What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
—Langston Hughes, “Harlem“
Richard Stallman, the 66-year-old programmer and animating spirit behind the free-software movement, was banished this week. He was told to leave the MIT offices he worked from, and sometimes slept in, for decades. He was removed as president of the Free Software Foundation, an organization he founded in 1985.
The moves were in response to Stallman’s objectionable comments on the Jeffrey Epstein case posted to an MIT email list, which confirmed a new reality: Minimizing the harms from sexual assault, sex slavery, and sex with children is simply beyond the pale. But more than this one man’s story, Stallman’s banishment can be seen as a first reckoning for so many dreams deferred, as Langston Hughes delicately describes lives thwarted before full bloom.
Stallman is typically called eccentric or strange or, more frequently—and by the MacArthur Foundation, no less!—a genius. But the occasional WIRED contributor was, most significantly, accused of being a formidable impediment to the careers of women interested in the free-software movement and computer science more generally.
The testimony was all there on Twitter to read. Christine Corbett Moran, a technical group supervisor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, wrote of meeting Stallman in her first year at MIT at a hacker conference—he’s a legend, he’s a hero. She’s 19. She is introduced as an MIT student; she’s wearing an MIT shirt. He asks her out on a date. She says no. He moves on. (Stallman did not respond to requests for comment.)
Also on Twitter, Star Simpson recalls taking a walk on the MIT campus with an upperclassman, who points out all the foliage in one woman professor’s office and tells her that women in computer science keep plants because, as the rumor went, Stallman hates them. “I am still struck by the idea that all of the professors in the lab would keep special charms and amulets to ward off a specific person,” she writes. “If nothing else, this is an incredible illustration of the lack of functional recourse that professional women there previously had.” A message is sent: No one in power is going to protect you. If you want to survive, you’re on your own. Better get creative.
So much of life is about girding oneself against disappointment and adversity, but must those lessons begin freshman year at MIT?
Most of the testimony against Stallman is from women who opted out of the free-software movement but stayed in tech, even though the sensible decision upon meeting Stallman and his enablers may well have been to leave the field entirely. When news leaked out Monday night of Stallman’s punishments, there was an explosion of joy, rage, disbelief and “what now?” frenzy on Twitter. Many of his critics expressed precisely the same message: Now begins the hard work of making the free-software movement welcoming and inclusive.
Hardly a household name, Stallman is the stuff of myth among male techies—a John Henry who single-handedly tried to beat Big Tech at its own game, with a touch of Robin Hood thrown in. He was seen as a freedom fighter on behalf of the little people being surveilled, overcharged, and disempowered.
Back in the 1980s, Stallman was a researcher at MIT angered at the thought of the public’s being at the mercy of big companies and their hegemonic proprietary software. He proposed leading a team to code an operating system that could be freely shared and modified. Supported by his 1990 MacArthur grant, Stallman travelled the world giving talks about this dream, and along the way he met a young undergraduate in Finland in 1991—Linus Torvalds—who took up the cause and created Linux, which keeps the tech giants’ computers operating without onerous licensing fees.