On the Need to Make Great Things Great Again

Among my plans for the day, today, was to put together a quick writeup congratulating the staff of Penguicon for throwing an undeniably successful convention—the 15th in a series! Instead, I’d like to take a moment to respond to a long-time attendee’s paen to modern divisive politics; a blog post with the snappy title “Make Penguicon Great Again.” In his post, Jay “Tron Guy” Maynard makes the assertion that Penguicon has fallen to the “leftists” and resulting event is no longer one that is comfortable for people like him. 

Let’s ignore the most obvious ironies for a moment; by which I mean that we can leave aside the way his “neutral” rhetoric fairly well drips with incendiary prose most commonly found on forums for pickup artists and folks that identify as alt-right. Phrases like “virtue signaling”, “social justice warriors”, and “politically correct orthodoxy” are employed by the author to convey his disdain for the “hard left”, “feminists”, and “consent culture” (which I suspect says an awfully lot more about the author than about the folks he targets or their terrible politics). We should also leave aside the semantic argument that the plea for a place safe from leftism is not a request for a safe space. Definitely we should not confuse the linked post with an attempt to bully an event into doing as he wishes like he claims this liberals do. Those ironies are for later.

Instead, I would like to focus on Jay’s proposed solution. Tron Guy—an attendee since the very first event—would “return the con explicitly to being nonpolitical.” Maynard yearns for the days when we focused on apolitical topics like Geeks with Guns – Societal & Political (year 1), Hidden Totalitarian Assumptions in ‘I, Robot’ (year 3), Don’t Be Evil: The Google Books Settlement (year 9), Technology as Legislation (year 5), and of course the keynote address from the very first Penguicon by Eric S. Raymond (on whose blog this Make Penguicon Great Again concept was born) which discussed “open source, the hacker culture, and the second amendment.” As Archie Bunker sang, those were the days!

In case my point was too subtle, Penguicon has never been any more apolitical than science fiction itself, despite claims to the contrary.

This isn’t exclusively Jay’s fault, though. There is an entire knee-jerk movement that conflates the concepts of “politics with which I agree” and “lack of politics” in a profoundly frustrating way. As they say, a fish doesn’t know that it’s wet, and Jay and friends are soaking in their politics to such a degree that they have never taken a moment to see it all around them. Only once they found themselves in slightly less brackish water did they think to question the atmosphere in which they existed.

Clearly, they have determined that they can’t survive free from the salty extremes with which they have been comfortable for so long. Their reaction to this discomfort is to lash out and demand that their current habitat be converted back to one with which they are more familiar. When you think about it in these terms, it’s a bit easier to be empathetic—I don’t sympathize, but I get the sentiment.

I came to my first Penguicon in 2006 during its 4th year. I came for the tech conference side of the house and actively disdained the “comicon, nerd shit.” Over the ensuing 11 years, I have attributed a tremendous amount of my personal growth to my having been repeatedly and relentlessly exposed to things outside of my comfort zone through the convention. My hardline libertarian stance has softened to that of a moderate conservative through immersion in concepts that were foreign to me until such time as it was easier to understand them than repel them.

In that understanding, I’ve earned empathy.

The folks that share Jay’s political views are not alone in manufacturing this division. The second significant mistake that Maynard makes in his diatribe is in believing that this is a problem of left vs right or conservative vs liberal. The squabbling has almost nothing to do with the political spectrum—it has everything to do with conviction. The real conflict can be tied directly to a loud minority of folks on both “sides” of these sorts of debates that are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are Correct™ and speak Truth® and that the other “side” must therefore be Wrong, irrevocably and completely. If we are to reach a reasonable place with any of this, everyone needs to recognize that they are observing situations through their own lense and respond accordingly…perhaps even empathetically. Jay’s post reflects a lack of that awareness in impressively oblivious manner.

What about the convention itself, though?

As someone who was a member of the staff that throws the event for much of the last decade, and as a member of the board of directors for the last several years, I can say with certainty that I’m proud of the growth that the convention has undergone since its inception. It more and more reflects the soul of all of its attendees and each year it strives to better represent the open source ethos in all it does.

This isn’t to say that it is perfect—its imperfection is a testament to its growth. The folks that put on the show learn more and more each year. Jay points out that there were some problematic signs hung around the con in years past, but fails to note that those signs were not present this year…the convention heard from the numerous people that found various attributes of the signage to be an issue and acted accordingly. Every year is different, every year has high and low points, and every year the amorphous being that is Penguicon becomes a little better evolved.

It’s not unlike an open source project in that way.

I guess I’ll end with where I hoped to begin—with congratulations. Congratulations to the convention committee, the staff, and most especially to this year’s chairperson, Lithie. You created a thing of which you should be proud…certainly a thing of which I am proud. This was an admirable 15th birthday for Penguicon, and I think that Jay’s advertisement for the convention happens to be a great cap to a great year.

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