Hey, it’s yet another edition of People Arguing Over Free Speech: What Does It Mean In Fandom Spaces? This time around, we have Baen Books at center stage, or, rather, one of the forums on their web site.
A couple of days ago, a writer named Jason Sanford put up a post on his Patreon titled: “Baen Books Forum Being Used to Advocate for Political Violence.” (There is a list of links at the end of this post.) Sanford calls his post an “investigative report” and, after a background refresher explaining what Baen Books is and why they matter in the first place, starts listing out quotes from the political forum on the Baen’s Bar section of the publisher’s web site. Many of the quotes mentioned are very clearly from Trump supporters — people who think the attack on the Capitol was perfectly okey-dokey, that a civil war is not only imminent but desirable, and that more black people should be recruited into the right-wing militias because they would make great cannon fodder (that’s paraphrased, in case it wasn’t obvious).
That last comment, by the way, was made by a Baen forum moderator.
Sanford’s post is not terrific. It has flaws: generalizations, lack of supporting data presented, at least one factual mistake. As an investigative report, it’s kinda messy. But it has demonstrably achieved its intended purpose: it’s brought the simmering question of “what is free speech in fandom forums, anyway?” back to center stage with big ol’ spotlights on. This is not the first time this topic has been the focus of contention. It will not be the last time. Fandom is fucking wild, y’all. That will only come as a surprise to readers who have never looked beneath the hood of their favorite Mercedes Lackey novel or John Ringo book, never stepped into a fandom forum and seen “my favorite character” discussion devolve into “you’re a racist asshole” fights.
There are times I envy such people. Ignorance can really be bliss. Unfortunately — or fortunately, perhaps — we now live in a time when ignorance of this particular battle is just not an option. Domestic terrorism is on a sharp uptick. The Capitol did get attacked by a right wing mob. The former President is still claiming he’s the rightful winner, and there are people (not just random nobodies, but influential politicians and rich people) willing — and plotting — to oust Biden and install Trump (it’s irrelevant to the point being made here whether there’s a hope in hell of them succeeding).
Racism is still very real, and very deadly. Police and military organizations are most definitely riddled with very bad actors indeed, who use the power of their authority to harass and kill with impunity.
This is not up for debate. Racism, police brutality, and political corruption did not end in the sixties.
This is all easily proven with a fast Google search. If you happen to believe that any of the previous statements are untrue, I cordially invite you to stop reading now and fuck off into the sun. There’s nothing for you here. Move on.
Still here? Good. Let’s get back to Sanford’s post. I’ll summarize his main point:
Baen’s Books, and Baen’s Bar forum, is influential in the science fiction fandom community. Sanford calls them a “historically important genre publisher,” and notes that he does not believe they support calls for political violence. They are, however, not doing anything to stop the calls for political violence being aired on their forum, which makes them complicit. He believes that the fandom at large should understand that this is happening, and that Baen should have their moderators, yanno, actually moderate the forum in question, rather than joining in with more inflammatory statements.
That’s it. That’s what he’s saying. That’s what the entire damn post boils down to.
In response to this post, Baen took the entire forum, not just the political room, offline. It’s “‘on hiatus’ as the company investigates.” Toni Weisskopf, owner of Baen, put out a statement talking about how wonderful science fiction is and how important Baen Books is, pointing out that the moderators are volunteers and that Baen will not “police the opinions of its readers, its authors, its artists, its editors, or indeed anyone else. This applies to posts at the Bar, or on social media, on their own websites….” etc etc.
Baen authors Eric Flint, David Weber, and Larry Correia put up posts of their own in response. Flint points out a number of the flaws in Sanford’s post, calls it a “hit piece”, and spends a lot of time talking about himself. “[O]ver the past (almost) quarter century … I have published 67 novels through Baen Books. That’s more than any other author whom Baen publishes.”
Um. Ok. So what? That has absolutely nothing at all to do with the question at hand.
The next six paragraphs are more of the same: how important Flint is, his relationship with Baen, his politics. Then he talks about other authors who publish through Baen. Most of the post, in fact, involves Flint’s outrage that Baen’s image, his own image, and that of his fellow authors, might be tarnished by Sanford’s allegations.
He even says: “I stopped visiting ‘Politics’ about… oh, I dunno, twenty-three ago?” So, by his own admission, he has absolutely no fucking idea what was being said in the forum under discussion (and since it’s been taken down, nobody can see it now). He considers the people posting there to be stupid, beneath notice, and entirely safe to ignore: “so dumb I don’t know how they tie their own shoes in the morning.”
Then he points out that he has three million books in print. He challenges Sanford’s assertions based — again — on Flint’s primacy within science fiction fandom. “I am closely associated with Baen’s Books and have been for a quarter of a century.” He claims superiority on the basis of having encountered “a lot of political violence in my lifetime”. Talks about himself and his past for several more paragraphs. Makes it absolutely clear that his entire political ethos is based on his experiences during the 60s and 70s.
Flint makes some good points: get rid of the Patriot Act. Disband the Department of Homeland Security. Be wary of domestic terrorism laws. I agree with those points (which are, actually, not exclusively conservative beliefs these days). But his post is overwhelmingly about himself and how he and his friends are personally affected by these allegations. He makes no effort to take an honest look into what Sanford is pointing at. He just dismisses it all with a regal, “you’re stupid” wave.
I won’t go into detail on Correia’s answer, or Weber’s. I’ll just note that they’re the same basic formula: me and mine know better because we’re famous and smart. These forum fools are not worth noticing, let them yap, ignore them. Sanford is a nobody and therefore has nothing of value to say. Sanford is stupid. The left is composed of stupid people. Sanford’s post is an attack on us personally, not an alarm about a growing problem in our midst.
I’ve provided links to several relevant posts at the bottom of this post. Go read them if you like, look up the new ones sure to sprout over the coming weeks, and draw your own conclusions. I’ve spent enough time on the responses. I want to talk about the actual issue now.
The boundaries of free speech and individual liberty in the wild world of genre fiction is, as I’ve said already, not a new battle. However, right here, right now, today, we’re dealing with a new twist on the old situation: the critical flash point of people spreading and believing dangerous lies for years. This started before Trump came into office. Before Obama’s first inauguration. Over the last ten years, the rise of groups like the channers, Gamergate, Reddit, Parler, Fox News, OANN, and QAnon has boosted those lies into explosive territory.
We’re no longer simply talking about malcontents complaining in a chat room. We’re now dealing with a series of connected, systemically based incidents that are driving credulous people into increasingly violent actions, in groups that are steadily expanding in size. We’re talking about bad faith actors — some in government and law enforcement — who are in it for the money and power, who have and will continue to use that misguided passion to their own benefit, and who don’t care who gets hurt along the way. To wave away the bitter speeches and threats of randos in internet forums is to entirely ignore the escalating situation that led to the Capitol insurrection in the first place.
Let’s say nine out of ten such angry shitposters are wimps who are more bark than bite. If that tenth person, believing himself right by virtue of the approval of the nine, then goes out and shoots up an elementary school, do those nine people bear responsibility for his actions? Does the forum that hosted the discussion, which could have banned the ten people entirely, could have stepped in to quash the dangerous rhetoric, could have reported the threats to the FBI — what responsibility do they have, when that shooting happens? What happens when the forum moderators are involved in promoting dangerous misinformation?
How about the rights of web site hosts, most of whom require that customers sign an agreement to moderate exactly such dangerous talk? Does the host have the right to cancel the customer’s contract, when a shooting is traced directly back to remarks made on that customer’s forums? Do they really have to wait until the shooting happens, if there’s a clear pattern of escalation in progress? At what point is it not only okay, but necessary, to start banning forum users, cancelling customer contracts, and generally stopping dangerous speech before that tenth person can get to the point of believing it’s a noble act to go out shooting?
That is the topic on the table. I don’t give a flying fuck how many awards you have, how many books you have in print, who your friends are, and what you did in the 60s. None of that matters. It’s honestly disappointing that so many of the responses to Sanford’s post focus less on the actual issue and more on “this person is my friend so they can’t possibly be doing anything wrong”.
We absolutely have to stop this cult of “we’re all geeks here, we’ve got to stick up for one another, it’s us against the world.” That day is gone, my friends. We are the mainstream now, and that carries responsibilities. It’s past time to nerd up, speak up, and address the actual problems instead of insulting the messengers.
Links to other posts on this topic: