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09.06.19

Guest Post: Getting Stallman Wrong Means Getting The 21st Century Wrong

Posted in FSF, GNU/Linux at 11:07 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

By figosdev

Stallman and Assange in focus
© Permission to use is implied, photo is not in the Public Domain but it really ought to be.

Summary: “The importance of Stallman’s legacy is both symbolic and instructive. It is symbolic, in that he — not Torvalds — has spent his life committed to freedom.”

If this article convinces you to lump me in with the Stallman (RMS) worshipers and parrots, I don’t care. I’m in an interesting situation where Free software types probably think I’m trolling, though my critiques of Open Source are much harsher than my critiques of Free software.

“I don’t think that’s straw man either — some people just aren’t willing to admit that Stallman can be wrong.”I think Open Source is a problem, and Free software is a solution. And I say that as someone who many years ago, adopted Open Source before deciding they were re-writing history, and misleading people like myself. I have favoured Free software over Open Source for over a decade.

Free software would not be that solution without Richard Stallman. Open Source might well also not exist. What makes me not a worshiper or parrot is that I’m not afraid to disagree, or point out mistakes. I don’t think RMS is infallible, and I think it’s done quite a bit of harm to Free software that he is treated that way by some. I don’t think that’s straw man either — some people just aren’t willing to admit that Stallman can be wrong.

But I think it’s crucial to get the critique right, and not repeat the mistakes that Open Source has made. Stallman and Bill Gates were rivals before they were household names. They both went to Harvard, they both studied physics on an advanced level, they both changed the face of computing — forever. It’s morally wrong that Linus Torvalds gets credit for “inventing Linux.” Linus invented a kernel, he can take the credit for that — but he has always referred to Stallman’s operating system and broader Free software project (an ecosystem, not just an operating system) with the same name — that is, not the name of the OS, but the name of the kernel.

“It’s morally wrong that Linus Torvalds gets credit for “inventing Linux.” Linus invented a kernel, he can take the credit for that — but he has always referred to Stallman’s operating system and broader Free software project (an ecosystem, not just an operating system) with the same name — that is, not the name of the OS, but the name of the kernel.”Saying that Linus Torvalds “invented Linux” is like saying that Stephen Hawking invented relativity. No matter how important Hawking was to science, even if he was the greatest scientist in all of history, it was Einstein that should be credited for Einstein’s work — not Hawking. And if you think Torvalds hasn’t stolen that legacy (even I don’t think he would have if he wasn’t pushed to by many others, but he was) then I think you’re kidding yourself.

But mentioning this age-old “controversy” — it’s more of a scandal than a dispute, really — is only a side point, an example of the broader issue of getting Stallman right.

The greatest importance of this has nothing to do with honour. Honour is important in its own way, but this is not about paying tribute. The time to pay tribute to Stallman is when he is actually finished. The time to get his legacy right is right now, because this is the moment where we will all decide what his tribute will be.

“And if you think Torvalds hasn’t stolen that legacy (even I don’t think he would have if he wasn’t pushed to by many others, but he was) then I think you’re kidding yourself.”The importance of Stallman’s legacy is both symbolic and instructive. It is symbolic, in that he — not Torvalds — has spent his life committed to freedom. Torvalds has spent his life committed to corporations. I think Torvalds is a valuable genius, and we should get his legacy (as a talented and useful programmer, to put it mildly) right as well — but contrary to popular misconception, this really is not about Torvalds.

If not for Stallman’s contributions to what is commonly mispronounced “Linux,” Torvalds would have written a lesser BSD, at best. If it’s the truth we are always after, then without the GPL (which Torvalds actually does credit) the Linux kernel would not have as many contributions. The GPL, which Microsoft lobbied to minimise the importance of, is the reason the Linux kernel has so many people working on it.

Because they don’t have a choice. If they want to ship the kernel with modifications, those modifications have to be made available to the public.

“If not for Stallman’s contributions to what is commonly mispronounced “Linux,” Torvalds would have written a lesser BSD, at best.”In theory, this is a terrible idea, a needless limitation — at least that’s how Microsoft sells anti-GPL alternatives to the public. Look, I use permissive licensing myself; feel free to ask me why. It isn’t because the GPL is unimportant, or bad.

In practice, the GPL has resulted in a kernel that is far better suited to public use.

Please don’t think I’m dissing the BSD kernel in any way, I think the BSD kernel is a superb piece of software engineering, maybe even technically superior to the Linux kernel. But it is not quite as suitable for the broadest public use, and that’s the advantage that will keep Linux more relevant than Hurd (which is an awesome project I would be happy to support) or the FLOSS version of the ntkernel, or any other FLOSS kernel you can think of.

When the Linux kernel becomes intolerable due to corporate tampering, it will probably be a fork of it that becomes the alternative. Of course it will be a good idea to have more than one alternative — but a fork of Linux is the most likely “lifeboat” for a future GNU/Linux that is co-opted and compromised to death. I would love a better alternative, so create what you want — I’m only speaking to the most likely outcome (By far, I suspect.)

“When the Linux kernel becomes intolerable due to corporate tampering, it will probably be a fork of it that becomes the alternative.”No other kernel has the momentum that Linux has. So it’s realistic to say that even if we want floppy support back (and what the hell is that all about, seriously — did it not play nicely with WSL or something?) and even if Linus [sic] similarly drops mips(el?) the way Debian is doing now, that the future of GNU is still Linux. But as Stallman said — there is no other operating system than GNU, and “Linux is one of its kernels.”

As he is an atheist, a reasonable person will note that Stallman saying “there is no other operating system than GNU” is an example of his sense of humour. An opportunist will try to twist it into proof of something else. People have made many attempts on Stallman’s reputation over the years, and it was never necessary for them to end his career — only to minimise its impact.

The impact of Free software is becoming more minimal, as FLOSS moves farther from its goals, not closer with its “success.” A more realistic assessment than that FLOSS “winning” is that Free software is failing. Stallman’s recent visit to Microsoft may indeed be evidence of that failure — though I think it is being overhyped, especially if we are going to pretend that Stallman could ever be bought. This is someone who said it’s better to starve than write non-Free software, although he said in the same time index that it is unlikely anybody would actually starve because they didn’t choose a proprietary license.

“A more realistic assessment than that FLOSS “winning” is that Free software is failing.”The person who presented him with the false dichotomy of starvation vs. using a non-free license was the slithery, smart-assed Bryan Lunduke, who further went on to make some very smarmy ad hominem attacks in the same interview about Stallman’s other political stances. For whatever reason, Stallman has not shied away from letting Lunduke interview him, and subsequent interviews were not quite as cringeworthy on the host’s part.

I can’t help thinking of RMS agreeing to further interviews with Bryan Lunduke when I think of him talking at Microsoft — although it was probably a bad decision to accept the speaker’s fee, if he did so.

An important thing to consider in all this, is why did Microsoft have him speak now? I feel certain they intended to spin it to do further damage, and if you care about your freedom at all, I hope you won’t fall for their ruse. I don’t think Stallman needs the money. I don’t think Microsoft can offer him anything to get him to take a fall. I think it’s a ridiculous waste of time to entertain such an idea, given the decades-long history of Stallman not compromising, but even if you have nothing better to do I think this is very important to get right –

“I don’t think Microsoft can offer him anything to get him to take a fall.”The more damage Microsoft can do to Stallman, the more Free software will be compromised and the more this business of openwashing can succeed. Thinking about it in terms of black and white is pointless — thinking of it in terms of facts and non-facts is crucial. I do suppose it is useful to try to figure out exactly why Stallman is speaking at Microsoft now, whether it was their idea or whether he thought it was an opportunity to grab a spotlight for Free software one more time — or if it was their idea and he agreed for that opportunity. It will certainly be spoken of a lot.

I encourage people to think of this year as a turning point for Free software, but not because of Stallman going to Microsoft. If that’s what it takes of course, so be it — but for the record I think the real turning point was in late 2014. Before that time, I was very content to promote Free software by no other means than getting free and unwanted computers, installing Debian and giving them away. After late 2014, I think there was a dramatic change in any and all options for GNU/Linux. I have yet to see a real turnaround, although Devuan, Hyperbola and Guix are making the largest contributions in this regard.

“The more damage Microsoft can do to Stallman, the more Free software will be compromised and the more this business of openwashing can succeed.”Until late 2014, you could easily say that Trisquel and Gnewsense were the flagship distros of the FSF. Gnewsense has folded (once again) and Trisquel has overshadowed Gnewsense for many years now. Today it is a joke, using an unmaintainable operating system core that is developed primarily on servers owned and operated by Microsoft.

…by Microsoft! And just to show you what a joke Trisquel has turned into, I don’t think they they really get the problem there. In half a decade, the FSF has never suggested that it should be important to fork systemd. What’s the problem with Microsoft having write access to the core of Trisquel? (Even if Trisquel mirrors it?) They make the rules. FSF parrots act like the only thing that matters is that the software is free — this is a stupid fallacy that persists, I don’t know how on earth — the freedom to fix broken software only counts if you fix it! If you don’t, it is still obvious relevant when previously-working software is broken, especially if it appears to many respectable people (Denis Roio created an FSF-approved distro too, you know) to be sabotage.

“After 5 years of sitting on their thumbs, the compromises made to the project will lead to Guix and Hyperbola and some other (probably not yet produced) distro taking Trisquel’s place.”Instead, systemd continues to lower the quality and the freedom of GNU/Linux and its users, in ways that echo broadly across the entire Free software ecosystem. And people act like it isn’t so. If they admitted this, it would be like admitting that Trisquel was indirectly and effectively sabotaged.

Well here’s a prediction for you — Trisquel, once the FSF’s flagship distro, will go the way of Gnewsense. After 5 years of sitting on their thumbs, the compromises made to the project will lead to Guix and Hyperbola and some other (probably not yet produced) distro taking Trisquel’s place. If you want free as in freedom, Guix is probably the most extreme (and notable) example. If you want that and mainstream appeal, Hyperbola will almost certainly take over the de facto niche of FSF flagship, as Trisquel once did despite Gnewsense.

For drummy, I will say that this is not about competition — it is about the simple fact that some distros are better than others. Until a day when all distros maximise how modular they are, and the real lines between distros cease to exist not because of monolithic garbage but because of a greater good that focuses on user freedom as well as choice —

Hyperbola has a future that Trisquel just doesn’t have. That future will come from getting hard questions right, instead of pretending that problems don’t exist. And yes, that will someday be a lesson for the FSF and its fans.

“From the early days of Microsoft, Gates was attacking people for sharing software and calling them thieves.”With that said, systemd will not be (and already is not) the last major attack on Software Freedom. From the early days of Microsoft, Gates was attacking people for sharing software and calling them thieves. Sharing is not a model that Microsoft cares about at all — everything they do is to lasso Free software back into a context where they can force their anti-features (surveillance, updates you cant turn off, features they can disable or enable without warning or your approval) into software that was created with the sole purpose of taking corporate control away.

They’re bringing control back. Every gift, every Trojan horse from Redmond comes with the same strings Free software began specifically to free us of. When Microsoft doesn’t give you handcuffs, they will hold you down with countless wispy strands of compromise, no differently than the Lilliputians held down Gulliver. GNU needs users — Microsoft takes prisoners. That’s a pretty fundamental difference, for all you Open Sourcers that are still bowing before your monuments to marketing and sophistry.

These strands of compromise are the true currency of “Open Source,” which Stallman has spent his life since the late 90s (very quietly, and just barely) warning against. “In order to win, we must cede defeat” is a summary of Open Source I don’t know whom to attribute to — Ben Mako Hill? He is the greatest critic of Open Source I know.

“They’re bringing control back. Every gift, every Trojan horse from Redmond comes with the same strings Free software began specifically to free us of.”What Open Source has done more than anything else, is pave the way for Microsoft to come steal everything the FSF has done and turn it into Microsoft-As-A-Service instead.

I know the FSF wasn’t (and isn’t) fighting Microsoft alone or originally, but Microsoft is the greatest remaining threat to Free software. They stand to benefit, as much as anybody, from history getting Stallman wrong.

Is whether we honour or smear this man the largest thing at stake? Of course not. Though Torvalds has insisted that standing up to Microsoft is “extremism” while calling Facebook “a disease” and dropping the f-word on Nvidia, his smears of Free software as a movement “about hate”.

“GNU needs users — Microsoft takes prisoners.”(ANSWER THIS, YOU COWARD — IS IT WRONG TO “HATE” INJUSTICE, THEFT AND THUGGERY? because that’s what you defended, while smearing all of us. How does it feel, now that they’ve turned on you in exactly the same way?)

…he has sold off 80% of his own first name to a monopoly. He is no father of freedom, and he has never cared about Free software.

The largest thing at stake is Software Freedom itself. If the monopolies that are lining up to steal Free software and create a second era of proprietary software — not unlike the first stage in the 80s, except for its degree of fine-grained control over every individual’s personal life (the lives of most people on planet Earth.)

Stallman is not perfect, infallible, capable of anything without limitation, nor did his mission succeed — yet. That mission is in grave danger, and the number of people who realise this continues to grow. You can pretend, you can lie, you can be mistaken — though you can’t fool everybody.

“What Open Source has done more than anything else, is pave the way for Microsoft to come steal everything the FSF has done and turn it into Microsoft-As-A-Service instead.”It is not Stallman’s reputation at stake, but his mission. And while I’m very open to the possibility of compromise somewhere at the FSF (personally, I think GNOME is the smoking gun, why wouldn’t it be? Stallman called its leader a traitor, and another one of its key figures now literally works for Microsoft) I would sooner suspect someone on the board than Stallman himself.

It is ridiculous, it is an utter absurdity, to think that Stallman will be truly compromised in his lifetime.

Whatever it is, just be damned sure you get it right, because the importance of Stallman’s legacy never was whether he was flawless or just human — the importance of Stallman’s legacy — more than Torvalds’, more than Raymond’s or Perens’, 10,000 times more than halfway-shills like the staff at ZDnet — is that monopolies don’t control everything we do with our phones, our cars, our email, our robot helpers, our cameras and mics, our music and movie players, our contact books, our libraries — our medical and financial records, our homes increasingly outfitted with bugs and ovens that self-destruct.

“I know the FSF wasn’t (and isn’t) fighting Microsoft alone or originally, but Microsoft is the greatest remaining threat to Free software. They stand to benefit, as much as anybody, from history getting Stallman wrong.”You don’t make damned certain you get the history and legacy of Richard Stallman exactly, precisely right because you love RMS. You do it because anything — any tiny thing they do to smear him unfairly, as they have tried for years — they use to pave the road for intrusion into your digital life and ultimately, have too great a say in your entire life. This really is about freedom. It’s even about “the right to read”, which prior to Amazon was (like 1984) supposed to be a work of fiction.

You get Stallman right because you care about your freedom, and because at the end of the day, we know damned well that not one person alive today is more responsible for your computing freedom in the 20th century or the early 21st century than Richard Matthew Stallman.

Anybody else can be credited with Software Freedom, to the degree that someone other than Einstein can be credited with relativity. And you know they’re only going after Stallman so they can come after you next.

I think Techrights is a truly great website. Where else are you going to find out what the hell is going on right now? I can’t keep up with it without Techrights — but I do know one thing. These pictures of Stallman and Torvalds together, they’re dead wrong. Stallman and Torvalds were never friends, and never will be. They’re not not even allies — and that picture is a fairy tale.

“Whatever it is, just be damned sure you get it right, because the importance of Stallman’s legacy never was whether he was flawless or just human — the importance of Stallman’s legacy — more than Torvalds’, more than Raymond’s or Perens’, 10,000 times more than halfway-shills like the staff at ZDnet — is that monopolies don’t control everything we do with our phones, our cars, our email, our robot helpers, our cameras and mics, our music and movie players, our contact books, our libraries — our medical and financial records, our homes increasingly outfitted with bugs and ovens that self-destruct.”You want a picture of two people who truly stand together in a common fight, two allies who care about your freedom and whose legacies will be endlessly attacked until (and well after) they’re dead, even though they are heroes beyond most of our cynical imaginations? I’m talking about people who spent their entire adult lives standing up for you, not selling you out to Microsoft and Zemlin.

Above is a picture of Stallman with someone who is actually on the same side — yours.

Think about it — when you’re trying to get history right — and why history is so important. It isn’t about glorifying individuals, even if they deserve it. It’s about keeping hard-earned freedom, decades in the making, as a feature of the present; instead of relegating that freedom to some relic of the past.

Don’t let professional liars use cynical propaganda and utter nonsense to make freedom any less important, or to trick you into forgetting about it even a little bit. Software Freedom matters more than ever. They’re hoping you forget.

Free Assange, Free Richard –

Free Software, Free Society.

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (Public Domain)

“Based on years of conversations, I am convinced that part of the cause of the problem is the tendency to call the system Linux rather than GNU, and describe it as open source rather than Free software.” –Richard Stallman

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A Single Comment

  1. Pastychomper said,

    September 18, 2019 at 7:08 am

    Gravatar

    Thanks for a good and timely article. ISTM that RMS’ communication style makes him an easy target for largely irrelevant snipes but that should never be allowed to detract from his work.

    I think I’ve missed a reference tho, what has being an atheist to do with RMS’ sense of humour?

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