Aaron Swartz, z”l

The news of Aaron Swartz’s death came to me early this morning, appropriately enough, in an email list devoted to an esoteric topic.

I didn’t know Aaron personally, though there is but one degree of separation, and that not a distant one. One feels the wings of Samael, that ancient and distinguished and terrible servant of God, rustling the air about one’s head.

I had been vaguely aware of Aaron’s doings over the years, and greatly approved, of course. Anybody opposed to intellectual-property Fascism is a friend of mine.

I’ve made my living for the last forty years, almost, doing Stupid Computer Tricks. These eager cocky young guys, each quite certain that he’s the smartest guy in the room — gotta love ’em. I was one of ’em, years ago, in a small way, though I never really was the smartest guy in the room, and never even believed I was. Or not for more than a minute or two, anyway.

But they go different ways, these smart young guys. Some of ’em become apparatchiks for Google or Apple or, God help us, Microsoft or Oracle. Others take the path Aaron took, and decide to fight the lords of copyright and their sedulous gofers in the Enforcement Sector.

Those who knew him — I wish I had — say that Aaron was also familiar with the Black Dog: that horrible gloom that settles over some of us from time to time and sucks all the joy out of lives that ought to be full of joy.

Some accounts of his death emphasize this side of the story. Others wonder whether it might have had something to do with the fact that he was facing a long ordeal in the courts, and maybe decades in prison at the end of it, because he ‘stole’ a bunch of mostly dull journal articles from a thing called JSTOR.

JSTOR. Slowly I turned. Step by step, inch by inch…

Aaron couldn’t have taken on a better target. JSTOR owns the online rights to back issues of a lot of academic journals. Now as we all know, most of what gets printed in academic journals is horseshit. Say 99%. But there’s gold in the other 1%, and those of us who take an interest in some arcane question — mensural notation in the fifteenth  century, let’s say — are always pressing our noses against JSTOR’s paywall.

So for us, Aaron was a Robin Hood. A very benign one. We were the poor, for whose sake he was robbing from the rich. Though ‘robbery’ is really not quite right. That is, after all, the language of ‘intellectual property’, an oxymoron if ever there was one.

Nobody could claim that anybody’s livelihood was threatened by opening up JSTOR. There was no downside, really, apart from impairing somebody’s arbitrary sense of proprietorship and control.

But they came down on him like a ton of bricks. MIT (on whose premises he conducted this magnificent stunt) and even JSTOR itself decided to back off, finally: talk about bad publicity. But the mockingly-named US Justice Department wouldn’t let go. Hey, give ’em an inch…

Aaron was undoubtedly a smart guy, and this side of the story has been much emphasized by many of his eulogists: O what a waste! Consider what great things he might have done!

That doesn’t cut much ice with me. There are plenty of smart guys — mute inglorious Miltons who spend their lives writing brilliant Python code for some awful corporation.

What I will miss is his defiant  bloody-mindedness. He’s exhibit A, at the moment, for my long-held belief that The Kids Are Alright.


19 thoughts on “Aaron Swartz, z”l

  1. He also had great big balls for going against the flow of many of his tech savvy peers who were only too happy to morph into ‘cyber-cons’ addicted to peddling of Social Media in all its forms:

    As for using America’s technological expertise as a diplomatic tool: that, Cohen believed, was a no-brainer. ‘At the end of the day, the platforms that all of these guys here are pushing out from the tech industry are riddled with American values of critical thinking, free flow of information, freedom of choice, freedom of assembly.’ ‘Wow, my God, they have a lot of Kool-Aid over there, don’t they?’ a journalist said at the end of the press conference.

    There’s quite a little army of these Establishment friendly shills from the well-funded ‘non-profit industiral complex’ who are earnestly poisoning impressionable minds only a few years younger than their own who are looking for a non-Corporate way out with fables of Sugarcandy Mountain do-gooder startups (aka easily cyber controlled scams) that lead to well paying sell outs–or jobs for the founders at least–to ad agencies with Orwellian mottoes such as ‘do no evil’.

    • z”l is an abbbreviation of ‘zichrono l’vrachah’ (badly transcribed from the Hebrew — זיכרונו לברכה ). Means, roughly, ‘may his memory be a blessing.’ It’s a ritual utterance about the dead, like RIP for Christians, or STLT (sit tibi levis terra — may the earth lie lightly upon thee) for the old Romans.

      • yes, that phrase stuck in my mind from a couple of years ago when a young woman recalled how it was being used to honor the memory of a physician who had moved to Israel from Brooklyn:

        It was 1995 and I was almost 15 years old, attending a private Jewish high school in Toronto. One day, during a Jewish History class, our teacher was giving a lesson on the city of Hebron. During the class, he mentioned Baruch Goldstein ‚Äì the Jewish settler who, in February 1994, had massacred over 50 Palestinians while they were praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. When my teacher said Goldstein‚Äôs name, he followed it with ‘zichrono livracha’ which is Hebrew for ‘may his memory be blessed’. This is a common practice among Orthodox Jewish people when mentioning the name of someone who is deceased. I remember being completely shocked that he would bless the name of a man who had committed such a horrible act of violence. I raised my hand and asked him why he had blessed Goldstein and not said ‘yemach shmo’ which, in Hebrew, means ‘may his name be erased from history’ and is commonly said after mentioning the name of an evil-doer that has died. My teacher, who himself was an Israeli settler, became enraged, refused to engage in this debate with me and sent me to the principal‚Äôs office where I was reprimanded for being disruptive in class.

  2. MJS says that the kids are alright. I agree with this. But looked at from another angle, the kids are not alright. They are not because they live in a sick and getting sicker society. It must be awfully difficult for kids to navigate this country and stay sane and optimistic. And to make matters harder, there are so many of us who are older and should know better who either disdain the young or want nothing more than to be like them. I have noticed on facebook some who seem to be using this man’s horribly sad death to bring attention to themselves. And by the same token, there are smart young people on the left who have bought into a whole way of thinking and writing that is also self-promoting and ever so ironic. Certain older leftists find this irrestible and glom onto these kids, both again to promote themselves and to pretend that they themselves are young again. And in all of these ways, we reproduce the very society we think we are so intent on abolishing.

    I know something about young people and suicide. My heart goes out to Mr. Swartz’s family and friends.

    • They’re not alright in the sense that none of us is alright; as you say, they’re the products of a sick society just as we are. But so many of my contemporaries — even the Lefties, maybe especially the Lefties — have a snide and dismissive attitude toward the young ‘uns, because they’re not, say, deeply concerned with the recent schism in the Socialist Workers Party.

      — What, you don’t KNOW about it? You ignorant ass. You need a course in basic ‘Marxist theory/politics’, as a particularly peevish old ex-sectarian recently told me.

      Yeah, the young’uns are full of false consciousness. Aaron Swartz’ own writings reflect a certain naivete about the US consttution and American ‘democracy’. He was 26, fer Chrissake.

      But the guy *acted*. He did something. Like John Brown. I know it’s an absurd comparison, but then it’s not. The raid on Harpers Ferry was a complete Mad Hatter stunt too. Full of false consciousness.

      We need these eager young wild men to go out and do crazy things full of false consciousness. We oldsters aren’t going to do it. No shame to us, but we’re past that. Maybe we can contribute something — the young folks I know are actually quite interested in the history, and very willing to listen — but it’s basically out of our hands now.

      So the kids had jolly well better be alright, or we’re fucked.

      • Well, there is nothing here to disagree with. When you see young people doing all these things, it fills your heart with hope. Just think how many there are around the world. With savvy and courage I could only dream of having.

        • I guess he was a work in progress, as we all are. I’ve always said that you learn something every day — if you’re lucky, that is, and if you’re *willing* to learn. Hell, Chomsky himself, the smartest living human if you ask me, still believes in voting. Go figure.

          • It wasn’t meant as a criticism. It might have been while he was alive, I suppose, but I couldn’t stomach it now. Remaining blinders aside (but how could any remain, when he knew so much?), he certainly did more than I.

          • It could be argued that Zhou and Khrushchev remained loyal to their class. They set up mirror hierarchies which may have destroyed the last peasant empires, but they didn’t take the next step.

        • I think it is an artifact of the fact leftwingism is mostly an academic exercise here in the States that we–definitely myself, I’m being forced more and more to admit–are affected by a hypochondrial obsession with vetting every opinion a potential ally holds. I’m tempted call it secular Evangelism.

          Richard Seymour recently came out with a book on Apostate Hitchens’ turn to the dark side, which I gather–I haven’t read–ponders the essentially unanswerable question how such a thing could happen. How the impeccable Marxist-socialist polemicist could so completely abandon everything he’d ever believed in.* But it occurs to me that Hitchens’ opinions where completely divorced from any actual experiences he had, growing up in, and remaining in, relative privilege, and therefore didn’t mean anything. It was really a matter of preferring to read “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship” or “Politics and the English Language” with his uni chums back in the day and–doubtless helped along by the promise of modest fame and a cushy retirement–The Lexus and the Olive Tree more recently. Neither philosophy made a damn bit of difference to his actual life except in as much as holding the latter point of view paid more.

          Whereas, however much Aaron may look like a bog-standard progressive on paper, he actually went out and did something–probably a great deal, actually–to retard the clamp down of the internet the firey-eyed politicians, on behalf of the their clients, are pining for.** Was this the most important cause ever? No. But I don’t think the implications are trivial from a left perspective either.

          *Of course, since his neoliberal rebirth, many have discovered he has merely a hack all along. But they are often the sames ones who accused him of genius back when he was on the side of light.

          **As IOZ pointed out, SOPA or no SOPA, the Feds still shut down Mega Upload, crippled ISO Hunt and got Google to block certain suspected DRM-infringing search results; but my guess is a lot less harm was done than had Aaron’s outfit not successfully incited a public outcry–making net neutrality, like occupy, a household word.

          • I think your first contention may be right. The “old” Left seems to always struggle to find ways to relate to and understand new populist movements, whether the New Left or Occupy. I remember a number of articles about Occupy along the lines of “What do we make of these people? What is lacking in their analysis, and how can we become part of/harness/inform them?”

            I feel, or would like to feel, though, that class origin doesn’t determine ideology as completely as you seem to be saying it does: you seem to be saying that radicalism outside the working class is an intellectual exercise, and when it becomes convenient those people will revert to the ideas of their native milieu. There are some good eggs.

            I remember an (apocryphal?) exchange between Zhou and Khrushchev that ends with Zhou saying: “There is something we have in common. We are both traitors to our class!”

  3. Sweet treatment of “children of Marx and Coca Cola“. Marxism is, sorry to hurt anyone’s feelings, a 19th century cult that would have died out long ago had WWI not occurred when it did and a long series of fortuitous events not taken place in a particularly messed up absolute monarchy. Then, the “state effect” of a country that stretched across the biggest landmass in the World and the desperation of peoples fighting for survival as Western powers took turns gang raping their ancient societies kept the fantasies going for a few decades more. But, fantasies of would-be Nechayevs are of little help–other than in a purely religious sense–in the 21st century and it would be best to let Marx and his prophets finally rest in peace (including the one who gets “rejuvenated” every few years who gave a bad name to Socialism for those who had a little more to lose than their chains).

  4. Weighing In — in compliance with my New Year Resolution 1. Thanks to sk for heterodox comment re: Marxism. 2. Will the zealots who prosecuted Ravi (v. late December postings) prosecute the U.S. Justice Dept. for hounding Swartz to Death? 3. So, What is Irony? What are Contradictions (syndromes and complexes, sublime and ridiculous, Meat is Murder and a Foetus is not a Person)? Contradictions are the stuff of Comedy… and Tragedy. It depends on how you’re feeling that day.

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