Aaron Swartz. (Creative Commons.)
This past Monday saw an extraordinary gathering of the progressive and not-so-progressive tribes: the Washington, DC, memorial service for Aaron Swartz (whose passing I recognized here)—“somber in tone,” a friend, Noland Chambliss, who was there reported back to me, “and despite the political bent, and the focus on laws and policies, still very much a memorial, full of grieving.” Noland began his account with a caveat: “I didn’t know Aaron well. We had mutual friends and I would occasionally see him at a party or a conference. Our only real conversation was in a shared cab. He had seen Van Jones’s presentation calling for more powerful, emotional communicators making the progressive argument”—Noland was involved in conceptualizing Jones’s group Rebuild the Dream—“and Aaron hoped that his friend Ben Wikler would step into that role. We talked about what it would take to talk about the issues we cared about in a more compelling way.”
Wikler, reports Noland, was the memorial’s MC:
speaking in short bursts between the others, alternately funny and grave. It was a strange gathering all around, the crowd a mix of progressive activists and internet freedom folks, Hill staffers for various Representatives present (from both sides of the aisle), and friends and family of Aaron’s. Ben was probably the only person who could have pulled it off, helping to weave together remembrances about Aaron’s personal life, reflections on how society treats our brightest minds, and scathing critiques of our criminal justice system.
One of the curious things about the service was the presence of Darrell Issa, the California congressman whose scabrous helming of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee—Ground Zero for opportunistic attempts to delegitimate the Obama White House and liberal governance generally—reminds some, including me, of a latter-day Joseph McCarthy. But Issa worked on the same side with Aaron in defeating SOPA, the “Stop Internet Piracy Act,” and has been at the forefront of calling for accountability in the runaway prosecution against him. Cynically? Sincerely? Here’s Noland:
When Issa spoke he pushed it a bit. He opened with a bit about how he and Aaron both knew that it was “In God We Trust” not “In the Government We Trust.” [Note: Aaron was an atheist.] It was tense for a moment, like… if this guy decides to use this as an opportunity to tell us about how the government is overbearing and awful someone might stand up and start swinging. But he didn’t, he waved at the line but didn’t cross it, didn’t even get too close in my opinion.
He said everything he was supposed to, I suspect. He said the prosecutor was wrong, that harmless crimes should be treated as such, he even said something progressive about over-criminalization, and how we fill our jails with people that need treatment, not punishment. It was really well done and I think people were very thankful for the tone he struck.
Then things got weird:
A guy from a right-wing tech policy group called Tech Freedom spoke towards the end and pretty badly misjudged the room. I don’t know why he thought it might be a good moment, in that room on that night, to explain that he thought what Aaron did was illegal and should have been punished, but he did and it didn’t land well.
I think it was by way of trying to make a point about people from different perspectives finding common ground on this issue. But he fumbled it and once people started muttering at him he just decided to keep digging a hole. He got really defensive and pedantic started in on this lecture to the effect of “people like you are just mad and don’t understand policy nuance and how to get things done” and it was pretty much a nightmare. People started yelling at him and Taren [Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Aaron’s girfriend] had to stand up and and ask everyone to listen to the guy.
Then came Congress’s most outspoken liberal:
Alan Grayson was great. He slipped into a pastor-type role, and talked about how society marginalizes forward-thinking people and ultimately treats them like human sacrifices. They challenge us and move us forward and we reward them for this gift by marginalizing them and persecuting them and prosecuting them, sometimes to death. I would love to be a fly on the wall in a conversation between him and Issa about how we serially punish curiosity. It was a theme in both their remarks and it was what Grayson identified as what made Aaron unique. Grayson said what we called intelligence was really just intense curiosity.
The last speaker was Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who has written powerfully of how calling Swartz’s suicide as result of “depression” miscasts what actually happened. Noland found her remarks “just fucking heartbreaking”:
She was very personal and very vulnerable. I cried my way through most of it and don’t remember all of the specifics but one line stuck out; it captured perfectly the madness of what happened here. She said the first time Aaron told her about the case he said, “I downloaded too many journal articles and I’m being indicted for it.” She said, “That doesn’t sound like that big of a deal,” and he responded, “Well, they want to make an example out of me. But it’s not like anyone has cancer.”
Her capacity to do this thing, at this moment, has left me completely in awe. I cannot imagine what it is like to be her right now and I desperately hope I never come to know. She is a hero, period.
Noland’s final thoughts:
Two hours contemplating a system that incentivizes the merciless pursuit of maximum punishment for someone like Aaron is a pretty devastating experience. But the chance to grieve and be with friends and recommit to trying to make this country a better place for everyone but especially people like Aaron was wonderful. Between Taren reminding us so powerfully about the real human cost of this kind of excessive prosecution, and Darrell Issa and Alan Grayson agreeing that we, as a country, need to find a way to cultivate our most brilliant and curious minds, maybe something good will come of this in the end.
Genuine bipartisanship in Washington. And it took a radical to achieve it. Does that just beat all? Like everything else Aaron achieved, it was hard to imagine anyone else possibly getting it done. Noland asks that you consider lending your name to organizing efforts to honor Aaron’s legacy here, and consider helping Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman here. So do I. Let’s get it done.
Rick Perlstein wrote a eulogy for Aaron Swartz after his unexpected death.