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.comment: Other Agendas

Thumping the Tub

  • November 28, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

There's no doubt that there's a tremendous political component to the software industry today, which is especially evident in free and open source software development. Whether this is good or bad is immaterial -- it exists, and we must endure it.

But there is a point, easily reached, where this becomes not just counter-productive but sufficiently shrill that it makes it difficult for the movement(s) to be taken seriously -- it simply provides ammunition for those who do not wish us well.

A couple of recent events involving stars of the community underline this. They are Richard M. Stallman's candidacy for membership on the board of the Gnome Foundation, and Eric S. Raymond's advocacy of Second Amendment rights.

The issue is not the validity of their positions but instead the appropriateness of the milieu in which they are raised.

In his response to the Gnome Foundation's candidates questionnaire, Stallman made it clear that his agenda does not entirely correspond to that of the Gnome Foundation. The group exists to promote development and use of the Gnome desktop, while Stallman is single-minded in his pursuit of free software as he defines it. While it is true that the idea behind Gnome was to create an alternative to KDE, built against Troll Tech's Qt (which failed the Free Software Foundation's purity test), that issue has pretty much died off. Indeed, Gnome is if anything more commercialized than KDE is, and to say that its freeness is maintained involves substantial contortions which actually prove nothing except that there are some pretty odd definitions of "free" floating around.

Having looked long and hard, I've yet to find much on which Stallman and I agree, and my sense of the man is that he awakens each day to a world he sees as one big battlefield to be engaged with a Maoist fervor. (No, I am not calling him a Maoist.) Whether this is a good thing or not depends on one's point of view. But it is entirely apart from whether Gnome as it has come to exist is a good place for new skirmishes. There are probably people in Gnome development who thought that they were there to build a good desktop.

Meanwhile, Eric S. Raymond has discovered firearms and, like everyone I know who has punched holes in a target, enjoys them and enjoys the knowledge that, common opinion to the contrary, they're nonthreatening pieces of hardware. This has come to be reflected in a convert's fervor -- the kind of thing smokers encounter when talking with ex-smokers, or drinkers when meeting those who have taken the pledge. As a result, just about everything he has to say somehow gets back to the matter of guns.

Raymond is an able spokesman for his point of view (with which I agree), and I think that it would be just great if he were to engage in his advocacy more broadly, writing for publications that don't necessarily have all that much to do with computing. The reason is that computers are pretty much firearms neutral, and the chances are that more people are likely to be put off entirely than are likely to be brought into the fold by the mixture of open source and iron sights.

I say this as someone who has used the example of guns to illustrate how erosion of our rights has taken place and can do so, that if the Second Amendment can be whittled away today, some other rights -- the First and Fourth Amendments come to mind -- can be frittered away tomorrow. But I haven't embraced the Linux sphere as a place to advocate the Second Amendment, any more than I've used it to champion the entire Bill of Rights (in which I believe, exactly as it is written).

It's a matter of appropriateness and, more, of diminishing returns. For the good he has done, and I believe there is some, Stallman has managed to anger a great many people through some of his more fragrant views, to the extent that a substantial body of people no longer take seriously anything that he has to say. Likewise, Raymond has put off some Linux users through his proselytizing over an issue that has nothing, really, to do with Linux, open source, or computing. Yes, it has to do with freedom. A lot of things have to do with freedom, even more if you're willing to make up your own definition of the word. But what has it to do with Linux?

Far be it from me to deny these worthy gents their right to say whatever they want whenever they want. But in so doing, they increase the amount of noise and give the enemies of Linux something to point at in support of their notion that the operating system is in the hands of non-serious people unable to distinguish between that which is appropriate and that which is not.

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