I am heartsick about Aaron Swartz.
I didn’t know him personally. I became aware of him when editing articles about RSS back in my Sun days. Brilliant. Really young. And… unschooled. One of the first people I never met who strongly influenced my decision to unschool. Because he was brilliant and idealistic and no one had ever crushed that kid’s dreams, or got in the way of his intellect. He thought big, he did big. Every obituary I have read of him mentions that he accomplished more in his 26 years than most people do in their whole lives.
Swartz was significant and primary in the fight against SOPA. This, from Wikipedia:
Swartz said SOPA was defeated by “the people themselves… We won this fight because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story. Everyone took it as their job to save this crucial freedom.” He was referring to a series of protests against the bill by numerous websites which were described by the Electronic Frontier Foundation as the biggest in Internet history, with over 115 thousand sites altering their webpages.
In his speech Swartz also described how close the Bill came to passing as a “bad dream”. He added:
And it will happen again; sure, it will have another name, and maybe a different excuse, and probably do its damage in a different way, but make no mistake, the enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared. The fire in those politician’s eyes has not been put out. There are a lot of people, a lot of powerful people, who wanna clamp down on the Internet.
And now he is gone, because those forces decided to clamp down on him, instead of on the Internet. Here’s the statement from his parents and partner:
Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing.Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.
Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.
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.
Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.
One of the advantages of homeschooling is that you can keep your kids from experiencing the daily attacks on their souls that the lesser launch against them. The theory being, kids don’t need to be exposed to that; that a solid, nurturing home life will give them all the strength they need to face the world.
I’m quite sure that Daedalus didn’t think it through either.
We parents of small children think of playground-level bullies, not world-class, “I will destroy your life in my inflexible, wrong-headed pursuit of you, because I can, and because it’s too much work to prosecute really big criminals who can fight back.” We think of recess tormenting, and the stealing of lunch money. We don’t think we have to prepare our children to face down the brute-thug enforcement arm of the US Government whose nose was bent out of shape because our kid… stole some journal articles from an inadequately secured location? Because our kid’s ideals were so very much higher than those of the monsters that pursued him to death? This is a problem of scale that the parents of kids who reach higher, farther, and piss off those who would control us all, need to address head-on.
Those who do great things draw fire from bigger bullies than we parents have imagined for them. And if we are going to encourage the kind of wall-busting, paradigm-changing greatness that Aaron exemplified, in our kids, we have got to prepare them for the potential that some very real villains are going to go after them. Schooled kids are used to bullying from their peers, and obtuseness from their teachers and school “leadership”, and so they’re already prepared for a certain level of institutionalized stupid to be directed at them.
Not so, our sheltered ones.
I mourn Aaron. I mourn for his parents, and for his partner. I mourn for the world I live in, that my kids are growing up in. I mourn for the fact that on January 10th, I knew I could encourage them to take on the world, and on January 11th, I had to rethink everything I wanted them to be able to do. I know of no way to melt-proof wax wings, and I know of no other material to build their wings out of, just yet. But you can bet that that has now become my primary parenting priority. In tribute to Aaron and his family.