Monday, March 23, 2009

Personal Politics of Stallman and Torvalds

Linux Monday: Political Perspectives From the Übergeeks

My move to Linux started as a political thing—I am, after all, a political guy and this is first and foremost a political blog. My personal politics, for you Linux Monday-only readers, are left end of the U.S. Democratic Party, anti-corporate, with a cranky libertarian and politically incorrect streak thrown in. A nice fit for Linux.

But it's not essential that your personal politics match my own to give Linux a try. In fact, the first time I ever saw anyone out and about in public using Linux was at a Ron Paul table in 2007. I find it hard to imagine corporate-style conservatives buying into my anti-corporate mindset, just like I could never understand why there were Republican fans of the Clash or Rage Against The Machine. But as Whitman said, “I contradict myself? Very well. I contradict myself.” (The Clash and Rage contradicted themselves too, preaching revolution while corporate conglomerates marketed the records. “Turning rebellion into money,” as Joe Strummer said.)

So let's just accept that Linux geeks land on all points of the political spectrum and take a look at the personal politics and styles of the two godfathers of the open source movement: Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman.

Torvalds (L), Stallman (R)

Linus (Torvalds is usually “Linus,” but Richard is usually “Stallman”) wrote the original Linux kernel as an undergrad in Finland in the early 1990s. Linus has since moved to the U.S. where he has a long-term Green Card but not citizenship. He's a classic red-diaper baby; his leftist parents met at a protest rally. But Linus' politics are low-key, like his personality.

“I'm absolutely uninterested in politics,” Linus famously (well, famously if you're a Linux geek) said in 1999. “It was a fairly political family, so I may have reacted against that by being non-political.” Yet pressed a little further, he acknowledges leaning more left than right and has expressed opposition to US foreign policy of the Bush 43 administration (along with the rest of the civilized world).

As an immigrant in America, Linus has some comparative thoughts on our system:
The whole US voting system is apparently expressly designed to be polarizing (winner-take-all electoral system etc). To somebody from Finland, that looks like a rather obvious and fundamental design flaw.

Design flaw. Spoken like a true programmer. Linus continues:
In Finland, government is quite commonly a quilt-work of different parties, and the 'rainbow coalition' of many many parties working together was the norm for a long time. And it seems to result in much more civilized political behaviour.

You couple a polarizing voting system with a campaign that has to make simplified black-and-white statements, and what do you get? Ugly, is what you get.

This political philosophy (even though Linus defines it as non-political) in support of multi-party democracy plays itself out in the Linux world's let a thousand distributions bloom mindset. Don't see a party (or distribution) that meets your needs exactly? Try another one.

Richard Stallman couldn't be more different. Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation in 1983 to create a free Unix-like operating system. He is an active Green Party member whose personal web site is a very busy read. It's got a retro-simple style like the Drudge Report and a dense, on a mission from God writing style. He's occasionally dogmatic on issues of terminology, preferring the term 'free software' to 'open source':
Free software is a political movement; open source is a development model. The term "open source" was promoted in 1998 by people that did not want to say "free" or "freedom." They associated their term with a philosophy that cites only values of practical convenience. If you neglect the values of freedom and social solidarity, and appreciate only powerful reliable software, you are making a terrible mistake.

The fact that Torvalds says 'open source' instead of 'free software' shows where he is coming from... I respect his right to express his views, even though I think they are foolish. However, if you don't want to lose your freedom, you had better not follow him.

(I'm taking just the smallest of excerpts here for my regular readership. Übergeeks, please, no holy wars.)

As befits the guy who coined the Linux—oops, GNU-Linux, Stallman is firm on that point too—slogan “free as in beer, free as in freedom,” Stallman is especially interested in privacy and copyright issues. The current front page includes opposition to national ID cards in several countries, calls to sign a petition “to bring the ex-officials of the Bush regime to justice,” and a pro-choice link. It also, high on the page, urges: “Don't Buy Harry Potter Books.”


Well, it seems that in 2005, some copies of Book Six leaked early and the Canadian publishers went to court. Stallman posted the plot spoiler (you know, ***** kills **********), just to prove he could and in keeping with the information should be free mindset. “When governments spit on human rights, posting what they wish to suppress is one way humans can protest,” writes Stallman, with an intensity better suited for a secret yellowcake uranium report than a plot detail of a work of fiction.

Or maybe Stallman's just mad because someone said he looks like Hagrid.

In contrast, Linus' personal site uses a low-key standard Blogger template and focuses on the personal ("It's getting later in the release cycle, so I'm spending more time in my 'wait for people to complain' mode, allowing me to read more," begins a typical post.) Updates come every few days to two weeks, and where Stallman is serious, Linus is wry. Picking up on Facebook's “25 things about me” meme, he responds with this list, reposted in its entirety:

1. I get bored really easily

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