar. Thank you for sharing your insight into the South African experience. I remember protesting American companies doing business in S.A., and being amazed at the rapid transformation which occurred. I've always wondered what it was like to live through apartheid, although I feel a bit as if I am doing so now.

121.8. Julian Robichaux
(02/26/2004 08:53 PM)

Back to the interview comment [3], I don't remember exactly what I said, but I guess it was close enough to the "right" answer, since I got the job.

I probably said something about how you'd be a fool to ignore or completely disavow Microsoft technologies, because they're so pervasive and there are plenty of very useful things you can do with them. Just because I'm a Notes guy doesn't mean that I have some internal and generic hatred of Microsoft.

I tend to look at technology from the "tool" perspective: if something is a tool that can help me do my job better, then I'll consider using it, regardless of what company might profit from its use. In the end, I'm just trying to provide a solution, and there's always a framework that the solution has to fit within. I've been lucky (in my opinion) that the framework has normally involved Notes for the past several years, because I really enjoy developing in Notes, but I've always been running on Microsoft platforms and integrating with Microsoft tools as I've been doing it.

Can't we all just get along? ;-)

- Julian

121.9. Colin Pretorius
(02/27/2004 01:27 AM)

Julian [8], you duffed the secret question: if you say "Microsoft spawns the software of the devil and Bill Gates must die on a stake" then you get the job AND a 10% increase on the advertised salary :P

121.10. Julian Robichaux
(02/27/2004 03:10 PM)

No wonder they hired me. They probably figured they got me cheap.

- Julian