Jun 19 17 2019

Wiki Way

There’s a fracas over at Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation Office banned Fram, an experienced and highly-respected administrator; this was unprecedented. After review, Floquenbeam — another prominent administrator, lifted the ban as an act of civil disobedience. Floquenbeam was banned. More of this ensued, and the carnage continues.

Ward Cunningham’s Wiki Way lies at the heart of this conflict, though I doubt many people see that. The core question in this mess is a conflict of two views.

  • Rank in modern Wikipedia is extraordinarily difficult to attain. It requires years of diligent editing, the public demonstration of conspicuous tact, and thousands of hours of volunteer time. The most senior and highly-respected editors in this radically egalitarian project view themselves as the equal of anyone else involved.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation views itself as a charity that provides opportunities for volunteers to have fun and do good. But they’re volunteers; the Foundation is inclined to think that everyone on the payroll outranks any volunteer.

To high-ranking volunteers, the radical egalitarianism of The Wiki Way is the project’s core idea. To the Office, it’s a footnote to prehistory and they’ve got a business to run.

For the last 18 months, I’ve been deeply embroiled in a long, local political struggle. That struggle ended unexpectedly, Saturday morning, in a satisfactory compromise.

I’ve not written much about this here, because this fight was very local and most of my readers are not. It’s not obvious that scholars in Amsterdam or authors in Adelaide would be interested in a small political committee in a small American city. On the other hand, I think some aspects of this mess might have some general interest.

  • We’re at the start of a political campaign that will, more than any election since 1860, determine the fate of the nation and perhaps the planet.
  • All politics are local. Even if you live in Bergen, the details Trump’s defeat matter.
  • The story touches on social media and the Web, even though this is a party committee drawn from a small suburban city.
  • It’s a tale of community organizing in disarray, of local politics carried out through social media campaigns and coffee chats.

The problem: The Malden Democratic City Committee is elected every four years by voters in the Democratic primary. It had, for some years, been tiny and obscure if not secretive. More recently, it’s been the vehicle for holding two parties a year, and having nine Saturday morning informational meetings. It doesn't endorse candidates or take positions on issues or raise money for immigration lawyers or #BlackLivesMatter, for @abortionFunds or ACLU.

Efforts to change this foundered because the Committee almost never had a quorum, and because the Committee had misplaced its minutes and its bylaws. So new bylaws were drafted.

I felt the proposed bylaws set the quorum too high. Robert’s Rules says, sensibly, that the quorum should be the highest number of people who can be relied upon to attend every meeting, unless the weather is very bad. The proposal’s quorum might be reached once every year or two.

Why did it matter?

In the US, only two political parties can matter. One of those parties has gone nuts. We’re the other one.

The US stands today on the threshold of fascism. That seems incredible. It must have seemed pretty incredible in Kishinev back in 1903, or Berlin in 1933, or Vichy in 1942.

Today, we deplore those who did nothing. Yet we — the representative body for the Democratic Party of a city of 60,000, a city that should be a Democratic powerhouse, a city where swastikas keep popping up — we hold two parties a year.

So many reasons why

Why was this so important? Why would anyone care so much about a quorum proviso in a set of small-town bylaws?

At first, I wasn't sure why it mattered. On reflection, I found six million reasons. The shadow of Manzanar and Minidoka as well, of Gila River and Bosque Redondo. The graves of Camp Logan and Tulsa, the specters of Harlan County and Haymarket.

A country goes Fascist two ways: gradually and then suddenly.


Perhaps it can’t happen here, and all this will blow over. We’ll tear down our concentration camps for toddlers, write reparations checks to the families we tore apart, make Pride a national holiday, restore science, replenish the courts, rejoin the Paris Accords.

Still, it is better to be able to act and find that you don’t need to, than to need to act and discover that you cannot do enough in the time you have.

The solution

Leadership wanted a quorum of 20%, which could be as high as 56. I proposed a quorum of 12. After a long and bitter fight, we wound up at 20 — a number that should be workable.

On the final morning, I fully expected to lose.

The consequences

I worked hard on this for a very long time. I wrote many memos, lots of emails, a newspaper op-ed, handouts and flyers. I ran a long, long Facebook campaign. I wrote three full-dress speeches. I got a haircut.

I lost friends. One neighbor who used to come to dinner all the time now calls me “jerk” and “asshole” on Facebook. A sign that I’m not cut out for politics is that this bothers me.

Aside: Facebook is bad for Democrats

Many local Democratic Committees rely heavily on Facebook. That’s a mistake.

  • Facebook is untrustworthy, and its sympathies lie with our opponents.
  • Facebook, like Twitter, profits by creating bar fights in comment threads, Fights boost their profits while burning out our volunteers and dismaying our supporters. It's win-win for Facebook and Twitter and a disaster for us.
  • We depend on Facebook because Democratic Party institutions rely so heavily on elderly activists and Facebook works well for old folks. This is bad tech shoring up bad tactics.
  • I’ve been saying for more than a decade: comments kill blogs. Comments kill Facebook pages, too.
  • My rivals held the keys to the Facebook group and used them with some skill, but at the end of the day you can’t moderate a Facebook page for an official party committee in the face of a competent opponent. You can make it hard: for a good chunk of time, I had to adopt the dissident Chinese tactic of advocating for an issue by talking about a different issue. It’s hard to block an elected member for outspokenly supporting the national party position on immigration.

This was unnecessary

Nobody seems to have done what seems to me to be the very first thing our opponents ought to have done: find out why the hell this mattered so much. In retrospect, I suspect they still don’t know, or understand why it would have been useful have found out. I don’t think the calculus is hard. I tried to tell everyone who would listen, and many who would not.


Once upon a time, six million tried to get along with neighbors who disliked them.

I’ve been very angry at some of these many meetings. This is bad politics: people don’t like anger. At the very beginning, the sage of the Malden Democrats took me aside. “It’s not that they don’t like your ideas,” she told me. “The problem is, they don’t like you.” She was not wrong.

Amity is a suspect quality, and we used to understand the limitations of being well liked.

All Politics Is Local