Baen’s Bar Fight

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:

Sanford’s Post on Patreon: Baen Books Forum Being Used to Advocate for Political Violence

Baen/Toni Weisskopf: To Whom It May Concern

Eric Flint: The Controversy About Baen’s Bar

File 770: Weisskopf, Correia, Weber Defend Baen’s Bar; Jason Sanford Subjected to Harassment Over His Report

Powered By Robots: Revenge of the Baen, the Jason Sanford Report, and the Quest for Justice (or is it Vengeance?)

Amazing Stories: Jason Sanford Identifies Political Violence on Baen’s Forum

DisCon 3 — the 79th WorldCon (Twitter status)

Monster Hunter Nation: Publishing House Baen Books Attacked By Cancel Culture

Camestros Felapton: Larry C weighs in on the Baen’s Bar Controversy

Cat Rambo: On Baen Books, Moderating Discussion Boards, & Political Expression

Cat Rambo: More Fuel for the Recent Baenfire

9 Comments

  1. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 2/18/21 I’d Gladly Scroll On Tuesday, For A Pixel Today | File 770

  2. The Phantom

    Saw your post and was moved to comment.

    “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?”

    Has that ever happened, really? That you know of, I mean? Some guy posts a comment on a forum saying “This [person/group] is [bad thing] and so somebody should [bad thing] them!” and then some random guy goes and does it for them? Over a blog post? Because that doesn’t seem to be a thing that happens, from what I can see. Maybe you know of a case?

    “Do they really have to wait until the shooting happens, if there’s a clear pattern of escalation in progress?”

    Yes, the police generally do really have to wait for a person to actually -commit- a crime before they can arrest that person. “Looking shifty” is not, generally speaking, grounds for police action. Well, unless you want to start in creating a Department of Pre-Crime, where people get arrested for thinking about it.

    “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 question, isn’t it? In a -free- country, those things are never even an option. Free speech is free, right? People don’t have to like it, and they don’t have to sit there and be quiet, but there is no question about a person’s inherent right to have an unpleasant opinion. They’re free to be all the idiot they can be.

    What you’re talking about is an Un-free country, one where Somebody makes these decisions and imposes them from above. Sounds like a great idea. But historically speaking, it never ends well. Ask the Uyghurs how they’re doing with that plan this year. And be aware that there are people out in the world very eager to cancel -your- web presence for any number of reasons.

    Personally, I’m pretty happy to take my chances with Mr. OneOutOfTen guy, the random idiot who gets convinced to commit an atrocity by somebody else, according to your theory. I at least have a fighting chance to deal with one guy. I can’t deal with a whole police force.

    At least in a free country I don’t have to worry about the whole government coming after me because I’m a member of [bad thing] group, where the bad thing is my skin colour, religious denomination, orientation, the soccer club I follow or the kind of beer I like. Governments have been known to kill people over stuff like that.

    They killed skinny, unarmed Ashli Babbit, right? Her crime was to try to climb through an already broken window. Seems excessive, given the video.

    Reply
    1. Leona Wisoker (Post author)

      “Has that ever happened, really?”

      Um. Yes. That is exactly the reason we’re even having this discussion.

      “Yes, the police generally do really have to wait for a person to actually -commit- a crime”

      We are not talking about police, we’re talking about web hosting and forum moderation.

      “In a -free- country, those things are never even an option. Free speech is free, right? ”

      You can say anything you like, sure. That doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences. Find a forum that will allow you to say anything you like and post away. Problem is, the forums that are “wide open free speech havens” wind up, historically, attracting a lot of very violent folks, which brings us right back to the beginning question.

      “What you’re talking about is an Un-free country, one where Somebody makes these decisions and imposes them from above.”

      No. I’m really not.

      “And be aware that there are people out in the world very eager to cancel -your- web presence for any number of reasons.”

      If I breach the Term of Service that I agreed to when I signed up for my web host, or break the rules of any forum that I post to, I deserve to be booted. That’s consequence, not cancellation.

      “Personally, I’m pretty happy to take my chances with Mr. OneOutOfTen guy, the random idiot who gets convinced to commit an atrocity by somebody else, ”

      That one guy can kill dozens with an easily available weapon. There have been multiple instances of this each year for some time now.

      “I can’t deal with a whole police force.”

      Again, I’m not talking about police. Interesting that you keep conflating normal market pressures with authoritarianism.

      “They killed skinny, unarmed Ashli Babbit, right? Her crime was to try to climb through an already broken window. ”

      The way you stripped the entire context from that incident is both hilarious and terrifying.

      Reply
      1. The Phantom

        “Um. Yes. That is exactly the reason we’re even having this discussion.”

        But again, no example. So I’m assuming this is a much more theoretical danger for you, and less of a real one. The only arguable example I’ve been able to come up with of a guy going and shooting people because somebody else said so is Floyd Lee Corkins. Look that one up for a surprise, it does not help your argument much.

        “You can say anything you like, sure. That doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences.”

        Yes, about that. It may interest you to know that there is a small but “motivated” group who have decided to make sure that DisCon-III does not get a hotel this year. If they collect a couple dozen angry fans to write all the vendors and hotels in the area, they could certainly do it. So that’s one consequence right there that you probably didn’t want.

        On a larger playing field, we have Amazon. They have captured 83% of the book market. Currently they have begun banning certain books, due to “activists” protesting the “violent” nature of the books. It doesn’t matter which ones, but I will note that “Mein Kampf” was not one of them. If you’re interested you can look at my blog.

        But historically, once a political faction gets the precedent established that it is perfectly okay to ban a book based on it having an unpopular message, then the things getting banned will only ever increase in number. Pretty soon they’ll decide that any Baen book, or any book by an author who -ever- commented on Baen’s Bar must be banned.

        That happened already to a New York literary agent, Colleen Oefelein. She was fired from her agency because she had a Parler account. Not because she said anything bad on that account, just because she had one.

        There’s a technical term for this kind of thing: scorched earth. Your team goes and destroys anything and everything it can, leaving behind nothing. The other team therefore does the same, and pretty soon you have a landscape of lost jobs, ruined families, bankrupt companies, and a whole lot of people who are very angry and looking for someone to take it out on.

        That’s not a fun environment. I’d rather not live like that.

        All of the above assumes the government does not get involved. But we know they already are involved, and pushing things along just as hard as they can. I speculate that government involvement is why Amazon is “voluntarily” banning the books they are, and also why Jeff Bezos is stepping down as CEO this year. He doesn’t want to get caught in the fighting, or so I suspect.

        “If I breach the Term of Service that I agreed to when I signed up for my web host, or break the rules of any forum that I post to, I deserve to be booted.”

        In the environment that is developing here, you will be taken down no matter what you say or do not say. See Colleen Oefelein for elucidation. I will also be taken down, because same reason. You can see that, right? For spite, if nothing else. Because when people are angry, they do things like that.

        Regarding Ashli Babbit, you said “The way you stripped the entire context from that incident is both hilarious and terrifying.”

        I examined the video of that incident in some detail.

        https://phantomsoapbox.blogspot.com/2021/01/rip-ashli-babbitt.html

        It stinks. And we have heard -nothing- from the official investigation. But we have heard a number of people, like Jason Sanford for example, use that event on January 6th as the sole justification for deplatforming things like Baen’s Bar, or Gab, or Parler, and so forth.

        Pre-Crime. In case something might happen. Which inevitably leads to an un-free nation where everybody shuts up in case they might lose their job. And leads there pretty fast, judging from how things are going.

        That’s more dangerous than one nut with a gun. Haven’t we seen enough rioting all last year to understand how much more dangerous it is?

        “Interesting that you keep conflating normal market pressures with authoritarianism.”

        Let’s not pretend that these are “normal market pressures”, shall we? Jason Sanford’s attack on Baen is politically motivated. He thinks Conservatives are bad people who must be silenced, and says so. He has some political allies who agree, and they are busy trying to get Baen kicked off the internet.

        The reverse is also true. People trying to get Sanford kicked off his ISP and DisCon kicked out of their hotels are also politically motivated.

        There’s the potential for some much bigger political players to get involved here, they live for stuff like this. I’m pretty sure we as authors and private business people do not want that.

        Bottom line, this push we see these days to make people shut up is historically not a good thing, and will not lead to a happy conclusion. It never has, in the past.

        Reply
        1. Leona Wisoker (Post author)

          Damnit. I had a long reply in progress and lost it with a wrong key click. Drat. Eh. I’ll try to recreate it when I have more time.

          Reply
        2. Leona Wisoker (Post author)

          All right. Trying this again:

          Let me make one thing clear up front. I do not feel any obligation to convince you of anything, nor to provide evidence for what I’m saying. This is my personal blog, and I’m speaking my mind. I’m willing to consider and answer your points, but I’m not in this to win you over and you’re not saying anything I haven’t already read elsewhere.

          There is also a list of links at the end of the original post that may lead you to some of the information you’re looking for. I’m updating that as I see more articles on this topic drop.

          Moving on.

          A convention is a business. A hotel is a business. What they both care about, at the end of the day, is making money. I do not think that this particular incident is going to put either DisCon or the hotel in any real danger of losing enough money to sever the relationship. A couple dozen angry fans writing angry letters to vendors and hotels will have close to zero impact. The convention is not going to collapse because they took a stand against even the appearance of supporting a noisy minority of bigoted, racist, violent assholes. I suggest reading Cat Rambo’s posts on this topic; she does a great job of explaining the dynamics of DisCon’s decision. Links are at the end of the original post.

          Amazon is a beast and I dislike almost everything about it. There’s nothing I can do about its existence, beyond referring people to independent options whenever possible. I hope you are doing that as well.

          “once a political faction gets the precedent established that it is perfectly okay to ban a book based on it having an unpopular message”

          We’re not talking about banning books. We’re talking about shutting down some violently angry assholes in an online forum. There is no part of the Baen Barfly situation that involves banning books.

          “In the environment that is developing here, you will be taken down no matter what you say or do not say…. un-free nation where everybody shuts up in case they might lose their job….this push we see these days to make people shut up is historically not a good thing…”

          That is the way it has been for marginalized and vulnerable parts of the population since the beginning of time. We’ve always been at risk of losing our jobs, our houses, our families, our lives, if we speak our mind. It’s not a developing environment. It’s just finally affecting *you*.

          I’m not going to sidetrack on talking about Babbit.

          Sanford did not attack Baen. He *very specifically* pointed to the one forum as a problem, and raised the valid question of whether the company, or the owner of the company, was aware of the problem and chose to ignore it, or even tacitly agreed with the statements made there.

          I believe he was also clear, and other posters on this situation have been clear, that conservatives aren’t the problem. It’s the bigoted, misogynist, violent, racist, white supremacist assholes that are the problem. That I and others do not want to hear that spew does not mean the assholes are being silenced. It means that we don’t want to hear it, and that they need to go find somewhere willing to let them rant and leave the rest of us alone. That platforms are increasingly unwilling to host that sort of content is not a condemnation of conservatives, but of bigoted bullshit.

          I have seen zero sign of anyone trying to get Baen kicked off the internet, and I would not support that if I did see it. Baen isn’t a bad bunch of people. I have a lot of respect for what they’ve accomplished as a company and for many of their authors. I think they’ve unfortunately run afoul of the Parler/Gab/chan crowd’s search for a new home, and they’re more than likely not the only forum to be faced with this particular tough set of choices.

          In regards to your other comment, yes, I do worry about the next Republican administration. I worry about the abuse of power across the board. I worry about what the Biden administration will do. I have very little trust in politicians as a rule. That Biden is a thousand percent improvement over Trump does not mean he’s perfect, or even ideal.

          I can’t speak to the SAFE TECH act, as I haven’t read up on it enough, and don’t have time right now to do so. I often wish time were more flexible, or that I had a time machine or other device; there’s so much to learn and so little time to work with.

          Thank you for your comments. I’m not going to keep batting this back and forth with you. I’m not angry, I’m not offended, I just don’t have time or energy at the moment.

          Reply
  3. The Phantom

    By the way, about the police not being involved:

    https://news.yahoo.com/debate-over-holding-internet-platforms-130005261.html

    “The latest of those is the SAFE TECH Act, proposed last month by Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). The bill would increase platforms’ liability for paid content and in cases involving discrimination, cyberstalking, targeted harassment and wrongful death.”

    “Targeted harassment” is precisely what Jason Sanford did to Baen, but under the proposed “Safe Tech Act” he would be immune due to his political ties. Just like he’s immune now, but under the law instead.

    What should concern you is not how the Biden Administration would pursue such a law, but rather how the next Republican administration would use it. Rather harshly, would be my expectation. The iron fist in the iron glove.

    Better that speech be free, don’t you think?

    Reply
  4. The Starry Eyed Geek

    I fully agree with your points and thank you for putting into words what I was thinking since all this came out.

    Reply
    1. Leona Wisoker (Post author)

      Thank you! I appreciate the support.

      Reply

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