Simon McNeil

The vexatiousness of the culture wars in SFF – Baen’s Bar and the fantasy of total community

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Oh did we all think that ended with the collapse of the Sad Puppy movement into genral Trumpism? Of course it didn’t. And the latest salvo is turning into a wild ride.

Buckle in.

On February 15, 2021, Jason Sandford published an exposé of a pattern of discourse at Baen’s Bar – a forum managed by Toni Weisskopf on behalf of the storied SF publisher Baen Books – which included racist comments and, most alarmingly, advocacy for violence perpetrated not just by regular participants at the forum but also its moderation team.

Sandford started receiving messages which he interpreted as death threats from prominent Baen’s Bar forum members. This was reported on by File 770 with a link to a twitter thread in which Sandford compiled screenshots of the threatening messages, however Sandford has since locked his Twitter account and these screenshots are unavailable at this time. That being said, I did see them prior to Sandford locking his account, and they include the “helicopter ride” meme which is a far-right reference to the Death Flights of the fascist Pinochet regime of Chile.

Further calls for violence have surfaced on Twitter – the screenshot above is an example available at time of posting which references Tacitus’ account of Emperor Nero of Rome burning Christians as lamps – and so Sandford’s decision to take his online presence more private is not surprising.

Weisskopf closed Baen’s Bar for the immediate future, stating:

We have received no complaints about the content of the Bar from its users.
That said, it has come to our attention that allegations about the Bar have been made elsewhere. We take these allegations seriously, and consequently have put the Bar on hiatus while we investigate. But we will not commit censorship of lawful speech.

How reassuring that the users who said, “I can see a smallish force with good skills at explosive handling, bringing a large city to its knees just through a few well-placed booms at some of the points I mentioned,” and, “Trump losing is a good thing. IF he had won things would be better for a while but the Dims would keep up the garbage. Now they will do the stupid power mad grab that will set off what NEEDS to happen. Which is ACW21. Those that claim its already happening as usual cannot understand reality. A real civil war is killing in job lots and all that goes with it,” saw no reason to complain that a privately operated message board allowed them to express such violent rhetoric openly and unopposed. It is also worth noting that, for all of Weisskopf’s claims to be an advocate for unrestricted free speech, certain topics are, in fact, banned at Baen’s Bar, such as Mercedes Lackey and her fraught relationship with the publisher. So we can posit that Baen, as a company, finds speculation as to the specific tactics of a conservative-led civil war within the United States to be less controversial than the idea that some authors did not enjoy good working relations with Jim Baen.

Regardless, this has led to profuse defensive posturing from all the ususal suspects, including, as reported by File 770 at the link above, attempts to downplay the rhetoric from David Weber, claims that Baen Books was “attacked by cancel culture” from Larry Correia and far more unhinged statements from the various sad-rabids who operate at the periphery of the science fiction world.

Now simultaneous to all of this, Toni Weisskopf was scheduled to be the guest of honour at Discon III – the 2021 Wordcon, an in-person science fiction convention being held in Washington DC. In the light of the report on Baen’s Bar, and Weisskopf’s response to it, there has been pressure applied to Discon III to disinvite her as guest of honour on the basis that her presence would make the science fiction convention an unsafe environment for reasons other than the inadvisability of holding a convention in the age of COVID-19.

And here we return to two central questions that have been at the heart of genre fiction’s long-running culture war, just who is this community and what, if anything are its standards?

We have here a situation where the genre fiction “communty” consists of several disparate actual groups of people. These people have mutually exclusive definitions of the ideal present notwithstanding what they may want to see in fiction about the future, the past or other worlds. The attempts of mass conventions like DisCon III to serve these vastly disparate communities means it’s ultimately impossible to serve any.

Now I’m honestly quite shocked that there is going to be an in-person WorldCon this year. Between international travel restrictions and the clear and present danger of mass gatherings, it really feels like a live convention in 2021 is unsafe quite regardless of who the editor guest of honour is. With this said, while I do believe that Sandford turning over this particular rock exposed the peril lying under the surface of science fiction I don’t think de-platforming Weiskopf is going to make the convention any less dangerous for anyone unwilling to tow the American conservative line. Frankly, Toni Weiskopf isn’t the problem, she’s merely a symptom of it. Baen, and its stable of Trumpist malcontents is in fact only a symptom of the systemic problem that is the faulty assumption at the core of the SFF communities that there is some overarching and totalizing community for all to contribute to.

It was never true.

All that has changed is that those people who once hadn’t enough power to speak out about John Campbell’s racism, Orson Scott Card’s homophobia or Harlan Ellison’s busy hands have achieved enough power through adoption of new technology, changes in social understanding and various civil rights movements to fight back against the people who once kept them silent.

And the ideological descendants of these once-powerful men are the constituent backbone of the reactionary movement within SFF communities. And that brings us to the unfortunate materiality of these “culture wars” because we are in a position where we will have to fight, rhetorically, for command over what any genre community actually is.

We do have to do the work of excluding people and that probably includes Weisskopf. Because she is a part of the overall reactionary movement in genre and that movement must be entirely excised if there is to be anything like an actual community here. It is insufficient to cow the reactionary movement, tell them they have lost and allow them to sit and stew, because as we can see from their various words, they fantasize about doing real violence to us.

The damage is done for Worldcon 2021. If Weisskopf is barred, the convention will be unsafe every time a reactionary raises her de-platforming as a grievance. If she is not, the convention will be unsafe because of the risk potentially violent reactionaries will see her presence as a victory. And above all this looms COVID-19 and the questionable decision to hold an in-person convention in the United States in 2021 at all and for any pretense. However the idea that has been percolating for a while, that concoms must show some discernment in selecting who is considered within the community, has become much more pressing. We have moved beyond it being enough to point at this or that missing stair and ask why he was allowed to buy a membership. We must start considering the ideological messaging of our shared spaces. There is no neutral space in which a fascist and a socialist can both feel safe. Sides were drawn long ago and the people bound up in the liberal delusion that the rift is curable need to let go of the fantasy that they can exist without ideology.

We forget that we are all within our ideologies at our peril. Baen’s Bar is a community of between 1,000 and 8,000 people who share a lot of ideological markers. They know and are committed to their ideology and I find it revolting. The Baen’s Bar members are not part of any community I consider myself a part of, even if they like books with space ships too.


Update: February 19, 2021: DisCon III has announced that they have removed Weisskopf as the editor guest of honour:

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.

We know this decision was not as quick as some of you would have wanted, and we understand your frustration. Our committee’s leadership was always in full agreement that there was a fundamental difference between the values Worldcon strives to uphold and the values allowed to be espoused on the forums-in-question.

I will say this is a good statement, and specifically the admission that there is a, “fundamental difference between the values Worldcon strives to uphold and the values allowed to be espoused on the forums-in-question,” strongly echoes my point previously – that there is, in fact, a fundamental ideological disconnect between the Baen’s Bar community and other SFF communities.

I still question the advisability of holding a Worldcon live this year and hope they make the decision to transition to an online format. In addition, I do stand by my statements that censuring Weisskopf is unlikely to create a tangibly safer environment for convention-goers.

With that said, I suspect that, with regard to this specific incident, the concom for DisCon III did the best they could in a bad situation,


1: ACW2 stands for “American Civil War 2”

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