The social media drama about this year’s Hugos continues unabated. Kevin and I are still getting a fair amount of pushback to our attempts explain what can and can’t be done. A lot of this falls into two camps. Firstly there are the people who assume that we must be lying and are probably part of the conspiracy. And then there are people who quote bits of the WSFS Constitution at us as if this was some massive gotcha because of course we can’t possibly understand it ourselves. Neither of these groups are worth engaging with.
However, there are people who are prepared to listen. And one (thank you, Joseph), led me to what I think is a better explanation of how WSFS and Worldcon work.
Traditionally, people have compared Worldcon to the Olympics. Cities bid for the right to hold it. When one wins a bid, the local organising committee is largely responsible for running the event. But this analogy has two flaws. Firstly the International Olympic Committee actually exists. And secondly, they do have some limited power over how each year’s Olympics are run. In contrast, the “Hugo Board” does not exist, and no one has any power over a seated Worldcon.
A better analogy, I think, is that of a parliamentary election. We, the people (i.e. WSFS members), vote for a party to govern us. Once that party is elected, it may or may not do what is promised to do during the election. And it may do things that we definitely didn’t want it to. But, short of taking to the streets and protesting, there is little that we, as electors can do.
Of course a functioning democracy should have checks and balances on the power of the government. There might be a separately organised upper chamber, or a head of state, or a supreme court, or any combination of these. There may also be a written constitution. The only one of these that WSFS has is the constitution. But if the government acts against the constitution, what can be done? Typically you go to another branch of government to rein them in. However, WSFS does not have any other branch of government. In practical terms, the only thing preventing a Worldcon committee from acting against the WSFS Constitution is the shame that will befall them if they do so.
As we are seeing in real democracies, shame is no longer an effective check on elective dictatorship. The UK is a good example. The King is effectively powerless. The House of Lords is being subverted by the Tories by the simple expedient of given lots of their corrupt buddies peerages. (This is helped by their rapid turnover of Prime Ministers, as each one gets to have a Resignation Honours List.) As for the Supreme Court, when they tried to rein in Boris Johnson, he and his allies in the media branded them “enemies of the people”. The current big issue in Parliament is the government ramming through laws that say that the UK has the power to ignore international law, specifically over the policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda. Rishi Sunak insists that he is doing this to protect “the will of the people”, despite opinon polls consistently showing that the people actually oppose this policy.
The Tories, at least, do have to worry about the next election. But Worldcon is an exhausting thing to run, and usually no one fan group will bid more than once every 10 years. By that time there will probably have been substantial turnover in the people involved, and fannish memories are short.
That, I’m afraid, is where we are with WSFS. Once seated, a Worldcon can pretty much do whatever it wants. There is no effective sanction on its behaviour. It is possible, and that is a separate discussion, that Chengdu had very good reasons to do at least some of what they did. But now that they have shown an apparent willingness to flout the Hugo rules, I expect future Worldcons to feel empowered to do so with no reason other than that they want to. I am, I hope obviously, very unhappy about this.