Stop the posturing, comrades

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RMS at CCC 2015 Hamburg

Richard M. Stallman objects to having his picture taken at the Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg (2015).

[UPDATE 2021033001: Here is an essay making my point far better than I can: #Cancel We The Web? by Hannah Wolfman-Jones and Nadine Strossen.]

Richard M. Stallman, RMS, the founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), is in trouble again.

In 2019, when the name of the late AI pioneer Marvin Minsky turned up during the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, RMS condemned Epstein in a private MIT mailing list, but expressed doubt that Minsky had knowingly committed wrongdoing. He also questioned whether sexual assault was a useful term and advocated for more specific terms. After these comments were leaked, RMS resigned as FSF president, as a member of the board of directors, and from his faculty post at MIT.

Two years later, RMS is back in hot water after announcing his return to the FSF board. In the blink of an eye, competing open letters (pro- and con-Stallman) have garnered thousands of signatures, Reddit is aflame, and denunciations have flowed from free-software pillars including the Tor Project and the Mozilla Foundation. The Debian Project, which has always been especially close to the FSF, is debating the issue in its usual ponderous way. These non-profits are joined by Red Hat, a commercial Linux company that owes its existence to free software.

In short, the free-software world is split asunder and the FSF faces collapse.

RMS is a brilliant obsessive with little or no sensitivity to the opinions of others. This has been the poorly kept secret to his success. He compressed the coal of his disgust with extractive software licensing into the diamond of the four essential freedoms, enshrined them in the GNU General Public License (long hated by commercial software vendors), wrote the foundational software of the Internet age, and traveled the world as an evangelist for the cause. (That’s me with him in the picture above, following a talk in Hamburg. After 30 years of doing this, he said nothing new, and that was the point.)

I don’t support the effort to ban RMS from polite society. His detractors want him shunned for expressing half-baked opinions. They want him systematically excluded from public and professional life because he violated, in speech, taboos that are particularly precious to them.

While the individuals demanding RMS's erasure deserve to be debated respectfully, the corporate passengers on the anti-RMS bandwagon deserve no respect at all.

Do I really need to point out that corporations do not greatly propose to do right? Corporations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, trumpet their devotion to gender and racial equity partly for liability reasons, but also to flatter the moral self-esteem of their employees. That changes quickly if self-esteem turns to thoughts of organized labor.

Mozilla exists only to be a beard for Google’s browser monopoly. Tor remains essentially a US military contractor with ambiguous priorities. (That fact the I use the Firefox and Tor browsers testifies to the power of free and open-source software.) IBM-subsidiary Red Hat, which depends on non-free software for its profit margin just like the chonky bois, has loftily withdrawn financial support for the FSF.

Of interest: The Free Software Foundation is the only union shop among these.

If we grant that RMS made comments embarrassing to the FSF and MIT, and that his departure was justified, the question remains: When does his punishment end, and how does he get to that point? The flamboyent moral outrage of, say, Debian's proposed Choice 1 suffers from a lack of redemptive vision. It looks like self-promotion of an in-group rather than desire to heal a community, which, after all, consists of more than in-groups.

So far, I'm not seeing better examples of social inclusiveness, economic justice, labor equity, creative freedom, and political effectiveness than the ones that RMS himself embodies. Show me what you've got.