More Fuel for the Recent Baenfire

In the few days since I first spoke about the furor evoked by Jason Sanford’s criticism of a specific subforum of Baen’s Bar, the discussion boards sponsored by Baen Books, for encouraging armed insurrection and white supremacy, a good bit has happened*.

One notable outcome is that DisCon has removed Toni Weisskopf as a Guest of Honor, making this statement:

DisCon III condemns the violent and hostile content found within Baen Books’ forums. We also cannot condone the fact such content was enabled and allowed to ferment for so long. We want to make it clear abusive behavior is not, and will not be, tolerated at DisCon III. Such behavior goes entirely against our already established policies concerning inclusivity and creating a welcoming environment for our members, which can be found here: https://discon3.org/about/inclusion/.

We knew simply saying those words with no actions to back them up would be unacceptable. Too often, we have seen individuals and organizations say they are on the right side of issues yet do nothing to act on those words. We knew we had to take a hard look at our own position and take action based on our established policies.

As a result, after discussion with her, we have notified Toni Weisskopf we are removing her as a Guest of Honor for DisCon III.

Many authors and some con-runners have weighed in on the choice, from all sides of the fence.

Some of the writers championing free speech are, in my opinion, working from a notion of a past version of the Internet, the world of the Well and lively debate and intellectual exchange and alla that. That ignores the fact that nowadays speech on the Internet has been weaponized, used by world powers as part of today’s fourth-generation warfare.

It cannot be mentioned often enough that the events of January 6, the ones Republicans and other conservatives are working so hard to downplay and erase, was not a case of a rowdy bunch busting up a Starbucks. It was an organized effort that destroyed and stole government property, in which people died and it would not have taken much more for a pre-planned section of that mob to use the chaos in order to kidnap and kill government officials. Camestros Felapton illustrates the problems with this skewing of the rhetoric in an infographic here.

Expressing admiration and support for an armed insurrection is not illegal, nor is talking about how you and your family were there watching the events from the sidelines, as with one longtime Baen author. Nor is discussing how to engineer the downfall of American cities, or opining that people of color were the best to recruit to wage violence, as another longtime Baen author was. But the Baen forums, by multiple accounts, had been swarmed in recent months by new users who found the established culture welcoming. Those who don’t think domestic terrorists weren’t going through them with an eye to recruitment, are — in my opinion — somewhat naive as to how the Internet works. The FBI is not. Many excellent related points are made here.

David Weber has stated he won’t go to cons that disinvite guests. I agree that often these dis-invitations happen in a way that ignores the fact that a GoH appearance is something that is scheduled months in advance, and which you shape other events and appearances around, sometimes saying no to those other gigs as a result. Inviting/disinviting is essentially saying “here is a shiny special thing for you” and then yanking it away, no matter what emotions the person doing the yanking are experiencing. Disinviting someone shouldn’t have to happen and cons need to be better about that.

By that, I mean the process of deciding upon a GoH needs to include anticipating situations in advance by doing due diligence. If a potential guest is advocating something your attendees are going to find awful in their social media and not showing signs of moving away from that, then maybe they’re going to say something in their social media further on down the road that would make you disinvite them. Maybe be smart now and avoid being awful to them — because how awful does being uninvited to something that was a celebration of you, that you would have been looking forward to enjoying have to be?

Disney tried this with the firing of Gina Carano, a move based less on wanting to do the right thing (this is, after all, Disney, which does not believe in paying writers) than to avoid controversy further on down the road — and sure enough, Carano followed pattern and created it, at which point it was revealed that Disney had severed the relationship with her months earlier.

At the same time, there are obvious circumstances under which I would definitely expect a convention to dis-invite a guest no matter at what point they arose. Criminal behavior is real high on that list. I once worked for a company where a guy brought a live grenade to a meeting. Not wanting to be in the same physical space as that guy anymore was, in my opinion, pretty valid.

As far as Weisskopf’s removal as GoH goes, it’s not a call that anyone would have made lightly, particularly given that they had to know that either way there was going to be considerable, outspoken public opinion about it. Running conventions is tough, and people who do it invest literal years in bidding for and running a WorldCon. They spend a lot of time planning and executing things, usually via committees, which move with glacial slowness as a rule. That this Worldcon made their decision so quickly shows how seriously they were taking it. As such, I find it dubious that any amount of public calls or attention would sway the decision back the other way.

Taking down all of the Baen’s Bar forums rather than the ones specifically mentioned in the original Sanford article was a reasonable choice in many ways. If it had only been the politics subforum, the next, absolutely inevitable thing to happen would have been for the users to immediately move into other forums and thrash around disrupting those with their protests.

At the same time, taking down all of the forums made uninvolved people inconvenienced by the act and very angry as as a result. I can speak from experience that hell hath no fury like a user who can’t log in to get their daily fix, and I suspect a good deal of the conflation of Sanford’s article about the forums and a coordinated attack on the publisher comes from the removal of the forums in their entirety.

Is Weisskopf’s removal a punishment for that choice — as it will surely be read? I don’t think so. It’s more a product of what a convention is, and what it represents, and wanting to honor guests who’ve made the field more awesome.

Weisskopf has definitely done some awesome things, including inspiring other women by becoming the owner and leader of Baen. Since taking over for Jim Baen in 2006, Weisskopf has created and implemented an innovative e-publishing program light years ahead of the efforts of other publishers, established the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award, the Baen Fantasy Adventure Award, and the Baen Best Military SF & Adventure SF Reader’s Choice Award. She co-chaired DeepSouthCon 50 in 2012 and served as the official Editor of the SFPA, the Southern Fannish Press Alliance, and edited an history of Southern Fandom.She has edited six anthologies, in which she’s helped find and nurture new voices. Baen itself is responsible for some terrific writers, including Lois McMaster Bujold. It cannot be overlooked that it is an indie publisher in times increasing dominated by corporate alliances.

There is no question all of that adds up to exerting a major, positive force on the field. And that’s what you want in a GoH, partially because you expect they will also be a major, positive influence on the programming. As I’ve talked about before, programming is an art. Who you pick as GoH is part of that. Often programming starts with the GoHs and fills in around them. And one of the (reasonable) expectations of a GoH is that they participate in a hearty chunk of programming. The GoHs are the literal faces of the convention, smiling out from the convention advertising and program books.

Bearing that in mind, the question DisCon organizers had to ask themselves was Is supporting a place where a bunch of people spend their time expressing their hatred of other members of the F&SF community something that makes a field more awesome? as well as What do we do, knowing that a choice to keep Weisskopf will be read as an endorsement of those words?

Words that support an armed coup. Words saying people with differing political beliefs should be killed. Words urging violence towards other people.

We talk about free speech, but with free speech comes responsibility for one’s words. Baen cannot disavow responsibility for those words, regardless of whether or not they happened because someone was asleep at the wheel. One of the reasons a business cannot ignore the importance of moderating any boards that they run is that they are responsible for the words posted on there. They can’t just turn over the keys to the car and say “drive this where you like.” They’re still enabling that car to bounce along the highway, swerving to hit any pedestrian it suspects of being from a particular group. It’s still their vehicle.

And when you are a leader, whether you like it or not, you are responsible for what is happening under your leadership, whether you’re aware of it or not, because that’s part of the role. Weisskopf is not an employee of the company. She doesn’t help just run it, but is one of its owners and profits from what it chooses to do. And that’s part of the choice.

Baen can continue as it has, and lean even harder into its conservative audience by choosing to enable and host the “liberals aren’t people” rhetoric, but if it does, it means they’re definitely saying “here is our very specific bunting-draped market niche,” and leaving a lot of other readers, a number of whom are liberal, out in the cold. That choice is also one that says “hate’s a good marketing strategy,” which may be savvy capitalism but I personally think equates with ethical bankruptcy.

If Bean makes that choice, it will not be the only entity using that strategy. We’ve had four years of government based on exactly that, and it will continue to be profitable for the people printing the QAnon t-shirts or assembling the dogwhistle factories for quite some time. We’ve seen some of the usual uninvolved suspects jump into the fray trying to garner attention. My hope is, that with time and the rise of generations that have seen this approach and how hollow it is, hate will stop being so popular. I, for one, hail our new Tiktok and Hive overlords exercising the most punk attitude of all: kindness.

Or Baen can be what it claims to be, and work to appeal to a wide range of readers, some of whom are being driven off by the current rhetoric being encouraged there on the forums the company sponsors and runs. That’s not a novel approach.

I’m nudging up against two thousand words in my polishing of this, and I suspect the overall event is becoming one of those things a lot of people are devoting words to on the Internet. I do want to talk in my next essay about online swarming and the ethics of authors siccing their readers on people, but I’ll yield the microphone for now.

*Sanford has been forced to take his Patreon and Twitter private, while members of an organized campaign, in between composing clever and usually highly inaccurate sneers about his writing career, have been contacting his employers demanding he be fired for expressing his free speech outside of that job. Cognitive dissonance? That doesn’t seem to have dissuaded them. As a co-owner of Baen, Weisskopf faces a bit less economic pressure from the fall-out of his article than Jason and his family do.

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