A My Little Pony Version of the Khmer Rouge

I definitely approve of mocking people who publish ignorant screeds against the internet, and all the more so when my name comes up in the course of doing so. Here’s Ross Douthat in The New York Times:

“One could write a Talmud,” Helprin notes at one point, “in reaction to the oceans of material supplied by commentators who either deliberately or otherwise (probably otherwise) cannot grasp the meaning of a simple sentence.” True — but this does not mean that one should. In particular, one should never, ever write a book that includes, in its footnotes, “Posting No. 12” from, or “Posting 3:41” from — or comments by “Peep,” “Constantine” and “Anon,” from Matthew Yglesias’s blog. Helprin acknowledges the peculiarity of arguing with anonymous commenters rather than training his fire on more intellectually serious targets. “Why talk to the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room?” he wonders, quoting Churchill; the answer, he explains, is that in this case only the monkeys really matter. “The philosophical basis of the war on copyright is crackpot and stillborn,” and “apart from unavoidable forays, it is best to stay out of such thickets.” Instead, the battle should be waged “wherever the gnats in their millions crudely make real the musings of the Mad Hatters.”

As the tone of that last line suggests, alas, it’s hard to write a polemic premised on the assumption that your opponents are monkeys without sounding like a particularly high-vocabulary monkey yourself. Helprin variously describes his foes as “wacked-out muppets,” “crapulous professors,” “regular users of hallucinogenic drugs,” “a My Little Pony version of the Khmer Rouge,” “a million geeks in airless basements,” “mouth-breathing morons in backwards baseball caps and pants that fall down” and so forth. The overall effect is like listening to an erudite gentleman employing $20 words while he screams at a bunch of punk kids to get off his front lawn.

These kind of arguments really do tend to be self-refuting in my opinion. The underlying conceit behind a lot of this sort of complaining seems to be that the traditional crop of professional writers — full-time journalists and, in Helprin’s case, novelists — are the only well-informed people on the planet. In reality, a great deal of what you see on blogs is writing by people who aren’t or weren’t professional writers but who — unlike most journalists — have actual subject matter expertise. You can get a take on events in Iran from Gary Sick and Juan Cole and Daniel Drezner and Steven Walt. You can read dozens and dozens of blogs by lawyers and economists. It’s Helprin rather than, say, Larry Lessig and Tyler Cowen and Tim Lee who doesn’t know how to seriously evaluate the issues relating to intellectual property law.


That said, “a My Little Pony version of the Khmer Rouge” is a great turn of phrase.