Richard Stallman, Software Freedom Activist, Is Still Jerky After All These Years

Categories: Tech

Richard Stallman, leader of the "free software movement," says he has no regrets about saying mean things about Steve Jobs just after Jobs' death. After all, he told Slashdot readers in a recent discussion, "Apple is your enemy, and if you don't recognize this and fight, you're being a chump."

For that reason, Stallman said, it was only right that on the occasion of Jobs' death, he reveled in "the end of Jobs' malign influence on people's computing." The complaints that followed his statements, he told the Slashdotters, came from people who were "more concerned with forms of politeness than with substantive good and evil."

Stallman was the original "freetard," and he still is one, even though that term has (rightly enough) been come to be seen as offensive, since it is a derivative of "retard," which we have collectively decided (rightly enough) to stop using.

But the former term, if perhaps not the latter one, still fits Stallman. For him, this isn't a matter of finding the best public policy to apply to a complicated economic problem: It's a religion. In his case, a fundamentalist one.

And like all fundamentalists (Christian or Muslim, libertarian or ... uh, technological), Stallman sees no shades of gray -- only eggshell white and asphalt black. Everybody (and remember, this is a debate over computer software) is either Perfect Good or Pure Evil. Of course, he's one of the Perfect Good ones. Which is a bit ironic given his long history of being a big jerk.

My own interactions with him back during the dotcom boom (which coincided with the open-source software boom) were limited, and his jerkery toward me was relatively minor, though typical. In 1999, I was writing an article about a dicey distributor of Linux, the open-source operating system. During an e-mail exchange with Stallman, he looked at my e-mail headers to determine which operating system I was using. When he saw it was Windows, he decided I was an idiot, and told me so, though he still deigned to talk to me.

This is the world we live in, where your choice of a computer operating system is all it takes for some people -- many of them, actually -- to determine your worth as a human being. Thus, for a lot of people, if you happen to use Apple products, you are automatically a "fanboy" who has been bamboozled into overpaying for a computer, as opposed to someone who has researched his or her options and made the entirely rational decision that you like Macs best and are willing to pay a premium for them.

People on all sides of these debates have valid points to make -- it's just that they often make them in such an inappropriately vitriolic, juvenile way, they hurt their own causes. What good could possibly come out of hassling strangers in Internet comments sections for their technology choices -- or even their opinions on intellectual property -- is

Stallman's criticisms of Apple and Steve Jobs (and Windows and Bill Gates, and software patents, and everything else) are entirely valid, if sometimes weakly supported or ill-conceived. Apple's strategy of tightly controlling his operating systems, and pretty much everything else, has big drawbacks. Users are restricted as to what they can do on Apple's systems (such as fiddle with Apple's software for their own ends, or use mobile apps in a way not "authorized" by Apple). This has been good for Apple, and maybe for computing in general (that's the debatable point), but it's sometimes not so good for users.

Plenty of people make those criticisms -- sometimes with a fair amount of appropriate snark -- without resorting to puerile insults or grave-dancing. And since Stallman knows his stuff as well as anyone, he could have made much greater strides than he has in his quest to free up the software market. Instead, he has alienated even potential allies (such as Linux creator Linus Torvalds) and has sabotaged his own causes through his inability to control his emotions and behave like an adult. So, yeah, a basic level of politeness is important if your mission is anything other than insulting people.

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I've known RMS casually for 30+ years, since well before he became famous. In a BS session at a science-fiction convention several years ago, I got RMS to admit a philosophical basis for copyright. I defined a purely hypothetical situation in which RMS had been writing down his sexual fantasies as part of ongoing psychotherapy, and he agreed that he should have the right to stop other people from redistributing these writings even if they came across them legally. Sure, it was a very narrow and artificial context, but I still think of it as a moral victory. :-)


You seem to have left out the part where Stallman said he was not glad Jobs was dead, and that he did not deserve to die.

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