By now, anyone who keeps up with SF/F disputes online will have heard more than enough about the controversy over violent political rhetoric being posted at Baen’s Bar (the currently-offline forum of publisher Baen Books). But there’s one thing about the whole scuffle that’s been sticking out for me: just how utterly inept the case for the defence has shown itself to be. There’s a considerable amount to say here about how Internet arguments tend to devolve into scapegoating, so I’ve decided to take a closer look.
First, a bit of background. When it was active, the Baen forum was viewable to registered members only, so any discussion there went on behind closed doors unless a member decided to bring it to wider attention. In January this year, the prominent science fiction blog File 770 reported on a particularly incendiary message from the forum, while a Twitter user screencapped a number of similar posts (see here, here, here and here).
As you can imagine, this led to a degree of concern about the forum’s contents and it was only a matter of time until somebody decided to investigate the board and write an article about it. Author Jason Sanford was the person who happened to step up to the task, publishing an article on 15 February about violent rhetoric at Baen’s Bar; and, naturally, it was Jason Sanford who was attacked with volley after volley of ad hominem arguments.
One of the most recent manifestations of this was an attempt to smear Sanford via his fiction, something I wrote about here, here and here. This was merely the latest in a long line of attacks on his person, however.
Amongst the first to go after Sanford was Baen author Larry Correia, who wrote a blog post called Publishing House Baen Books Attacked by Cancel Culture. As per usual for Correia, this post makes heavy use of name-calling, referring to Sanford as “some nobody, wannabe writer, social justice twit” while Sanford’s article is described as “nonsense”, “bullshit”, a “cesspool” and “flat-out lies”. But when it comes to actually proving that Sanford has misled his readers, Correia steps aside and hands the task to others:
I’m not going to talk about the moronic loser or go through all the nonsense in his ridiculous hit piece. Other people are going through it now and carefully cataloging his bullshit. In typical leftist fashion he’s already pretending to be the victim and claiming he’s getting death threats. Maybe he can get in touch with Anita Sarkesian and Arthur Chu for tips.
Correia later updated his post with statements from other Baen figures – Toni Weisskopf, David Weber and Eric Flint – who are presumably the “other people” alluded to in the above paragraph. But the problem is, none of these three are able to prove Sanford wrong, either.
Toni Weisskopf’s response – an announcement that she’s placing the Baen forum on hiatus pending investigation – is hardly a rebuttal. David Weber opens his commentary by calling Sanford’s post “self-righteous”, “biased”, “intellectually dishonest” and “a pile of horse shit”, but like Correia he fails to demonstrate exactly why Sanford’s post is incorrect. Indeed, in the third paragraph of his reply Weber admits that “I haven’t been on the Bar regularly in quite some time”, raising the obvious question of how he can consider himself an authority on the matter.
That leaves us with Eric Flint’s response – which, in all fairness, is considerably more substantial than those offered by Correia and Weber. Some of his criticisms strike me as solid. For example, Sanford briefly mentions an Indian member of the forum being given a racist nickname; Flint pleads that this was actually ironic humour on the part of the member in question:
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.
I can readily accept that Sanford might have misinterpreted an inside joke here. But the thing is, the matter of the “swarthy menace” comprises a tiny part of Sanford’s article. It has no bearing on the central issue of the forum’s violent rhetoric.
In his response, Flint makes some slips of his own. Take this statement from the second paragraph:
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.
In fact, as I’ve already shown, the posts at Baen’s Bar had been discussed at File 770 before Sanford posted his article: Flint is pushing the inaccurate narrative that Sanford was the instigator of the attacks on the forum.
More significantly, Flint summarises Sanford’s piece as an essay “[w]hose 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.” He tries to disprove this assertion by pointing to a few Baen authors who aren’t conservative; however, Sanford’s central thesis concerns the Baen forum, not the Baen publishing output.
Flint doesn’t seem to grasp this. He treats Sanford’s emphasis on the Baen forum as a weakness in his argument, claiming that Sanford’s practice is to “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.” Note that, according to Sanford’s post, the supposed nonentity Theoryman was actually a Baen’s Bar moderator; Flint doesn’t address this assertion.
When he gets around to discussing the posts by Theoryman which (as quoted in Sanford’s article) call for the destruction of urban infrastructure, Flint’s tack is to dismiss the moderator in question as a harmless ninny;
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.” […] 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.
So, Flint ends up confirming Sanford’s central thesis that Baen’s Bar was being used for violent rhetoric; his main disagreement is in regards to how likely that rhetoric is to bleed into reality.
Moving beyond Baen’s stable of authors we find an article by Spencer Baculi at Bounding Into Comics. For those unfamiliar with it, Bounding Into Comics is a broadly conservative site aligned with the Comicsgate movement. The article is slanted against Jason Sanford, accusing him of using “cherry-picked posts” in its first sentence. But when it comes to discussing the content of these posts, the Bounding Into Comics piece again ends up reaffirming Sanford’s main thesis – that the posts contain violent rhetoric and at least one call for doxing:
Admittedly, some of the comments cited by Sanford do feature violent rhetoric, particularly in reference to the concept of a second American Civil War between the ‘right’ and the ‘left’. In one thread, a user asserted that “The point [of a Civil War] is to kill enough of [the left] that they can not arise for another 50 years… or more.” Another wrote that “The problem isn’t that you killed too many, but that you killed too few.” The former user also stated that the U.S. Capitol police officer who shot the now-deceased Ashli Babbitt “needs doxed[, as] after that, the problem will take care of itself.”
Like Eric Flint, Spencer Baculi minimises the posts quoted by Sanford by stressing that they were made by just nine people in a forum with a much larger membership. Again, Sanford identifies Theoryman – the user who talked about “kill[ing] enough of them that they can not arise” and advocated doxing – as a forum moderator; both Flint and Baculi ignore this detail in their effort to present the quoted posters as nobodies.
Next we have Samuel Collingwood Smith, owner of the blog Matthew Hopkins News. I’ve already blogged about Smith’s bizarre attacks on Sanford over the fact that he wrote a very tame horror story, but before Smith tried that tack he wrote a post called Baen’s Bane: Jason Sanford of Ohio News Media Association (ONMA) and his Unethical “Journalism”. Here, Smith examines the Baen’s Bar posts quoted by Sanford, and argues that while some of the material can be read of advocating violence, such posts are “the exception rather than the rule”. Having said this, Smith moves on to the next item on the agenda: contacting Jason Sanford’s employers at the Ohio News Media Association (ONMA).
In his email to ONMA, which he reproduces in his blog post, Smith accuses Sanford of publishing “a misleading article for personal gain” and encourages others to send similar emails to ONMA. Smith doesn’t state what results he either expects or desires from this move, but it certainly looks as though he’s trying to get Sanford fired or disciplined over his Baen exposé – even though Sanford posted on his personal blog outside his professional capacity as an ONMA employee.
In a follow-up post Smith announces that he received a response from ONMA expressing “no interest in commenting on [Sanford’s] personal first amendment activities”. Not giving up, Smith claims that Sanford’s Baen post “has been debunked by a stellar list of science-fiction luminaries” – a list that turns out to include the aforementioned Correia, Weber, Flint and Baculi, alt-right figurehead Vox Day and a few others.
The letter-writing campaign initiated by Samuel Collingwood Smith was taken up by author Richard Paolinelli, who sent a letter to the president of ONMA and published the complete text on his blog. A former journalist, Paolinelli presents the entire profession a having been brought into disrepute by Sanford’s post about the Baen Bar:
I had a great run in my journalism career. I am proud of my career and, up until recently, proud of my profession. I can no longer make the claim of being proud of my profession. Mr. Sanford appears to have cherry picked quotes to make them seem other than what they were. He altered others to make them appear to say something they did not. He failed to contact the subject of his story for comment on his allegations before printing them.
Paolinelli provides absolutely no evidence whatsoever to back up his assertion that Sanford altered or misrepresented quotations. Yet, somehow, he expects ONMA to take his word over that of Sanford.
And, finally, it appears that Mr. Sanford’s motives for publishing his piece of yellow journalism was revenge. I speak of a report that he submitted a manuscript to Baen that was recently rejected. If this is true, it calls into question his entire article as well as his integrity.
Once again, Paolinelli provides no evidence that Jason Sanford had a manuscript rejected by Baen; he doesn’t even cite the origin of the alleged “report” (Sanford would later deny that he had been rejected by Baen). The accusation doesn’t even make sense: Sanford has been having fiction published since the late nineties, and any author of that pedigree will have learnt to accept rejection as part of life; the idea that, after more than two decades’ writing, he would suddenly mount an attack on a publishing company over one rejection is ludicrous. Yet in his letter, Paolinelli goes on to treat this alleged motive as established fact:
I would hope that your reaction to the shoddy “reporting” he presented was the same as mine. Had he been an actual reporter working for me when I was an editor, his story would not have run. And I would be questioning his continued employment. Once the real reason for his attack on Baen came to light, that he was not reporting but getting payback, I would have fired him on the spot.
Like Smith, Paolinelli appears to be trying to get Sanford fired:
For the sake of our profession, which is quickly losing the trust of the people we cannot survive without, I pray you review this matter and do the right thing.
Later the same day, Paolinelli followed up his open letter with a post called The Unanswered Questions in the Sanford/Baen Saga. This post takes issue with Sanford’s tweet denying that he had been rejected by Baen:
His denial is vague. He says “he never submitted a book to Baen”. Has he submitted a short story or other article to Baen? Has he subbed anything to Baen under a pen name and not his own name? Has he ever applied for a job at Baen?
In reality, Sanford’s response was anything but vague: “I’ve never submitted a book to or been rejected by Baen.” His statement that he has never “been rejected by Baen” clearly indicates that he has never had a short story or article rejected by Baen. Paolinelli is clinging desperately to the “rejected by Baen” narrative despite its copious holes.
If he does in fact have work experience at a newspaper, why didn’t he know to contact Baen and ask for some type of comment on the allegations he was about to levy at Baen? This is Journalism 101. You always contact the subject of a story and give them a chance to either respond or refuse comment.
He seems preoccupied with the fact that Sanford didn’t contact the people mentioned in his Baen’s Bar article before writing about them. According to Paolinelli, this is a grave lapse on Sanford’s part.
But here’s the thing: I’ve never before heard that a journalist is morally obliged to contact every single person they write about. I did some research and found this post by the Complaints Officer of the Independent Press Standards Organisation:
If the article is reporting on factual information that is already in the public domain, such as a recent court case or comments made publicly on social media, not contacting someone before the article is published is highly unlikely to be a breach of our rules.
Now, granted, IPSO is a British organisation and Sanford is American; perhaps standards are different between countries. I spoke to some US contacts familiar with the field, however, and they informed me that while it’s generally desirable for a journalist to contact their subject before publishing a piece about them, it isn’t a necessity unless the topic is particularly sensitive, which this case isn’t.
Plus, let’s not forget that we’re talking about an article that Sanford posted on his personal blog: he wasn’t acting in his capacity as a professional journalist when he wrote it.
What led him, if he isn’t the Baen type to begin with, to investigate the politics area of the forum in the first place? Was he tipped off?
As I noted at the beginning of this post, the controversial contents of Baen’s Bar were being publicly discussed at File 770 and on Twitter shortly before Sanford wrote his article. This “unanswered question” is unanswered only because Paolinelli hasn’t done the research.
Paolinelli then moves on to what looks like no more than an attempt to bully Sanford out of accepting praise for his writing:
If his motivations are a pure as the wind driven snow, will he refuse any Hugo nominations this year and next, including for Best Related Work in connection to this article of his?
The next day, Paolinelli had still another post on the subject. This time, he specifically condemns Sanford’s post about the Baen forum as “anti-Semitic” on the grounds that Toni Weisskopf happens to be Jewish. Given that Richard “ScribesShade” Paolinelli is a contributor to Vox Day’s Infogalactic, a site that carries such articles as “Truther Top 20 Counter Points To The Official Holocaust Story” and “Truther Top 20 Examples Of Jewish Self-Victimization”, I find his new role as tireless foe of anti-Semitism just a little hard to swallow.
So, having taken a long look at the rebuttals aimed at Jason Sanford since his post went up, here’s my assessment. I’ll concede that some of the objections, like the claim that Sanford misinterpreted the “swarthy menace” running gag, are convincing but minor. Surrounding the halfway credible responses, meanwhile, is a colossal heap of rubbish that ranges from the macho bluster of Larry Correia to the borderline incoherence of Richard Paolinelli.
In amidst the sound and fury is a telling detail. When Jason Sanford’s opponents set aside irrelevant concerns about the Ohio News Media Association or Sanford’s career as a fiction writer and directly address the Baen’s Bar posts that he quotes in his article, they are forced to admit that the posts in question are indeed advocating violence. Opinions may differ as to how likely these individuals are to actually carry out the violence in question (note Eric Flint’s comment that “the violence is of a masturbatory nature”) but one fact remains:
Jason Sanford asserted that the Baen Books forum was being used to advocate for political violence — and he was right.