The Decline and Fall of Eric S. Raymond

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Dec 22, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Around the start of the millennium, Eric S. Raymond was one of the philosophical leaders of open source. His essay and book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar  was obligatory reading for executives trying to understand open source. Now, after lying low for over a decade, Raymond is getting attention again, this time for two blog entries in which he rants about how so-called Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) threaten open source.

According to Raymond's first blog on the subject, he has heard from an anonymous source that members of The Ada Initiative, a recently closed non-profit intended to promote women in computing, are trying to entrap prominent men in open source so that they can lay accusations of sexual harassment. In particular, members of this alleged cabal are supposed to have made "multiple runs" at Linus Torvalds. Raymond and his source suggest that men in open source take note, and never be alone with a woman at technical conferences. His evidence for these assertions is what is supposed to be a chat log with the name of the informant hidden.

In the second blog, Raymond explains "Why Hackers Must Eject the SJWs." His claim is that social activists want to replace the meritocracy that supposedly prevails in open source with affirmative action and the politics of victimhood. This attitude makes the activists the "enemy" of open source, and Raymond hints that such distractions from coding threaten the infrastructure of the Internet, for which open source is largely responsible. Unless a stand is taken, he insists, "we will betray not only what is best in our own traditions but the entire civilization that we serve."

Coming from anyone else, such accusations would be ignored, or at the most laughed at until they faded from memory. However, because Raymond has prior credibility, his claims are being listened to, and recently I have heard them repeated -- and not just by obvious members of the men's rights movement.

I am not a fan of the The Ada Initiative, having resigned early from its advisory board and criticized it frequently. For this reason, if I seem to be defending the Ada Initiative, I do so only as a side effect of debunking Raymond. My concern is the larger issues Raymond raises, which are too important to leave his claims unchallenged -- especially since they are not going away.

An Unlikely Conspiracy
I will concede that several people associated with The Ada Initiative have echoed Sarah Sharpe's comments about Linus Torvalds's rudeness, and have disparaged him on Twitter. I will concede, too, that one plausible interpretation of how The Ada Initiative forced the cancellation of Violet Blue's talk at BSides San Francisco in 2013 is that it was a plot to give a reporter a story and encourage donations, although the evidence to prove such an interpretation is incomplete.

However, while these facts might give a superficial plausibility to Raymond's claims, other observations argue against them. If members of the Ada Initiative or any other organization did attempt to set what Raymond calls "honeytraps," they were singularly inept in their plotting. In four years, not a single accusation of sexual assault made headlines, and not a single rumor of threats has ever surfaced.

Besides, the idea that a dozen people could plot on the scale suggested without anyone revealing even a hint of what was happening is so unlikely as to be impossible.

Worth noting, too, is the fact that the Linux Foundation, which funds Linus Torvalds, also donated frequently to The Ada Initiative. In addition, as recently as the August 2015 Linuxcon in Seattle, the Foundation's Director of Marketing and Communications introduced The Ada Initiative's Executive Director Valerie Aurora at a luncheon. Given how carefully the Foundation protects Torvalds so he can focus on his work, the idea that it would continue to support a group that was harassing him seems dubious, to say the least. Nor is the Linux Foundation executive large enough that one part of it is likely to have acted without the knowledge of other parts.

However, most important of all, Raymond seems unaware that The Ada Initiative collapsed in 2015. Few people will talk in any detail about what happened, but the available hints suggest that the final events involved a revolt against its leader's priorities. Any plot that might have been laid would have collapsed months ago for lack of coordination.

Lost in the Epilogue
As for the defense of meritocracy, Raymond is confusing the ideal with the practice. The continued low rate of women's participation in open source is so obvious that disputing that it suggests a systematic bias amounts to willful denial.

Admittedly, some feminists have been known to declare bluntly that "meritocracy is a joke." However, if meritocracy is your ideal, this dismissal should be read as a critique of how much the practices of open source projects fail to meet their ideals. Instead of rejecting the critique as an attack requiring a call to arms, anyone who actually values meritocracy should view it as a challenge to reform and bring the practice closer to what they would like it to be.

However, Raymond's choice of terms alone reveals that a more perfect meritocracy is far from his mind. In fact, to judge from his blog entries, the idea that reform might be needed never enters his mind.

Search on the Internet for "Social Justice Warrior," and, aside from a few ironic instances, you will quickly find that it is a pejorative used by right-wingers as a sarcastic dismissal of their opponents, much like "political correctness."

Raymond's call to defend open source from SJWs is as deceptive as anything he attributes to his enemies. Free and open source software is too widespread to need defending, and his attempt to create an issue does not map well on to actual events. For those who remember his earlier contributions to open source, his recent comments make for a disappointing epilogue.

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