I don’t think I’m alone in being only vaguely aware of who Aaron Swartz was, and for that I am more than a little ashamed.
Nor am I the only one who woke up to the news of his suicide Saturday morning and spent the rest of the weekend reading up on his many causes and splendid accomplishments. What a life!
His passing is doubly tragic, first for its untimely arrival, and second for the shameful fact that our government was so keen to persecute and incarcerate a bona fide genius whose crime, if it could be said to be a crime at all, was something along the order of seriousness of a prank.
But, as Matthew Stoller opines below, we are living in a world where qualities that should be valued are instead stigmatized, even persecuted.
Aaron suffered from depression, but that is not why he died. Aaron is dead because the institutions that govern our society have decided that it is more important to target geniuses like Aaron than nurture them, because the values he sought – openness, justice, curiosity – are values these institutions now oppose. In previous generations, people like Aaron would have been treasured and recognized as the remarkable gifts they are. We do not live in a world like that today. And Aaron would be the first to point out, if he could observe the discussion happening now, that the pressure he felt from the an oppressive government is felt by millions of people, every year. I’m glad his family have not let the justice system off the hook, and have not allowed this suicide to be medicalized, or the fault of one prosecutor. What happened to Aaron is not isolated to Aaron, but is the flip side of the corruption he hated.
As we think about what happened to Aaron, we need to recognize that it was not just prosecutorial overreach that killed him. That’s too easy, because that implies it’s one bad apple. We know that’s not true. What killed him was corruption. Corruption isn’t just people profiting from betraying the public interest. It’s also people being punished for upholding the public interest. In our institutions of power, when you do the right thing and challenge abusive power, you end up destroying a job prospect, an economic opportunity, a political or social connection, or an opportunity for media. Or if you are truly dangerous and brilliantly subversive, as Aaron was, you are bankrupted and destroyed. There’s a reason whistleblowers get fired. There’s a reason Bradley Manning is in jail. There’s a reason the only CIA official who has gone to jail for torture is the person – John Kiriako – who told the world it was going on. There’s a reason those who destroyed the financial system “dine at the White House”, as Lawrence Lessig put it. There’s a reason former Senator Russ Feingold is a college professor whereas former Senator Chris Dodd is now a multi-millionaire. There’s a reason DOJ officials do not go after bankers who illegally foreclose, and then get jobs as partners in white collar criminal defense. There’s a reason no one has been held accountable for decisions leading to the financial crisis, or the war in Iraq. This reason is the modern ethic in American society that defines success as climbing up the ladder, consequences be damned. Corrupt self-interest, when it goes systemwide, demands that it protect rentiers from people like Aaron, that it intimidate, co-opt, humiliate, fire, destroy, and/or bankrupt those who stand for justice.
This morning Marcy Wheeler also noticed the strange and disturbing fact that the Secret Service shoved aside MIT and Cambridge police investigating into Swartz’s downloading of scholarly articles. She could not completely account for why, nor could anyone commenting on her post, but it offers further confirmation, if any were needed, that hounding a young idealistic activist was a top priority with someone high up in the Federal hierarchy. I’ll be interested to see what comes of this loose thread…..
Over at boingboing there is a substantial and growing archive of remembrances of Swartz.