A Parable of Worldcon

Not sure how Worldcon runs things? This parable ought to help.

by Kevin Standlee

Worldcon Puppygate continues to roil fandom and the blogosphere.  One of the things that has become abundantly clear since the Hugo Award short list was announced in April is that there are many fans out there in mundaneland who have what one can best be described as a ‘distorted’ picture of Worldcon.  (And of fandom.  And of the Hugo Awards.  And of what makes for a good story, let alone a Hugo worthy one.)

Kevin Standlee, former Worldcon Chair and the guy who has been running the WSFS Business Meeting for years (talk about herding cats!) has been patiently running around the web answering questions, assisting would-be rule changers and addressing the misconceptions, always in a respectful manner and often humorously.

Some people seem to think that Worldcon is a business (or a cabal of elite literary types) or one of many other things that it is not.  In response to one fan’s suggestion that Worldcon could easily solve the Puppygate issue by taking draconian action, Kevin decided to write a parable that nicely explains how things work at WSFS and Worldcon.  Amazing Stories thinks so highly of this explanation that we asked Kevin’s permission to reprint it here.  We were originally going to re-write it as a continuation of Jophan’s story from The Enchanted Duplicator, but then decided that it was best left as it was originally written.  (Ed.)

Here’s the fundamental difference between us as I see it. You think Worldcon is a Big Business Entity that should be run like a Fortune 500 Company. Businesses aren’t democracies. They’re dictatorships. You like Dictators. You distrust democracy. That’s okay. Lots of people — heck, lots of Americans — hate democracy. They want Big Daddy to go beat up the Bad People for them.

Worldcon isn’t a Fortune 500 Company run by a Board of Directors and stockholders that elect a Dictator who issues marching orders to the minions. It’s a small town of about 10,000 people who for more than 60 years have been so distrustful of Strong Central Leadership that they refuse to even elect a Weak Mayor, but instead hire a Weak City Manager on a one-year term contract, tie her hands with rules, then hire a new one every year because you can’t trust those politicians, you know. They run the town by the Town Meeting form of government because they implicitly distrust strong leaders. The only people they trust, and then only grudgingly, are people who have spent a long time working to build up community trust, and they are (barely) willing to give those people a little bit of the bare amount of authority required to keep the lights turned on.

Now this small town has a lot of foolish small-town politics, and in fact, the Town Meeting is usually so boring that it’s rare that more than 150 of the citizens turn up for what many disdainfully call a “debating society” arguing over esoteric issues that most of the residents don’t care about (like what color to paint the flagpole and whether to plant petunias or poppies in the town park) and most of what the people in the next town over can’t even understand — it sounds like gibberish to them. But one day a bunch of people who had heard that this town was a pretty nice place decided that it might be fun to go vandalize the place and strip its assets in the process (and besides, the last time they drove through on a cross-country trip, one of their leaders got snubbed by the leading citizens and he’s never gotten over it). They discovered that through a quirk in the Town Charter, they didn’t even have to live in the town; they just had to pay some taxes there and that gave them a voice in the town’s primary elections. (This rule was originally made so that people from the Town who had to move elsewhere for some reason but still wanted to be a part of the community could have some voice in its affairs.) They forced through their slate of candidates who would turn over everything the town owned to their cronies and announced that they would “burn the town to the ground” if the residents dared resist their power. They weren’t more than about 20% of the population of the town, and virtually none of them lived there now or ever had lived there in the past, but they were loud and brash and they threw their weight around, causing a great commotion.

Oddly enough, the residents of this small town, who had heretofore sometimes crossed the street to avoid talking to some of their neighbors, discovered that they had more in common with each other than they thought, and they proceeded to suddenly all start showing up for the Town Meeting. Now the Moderator responsible for the current Meeting was an experienced man who had started attending the Meeting when he was 17, had grown up in the town, had spent a term as the City Manager, and was now just about to turn 50. He gulped and saw that the Meeting was growing to a size that meant instead of meeting in the local community hall as usual for a talk-fest followed by coffee and tea afterwards, they were going to have to move it to the local high school’s football field, and in August at that, but he soldiered on, because he cared about the people and about the town and what he didn’t do was listen to the Big City Business Consultant who said, “Just throw away those ballots from those people who registered to vote here in accordance with the Town Charter. Who cares what the Charter says if it makes you uncomfortable.”

So the Moderator did the best that he could to help the residents of This Town craft amendments to the Charter that addressed the problems the citizens perceived were damaging the Town. But because the Charter itself was written by people who were skeptical of change, all of the proposed changes were going to need to wait until the next term, when a new Moderator and a new City Manager were in office, and in the meantime the people of This Town were going to have to muddle along with the effects of the asset-strippers and keep turning out for elections to outvote them.

Herewith endeth the parable.

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