how mean Theo can be
Watching an extended flame war between Richard Stallman and Theo de Raadt
is an interesting experience. The realization that one can sit back and
watch without having to really care about the result brings a sense of
profound tranquility and relief. Along the way, one gets to learn things
, or that Richard does not use a web browser
. It all
seems like good fun. Even so, when the discussion reaches levels like this
Richard, your pants are full of hypocritical poo.
it becomes impossible not to wonder if one hasn't wandered into an
elementary school yard by mistake.
Most observers would probably conclude that Mr. Stallman has chosen to
express himself with less childish terms than Mr. de Raadt. Still, this
conversation came about as a result of a statement made by Mr. Stallman,
one which upset the OpenBSD community greatly. It is worthwhile to look at
where the disagreement was.
In particular, Richard Stallman started
the discussion by saying that he cannot "recommend" OpenBSD because the
"ports" system they use facilitates the installation of certain non-free
packages. His reasoning comes down to this:
Since I consider non-free software to be unethical and antisocial,
I think it would be wrong for me to recommend it to others.
Therefore, if a collection of software contains (or suggests
installation of) some non-free program, I do not recommend it. The
systems I recommend are therefore those that do not contain (or
suggest installation of) non-free software.
There are all kinds of things which can be said about the OpenBSD
community, but statements that they lack a proper appreciation for freedom
are not among them. This community's view of what makes a system truly free
differs from that of the Free Software Foundation, but what they produce is
undeniably free software. It is, arguably, one of the most free systems
available, with careful attention paid to the licensing of even things like
firmware blobs which are not part of the system itself. So folks in the
OpenBSD community resent this sort of claim, even if they profess to
care little about the opinions of the person making it.
Of course, it's not only OpenBSD which fails to pass Mr. Stallman's test.
of recommended distributions from the GNU web site has grown recently;
it now contains gNewSense, Ututo, Dynebolic, Musix, BLAG, and GNUstep.
True statistics are hard to come by, of course, but your editor would be
most surprised if the combined installed base of these distributions added
up to a full 1% of the Linux systems in use. Most of us, in other words,
are using systems which Mr. Stallman is unable to recommend.
Many of us will be using distributions like Fedora or Debian which are
strongly committed to the creation of free systems. The developers behind
these distributions have gone to considerable trouble to be sure that
everything which is part of their system is truly free software, even when,
as has happened at times, the result has been trouble for users. These
distributors have clearly advanced the cause of free software greatly
through their efforts over many years. One might well wonder just why
Mr. Stallman cannot bring himself to recommend the result of this work.
The OpenBSD developers, though, have been asking a different question: why is the
GNU project happy to enable its software to be installed on non-free
systems? That is where the charges of hypocrisy come from. Mr. Stallman
answered both questions together. It seems
that, in his view, there is little risk of leading users astray by letting
them install programs like Emacs on proprietary systems:
People already know about non-free systems such as Windows, so it
is unlikely that the mention of them in a free package will tell
them about a system and they will then switch to it. Also,
switching operating systems is a big deal. People are unlikely to
switch to a non-free operating system merely because a free program
runs on it.
Thus, the risk of leading people to use a non-free system by making
a free program run on it is small.
It would appear, however, that proprietary applications carry a much higher
degree of risk:
By contrast, many non-free applications are not well known, and
installing one is much easier--it does not require changing
everything else you do. Thus, even telling people about a non-free
application could very well lead them to install it.
It is not all that hard to see, embodied within a statement like this, a
somewhat condescending view of computer users, who have to be "led" to
install the right software. It is a position which disallows the
recommendation of completely-free operating systems which most of us use.
It places a sort of ideological purity above the vast amounts of work which
have gone into the creation of a variety of free systems available for all
It is, in other words, an unreasonable position - as can be seen by the
fact that almost no free software users actually follow Mr. Stallman's
advice when they choose their systems. Before condemning this unreasonable
position, though, it's worth a quick review of the famous George Bernard
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable
man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore,
all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
There is no doubt that we have benefited from Mr. Stallman's lengthy,
sometimes unreasonable campaign. Certainly he
has no doubt on that score, saying "Free operating systems exist
today because of the campaign which I started in 1983." But it's
worthwhile to remember that free operating systems also exist because
thousands of others have put in hard work for many years. It seems
appropriate to wonder whether telling those people that their work
still is not free enough really helps the cause of free software.
On the other hand, one need not wonder about the value of responding to a
"refusal to recommend" with an extensive attack which ventures into pure
character assassination. Vitriolic flaming helps nobody's cause. One may
not agree with Mr. Stallman's position in this discussion, but one thing
should be said: he kept his cool, remained respectful and stayed on-topic
when others lost it completely. That is the way to promote free
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