Aaron Swartz was my friend, and I will always miss him. I think it’s important that, as we remember him, we remember that Aaron had a much broader agenda than the information freedom fights for which he had become known. Most people have focused on Aaron’s work as an advocate for more open information systems, because that’s what the Feds went after him for, and because he’s well-understood as a technologist who founded Reddit and invented RSS. But I knew a different side of him. I knew Aaron as a political activist interested in health care, financial corruption, and the drug war (we were working on a project on that just before he died). He was a great technologist, for sure, but when we were working together that was not all I saw.
In 2009, I was working in Rep. Alan Grayson’s office as a policy advisor. We were engaged in fights around the health care bill that eventually became Obamacare, as well as a much narrower but significant fight on auditing the Federal Reserve that eventually became a provision in Dodd-Frank. Aaron came into our office to intern for a few weeks to learn about Congress and how bills were put together. He worked with me on organizing the campaign within the Financial Services Committee to pass the amendment sponsored by Ron Paul and Alan Grayson on transparency at the Fed. He helped with the website NamesOfTheDead.com, a site dedicated to publicizing the 44,000 Americans that die every year because they don’t have health insurance. Aaron learned about Congress by just spending time there, which seems like an obvious thing to do. Many activists prefer to keep their distance from policymakers, because they are afraid of the complexity of the system and believe that it is inherently corrupting. Aaron, as with much of his endeavors, simply let his curiosity, which he saw as synonymous with brilliance, drive him.
Aaron also spent a lot of time learning how advocacy and electoral politics works from outside of Congress. He helped found the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that sought to replace existing political consulting machinery in the Democratic Party. At the PCCC, he worked on stopping Ben Bernanke’s reconfirmation (the email Aaron wrote called him “Bailout Ben”), auditing the Fed and passing health care reform. I remember he sent me this video of Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, on Reddit, offering his support to Grayson’s provision. A very small piece of the victory on Fed openness belongs to Aaron.
By the time I met and became friends with Aaron, he had already helped create RSS and co-founded and sold Reddit. He didn’t have to act with intellectual humility when confronting the political system, but he did. Rather than approach politics as so many successful entrepreneurs do, which is to say, try to meet top politicians and befriend them, Aaron sought to understand the system itself. He read political blogs, what I can only presume are gobs of history books (like Tom Ferguson’s Golden Rule, one of the most important books on politics that almost no one under 40 has read), and began talking to organizers and political advocates. He wanted, first and foremost, to know. He learned about elections, political advertising, the data behind voting, and grassroots organizing. He began understanding policy, by learning about Congressional process, its intersection with politics, and how staff and influence networks work on the Hill and through agencies. He analyzed money. He analyzed corruption.
And he understood how it worked. In November of 2008, Aaron emailed me the following: “apologies if you’ve already seen it, but check out this mash note to Rubin from Lay. ahh, politics.” This was attached to the message.
This note, from Enron CEO Ken Lay to Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin, perfectly encapsulates the closed and corroded nature of our political system – two corporate good ole boys, one running Treasury and one running Enron, passing mash notes. This was everything Aaron hated, and fought against. What I respected about Aaron is that he burned with a desire for justice, but also felt a profound desire to understand the system he was attempting to reorganize. He didn’t throw up his hands lazily and curse at corruption, he spent enormous amounts of time and energy learning about and working the political system. From founding Reddit, to fighting the Fed. That was Aaron.
Aaron approached politics like he approached technology. His method was as follows – (1) Learn (2) Try (3) Gab (4) Build. He was methodical about his work, and his approach to life – this essay on procrastination will give you a good window into his mind. Aaron liked to “lean in” to difficult problems, work at them until he could break them down and solve them. He had no illusions about politics, which is why he eventually became so good at it. He didn’t disdain the political process the way so many choose to, but he also didn’t engage in flowery lazy thoughts about the glory of checks and balances. He broke politics down and systematically attempted to understand the system. Aaron learned, tried, gabbed, and then built.
This is a note I got from him years ago, when we were trying to put together flow charts of corporate PAC money and where it went.
“Been playing around with the numbers tonight. Turns out corporate PAC money explains 45% of the variance in ProgressivePunch scores among Dems. Scatterplot attached. Right is progressive, down is no corporate PAC money. So you can see how all the people with less than 80% progressive punch scores get more than 20% of their money from PACs.”
This is a chart of power, one of many Aaron put together to educate himself (and in this case, me). Most geeks hate the political system, and are at the same time awed by it. They don’t actually approach it with any respect for the underlying architecture of power, but at the same time, they are impressed by political figures with titles. Aaron recognized that politics is a corrupt money driven system, but also that it could be cracked if you spent the time to understand the moving parts. He figured out that business alliances, grassroots organizing, and direct lobbying to build coalitions was powerful, whereas access alone was a mirage. He worked very hard to understand how policy changes work, which ultimately culminated in his successful campaign to stop SOPA in 2011. This took many years of work and a remarkable amount of humility on his part.
But he was driven by a desire for justice, and not just for open information. He wanted an end to the drug war, he wanted a financial system not dominated by Bob Rubin, and he wanted monetary policy run to help ordinary people. Some of his last tweets are on monetary policy, and the platinum coin option for raising the debt ceiling (which is a round-about way of preventing cuts to social welfare programs for the elderly). Aaron was a liberal who saw class and race as core driving forces in American politics. In a lovely essay on how he organized his career, he made this clear in a very charming but pointed way.
So how did I get a job like mine? Undoubtedly, the first step is to choose the right genes: I was born white, male, American. My family was fairly well-off and my father worked in the computer industry. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any way of choosing these things, so that probably isn’t much help to you.
But, on the other hand, when I started I was a very young kid stuck in a small town in the middle of the country. So I did have to figure out some tricks for getting out of that. In the hopes of making life a little less unfair, I thought I’d share them with you.
Making “life a little less unfair.” Those aren’t the words of a techno-utopianist, those are the words of a liberal political organizer. They remind me of how Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has described her own work. Aaron knew life would always be unfair, but that was no reason not to try to make society better. He had no illusions about power but maintained hope for our society if, I suppose, not always for himself. This is a very difficult way to approach the world, but it’s why he was so heroic in how he acted. I want people to understand that Aaron sought not open information systems, but justice. Aaron believed passionately in the scientific method as a guide for organizing our society, and in that open-minded but powerful critique, he was a technocratic liberal. His leanings sometimes moved him towards more radical postures because he recognized that our governing institutions had become malevolent, but he was not an anarchist.
I am very angry Aaron is dead. I’ve been crying off and on for a few days, as it hits me that he’s gone forever. Aaron accomplished more in 13 than nearly everyone I know will get done in their entire lives, and his breadth of knowledge and creativity in politics were stunning, all the more so since he was equally well-versed in many other fields. But what I respected was his curiosity and open-mindedness. He truly loved knowledge, and loved people who would share it. We used to argue about politics, him a hopeful and intellectually honest technocratic liberal and me as someone who had lost faith in our social institutions. We made each other really angry sometimes, because I thought he was too sympathetic to establishment norms, and he thought I couldn’t emotionally acknowledge when technocrats had useful things to say. But I respected him, and he frequently changed my mind. I saw that what looked like stubbornness was just intellectual honesty and a deep thirst for evidence. He wanted to understand politics, because he thought that understanding, and then action, was the key to justice.
As I said, I am very angry that he is dead. I don’t want to get into the specifics of his case, because others have discussed it and the political elements of it more eloquently than I ever could. His family and partner have put out a powerful statement placing blame appropriately.
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.
I want to make a few points about why it’s not just sad that he is gone, but a tragedy, a symbol for all of us, and a call to action.
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.
More prosaically, the person who warned about the downside in a meeting gets cut out of the loop, or the former politician who tries to reform an industry sector finds his or her job opportunities sparse and unappealing next to his soon to be millionaire go along get along colleagues. I’ve seen this happen to high level former officials who have done good, and among students who challenge power as their colleagues go to become junior analysts on Wall Street. And now we’ve seen these same forces kill our friend.
It’s important for us to recognize that Aaron is just an extreme example of a force that targets all of us. He eschewed the traditional paths to wealth and power, dropping out of college after a year because it wasn’t intellectually stimulating. After co-founding and selling Reddit, and establishing his own financial security, he wandered and acted, calling himself an “applied sociologist.” He helped in small personal ways, offering encouragement to journalists like Mike Elk after Elk had broken a significant story and gotten pushback from colleagues. In my inbox, every birthday, I got a lovely note from Aaron offering me encouragement and telling me how much he admired my voice. He was a profoundly kind man, and I will now never be able to repay him for the love and kindness he showed me. There’s no medal of honor for someone like this, no Oscar, no institutional way of saying “here’s someone who did a lot of good for a lot of people.” This is because our institutions are corrupt, and wanted to quelch the Aaron Swartz’s of the world. Ultimately, they killed him. I hope that we remember Aaron in the way he should be remembered, as a hero and an inspiration.
In six days, on January 18th, it’s the one year anniversary of the blackout of Wikipedia, and some have discussed celebrating it as Internet Freedom Day. Maybe we should call this Aaron Swartz Day, in honor of this heroic figure. While what happened that day was technically about the internet, it should be remembered, and Aaron should be remembered, in the context of social justice. That day was about a call for a different world, not just protecting our ability to access web sites. And we should remember these underlying values. It would help people understand that justice can be extremely costly, and that we risk much when we allow those who do the right thing to be punished. Somehow, we need to rebuild a culture that respects people like Aaron and turns away from the greed and rent-extraction that he hated. There’s a cycle in American history, of religious “Great Awakenings”, where new cultural systems emerge in the form of religion, often sweeping through communities of young people dissatisfied with the society they see around them. Perhaps that is what we see in the Slow Food movement, or gay rights movement, or the spread of walkable communities and decline of vehicle miles, or maker movement, or the increasing acceptance of meditation and therapy, or any number of other cultural changes in our society. I don’t know. I’m sure many of these can be subverted. What I do know is that if we are to honor Aaron’s life, we will recognize him as a broad social justice activist who cared about transforming our society, and acted to do so. And we will take up his fight as our own.