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A Tribute to Aaron Swartz
I met Aaron by phone one warm spring afternoon in 2011. I knew nothing about him then - just tracked him down from his bio at Demand Progress and bugged him by email until he agreed to get on a call with me to discuss how best to support WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning.
I hoped to talk about how we might effectively stand up to the US government's myriad misguided policies. I think Aaron bemusedly realized on that call that I had no idea who he was; his youth and hacker-culture brilliance, the fact that though he was likely worshipped in certain tech circles, the mainstream probably would have considered him a misfit and rogue. I look back now on that hour-long call where two strangers had a candid, heart to heart conversation and shared a deep rapport over where this nation and government are going. Aaron was more effusive during that call than that I ever knew him to be. Later, on other calls, after I’d experienced his perpetual, taciturn silence and the maddening inability to ever pin him down, it dawned on me that my ignorance of his history and reputation that day may have allowed him to assume a slightly different identity than that by which he’d come to be known. It seems to me now that he relished the role of mature advisor, adept professional, successful, regular guy who was safely and squarely "in the fold".
Aaron was not in the fold, and he certainly wasn't regular. His genius for technology surpassed that of most people, and was coupled with an implacable drive to change things. As I have learned today, he was also burdened with a deep frustration with just how far short the world continually fell from what he desired and envisioned.
We don't know the full circumstances of Aaron's death, but we do know that it is possible he still faced being sent to prison following his indictment by a federal grand jury in 2011 for allegedly mass downloading documents from the JSTOR online journal archive. We know that the DOJ was engaged in an aggressive prosecution attempt, and it seems clear they were determined to put him away. This past September, despite JSTOR having dropped their case against him, the DOJ increased the number of charges against him from four to thirteen. Aaron, with his own clear, moral compass, pled not guilty. Although I am in no real position to conjecture about Aaron’s life or death, I do wish to frankly express what has arisen in my heart as a result of his loss.
The world has become too narrow, and we are failing those who cannot quash themselves into narrow molds. We are especially failing those who get how many wrong tracks we are on – those who cannot turn their backs on this fact, and who decide to use their unique gifts to try to redress both perceived and very real institutional abuses. In a world of shrinking parameters of acceptability, we are expected to submit ourselves to "acceptable" avenues – avenues that are increasingly economized and homogenized. This has the effect of deadening something essential to our souls and to our survival. We are expected to hide our inability to fit in somehow, to smooth out our rough edges, our raw sorrows, our deep need for something different, and to just behave, for society’s sake. And in order to simply survive, much less be accepted, we learn to ignore the clarion call of those untrammeled, raw places inside of us, just as we ignore the wild cry of a diminishing world.
And we are damn well expected to play by the rules - as the FBI and DOJ have made it abundantly clear to hacktivists like Aaron and now Jeremy Hammond. They have been treated as vicious, unsavory criminals who must be stopped at all costs, while all the while authorities allow the real, “socially acceptable”, well-heeled criminals to get off, scot free. And we are expected to accept this world of steadily growing inverse justice.
Although I did not know Aaron really well, I do think it's safe to say - he was never going to conform, and he was never going to play by the rules.
And I think about all the brilliant, sensitive souls out there, the people who are not made with the kind of protective armor that dulls the pain or knowledge of what humanity is doing and becoming. I can imagine and empathize with how trapped they must feel in this world of tightening parameters, an economized reality of smaller and smaller inroads, one of seriously diminishing power over our lives. To couple this with having few places to successfully exercise their gifts, some people decide it’s worth the risk to take great chances. To fight back, in any way they can. The most intransigent, scared and hypocritical among us perceive these acts as instantly and deeply offensive.
These warriors include Bradley Manning, the greatest whistleblower of our time, and Julian Assange and others at WikiLeaks, who dared to thumb their noses at the most powerful government on earth and publish that trove of illuminating, world-changing, classified documents. They are the Anonymous hacktivists who have dedicated themselves to trying to expose corruption, wrongdoing, and the machinations of cyber security firms with high-level government contracts. These happen to be firms that are engaged in unethical, even criminal activities that would otherwise remain from the public's eye and the grasp of justice.
And then there was Aaron Swartz—a Robin Hood of digital activism—undermining the locksmiths at MIT so he could download and release millions of JSTOR documents - giving information freely to the world. People like Aaron—mostly young, often brilliant—are exposing themselves in some instances to torture, to raids by the FBI, to threats, intimidation, and the very real possibility of a very long time in prison. They’re not hardened criminals – they are people who dare to try to uphold justice, perhaps in unorthodox means, when her bearers have let her banner fall.
These are people who bear the unfortunate distinction of offending the general public’s sensibility, which is too often shaped by the mainstream media’s lazy and perhaps defensive characterization of those who dare to break the rules. We need to begin to have real conversations about what breaking the rules means, how the cyber world has changed things, and how to restore justice where justice is applied in unequal measures.
And importantly, we need to figure out how to re-widen different kinds of pathways people can tread to survive (and thrive!) beyond the narrow, acceptable, prescribed versions of careers that are embedded in ever more toxic cultures and systems - a deadening world against which, for too many of us, every part of our senses rebels.
Perhaps there is nothing we could have done for Aaron, whom I have learned today had a history of deep depression. I don't know. But I do know this; while it is hubris to conjecture on a young man I did not know that well, I do believe that our brightest, most sensitive souls tend toward depression not just for personal reasons but for everything I have touched on above. Everything in them dreams of a different world, and for some, that world never comes fast enough.
When we lose people like Aaron, the world, for a moment, shrinks. Then it resurges with a juggernaut force, with the cruelty and mystery of cosmic and collective human indifference. We lose a soul, but the world still marches relentlessly on. For those of us working at the margins, dedicating our lives to a paradigm shift for humanity, trying to increase compassion and reason and creativity and decency and the rule of law, the loss of someone like Aaron Swartz is particularly painful, whether we knew him or not. Our ranks have diminished. A bright star, who promised ingenious ways of tipping the balance of knowledge and justice being hoarded by some, is suddenly gone.
We cannot roll time back, as I know so many of us wish we could, to the day before yesterday, to a moment of being able to intervene. But there are some things we can do, not today but going forward in the raw aftermath of this kind of loss. Step by step we can try to overcome our sense of helplessness in our world SOPA/PIPA style – with a collaborative kind of spirit where together we tackle broken pillars in our systems. Just as importantly, if we can learn how to be more present with one another, and on a day to day level somehow less susceptible to the relentless pressures that stress us and make us feel smaller than we actually are, we’ll have more energy to endure, more excitement and faith for enduring the long haul.
And somehow we must sort out how to restore space for our own, untrammeled wildness, for the remaining wildness in the world around us, the parts of us that have no choice but to break the rules. Because we need wildness and sovereignty and untamed, sacred spaces, if we are to not just combat relentless injustices, but make a world that makes sense to those who will never fit in narrow margins.
We cannot turn back the clock. What we can and must do though, is work harder to come up with concrete ways to better protect those who dare to break all the rules, in trying to help us all.
In honor of Aaron, I’m committed to doing so, and hope to join others who wish to do so as well.
I would like to express condolences to Aaron's family for their deep loss. On behalf of my colleagues at RevolutionTruth, we grieve with our friends at Demand Progress and across the world of internet activism today.