I was going to stay out of the latest inside-the-SF-Beltway kertuffle, but it seems to keep chasing after me. At least, I keep running into it on Facebook. So, especially since my name got dragged into it, I finally decided to put in my two cents.
The kertuffle I’m talking about started with the publication on his Patreon site by an author named Jason Sanford of a hit piece on my publisher, Baen Books. I’m deliberately calling it a “hit piece” because everything about it stinks to me. I will explain why in the course of this post, but let me start with the fact that Sanford’s essay was followed in very quick succession by people piling on elsewhere including in File 770, a demand being placed on Baen Books’ service provider that they cancel the publisher’s online access, and loud demands that the upcoming 79th World Science Fiction Convention (Discon III) remove Baen’s publisher Toni Weisskopf as their Editor Guest of Honor.
Maybe all this is just coincidence, but I doubt it. And before anyone accuses me of suggesting there’s an elaborate conspiracy involved, I don’t think that for a minute. What I do think is likely is that a handful of jerks got together and thought starting something like this was a bright idea.
Let me begin by quoting the thesis of Sanford’s essay:
This is an investigative report about how Baen’s Bar, the private forum run by the science fiction and fantasy publishing company Baen Books, is being used to advocate for extremist political violence. Evidence will be presented. Comments by a number of the forum’s users will be shared.[See Note 1 below]
I believe it’s vitally important for the SF/F genre to know what is going on in Baen’s Bar. As the world has discovered in recent years, disinformation and online threats of violence do not remain in one place and this applies equally to the SF/F genre. When online threats of violence are ignored and encouraged, there can be unintended and possibly deadly consequences to everyone.
[I deleted a few paragraphs here]
Baen and the company’s current publisher, Toni Weisskopf, market many of their books toward a specific subset of readers, what John Scalzi has called the “Orthodox Church of Heinlein.”[See Note 4] As a result of this editorial bent, the press frequently publishes books by outspokenly conservative SF authors such as Tom Kratman, Larry Correia, John Ringo, and Sarah A. Hoyt.
Shortly thereafter, Sanford does include this short paragraph by way of a qualifier:
However, it’d be a mistake to think Baen only publishes socially conservative writers. Bestselling Baen author Eric Flint, for example, was a long-time progressive political activist and member of the Socialist Workers Party. Other authors published by Baen include Joanna Russ, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Harry Turtledove, none of whom fit into the conservative author narrative.
Let’s stop right here before we go any further. Sanford is engaging in a shell game. Despite the qualifying paragraph, he’s doing everything possible here to depict Baen Books as being predominantly a publisher of what he calls “socially conservative writers.” Such a conveniently vague three words those are—which papers over what is in fact a very diverse group of authors.
How diverse? Well, let’s start with me. Which I think is appropriate not simply because I’m writing this essay but because over the past (almost) quarter of a century (1997 to 2021) I have published 67 novels through Baen Books. That’s more than any other author whom Baen publishes. I have also published through Baen Books a total (so far—there are two more coming out this year) of 15 anthologies involving my own fiction and 36 anthologies of other writers.
I was also the editor of Baen Books’ online magazine Jim Baen’s Universe for the four years it lasted, and I am the publisher of the online magazine The Grantville Gazette, which was launched out of Baen’s Bar and has continued for the past 14 years as a successful science fiction magazine, recognized by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Association as a qualifying professional venue for new authors.
And I’ve been on the New York Times bestseller list six times. And I have somewhere in the vicinity of three million books in print. And…
I get one sentence in an essay purporting to expose all about Baen Books. Whose central thesis is that Baen is a den of right wing maniacs, and never mind that Baen’s most-published author for the past 24 years is a flaming socialist.
Which I am—and Baen Books has known that since the day Jim Baen bought my first novel Mother of Demons back in 1996, after it was recommended to him by his chief editor, Toni Weisskopf. I’m not guessing, by the way. Jim was curious about my political views because he could tell from reading Mother of Demons that I wasn’t a conservative but I didn’t seem to be a liberal, either. So I asked him to give me ten to fifteen minutes and I gave him a summary of my political history.
Which is this: I’ve been a socialist since about the age of nineteen, and was active in the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s. In 1971, at the age of 24, I left the university where I was working on a PhD in history and became an industrial worker, since I felt being active in the trade union movement was the right thing for a socialist to do. I spent most of the next three decades working as a longshoreman, truck driver, auto worker, machinist, aerospace worker, oil worker, meatpacker and (for a short stretch in West Virginia) a glassblower.
I had written quite a bit of science fiction in high school and college, but I didn’t start writing seriously until I was in my late forties. I got my first novel published at the age of fifty.
After I finished explaining my political history to Jim Baen, we discussed politics for another couple of hours. At the end of that, he told me he was going to buy my novel and said, “I guess if John Campbell could get along with Mack Reynolds, I can get along with you.” In the years that followed until his death in 2006, Jim never tried to put political pressure on me with regard to my fiction, or in any other way. Neither has Toni Weisskopf since she became the publisher after Jim’s death.
Qualities like that—you can start with the term integrity—don’t seem to matter to people like Jason Sanford, when it comes to a publisher, but they matter to me.
But it’s not just me who gets short shrift in Sanford’s essay. If there is any author more identified with Baen Books than any, it’s probably David Drake. He doesn’t get mentioned at all in Sanford’s essay, despite the fact that he’s been one of Baen Books’ most published authors since the publishing house was launched and was Jim Baen’s best friend.
Now, it is true that David will say that he considers himself “personally conservative.” But in political terms, this is a man who voted for George McGovern when he got back from Vietnam in 1972, voted for John Kerry against George Bush and voted for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. He also voted for Clinton in 2016. He didn’t like her because he considered her trigger-happy, but he despised Trump. I haven’t spoken to him about the recent presidential election because there was no need to. David Drake would vote for a warthog before he’d vote for Trump, and anyone who knows him would know that.
Then there’s David Weber, who doesn’t get mentioned either in Sanford’s essay. Weber is and has been for many years Baen Books’ most popular author. David is definitely a conservative, but he hardly fits the mold that Sanford is using. There’s a reason that he and I have been able to co-author six novels, have a good time doing it, and have remained close friends in the process.
Then there’s Mercedes Lackey—whom Sanford only mentions in this context:
According to the explanation in the list of banned Baen’s Bar topics, Mercedes Lackey posted a long rant on the forum about her distaste for Baen Books and Jim Baen personally, along with mentioning how she had been persecuted for being of a particular political bent. While it appears Lackey left the forum after that, Jim Baen “asked that the incident be stricken from discussion.”
For those of you who don’t know, Jim Baen died in June of 2006—so all this is a reference to something that happened more than fifteen years ago. Which… Sanford neglects to mention. But what’s much more important is that he also neglects to mention that Misty Lackey is one of Baen Books’ most popular and frequently published authors. She’s published dozens of novels through Baen Books—several of them with me as her co-author. And many of them were published long after the quarrel she got into with Jim Baen.
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. What Sanford does is present the reader of his essay with a view of Baen Books that is badly skewed—and that’s the most charitable way I can put it. Flatly dishonest would be more accurate.
He does this in order to obscure what is the single most outstanding feature of the meat of his essay, which is that his argument is entirely based on selective anecdotes—ironically, a favorite argumentative tactic of right wingers. In fact, what he does is exactly what I criticized the Sad Puppies for doing in a series of essays I wrote on the Hugo ruckus back in 2015. (For which I got an Alfie award, by the way.) They would race around and collect a bunch—rather small bunch—of statements by various people, most of whom you’d never heard of, that they considered outrageous and present them as proof that there was a great conspiracy to commit wrong-doing.
Sanford does exactly that. Take a careful look through his essay. What is his evidence based on? For the most past, statements he considers outrageous by…
Who, exactly? Not meaning to be crude or anything, but who the hell is “Captrandy” and why should I give a damn that the twit thinks “political conflicts in the USA could be solved if ‘all the angry and non angry white males should stop going to work for a month or so’.”
Okay, he’s a bigot, a sexist and a moron, even by Ayn Rand values of “moron.” So what? Why am I supposed to care what he thinks? Because he spouts his bullshit in the discussion area of my publisher’s web site?
Why am I supposed to gasp that another jackass I’ve never heard of by the name of “Pugmak” argues that “Simple competence has been declared white supremacy. Knowing how to do your job and expecting others to do likewise is now white supremacy and workplace oppression.”
It is in the nature of jackasses to be jackasses. This is supposed to be shocking news because it’s posted on a virtual bulletin board?
Perhaps my favorite of Sanford’s Oh, my God! moments is this one by a never-heard-of-him who uses the monicker of Theoryman: “As I’ve already pointed out, rendering ANY large city is uninhabitable is quite easy… And the Left lives in cities.”
I have to make a confession here. Although he doesn’t specify in most cases where he found these comments, I’m pretty sure that Sanford found them in one of the many conferences in Baen’s Bar—the one that goes by the title “Politics.”
I stopped visiting “Politics” about… oh, I dunno. Twenty-three years ago? The reason I did is because, as Darth Vader would say, “The stupid is strong with these ones.” I don’t mind arguing with people who disagree with me. But I refuse to waste my time getting into debates with people so dumb I don’t know how they tie their own shoes in the morning. And that’s pretty much the nature of the wrangles in “Politics.” As far as I’m concerned, the conference might as well have a sign over the entrance reading Here Be Dimwits and People Who Imagine Themselves to be Dragons.
Take a look at what Sanford considers an “incitement to violence.” Can it be called that? Well… I suppose—if you’re willing to grant that Theoryman is such an imbecile that he actually believes that “rendering ANY large city is uninhabitable is quite easy.” [sic]
Try telling that to the 8th Air Force. They’re the ones who suffered horrendous casualties trying—and failing—to render German cities uninhabitable in World War II. Or the airmen in the Luftwaffe who suffered terrible casualties of their own trying to render London uninhabitable. In reality, advanced industrial societies are extraordinarily resilient—and they’re concentrated and centered in cities.
Apparently Theoryman has some sort of superpowers—or maybe that’s why he calls himself “Theoryman” in the first place. Because on some level he knows he’s nothing but an ignorant blowhard.
This is the “great menace of Baen’s Bar” that Sanford yaps about. A handful of people—okay, two handfuls, tops—most of whom you have never heard of, who spout absolute twaddle. Yes, a fair amount of it is violent-sounding twaddle, but the violence is of a masturbatory nature.
And never mind that Baen publishes a very popular socialist author, a very popular Vietnam veteran whose novels speak to veterans on a deep level, a very popular author of (among other things) what is perhaps the best-selling space opera series ever written. (And which, by the by, features a military heroine—not hero—and a racially diverse cast of characters.) Not to mention Mercedes Lackey, who is anything but right wing.
According to Sanford, none of that defines Baen Books or tells you much about the publishing house. No, no, no. We have to root among the weeds like hogs to dig up the profoundly significant words of such literary giants as Captrandy, Pugmak and Theoryman.
But I can hear Sanford now exclaim, “And what about Kratman?”
Ah, yes. Tom Kratman. Who is, indeed, an actual author with a number of books to his credit.
What about him? Do I agree with Kratman’s political views? As a rule, no. (I say “as a rule” because, like most people, Kratman can be complicated. Get him on the subject of the Confederacy and I guarantee that any Lost Causer in the vicinity will turn pale either from shock, outrage or fear.)
If Sanford thinks that a few authors like Kratman are the ones who define Baen as a publishing house, he has the obligation to make a case for it. But he makes no effort to do so. Instead, he ignores most of Baen’s authors altogether and simply asserts that what he says is true because he says it’s true.
He does that repeatedly. Here’s another instance:
There are tons of discussions on the forum about the pending second American Civil War
Notice there are no citations, just an assertion by Sanford. And more importantly, notice the vagueness of the term “tons.” What does he mean by that? One or two assertions made by a thousand people is a very different kettle of fish from one or two thousand assertions made by two people.
Baen’s Bar has also become well-known in the genre community as a place where racism, sexism, homophobia and general fascism continually pop up. For example, a Baen’s Bar user from India was nicknamed “The Swarthy Menace” on the forum by author Tom Kratman. People on the forum thought that was the height of clever humor.
Again, no citations, just an assertion. And what the hell is this “genre community” he’s talking about? Millions of people in the United States regularly read science fiction and fantasy. What percentage of them do you think belong to that group he’s talking about? 0.01%? If that many?
I have three million books in print. David Weber and Misty Lackey have a lot more than that. What are we, chopped liver? If Sanford can point to ANY place in ANY book we’ve written where “racism, sexism, homophobia and general fascism” pop up—pop up at all, never mind “continually”—let him point it out.
But he won’t. Instead he’ll dig up some—being blunt about it—nonentity who invariably has a fake name (Theoryman, Pugmak, Turk, Captrandy, Arun.tplb, Winterset, Br’er Tiger, gee how clever these people are) and shriek to the heavens that they have—more than once!—said something awful.
One last thing before I move on. Sanford also doesn’t bother to do his research to make sure that what he says is true at all. A good example is in the passage I quoted above. He provides one—and only one—example to substantiate his charge that Baen’s Bar has also become well-known in the genre community as a place where racism, sexism, homophobia and general fascism continually pop up. He is outraged that the racist nickname “The Swarthy Menace” was inflicted on a poor downtrodden fellow from India by the wicked Colonel Kratman.
I happen to know the truth about this incident, which is that “The Swarthy Menace” himself, whose actual name is Arun Pradhu, thinks it’s funny—and he developed the nickname with Tom Kratman. He did so because someone he got in an argument with assumed he was Caucasian and accused him of being a racist. He is also, by the way, hopping mad at Jason Sanford for lying about him.
In my days as a political activist I once organized a forum for a member of the American Indian Movement. He took considerable glee in using the expression “going off the reservation” to describe his activities. He also told me that he had several times been criticized by white people of the Jason Sanford mindset for making fun of Native Americans. One of the characteristics of political correctness is that it is both arrogant and condescending toward the very people it claims to be championing.
Here’s yet another example of Sanford’s inveterate argument-by-innuendo:
However, what’s most worrying about Baen’s Bar is that since the 2020 Presidential election, the forum has seen a large number of posts urging violence against political opponents.
Define “large number of posts,” please. And more importantly, are we talking about a few posts by large numbers of people or a lot of posts by a handful of people? Sanford, as usual, provides us with no real data. Just… take my word for it.
And here’s yet another. This one really ticks me off:
For all of the forum’s existence Baen Books has essentially adopted and encouraged an “anything goes” rule for posts. And the forum is also known for an attitude of “if you can’t handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen,” a saying frequently quoted on the forum.
First of all, the above is a flat-out lie. From the very beginning of the Bar, Jim Baen set out what he called the basic rule, which was “no hitting.” That meant that personal attacks were not permitted—and although there were occasional lapses, he regularly enforced the rule.
But leave that aside. What is, as always, utterly infuriating about Sanford is that he never provides citations, other than anecdotal remarks by this or that individual, usually quoted without any context.
“And the forum is also known…” KNOWN BY WHO, Sanford? Name names, goddammit.
“A saying frequently quoted….” QUOTED BY WHO, Sanford? Name names, goddammit.
And I will add: QUOTED WHERE?
I can tell you where these sort of statements are not being made, and are not tolerated. They are not being made because they won’t be tolerated in any of the conferences on Baen’s Bar that I oversee—which is half a dozen. And these are not conferences in which a small number of people participate. These are the conferences where, for more than twenty years now, the Ring of Fire series got created and is continually being expanded. These are the conferences which have for almost that long sustained the only magazine devoted to a series in the history of science fiction which has been published successfully on a professional basis for almost a decade and a half—based entirely on a literary property. (There have been a few successful magazines that have run for that long based on media properties.)
How many people have participated in my conferences over the many years they’ve been in existence? I have absolutely no idea. But I can pretty much guarantee that the number is way bigger than the number of people who have shot their mouths off in “Politics.”
And I don’t want to hear Sanford protesting that he’s not talking about me, he’s talking about “Baen’s Bar.” Bullshit. I am closely associated with Baen Books and have been for a quarter of a century. Do you have any idea how many times I’ve had people accuse me of being a right winger guilty of racism, sexism, etc.—solely because I publish through Baen? And who are they? People who have no idea who I am but have heard someone like Sanford slander Baen Books, that’s who.
Over and over again, Sanford does the same thing. He doesn’t bother to check his assumptions and he cherry-picks his examples, ignoring anything that doesn’t fit his thesis, which is summarized thusly:
Baen’s Bar… is being used to advocate for extremist political violence. Evidence will be presented. Comments by a number of the forum’s users will be shared.
Let me translate the above into meaningful English. Here’s what it really says:
“Baen’s Bar… is a publisher’s web site where, in a few of its many conferences, some right wing jerks stride the virtual stage imagining themselves to be Mighty Mouth. Anecdotes to that effect will be presented. Comments by a tiny percentage of the forum’s users, most of whom you’ve never heard of (and for good reason) will be shared.”
Doesn’t sound quite as dramatic, does it?
I suspect that one difference between Sanford and me is that I have encountered a lot of political violence in my lifetime and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t. In my early years as a trade union activist I was involved in the Teamster rank-and-file movement to democratize that notoriously undemocratic union. A lot of the people we confronted were outright gangsters. Off and on over the years that followed I had clashes with both right wing and Maoist thugs. In the worst such instance, in 1979 just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, I was assaulted by a mob organized by the KKK. I was badly beaten and the friend I was with, Nelson Blackstock, had his hip shattered and was never able to walk properly again for the rest of his life. I responded to the attack by running for Birmingham’s city council on the Socialist Workers Party ticket, just to thumb my nose at the bastards if nothing else. (No, I didn’t win—but I did get 800 votes, which I thought was pretty damn good given the critical words Birmingham, Alabama and The Year 1979.)
On three occasions, murder attempts were made on me. All involved attempts at vehicular homicide. I’ve also had guns pulled on me but none of those instances went any further than that. I long ago lost track of how many times I’ve been threatened with violence—threats which still happen fairly regularly, although I don’t take them very seriously. Lately, the most common type of threat is some right wing asshole posting a “one way helicopter ride” picture or sketch on my Facebook page.
I’m not in the least bit intimidated by right wing goons. But here’s what else I’m not intimidated by. I also don’t give a damn what people like Jason Sanford think. He’s the type of more-progressive-than-thou so-called leftwinger who is never worth a damn in a real fight but is always instantly ready to denounce someone else as being insufficiently rigorous in their prosecution of the great struggle against wrong thinking. With “lefties” like Sanford around, you don’t need reactionaries.
To get back to the subject, Baen’s Bar does have a definite libertarian bent when it comes to how it’s moderated and overseen. That derives from the fact that both Jim Baen and Toni Weisskopf have a libertarian bent themselves. Should that be changed or at least modified? It’s Toni’s web site so she’ll make the decision.
As for me, I think libertarianism is (at best) a childish political theory, especially when it comes to its economic heart. But I am inclined myself in the same direction when it comes to issues of free speech.
People often insist—I’ve done it myself, when I think it’s appropriate—that there’s a big difference between freedom of speech as a legal issue, and freedom of speech as a matter of social practice. In the first case, the government can’t regulate speech in any way except a few narrowly-defined ones. That’s the essence of the first amendment. But, in the second case, employers (or private owners of web sites) most certainly can.
The problem with that distinction is that you have to be careful—because what ultimately shapes both stances toward freedom of speech is a common culture, and that culture can get deformed if you push things too far.
One of the things that has bothered me the most about the reaction of liberals to the Trump era is that they tend to forget hard-won lessons of the past. To give an example, we now hear a lot of people calling for laws being passed “against domestic terrorism.”
I am opposed to such laws, because they are bound to be abused. The problem isn’t that we don’t have laws against domestic terrorism, the problem is that the laws against so-called “Islamic terrorism” that were passed after 9/11 are far too broad and sweeping. They have led to such grotesque practices as the imprisonment of people on Guantanamo who are never charged with anything and are apparently going to be held in permanent captivity. They are responsible for “no fly lists” that everyone knows are riddled with inaccuracies—which nothing is ever done to correct.
And we’re now supposed to extend that same over-reach of power to American citizens?
No. Let’s not. Instead, let’s get rid of the Patriot Act and disband both the Department of Homeland Security (talk about a bloated bureaucratic monstrosity!) and the Transportation Security Administration.
It’s the same reason I’m opposed to hate crime laws. They give government agencies too much undefined power. Which ends up with the disgusting reality we have today, where black people—who constitute 12% of the population—are 25% of the people charged with hate crimes.
When did the left become the party of “you can trust the government to do the right thing?”
Other people may have forgotten COINTELPRO. I have not.
Other people may have forgotten J. Edgar Hoover. I have not.
Other people may have forgotten the Tonkin Gulf incident. I have not.
I could go on. And on and on. But this essay is already long. To get back to Sanford, what he’s written is an essay that’s just a hatchet job. He’s made no attempt—indeed, he’s deliberately failed—to provide people with any sort of balanced view of Baen Books. He uses what are in fact a small number of anecdotes to make sweeping generalizations. And he completely neglects to gauge just how significant anything really is in the first place.
I regularly get into arguments with right wingers who try to make a false equivalence between what happened at the Capitol on January 6 and the sort of violence that sometimes breaks out in association (usually, on the fringe) of ordinary, everyday demonstrations. The first thing I tell them is that they’re a bunch of hysterics and if they really think Black Lives Matter has been “terrorizing the nation’s cities” it’s a good thing for them they weren’t around in the 60s when we had real riots. (Buncha wusses, you ask me.)
But mostly what I say is this: “If you really can’t tell the difference between a bunch of people with no power fighting with cops on a street somewhere and a mob incited by the president of the United States to storm the nation’s seat of government in order to force through what would have been, if it had succeeded, a genuine coup d’etat, you have no business expressing any opinion on politics because you’re an idiot.”
I will now say the same thing to Jason Sanford and anyone who takes his essay seriously. “If you really can’t tell the difference between a genuine threat of violence and some blowhards jacking off on a science fiction web site, you need to take a remedial course in common sense.”