Monthly Archives: March 2021

Lynch Him!

News: Richard Stallman – the grandfather of Software Freedom, without whose efforts “free software” might still be seen as the worthless crap that featured on 1980s floppies given out with computer mags – to rejoin FSF board.

Online community erupts in horror. How can anyone give him a platform after his “crimes”? There is some thoughtful and reasoned reaction against his comeback (I think the best example I’ve seen is Gunnar Wolf), but it seems the majority is a pure lynch mob, whose baying I won’t grace with a link. My irony meter goes off the scale when they seek to exclude Stallman while at the same time preaching inclusivity.

Stallman undoubtedly has a strong personality. That goes with the territory of being someone who Gets Things Done. In his case, most famously he didn’t take it lying down when he was prevented from adapting an expensive printer to meet his and his department’s needs. I admire that: it’s a contrast to the timid alternatives of submissive (write off an expensive door stop or at best live with it) or passive-aggressive, to both of which I would have to plead guilty at one time or another. But it’s surely also part of the personality package (shared by the greatest of both heroes and villains) that doesn’t easily Suffer Fools, and that gets labelled toxic in an anti-excellence culture.

As I understand it, the crime the mob absolutely can’t forgive is to have defended the late prof. Marvin Minsky (who stood accused of sexual impropriety), and then risen to the bait when challenged. Minsky was no longer alive to defend himself, and his accuser stood (indeed, stands) on a pedestal where neither what she says nor even the most monstrous inferences from it can be questioned. Stallman – who I understand had known Minsky – committed the unforgiveable crime not of calling her a liar[1], but of suggesting an explanation that failed to damn Minsky. For that, he must be excommunicated. A weaker man would surely have backed down in the face of such an onslaught of hatred!

I have a problem with accusations like these of sexual impropriety. A witch-hunt environment[2] and a strong streak of historical revisionism[3] provoke automatic scepticism, particularly about cases given high media coverage. A second problem with them, or rather with the witch-hunt environment and related SJW issues – is that it provokes division, and leads to backlashes that can themselves be pretty hideous (Trump being an obvious example – and a future backlash could be worse). A plague on both their houses: Trump and the anti-Stallman mob!

[1] Though Minsky’s wikipedia entry tells us his widow has indeed denied any possibility that the accusations could be true.

[2] In the UK, “operation midland” is an obvious example, where an accuser was for years given a pedestal similar to Minsky’s accuser[4], before eventually being discredited. Some of those leading that witch-hunt and pressuring the police over it are still in place: Tom Watson may have fallen on his sword (as have some in the media), but fellow witchfinder-general Vera Baird is still in place and generally gets an uncritical media platform.

[3] Minsky’s crime is to have – allegedly – had sex with a teenager. That’s identical in all but name to the crime for which today’s hero[5] Alan Turing was convicted, and treated rather less harshly than he would have been today. In Turing’s time homosexuality was De Jure illegal but De Facto tolerated between consenting adults like Turing’s contemporaries Britten and Pears.

[4] Note: I’m not saying the two accusers are alike: that’s a subject on which I have no knowledge. What clearly is very similar is the pedestals given to them to accuse others.

[5] To be clear, calling Turing today’s hero is with reference to the story of his sexuality and downfall. His achievements, including his considerable legacy in computing and AI, stand on their own merits without reference to “today”.