Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, Facts, Ideology, and the Middle East

I recently came across an excellent interview conducted by Evan Goldstein, who is the editor of Arts & Letters Daily and the Chronicle of Higher Education, with Bernard Lewis, who is an eminent historian of the Middle East from Princeton. There were three things that stood out to me in the interview: 1) the potential for ideological rigidity in academia, 2) the importance of history for analysis of recent events, and 3) the astonishing, obstinate ignorance of foreign policy ideologues when it comes to understanding enemies. Three excerpts from Goldstein’s interview with Lewis can best illustrate my points.

On the potential for ideological rigidity, Lewis – who I first came across from reading Edward Said’s infamous postmodern polemic Orientalism – has much to tell us:

Age has not mellowed Lewis, especially on the topic of the late Edward Said, whose 1978 polemic, Orientalism, upended Middle East studies and placed Lewis in the position of having to defend his scholarship against charges of racism and imperialism. Lewis vividly remembers reading Orientalism for the first time. “Apart from Said’s ill will,” he says, “I was appalled by his ignorance.” […] Lewis and Said met only once, in 1986, for a debate at the annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association. Dubbed the “shoot-out at the MESA corral,” the event drew 3,000 spectators. Whether or not Lewis thinks he won that day’s battle, however, he seems to be under no illusion that he lost the war.

“Middle Eastern studies in this country is dominated by the Saidians,” he says, his voice rising in indignation. “The situation is very bad. Saidianism has become an orthodoxy that is enforced with a rigor unknown in the Western world since the Middle Ages.” This groupthink, he says, taints everything: jobs, promotions, book reviews. “If you buck the Saidian orthodoxy, you’re making life very difficult for yourself.”

In 2007, Lewis and some like-minded scholars, including Fouad Ajami, of the Johns Hopkins University, founded the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. The idea, Lewis says, was to create space for opinions that deviate from the MESA mainstream, “to maintain an independent academic integrity in Middle Eastern studies.”

This is an important argument. I minored in MENAS at UCLA, which has one of the most prestigious MENAS programs in the world, and was never required to read the work of Bernard Lewis. How can this be, especially given Lewis’ towering influence on MENAS in the scholarly world? The answer is, of course, orthodoxy. Dogma. What is most disturbing about orthodoxies that gain a monopoly in a field of study is that truth becomes a political agenda rather than an aim for scholarly research. Those who, as Lewis notes, dedicate their lives to answering questions as best they can are necessarily at odds with the dogmas of the field. Postmodern Saidians have imposed the worst sort of orthodoxy, too: If you are not from the Middle East, or if you are not Muslim, then you are by default an agent – willing or otherwise – of imperial aggression and Western chauvinism. Those who question, or dismiss, Saidian insights into the Middle East and North Africa are “being political” while those who do not question Saidian insights are performing scholarly research. Can anybody else see the fallacy here?

This orthodoxy dominates MENAS scholarship. While interacting with my professors at UCLA I was given plenty of opportunities to subtly acknowledge my adherence to Saidism. I did not. I did not question Saidianism, either. I only expressed an innocent desire to gain insights into the work of the guy called out so often in Orientalism, Bernard Lewis. I was told, on numerous occasions, that Lewis had not been read, though of course it never hurts to gain the other side’s perspective. Could the orthodoxy Lewis identifies and assails be any clearer? (Here is the website to Lewis’ Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, by the way.)

Aside from vehemently disagreeing with the patron saint of MENAS, Lewis has also gained notoriety for his connection to the second Bush administration’s illegal invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. I don’t want to get into the details of his participation here (Goldstein does a good job of that in the interview itself, and I actually lost a little bit of respect for Lewis because of his evasive answers to Goldstein’s questions about his relationship with the Bush administration), but his insights into how the Middle East actually works should be of particular interest to libertarians and especially libertarians who sometimes read me for my quirky (even by libertarian standards) take on American foreign policy. Careful readers can hopefully recognize my overall argument in Lewis’ intricate understanding of the Middle East:

His disagreement with the Bush administration, he explains with a sigh, was not over the goal (regime change), but the tactic (full-scale invasion). Lewis says he argued for recognizing the leadership in northern Iraq as the country’s legitimate government and arming those forces if necessary. In the decade since the first Persian Gulf war, he says, Kurds and Arabs had managed to build a nascent democracy under the protection of the no-fly zone.

“That was the way to do it,” he says. “Simply to invade was the wrong way to do it, and I thought so and said so at the time.” Why didn’t he speak out before the invasion? “I didn’t feel at that crucial moment that it was right to take a public stance against the war.”

Aside from his inability to own up to his mistaken support for the Bush administration (or making his opposition to its policies public), Lewis is spot on. Look at what he is saying, and remember that his analysis is sharpened by a lifetime of prestigious scholarship on the Middle East: the West should have recognized that the illegitimate borders of Iraq had produced differing modes of governance in different regions, and that it would be morally acceptable to recognize the claims of sovereignty then being shouted out by the peoples of northern Iraq.

I am not even in the same ballpark as Lewis when it comes to understanding the Middle East. He is a retired-but-prestigious historian from Princeton; I am a potential graduate student with a B.A. from UCLA; yet he and I have come to the same conclusion, and it’s not hard to see why (it is also worth asking yourself the following question: Is Lewis right?):

  1. The Middle East is a region of the world with lots of different cultures (this is a truth that many foreign policy experts flatly ignore).
  2. The borders drawn up by the victors of World War I do not line up with these cultures anywhere in the Middle East, save perhaps Saudi Arabia.
  3. These artificial borders, and the international governing institutions that sanctify them, make necessary the presence of a strong man to keep these borders from collapsing.
  4. Since strong men are bad, and bottom-up institutions are good, it makes perfect sense – from a realist perspective and from an idealist perspective – for the West to recognize and incorporate the claims of sovereignty made by these bottom-up, nascent states.
  5. Invading and occupying a country, with the goal of molding it into a democracy, is a stupid idea because…
  6. …democracy cannot do for artificial states what strong men can: namely, keep borders in place without affecting the regional balance of power.

Yet the power balancers, and the realists who think that strong men serve Western interests better than democracies do, cannot adequately explain why these same strong men are so hard to control, and indeed often end up as enemies of the West (Saddam Hussein, anyone?). Lewis’ scholarship explains this well. The ideologues – the Western chauvinists and the postmodern Saidians – cannot explain this or, more likely, are unable to explain this because it flatly debunks their dogmas.

Speaking of dogmas, I have given too much attention to the orthodoxy currently strangling MENAS programs around the world, and not enough to those harbored by Western chauvinists. Goldstein reports:

Lewis pulls a Russian book off the shelf and slowly reads his name, in Cyrillic, on the cover. He smiles. His books have been translated into 29 languages. The Middle East and the West, published in 1964, was even translated into Arabic by the Muslim Brotherhood. Lewis is particularly fond of that edition’s preface: “I don’t know who this person is,” the translator wrote, “but one thing is clear. He is, from our point of view, either a candid friend or an honest enemy, and in any case one who disdains to distort the truth.” Lewis chuckles at that.

There is a common trope in many conservative Western circles that Islamists are so beholden to ideology and hatred of all things Western that they are incapable of understanding other modes of thought. Yet it is very clear from this excerpt that Islamists are interested in understanding other ideologies. Islamists, like socialists in the West, are more interested in molding better human beings than in making us freer. Instead of acknowledging this, many experts in foreign policy circles simply pretend that their opponents are savages and incapable of thinking like a true civilized individual. This mindset, too, contributes to the ongoing violence in the Middle East.

The West has a role to play in the Middle East. If it wants to reduce violence and raise standards of living, then policymakers in Washington and Brussels need to accept the fact that their conceptions of the Middle East have largely been shaped by dogma. Muslims are capable of doing bad things. So are Westerners. The West needs to support bottom-up decentralization in the Middle East until it is no longer possible to distinguish a West from a Middle East or, at least, until the West and the Middle East are as similar as Texas and California (or Germany and France). Until policymakers realize that the Middle East’s autocrats are a direct result of central planning efforts made elsewhere, and until MENAS scholars own up to the fact that their dogmas do more harm than good, peace and prosperity will elude the region.

Reply: Radical Democracy

I would have written this in reply to the blog post itself, but I must admit that I’m unsure if videos can be embedded in the comment section.

Despite the seeming radicalism of Fred’s proposal for a neighborhood-based democracy, it isn’t radical at all! It’s mainstream enough that it was the subject of an episode of Yes, Prime Minister and, as Fred himself reported, there was a serious ballot proposition in California a while back to implement something similar.

None of this should be taken to mean that Fred’s proposal is bad. To the contrary, it’s a fantastic idea that improves on democracy as is. By re-aligning districts to include only a few households, an individual’s vote matters sufficiently and there is an incentive to be knowledgeable about political affairs.

My concern is how legislation that was unpopular at the district level, but popular at the regional or national level, would get through. Take for example transportation issues, which oftentimes are unpopular at the local level despite popularity at the regional level.

In my native Los Angeles, attempts to build additional roads between the San Fernando Valley and the Los Angeles basin have been repeatedly thwarted by a few small ultra-rich enclaves that fear that people might be more easily able to visit their neighborhoods if the roads were built. Similarly, in the greater Washington DC area, the expansion of the light rail system was originally opposed in richer parts that feared the poor would gain access to their neighborhoods.

On a quick aside, if you haven’t watched Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister, go watch it right now. It is several decades old now, but still holds up as a great political comedy.

Radical Democracy

Going to its roots, democracy is kratos, rule, by demos, the people. Pure democracy is the rule by all the people, not just some of the people. The only way to implement absolute democracy is for each participant to voluntarily agree to the governance structure, and be able to exit when one no longer agrees.

Democracy can be divided into mass democracy versus “cellular” or small-group democracy. Mass democracy occurs when the voting group is so large that the people cannot individually know the candidates. In a small-group democracy, the voters are able to join meetings with candidates in groups small enough so that every person is able to fully participate. In a small group, a candidate may distribute literature at a low cost. Although money can play a role in a small group, the influence of moneyed interests is limited by the ability of other candidates and promoters of propositions to counter large spending with personal contacts. A small voting group solves the problem of having both free speech and the will of the people.

The German sociologist Max Weber, writing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, wrote that “bureaucracy inevitably accompanies modern mass democracy in contrast to the democratic self-government of small homogenous units.” Mass democracy cannot be pure, radical, and absolute. “The demos itself, in the sense of an inarticulate mass, never ‘governs’ larger associations.”

A mass democracy is governed by how the leaders are elected. The politicians must use the mass media to send their messages to the public in order to curry their votes. These messages have to be condensed and simple, as most of the public will not pay attention to detailed issue analysis. The messages are often negative attacks on opponents. And the messages have to be paid for, which generates an inherent demand for large amounts of campaign funds. While individuals do send contributions to parties and candidates, much of the financing comes from special interests such as corporations, labor unions, lawyers, and the financial and real estate industries.

Economists use the odd term “rent seeking” for the seeking of subsidies, privileges, and protection from competition. The classical economists recognized that land rent is a surplus. They generalized the concept to “economic rent,” any payment beyond what is needed for production. Subsidies to special interests are economic rents.

Governments today practice imposed representative mass democracy. The implied ideology is the moral supremacy of the majority in each particular issue. The majority imposes its will by force on the minority. As Weber stated in his essay “Politics as a Vocation,” “He who lets himself in for politics, that is, for power and force as a means, contracts with diabolical powers.”

Many people think that democracy is based on equality, since each person has an equal vote. But Weber wrote, “The propertyless masses especially are not served by a formal ‘equality before the law.’” The poor believe that justice requires compensation for their economic deprivation. But the political process determines how this is done, and “under the conditions of mass democracy, public opinion is communal and born of irrational ‘sentiments.’” The sentiments of the poor tend to seek a forced redistribution of wealth in their favor, since that is the superficial solution.

The radical alternative to imposed mass democracy is voluntary small-group voting. The political body is divided into tiny neighborhood cells, just as the human body is composed of small cells. The population of a neighborhood cell should be about 1000, small enough to know the candidates and meet personally to discuss issues. Citizens vote only for a neighborhood council.

Then a group of neighborhood councils, say about 20 or 30, elect, from their members, representatives to the next higher or broader council. The second-level council elects the next higher level legislature, and so on, all the way to the highest level parliament or Congress. That legislative body then elects the president.

Such cellular democracy can replace the mass democracies that prevail today, and that would be a major improvement, in extricating money from politics. But radical democracy also requires another change: replacing imposed democracy with voluntary democracy. The neighborhood cells would be voluntary contractual organizations.

In law, the written contract is required for major decisions, such as the purchase of real estate. The American political philosopher Lysander Spooner wrote in The Constitution of No Authority:

“It is a general principle of law and reason, that a written instrument binds no one until he has signed it… The laws holds, and reason declares, that if a written instrument is not signed, the presumption must be that the party to be bound by it, did not choose to sign it, or to bind himself by it…. Neither law nor reason requires or expects a man to agree to an instrument, until it is written; for until it is written, he cannot know its precise legal meaning. And when it is written, and he has had the opportunity to satisfy himself of its precise legal meaning, he is then expected to decide, and not before, whether he will agree to it or not.”

If a signed contract is needed for real estate transactions, how much more important is the political transaction of governance? If one joins a residential or condominium association, the law requires a display of the laws governing that association, and the new member must sign if he is to join. How much more important, then, is this principle for general governance? Radical democracy requires the signed consent of each member to the written contract.

The rule of all the people begins with the recognition of individual sovereignty, a contract among equal sovereigns for governance, and then implements small-group multi-level governance to let the people govern and minimize transfer-seeking by special interests.

Of course, even radical democracy does not guarantee liberty. A free society must have a constitution that protects individual liberty from the tyranny of the majority. But without genuine democracy, a constitution is an unsigned document that becomes manipulated to provide the appearance of equality and freedom. Behind it is the reality of imposed “diabolical powers,” the tyranny of both majorities and minorities.

(This article is also at

Milton on Freedom of Printing: Areopagitica


A Speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England (1644).

(For my general introduction to Milton, click here)

‘We turn for a short time from the topics of the day, to commemorate, in all love and reverence, the genius and virtues of John Milton, the poet, the statesman, the philosopher, the glory of English literature, the champion and martyr of English liberty’, Thomas Babington Macaulay (Whig-Liberal historian, writer and government minister), 1825.

The digitised text of Areopagitica can be found at the Online Library of Liberty here.

The strange sounding title is a reference to one of the key institutions of ancient republican and democratic Athens, the court of Areopagus. Appropriately, as we are looking at an essay on politics by a great poet, the Areopagus and its mythical foundation was celebrated as the core of Athenian justice in Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy, the Oresteia. The Areopagus was itself an aristocratic institution preceding democracy in Athens and as such can be seen as what balanced the changeable majorities of the citizens’ assembly with enduring standards of justice, which have meaning in all ways of constituting political institutions.

What Milton looks for in this great institution of early experiments in constituting liberty is a standard for freedom of publication and finds that it offered a very tolerant standard, at least in the context of the seventeenth century. Milton suggests that the only restrictions the Areopagus placed on books of the time (all handwritten manuscripts of course) was with regard to atheism and libel. We are not going to look back at Milton or the Areopagus now as the most advanced instances of liberty when they prohibit expressions of atheism, but these are times when the idea that a good and rational person could not be an atheist were all pervasive and the assumption can still be found later in the seventeenth century in John Locke, one of the general heroes of modern thinking about liberty.

The restraint on libel applies in all societies and all political thinking I am aware of, but one should never discount the possibility of an interesting exception. Leaving aside possible interesting radical alternatives, there is nothing repressive by the standards of general thinking about liberty in restraining libel. Milton’s interest in the standards of pagan Greece is itself a tribute to a spirit of pluralism and open mindedness in someone generally inclined to take moral and political guidance from the religious traditions of Hebrew Scripture and the Gospels, along with the writings of early Christians, and the Protestant thinkers of the sixteenth century Reformation.

The Reformation, as Milton himself emphasises, relied on the printed word, and it is no coincidence that Protestantism emerged soon after Europe discovered printing (after the Chinese of course), as a weapon against the institutional authority of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. The structure of the Catholic Church was not just a matter of church offering a choice to people seeking a faith-based life, it was connected with state power and pushed onto societies as the only allowable life philosophy. The politics of religion comes up in Milton’s essay, including the issue of the relation of the state to the church hierarchy.

While England had a Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century (England including Wales, but excluding Scotland which had its own distinct Reformation before union with England), it had retained a state church, the Church of England, with Bishops. Milton, like many on the side of Parliament in the Civil War, was against Bishops, referred to as prelates, as part of the old Catholic hierarchy in which the ‘truth’ was given from above to the mass of believers.

Inspired by the pamphlets of and books of Protestant reformers, Milton argues that truth can have many forms and that while Christianity may require acceptance of central truths, they can be expressed in more ways than the Catholic hierarchical state-backed tradition allows. State backing, of course, included the imprisonment, torture, and burning to death of ‘heretics’ by the Inquisition.

Milton refers to the last pagan Roman Emperor, Julian ‘the Apostate’ (reigned 361-363) with regard to his policy of banning Christians from pagan education. Milton argues that this was the biggest possible blow to Christianity, because it deprived believers of the intellectual capacity and credibility to influence pagan inhabitants of the Empire. Christian truth could only be convincingly understood, communicated, and taught if it drew on all areas of learning including what had been produced by pagans.

Truth benefits from being tested in argument and contestation, something undermined by state-enforced church power as well as by the monarchical institution of courts full of sycophants and yes-sayers. Political liberty requires republican representative institutions and truth, including the truths of religion, require testing in conditions of liberty.

Unfortunately, Milton supported legal discrimination against Catholics, but as with prohibitions on expressions of atheism, this was part of the general understanding of a just state at the time, and Milton was more tolerant than many on the Protestant as well as Catholic sides. His arguments make up a part of the general movement to tolerance and freedom of speech, making very powerful points on behalf of liberty, enabling us to take them beyond the limits within which he constrained them.

Next post, Milton on political institutions

A Tale of Two Cities (in Santa Cruz, California, USA)

There is a Veterans Hall right in downtown Santa Cruz. It’s called “Veterans Memorial,”  says so on its facade. It’s next door to the US Post Office and across the street from a marble monument to those children of the county who participated in World War One or in World War Two.

Every Wednesday morning, a group of older men and a couple of women, wearing Veteran badges and holding up a Veteran flag as well as a US flag meet near the monument to sing songs. They don’t sing especially patriotic songs but rather goodies and oldies. This morning, they gave a beautiful rendition of “Lily Marlene.” One old guy volunteered that he was sorry no one there knew the words in German. (For those of you who get your culture from Twitters: “Lily Marlene” was a rare thing, a tube sung by both sides in the European theater during the second world war.) Mostly, usually, they sing “Home on the Range’” and the like.

Another old guy told me that the group is not allowed to meet inside the Veterans building when the weather is inclement without paying the county a fee. Veterans’ Memorial is not freely available to veterans. It’s a small group; they don’t seem prosperous. Perhaps the fee is the method used by the county to keep the homeless out. It’s true that the group of singers looks a little scruffy. Some are old men who don’t live with a woman. Some are down and out homeless. Some are veterans who are homeless.

The decidedly left-wing municipal council of the City of Santa Cruz uses all kinds of artifices to contain and corral the homeless population. It wouldn’t be surprising if the county did something similar. I don’t know that it does. It sounds credible though. I will look into it.

I am not saying there is no problem with the homeless concerning more than those who are homeless. I have spoken about it before. The methods used to deal with them just make me deeply uneasy from a constitutional standpoint. The latent hypocrisy also gets to me. More later.

Two days ago, there was a little ceremony in front of O’Neil’s  flagship store, also in downtown Santa Cruz, a block away. Yes, I mean that O’Neil, that genius of entrepreneurship, that hero of capitalism. (For those who read me from overseas: O’Neil is the brand of surfboards then, of beach apparel, you see on every beach in the world. There is actually a Mr O’Neil.) The ceremony was a  celebration of PACT. (“People for something or other.”)

PACT was celebrating  its first-year anniversary and changing its name to honor a former DA. There were representatives from the DA’s office, from the city police, a couple of social workers, others from various city departments, or county departments, almost all public employees taking paid time off work. I would venture that 90% of those who stopped there for more than one minute were on the public payroll or spouses of such. They were celebrating themselves.

PACT targets “nuisance crimes.” That’s mostly behavior of the homeless population. In its first year, a press release announced, PACT reduced “nuisance crimes” as follows:

“The program focused on 70 repeat offenders during its first year and results show a 70% decrease in arrests and citation recidivism rates. During that period, ambulance runs for those 70 DAP-focused offenders decreased 80%.”

I live downtown, in one of the areas targeted, I think. I did not notice any reduction in nuisances. How come I am not surprised that a new government program announces striking successes? The press release concludes that:

“The Santa Cruz City Council and County Board of Supervisors will be considering the expansion of PACT in their upcoming budget hearings in May and June.” (Bolding mine.)

So, I don’t want to sound persnickety and I am all for initiatives, trying new things where old methods don’t work. What I saw and read on that occasion though is not good enough. I need two more things.

First, I want to be told squarely that the methods used do not violate anyone’s constitutional rights. Even laws that have been on the book forever make me nervous. Anti-loitering laws for one. (Is any man in a conservative coat and tie ever accused of loitering when he is just waiting in the street for his friend?)

Second, to judge a publicly funded program, I always want more info than is provided here. I have no reason to doubt the PACT figures  (“70% reduction in…”) – however cherry-picked they may be. They are only performance measurements however. I want cost-benefit, input-output measurements. If a city program resulted in 100% reduction in litter on my street, I would be only guardedly happy. If I found out that my share of the real cost of this achievement was $10,000 annually, I am certain I would want to  find out about the cost of a 90% reduction in litter, and so on.

And, by the way, I want the real cost, all included, including pension funding going forward. Sometimes just asking that a bureaucracy calculate the costs of its actions and make them public is enough to alter its course. Sometimes, just demanding that it calculate those costs is enough.

Good government is largely about choosing. I want the  elements of choice to be divulged to me as a citizen and as a taxpayer. It’s not too much to ask, I think.

PS  Yes, I know, the city council was elected according to fair and clean elections. That’s not enough for me. I want it to do as little as possible on its own.


Similar to Brandon I’ve began playing around with new statistical packages. Like many libertarian scholars I have my skepticism about the limits of what we can learn from number crunching. I think there is a place for statistical analysis in the social sciences, but it is definitely meant to be a tool, not an ends to itself, and should be complemented with additional methods.

Recently I’ve begun trying to find a Geographical Information Systems (GIS). I had initially intended to buy a copy of ArcGIS, one of the dominant GIS packages, until I looked at their pricing plans. A single license for the basic version costs $1,500 USD. I’m sad to say this price tag is not abnormal. STATA, one of the larger statistical packages, sells an annual licence for its bare bones version at $125 USD. SAS has its pro version going for $9,000 USD.

What is abnormal is that several freeware packages exist that provide comparable services. Are you an undergraduate student taking a class on univariate regression analysis? Download Gretl. It has a menu based system that is relatively easy for even the newest of users to play around with. If you’re looking to challenge yourself opt instead for R.

Likewise, for those who like me are on a budget, there exists several freeware alternatives for GIS systems such as GRASS and QGIS. I’m still learning GIS so I can’t comment on either package, but I will be sure to provide reviews once I’m comfortable with them.

If several freeware alternatives exist, why do retail versions remain dominant in the industry?

Part of the answer is that corporations and universities value the customer help hotline if their software starts to malfunction. Poor graduate students don’t have much money, but tend to have a surplus of free time to use trying to figure out why their software isn’t working. Corporations have the opposite constraints, they have infinitely more money than graduate students but have much stricter time constraints.

Surely that can’t explain it all though, can it? If what you are purchasing with retail packages is the customer hotline, why haven’t a group of entrepreneurial (and hungry) grad students set up a business where they provide dedicated IT support for freeware? Several attempts have been made by Linux enthusiasts to provide such services for corporations looking to replace their Microsoft OS systems, so the idea has surely been thought of before.

Another possible answer is that what these retail packages are selling is their community. STATA may not be so technically superior to Gretl, but the former’s community is larger than the latter. If you have a problem with Gretl you can’t easily find another user to help out outside of a few niche forums. Meanwhile you are sure to find a STATA compatriot just by walking down a social science college’s halls. I am not really convinced by this idea though. There is a value to joining an existing community, but in the long run people do move across networks. Consider Myspace, which less than a decade ago was the social network, until it was defeated by another social network. How much longer will STATA and ArcGIS last before its user base migrate to R and GRASS?

What do you all think? What other reasons might explain why pricey retail statistical packages remain dominant over comparable freeware alternatives?