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Archive for February, 2009

I have interviewed Richard Stallman and other members of the Free Software Foundation often enough that he remembers my name (no small feat, I’m sure, considering the hundreds he meets each year). Once or twice, I think, in talking about parrots and folk music, I may have caught a personal glimpse of him. But, even if I haven’t, I generally support the Free Software Foundation. So, when Richard Stallman spoke the other night at the Maritime Labour Centre in Vancouver, I wasn’t going to see what he is really like, or to hear his arguments. I went to see his public persona, and to observe how other people reacted to it.

First, in case you are wondering, Stallman is neither three meters high, green-skinned, nor fanged like a sabertooth tiger. He is a man in his mid-fifties, surprisingly short –maybe 170 centimeters high– and apparently not given to exercise. His hair is long and graying, and so is his beard. Both are uncombed. His clothes are business-casual.

He was tired when he arrived at the hall, and perhaps feeling a little over-exposed to people, having given a speech earlier the same day at the University of British Columbia. After meeting the organizers, he immediately requested a quiet place to work. The request was probably a necessity, since Stallman keeps in close touch with the Free Software office in Boston, but I also suspect that he was relieved to have a moment to himself in the middle of a day in the public eye.

Another myth-buster: Stallman starts by being polite when you talk to him. Nor is he humorless. His comments sometimes show a wry sense of humor, often based on literal interpretations of other people’s phrases. He shows, too, an interest in dining as a social occasion, lamenting that, when he arrived the previous night, he had no one with whom to eat. And, after listening to the local band that warmed up the crowd for him with Flanders and Swann’s “The GNU Song,” he got up on stage to sing “The Free Software Song” with them, his smile not the least deterred by the fact that he is a mediocre singer and could only remember some of the words.

At the same time, Stallman is not always easy to talk to. He seems a little deaf, and impatient with the fact. He is impatient, too, when talk strays into an area where he has expressed the same opinion for decades – or perhaps he simply does not suffer fools gladly. And who can blame him? At this point in Stallman’s public career, anyone who calls him a supporter of open source software has clearly not been paying attention. Nor can it be easy to cover the same basic subjects dozens of times each year.

One on one, he might make some women uncomfortable with compliments about their attractiveness that are a little too quick and open by modern standards. Other women seem to find him chivalrous. Both sexes might accuse him of expecting to be the center of attention, but again, who can blame him? When he is on tour (and he is often on tour), he usually is the center of attention, with his hosts hovering nervously around him.

After our phone conversations, I expected some of these traits, but the overall impression that Stallman makes in person is hard to define. He is neither as obnoxious as detractors paint him, nor as selfless and charismatic as some supporters insist . Although, after meeting him, you can see how all these depictions originate, like any person, Stallman is more than the sum of such caricatures.

Stallman on stage

The fragmentary impressions I got of Stallman off-stage were reinforced when he got up to speak. Like many professional speakers, he immediately gains animation and energy when handed a mike, no matter how tired he is beforehand.

Stallman spoke for well over two hours, not using notes, but obviously covering ground (In this case, his view of copyright law) that he had gone over many times. He was fluent, with few if any pauses or interjections, but not particularly eloquent. Think of a university instructor who keeps his classes interested without being arresting or given to flights of rhetoric, and you have the right impression. The two hours went by quickly, and the audience showed no signs of boredom.

As an argument, Stallman’s speech was concrete, full of examples ranging from the personal to the legal, often enriched with small jokes, and structured with extreme clarity.

If I had to summarize Stallman’s speech in a single word, that word would be “focused.” When Stallman lays out an order to his points, he always returns that order, no matter how many digressions intervene – and, generally, he allows himself very few.

One thing that comes through very clearly as he spoke is his absolute sincerity and conviction. Whatever else anybody might think of him, those are never in doubt. He is quite willing, for instance, to do without a cell phone, DVDs with DRM, or anything else that he cannot use with a clear conscience.

But, as I watched his argument develop, what struck me was not so much any brilliance (although clearly Stallman has an above average intelligence), but his thoroughness. Although other people might possibly make connections or reach conclusions faster than he could, few could think topics through as carefully as Stallman.

In particular, Stallman pays close attention to how issues are framed by language. For example, he rejects the term “piracy” for file-sharing, pointing out that its main purpose is to demonize the practice, not to suggest an accurate analogy. Conversely, he talks about “the war on sharing,” doing his own bit of framing.

This is the same concern, of course, that leads him to insist on referring to GNU/Linux. Many people reject this idea without thinking, but, once you realize that, for Stallman, defining the terms is a necessity for clear thinking, then you realize that he is not simply being pedantic. He is well aware that language is rarely, if ever neutral, and, quite unsurprisingly, tries to influence the debate so that it is on his terms, or at least neutral.

If Stallman’s speech had a weakness, it is that he did not always think on his feet. Several times during the questions at the end, he seemed mildly at a loss, and could only refer back to his speech or declare – sometimes arbitrarily – that a questioner’s topic was irrelevant. Once, when a questioner went on and on without getting to the point, all he could do was seize on a careless use of “open source” rather than “free software,” instead of moving to take direct control of the situation. But perhaps fatigue had a lot to do with this behavior.

Watching the crowd

At any public event, watching the audience can be as rewarding as listening to the performance, and Stallman’s speech was no exception. Some audience members, I later learned, also attended his speech earlier in the day, as well as the one on the next day. However, even without that knowledge, I would still unhesitatingly describe the crowd as geeks with a small smattering of spouses. Most clearly had some familiarity with free software and Stallman’s ideas, and had not come to be challenged so much as to glimpse someone famous.

A minority had a slightly more ambitious goal: To engage Stallman, however briefly, in conversation. Since Stallman’s reputation and manner discouraged most from approaching him informally, some found a moment by getting him to autograph copies of his book, others by asking questions at the end. Many of those lining up up the mikes to each side of Stallman did not have an actual question, so much as a statement they wanted to make to Stallman. One or two seemed inclined to argue with him.

Conclusions

So what do these impressions add up to? A public event is not the place to get to know anybody, and Stallman would probably be a difficult man to get to know under any circumstances. What I saw was the public figure, with – perhaps – the occasional flash of the private man, both accustomed to his fame and occasionally irritated and trapped by it.

In the end, it occurs to me that a distinction between the public and private Stallman many not be worth making. He reminds me of the portrayal of the Wart (King Arthur) in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. White depicts Arthur as someone inspired by a great idea that took over the rest of his life. In something of the same way, Stallman appears to have been struck by the idea of free software in the early 1980s. The decades since then, I suspect, have simply been filling in the details and taking the idea to its logical conclusions – until now it is hard for a casual observer like me to say where the public man ends and the private one begins.

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“A dusty road that smells so sweet
Paved with gold beneath my feet
And I’ll be dancing down the street
When I get to the border.”
– Richard Thompson

Hugh MacLennan once said that Canada had the same relationship to the United States that Scotland did to England: we’re to the north, we like to think of ourselves as morally superior, and we go south to be successful. I’m not so sure about the last part, but I do know that the American border looms large in the minds of many Canadians. Most of us live within a hundred miles of it, and it is far more of a psychological barrier than a physical one. Although the people and the streets look much the same, they’re brasher south of the border, and more conservative. Because of such differences, for many Canadians, to cross the border is a major step, no matter how often we do it, and many of us have stories of our misadventures when crossing.

I remember that, as a child, I took many holidays south in a trailer. Whenever we crossed back in Canada, I would always feel a relief. Now, I would tell myself, if anything happens, we are not so far from home. Or, if we were, breaking down would seem less of a disaster, simply because we were in Canada.

When I was a young adult and newly married, we had a succession of rust bucket cars. It was exactly the sort of car that raised suspicion in the eyes of American border guards, who are often ex-Service types. Never mind that drug mules were most likely driving late model cars to divert suspicion; we were always grilled closely about our reasons for polluting America with our junkmobile. Often, we would have our trunk open, and, although we never had the car ripped apart, we were often given to understand that could easily happen.

The only time we were spared such ordeals was when we were on our way to visit a friend in the veteran’s home in Bremerton, Washington. As soon as we said where we were going, the border guard stopped glaring at us with suspicion, and waved us through. He didn’t give us a salute, but I thought he was considering doing so.

Another time, we were heading south for a Society for Creative Anachronism event in a car driven by a young, not very bright hothead. After pulling up to the American customs both, our driver seemed inclined to argue with the customs guard. Mindful of all the swords and other medieval weaponry in the back, the rest of us in the car cringed and silently prayed we wouldn’t have to explain what we were doing with all the metalwork crammed into our packs.

But the worst crossing we had was on our way back into Canada. I was in the front passenger seat, and, just before we pulled up to the customs booth, the driver stuffed a brown bag under my seat.

As we were pulling away from the booth, I asked the driver what was in the bag.

“My stash,” he said.

We felt strangely silent until we were dropped off. Afterwards, we stopped hanging out with the driver, and to this day, I doubt he knows why. Very few of my generation worry much about marijuana, even if we don’t use it, but, had the car been searched, the customs agent would probably have assumed that the bag beneath my seat was mine – and, given that I had to be bonded for the work I was doing then, I could have ended up unemployable.

Right about then, we stopped taking rides with people we didn’t know very well.

Strangely, all these episodes took place before the September 11th attacks, when Americans wanted tighter controls at the border (that is, measures whose main result was to make the lineups longer and those waiting unhappier). In fact, the last time we crossed in the United States, when we realized we had forgot our birth certificates, the American guard let us by. No doubt he thought that anyone so hapless couldn’t possibly be a danger to his country.

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Over the years, the Museum of Northern British Columbia has gained a reputation for working with the local First Nations in Prince Rupert. But now, unless appearances deceive, museum officials seem willing to throw away that reputation just so curator Susan Marsden can flex her muscles in her ongoing struggle to assert her authority over Tsimshian master carver Henry Green and his apprentices. The conflict is being fought over the carving shed, a popular attraction where Green and the other carvers have been working, but what’s really at stake is the consistent disrespect shown by the museum and city officials.

According to the chronology provided by Green on Facebook, the carving shed has been in existence since 1980. While hardly a comfortable place – it has no washrooms, running water, nor working furnace — in the last twenty-nine years, it has been a workspace for many of the biggest names in Northwest Coast art, including Alvin Adkins, Edward Bryant, Heber Reece, Lyle Campbell – and, of course, Green himself, who has worked there on and off since it was built.

The carving shed has not always co-existed peacefully with the museum, being a place where artists came and went without ever being employees or having much regard for museum hours. But, when relations were uneasy between the museum and the carving shed in 1993, Green says, communication helped to reduce the tensions on both sides. Mostly, the shed has continued to be an important attraction despite minimal promotion by the museum.

However, since last summer, relations between the museum and the current crop of carvers have steadily worsened. The phone was removed, amidst allegations that it was being used for long distance calls, a claim that Green denies. Then the locks were changed, including the ones on Green’s private storage. Green says that he had to wait four hours to get into the shed to get his tools, and that “during this time I was berated and talked down to.”

In another episode last summer, the artists erected a carving sign directing tourists to the carving shed. When Green’s partner and his daughter investigated, they found the sign locked away by the museum, on the grounds that private signs could not be put on museum property. Not only has the sign not been returned, but, as a result of the incident, Jennifer Davidson, Green’s partner, was banned from the carving shed by Susan Marsden, while Morgan Green was told that she would have to apologize before she could return. Marsden’s claim is apparently that Morgan Green kicked and swore at her – charges that Morgan denies.

Matters came to a head in January, when all the carvers were given one week to vacate the shed. Considering the number of carvings in the shed, including some two meter poles, this is a next to impossible demand. The artists requested at least a month to vacate. Meanwhile, they are worried that their tools, many of which are highly specialized and specifically created by them or for them, will be confiscated by the museum.

The carvers have tried to talk to the museum’s board of directors, but all they have heard is secondhand accounts that the shed will be renovated, then assigned to groups for specific projects. The implication seems to be that the current group of carvers will not be among them. Moreover, since it is February and no permit for renovations appears to have been taken out, the carvers are more than a little skeptical of the claim.

The situation remained unpublicized until Morgan Green started a FaceBook group called “Expression Not Oppression” four days ago. Since then, over four hundred people have joined the group, including many local first nations people and art-lovers.
Prince Rupert mayor Jack Mussalem insists that supporters have heard only one side of the story. However, when he phoned to give it to me, he demonstrated no understanding of what upset both the carvers and their supporters (who include me).

Nobody is questioning the right of Marsden to evict the carvers, not even the carvers themselves. But what bothers people is the disrespect. If what I have heard about Marsden’s behavior is even remotely true, she seems to have abandoned common courtesy.

Even worse, Marsden, Mussalem and other officials of the museum and Prince Rupert seem to be acting with a total disregard for the sensitivities of the first nations. Considering the history of the last century and a half, many among the first nations are understandably sensitive about anything that suggests the arbitrary abuses of power, particularly by people of European descent. And when you add the fact that first nations artists are leading figures in preserving the cultures, insults directed to an internationally-known figure like Henry Green are easily seen as insults to the community itself. You can see these attitudes being expressed in the comments in the Facebook group.

Art-lovers and collectors feel much the same way. Witnessing a conflict between artists whose main desire is to continue working undisturbed and empire-building bureaucrats, you want to guess with whom they’ll side?

Possibly, there are mitigating circumstances that would explain the behavior of officials. Yet, if so, they have not bothered to explain those circumstances. Instead, they have simply asserted their right to act as they have chosen, and refused to address the question of their behavior.

Very likely, they can get their way in the short run. However, in the long run, their petty victory in what seems no more than a bureaucratic turf war threatens to be won at the expense of all the good will from the first nations that the museum has built up over the years. And, if that happens, the museum could take decades to regain that good will – assuming that it ever does.

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