Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Aaron Swartz (1986 - 2012)

I haven't posted on the untimely death of Aaron Swartz prior to now, because I didn't know him and didn't have anything particular to add, and because I can't imagine that anyone who reads this blog needs me to tell them about (or link them to) Aaron Swartz, whom the entire internet, it seems, has been morning for nearly a week.  But in trying to type up a 'recent links' post, I found it swamped by Swartz-related links, so I decided to ignore the fact that this is all probably old news to all of you, and throw a few links together.  It seemed wrong to mix this topic with random political stories, to say nothing of amusing tales about hats.  Though I learned of him by reading his obituaries, I -- like many others -- have come to feel great grief for Swartz's heartbreakingly-young death, and great anger at those who drove him to it.  So whether it's needed or not, yes, I'm giving him his own post.

Besides, the man deserves it.


• First, in case I'm wrong, and someone reading this hasn't yet heard about Aaron Swartz, the two must-read obituaries, that will give you a well-rounded sense of the man, are this one by Cory Doctorow and this one by Rick Perlstein*.

• Also recommended: Henry Farrell, Larry Lessig.  (Lessig was also the featured guest on Democracy Now when they spent the hour on Aaron Swartz's life yesterday; they also replayed his speech about SOPA in its entirety -- worth listening to if you haven't heard it.)

• Swartz was a genuinely incredible guy, as a glance at those obituaries will tell you.  I would have said that, prior to his heartbreaking death, I'd never heard of him, and this is in some sense strictly accurate.  But I had read his work: I distinctly remember reading, and being extremely impressed by, his review of Chris Hayes's (marvelous, as the review says) book Twilight of the Elites.  (At the time I thought Swartz had gotten one bit of his summary of Hayes's book wrong; rereading it now, I think so still; but I shan't say what, because I am by no means confident that I'm right and Swartz is wrong -- I'd want to go reread the book to confirm my judgment!  Just, as with any article ever, caveat lector, and always check the original yourself.)  I've also started browsing Swartz's other writings -- such as this essay on How To Be More Productive, which I liked -- and have been benefiting from them.  I expect to read more in days to come.

• On the more specifically political aspects of Swartz's death, there are a lot of them, starting with petitions to fire the U.S. Attorneys Carmen Ortiz & Stephen Heymann, who seem to have the most direct culpably for Swartz's unjust persecution (sic).  And I'm in favor of it -- any scrap of accountability for our hideous elites (see above re: Hayes) is welcome, and it may well serve as a (minor and insufficient) deterrent to others with similar power to abuse.  That said, I think that emptywheel is right about this:
I didn’t know Aaron personally, but he doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would seek individualized solutions to systemic problems.... If we want to fix the injustice that was done to Aaron Swartz, we need to fix the aspects of the system that rewarded such behavior. We need to fix the law that empowered the prosecutors gunning for him. We need to put some breaks on DOJ’s power. And we should start by getting rid of the guy who has fostered this culture of abuse for the last four years.
More on the political side of Swartz's death: Corey Robin on why Swartz should not be posthumously pardoned and Matt Stoller on Swartz's broader politics, and on the role of corruption in Swartz's death.  (Still more from Glenn Greenwald.)  Oh, and Swartz's family and partner see the prosecutors as central to, and culpable in, his death; they see him as someone who died in a political cause.  The politics here is not imposed by outsiders to Swartz's life.  (Update: Greenwald has a second piece -- talking about the connection between punishing prosecutorial overreach in this case and more generally, which is here.)

• If you're misguidedly inclined to a 'where there's smoke there's fire' take on the fact that Swartz was hounded to death by a prosecutor, you should read "The Truth About Aaron Swartz's 'Crime'", by an expert witness who was going to testify for the defense.  And also Tim Wu in the New Yorker: "Basically, under American law, anyone interesting is a felon. The prosecutors, not the law, decide who deserves punishment."

• Finally, I will say that I thought the best line I saw about Swartz's death -- at least the one that moved me most, and had the most relevance to those of us who weren't his friends when he lived -- was this from Quinn Norton, Swartz's ex-lover -- who also wrote an incredibly moving eulogy for Swartz here -- who wrote on twitter:
May we make it so.

Swartz accomplished a stunning amount in his life; save for the fact that all of his accomplishments are too tied into recent developments, his resume could be mistaken for that of a man who died at 76, not 26.  I do not take this fact

Swartz was, by all reports, an amazing (if also sometimes personally difficult, in the way some amazing guys are) guy.  I wish I'd known him; I wish mostly, more strongly than I would normally feel for someone who died (even young), that I still had the chance to know him.

Rest in peace.

* On a tangential point: holy shit, Rick Perlstein is blogging again!  Fabulous news.  Adjust your bookmarks now.

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