March 11, 2009 · Lessig
The usually exactly right Karl Lenz writes: “Is Lessig Shilling Against Open Access?” He laments the “damage done to the goodwill of the other side by this baseless smear.”
This is missing the point, twice.
The merits of the “open access” argument stand or fall on their own. There was a fear of some (but discounted by others) that Conyers had introduced the bill to enable it to be swept into another bill without further process. Whatever else, given he has now defended the bill to remedy the same lack of process that led to the rule the bill attacks, it is doubtful that will happen.
But I do disagree with to the suggestion this is a “baseless smear.”
It is a smear, no doubt, in the sense that it is a criticism, not so much of the man, but of a system. It is this system that produces enormous cynicism about how government works. That Conyers receives money from the auto industry and votes with their interests isn’t the sort of thing that produces cynicism, just as the fact that Senator Grassley receives money from farmers and votes with their interests isn’t the sort of thing that produces cynicism. Those sort of contributions — and votes — are the very best one could expect in a system of privately funded elections — funding that fits the interests of the district; votes that track the interests of the district.
But if there’s a very best, there’s a very worst — funding and votes that have nothing to do with the interests of a district. That’s what this bill is. Are the votes of the 14th District in Michigan benefitted by a bill that will increase the cost of access to government funded research? Is protecting publishers the principle that got John Conyers elected to Congress? Is this really — as Lenz suggests — one of his “convictions”? Is John Conyers really a Congressman who has as a “conviction” the idea that we should pay for scientific research twice? That publishers whose business model conflicts with the best business model for science in the digital age deserve Congress’ protection?
The whole point in this criticism (aka, “smear”) was that there was no good reason for the support of this bill beyond doing a favor to an important industry. And to do a favor for an industry by supporting a bill that has no good reason behind it (and 33 Nobel Prize winners, and the current and former head of the NIH against it) while receiving 2x the contributions of those who didn’t sponsor the bill is exactly the behavior that produces such cynicism.
So it is an attack, no doubt. But it is certainly not baseless. “Baseless” would have been to suggest Conyers was bribed. Of course he wasn’t — Conyers is a hero of mine and my kind (libs); we don’t believe our heros are criminals. It is instead an attack on precisely the behavior that leads 88% of the people in my district to believe “money buys results” in Congress. Conyers voting to protect GM doesn’t produce that cynicism. Conyers voting to protect a bunch of foreign publishers does.
Now if you’re someone like me who believes that this cynicism is THE problem in Congress today — if you believe that eliminating it, by restoring a system that could lead people to believe Congress was doing what it doing because of the voters, or even because of stupidity, but not because of the money, was the most important thing that Congress could do now (and especially now when all the attention that should be focused on the importance of stimulus is now focused instead on 8,000 or more earmarks said to have “larded up” the bill), then what Conyers did is precisely the sort of thing that needs to be attacked. Not just him (we’ve got others coming). Not just Democrats (we’ve been criticized already for being too harsh on Republicans). But him and anyone else who gives us a chance to point to the kind of relationship that draws this critical institution into doubt.
But I’ll confess, this isn’t a role I enjoy. It is my nature (nothing to be proud of, but this is the reality) to ingratiate, not criticize. I don’t have the courage of a Stallman. Too many of my cycles are focused on how or whether what I do will affect whether others like me. I am more comfortable on the inside than on the outside. And when we tried to find allies in this battle, I totally understood those who didn’t have the stomach for this. “Coward” is a name I’ve given myself more often than any other.
But I really really mean what I said at the end of the first post on this “baseless smear”:
This is no time to play nice.
Our government is corrupted. That is not to say members accept bribes, or that legislation is the product of a quid-pro-quo: fewer accept bribes today than at any point in our past; I doubt any legislation is the product of a quid-pro-quo. These are good people, in a corrupted system — a system that doesn’t focus where it should (on the views of the citizens of each district) but instead focuses where Members must (on where they need to raise money).
No one not benefiting from this system could defend it. Each of us, I believe, has a duty to change it. And change here will require something more than happy, glad-handing, smiles – however miserable that makes wimps like me.