The other day, I wrote something that touched on the cold war between Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds, or maybe more accurately, their fans. And a colleague of mine mentioned that Stallman wasn’t a coder so much as an ideologue. I agreed with it and didn’t think much more. I don’t see “ideologue” as a pejorative. But it usually is meant in that way. And that got me thinking.
The truth of the matter is that “ideologue” is a word that people pretty much only use to describe someone they disagree with. Otherwise, they aren’t ideological so much as they are simply rational. They are people who have looked at the facts and come to the obvious conclusion. Of course, we know from neuroscience that things don’t work that way. In general, our local brains (or “guts” if you prefer) decide on things and then our upper brains come up with justifications for what are decidedly not rationally derived conclusions.
Linus Torvalds Is an Ideologue
But while it is true that Richard Stallman is an ideologue, so too is Linus Torvalds. It’s just that Torvalds’ ideology is a painfully typical one among the Silicon Valley crowd. He’s an atheist and everything I’ve heard him say that touches on politics makes me think he’s a glibertarian.
As a result, most people would say he isn’t an ideologue, because his thinking fits well inside America’s Overton window. And in terms of Silicon Valley, Torvalds’s political beliefs put him in the dead center of what is a tiny Overton window.But most people think Richard Stallman is an ideologue because his thinking actually challenges the status quo and the power elite. This isn’t to say that Stallman is a political genius. Based upon things he’s said, it’s clear that he could stand to learn a little about good old fashioned political science.
But Stallman is clearly a creative thinker. And that has made him come up with ideas that are dangerous. He is seen as an extremist. But is he really? I would say no. His ideas are not even as extreme as mine, and I stay pretty easily inside the world’s political Overton window. The whole thing reminds me rather of something we see a lot here in American political punditry: the professional centrist.
Centrism as Non-Ideological
In the United States, the professional centrist is best exemplified by our man from Slate, William Saletan. He’s a centrist. He calls himself a “liberal Republican,” and you can’t help but think that he wouldn’t have a cushy job at Slate if he called himself a conservative Democrat (because such things actually exist) or — God forbid! — a leftist. But the main thing is that Saletan supposedly represents the center of American politics and thus is like all the people in middle America who supposedly just want the folks in Washington to “get things done!”
The problem is that I, with my (by American standards) extreme leftist politics have much more in common with the people in middle America than William Saletan has. Saletan, like most professional centrists, is actually an extremist. He has extremist opinions on the right when it comes to economic policy and exttremist opinions on the left when it comes to social policy. The people of middle America are the opposite of Saletan: they have extreme views on the left on economic policy and extreme views on the right on social policy. So they don’t agree with Saletan about anything. They at least agree with me on economic issues.
The Power Elite Define the Ideologue
And so it is with Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds. Among the power elite, Torvalds’ opinions (or lack thereof: he is of the “A plague on both your houses!” persuasion) are just fine. He would never do anything that might interfere with the profits of Pfizer, Disney, or Apple. So he isn’t an ideologue. The fact that his ideas are extreme and unpopular doesn’t matter. That’s what Orwell didn’t understand: give people a shiny enough prison and they will gladly give themselves life without the possibility of parole.
Richard Stallman is an ideologue because his ideas are unacceptable. But they are unacceptable not because most people would disagree with them; they are unacceptable because the power elite don’t like them. And they don’t like them because those idea threaten their power. But our society is so sick that even people who are not part of the power elite accept the thinking of the power elite because it doesn’t occur to them that they could do anything else.
In a society as screwed up as ours is, being called an ideologue is the highest of complements.