In Defense of Richard Stallman


In Defense of Richard Stallman (30 Sep 2019)

Richard Stallman has had a rough month. This article is a decent summary of the events. In short: Stallman made some technically-correct-but-utterly-tactless comments on a private mailing list, mostly in defense of his late friend and colleague Marvin Minsky. Someone leaked those comments to the public. He was then forced to resign from pretty much every position he held. He had to step down as president of the organization he founded— the Free Software Foundation. He was forced to resign from MIT’s CSAIL. He said that he is stepping down as head of the GNU Project. (Though this was later deleted, so it’s yet unclear.) He is now likely homeless and his friends (such as Eric Raymond) have had trouble contacting him.

Frankly, none of this should have happened. In a sane world, people would have rolled their eyes at Stallman’s pedantry and he would continue furthering the cause of free software. Maybe a few people would chastise the person who leaked the emails, and that would be the end of it.

But we don’t live in a sane world. We live in a bizarro world where someone can leak private communications, blatantly lie about what was said, and cause a selfless man’s life to be ruined. And in reaction to these events, people cheer. This is madness.

Perhaps I should explain myself before I’m removed for having problematic opinions.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Journalism
The original Remove Richard Stallman post contained leaked communications from a private mailing list. In it, the author quotes an email from Stallman where he explains that Marvin Minsky likely wouldn’t have known that the woman on Jeffrey Epstein’s island was coerced:

…the most plausible scenario is that she presented herself to him as entirely willing. Assuming she was being coerced by Epstein, he would have had every reason to tell her to conceal that from most of his associates.

A paragraph later, the author summarizes Stallman’s view as:

…he says that an enslaved child could, somehow, be “entirely willing”.

This is the opposite of what Stallman said, but this lie was repeated by the press. An article in the Daily Beast said:

Stallman wrote that “the most plausible scenario” for Giuffre’s accusations was that she was, in actuality, “entirely willing.”

An article in Vice spread the same lie:

Early in the thread, Stallman insists that the “most plausible scenario” is that Epstein’s underage victims were “entirely willing” while being trafficked.

There are two possibilities here. Either the author of the Medium post was not capable of correctly parsing the sentence, or she didn’t care about truth and was leveling as many accusations as possible in the hope that one would stick. In other words: she is either foolish or malicious. The same goes for the writers of the Vice and Daily Beast articles. To describe what they did as journalism would be an insult to journalists.

Censorious Instincts
What’s most disturbing about this is how many of my friends and peers support Stallman’s removal. At first it was because they took the false accusations at face value. When I pointed out that these accusations were lies, they supported Stallman’s removal for other reasons. They focused on his tone deaf communication style and awkward demeanor. They spoke of behavior from decades ago and pointed out the fact that he had a mattress in his office. (Apparently that’s where he often slept.) As far as I can tell, the worst allegations against Stallman involve him being a socially clueless aspie. He held his positions at MIT, GNU, and the FSF for over thirty years, and in that time nobody accused him of coercion, unwanted touching, or verbal harassment. If an occasional social gaffe or failed attempt at humor is all it takes to get thrown out on the street, nobody is safe.

The Big Picture
I think everyone is overlooking a bigger issue: You don’t get the free software movement without a person like Richard Stallman. Its success depended on a stubborn pedantic ideologue. It required someone who couldn’t take a hint. It required someone who would tirelessly beat the drum and remind everyone of the arguments in favor of copyleft and user freedoms. If people in the 1980’s had the culture we have today, Stallman would have been sidelined long before his initiatives got off the ground. There would be no copyleft, no GNU General Public License, no Free Software Foundation, no GNU userspace (binutils, coreutils, etc), no GNU Compiler Collection, and (of course) no Emacs. Entire ecosystems of software would not exist today. People would be forced to use costly proprietary systems. Moreover, Stallman has devoted his life to ensuring equal access to software, not just for those who can afford dev kits and licenses. Without him students wouldn’t have nearly as many free tools to tinker with. It would be much harder to build new programming languages, web servers, frameworks, and companies. It is no exaggeration to say that Richard Stallman is responsible for creating trillions of dollars in wealth. And it’s not just wealth for the wealthy. It’s wealth for all.

There are pedantic ideologues trying moonshots today. They’re not famous yet, because they haven’t succeeded. And due to their lack of fame, you won’t hear about them when they are inevitably canceled. And we will all be poorer for it.

By satisfying the mob today, we are sacrificing our future. That’s the real risk.