Saturday, January 19, 2013

Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends

When rock and roll first emerged in the mid-1950's, the excitement it engendered among its teenage fans created mass panic among older people.  It was loud, it was boisterous, it was fun, it got people dancing.  A rock and roll concert was a time out and away from the rules and omnipresent conformity of the surrounding society; a bunch of white kids could celebrate the joyous music of African-American musicians like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, giving themselves permission, for half an hour or forty-five minutes (the shows were a lot shorter back then), to set aside their inhibitions.  The power of the music, all facets of it - including  the extra-musical dimensions of race and age - was enough to turn many rock and roll shows in to what appeared to untrained eyes to be mini-riots.

When The Beatles first toured America, and the music was drowned out by the screaming of the fans, many thought there had to be something wrong, perhaps even sinister, about something as silly as electrified and sped-up twelve-bar blues songs played by four well-dressed, polite young Englishmen.  It was only when the floodgates opened and other British bands emerged that the relative tameness of The Beatles concert presence was appreciated.  The Rolling Stones, mimicking their blues heroes, strutted and postured on stage.  The Animals would wail and screech, the rolling organ, particularly in their cover of "House Of The Rising Sun", sounding a bit too much like the music of the brothel the band was singing about.  Finally, The Who arrived, and when they premiered on American TV, they ended their performance by destroying not only their instruments, but their equipment as well.

Clearly, something was happening.

Theatricality was hardly something new to pop music.  The whole minstrel tradition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was constructed around it.  Jazz and pop performers were adept not just at playing music, but putting on a show.  In chicken shacks and honkey-tonks across much of rural America, black and white audiences were treated to a variety of performers who added a kind of panache to their performances by dressing in odd costumes, adopting strange stage personas, adding props to their stage sets so the show became just that.

In the 1950's, the blues singer/guitarist Howlin' Wolf would sometimes begin his shows by emerging from a coffin.  When Elvis Presley swung his hips on national television, he may not have noticed the sexuality inherent in what he was doing, but millions of parents did, and they didn't like it one bit.

All performers struggle not just to play their music well, presenting it to listeners with integrity as music.  When performing, they can lose themselves in a performance, expressing the emotional content of the song through facial features, movements about the stage, and interaction with other band members as well as members of the audience.  The rigid, polite-looking way the Beatles performed may have warmed the hearts of parents across America; it was a far cry from Chuck Berry duck-walking across the stage as he played his Gibson, sometimes slinging it between his legs, pointing it at the audience in a gesture that no one would misunderstand.

By the late 1960's, the desire to present not just a musical concert, but a whole experience, goaded many performers to new heights.  In 1967 at the Monterey Pop Festival, Jimi Hendrix famously lit his guitar on fire and continued to play it, making Pete Townshend - who sat in the audience and fumed as he watched Hendrix not just steal The Who's act, but show how it could be done better - wish he had lost a toss of the dice, letting Hendrix go first.  The Grateful Dead employed a light show that created a visual representation of the combination of effects of the psychedelics they were taking and the music they were performing.

In 1968, a British band named The Crazy World of Arthur Brown enjoyed a brief moment of success with a psychedelically-tinged song called "Fire" (the band's drummer was a young British student of the American jazz drummer Gene Krupa; his name was Carl Palmer).  When they appeared on Top of the Pops, they showed the world what theatricality in pop music might look like:
Not just sets, but make-up, a whole stage-persona that reflected the music!  Was it possible that musicians could do this?  Was it possible to present music not just as music, but to entertain an audience by making the music an integral part of a much more lavish production?

Why, sure.

In the first half of the next decade, this trend toward theatricality spanned musical styles.  Concerts became more than just concerts.  They became events.  Whether it was Peter Gabriel of Genesis dressing up in costumes and shaving his head in a reverse-Mohawk:
Or funk master George Clinton building a space ship, landing P-Funk in cities across America and tearing it up each and every night:
The idea that a concert was more than about music gripped all sorts of musicians, bands, and performers.  There was David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust
Or the absurd extreme of KISS, for whom the concert experience became the sine qua non of the bands existence.
Finally, there was Alice Cooper.  Cooper put on a show that left nothing untried.  He hung himself.  he electrocuted himself.  He had himself guillotined.  He wore odd makeup.  There were non-musical extras, sometimes scantily-clad women.  For his performance of "I Love The Dead", he would sometimes use a blow-up doll as a prop.

As the money poured in and the good times rolled through the early and mid-1970's, the idea that a band or individual performing on stage didn't have to just stand in front of a microphone and sing, but create something larger, a whole experience that would leave the fans with the sense they were part of something larger than life, took hold.  The music was louder now; sometimes, like with the prog bands, it was intricate, which didn't prevent, for example, Emerson, Lake, & Palmer going out on tour with a stage catapult that launched a grand piano to its destruction.  Other times, if the music was simple, clear, and filled with fun, the huge performance - complete with smoke machines, flame pots, and tons of lights - made it seem more than it really was.  Not only were musicians experimenting with the music; they were experimenting with performance as well, creating a whole microcosm for the concertgoer, a tiny space-and-time away that wasn't just about the music, but the entire experience.

Even as the punk revolt in Britain seemed to put an end to the pretensions of some musicians to do anything other than stand on stage and play music, some bands held on to the idea that rock performance could be about more than just the sounds, all the while leaving the integrity of the music itself as music untouched.  Precisely because the music these underground musicians, particularly in Britain outside the London punk scene, was louder, brasher, more outrageous than anything the punks were doing (except perhaps killing people or themselves), there was this urge, this desire to make the concert experience reflect the weight of the music they were playing.

As the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal was being born, it already had all sorts of touchstones from the recent past from which to derive ideas about performing.  Integrity and authenticity weren't just about the music, it seemed; integrity and authenticity could also be layered beneath all sorts of props, the adoption of stage personas, communicating with the growing number of fans the reality that the music and the musicians understood each other well enough.

Friday, January 18, 2013

A World Of Ideas

Remember the election?  It was in all the papers.  President Obama won what turned out to be an easy victory over his Republican rival.  In a year in which they were particularly vulnerable, Democratic candidates not only won enough to hold the Democratic majority in the US Senate; they actually increased their majority.  While the Republicans continue to maintain their majority in the House of Representatives, Republican candidates received one million fewer votes than Democratic candidates.  Altogether, it was a banner election year for the Democratic Party.

And the tide continues to roll on.  All major polling on attitudes toward the President, the Congress, and the American people's attitudes toward the two major parties continue to demonstrate a strong swing toward the Democratic Party.  Even as the House Majority and Senate Minority try to find ways of slowing or even stopping legislative action from the Democrats, the Republican leadership is held responsible by the American people for lack of action.

Yet, nothing seems to change, does it?  One would expect a press corps inured by 30 years of GOP dominance not to take the Democrats or liberal ideas seriously.  Still, whether it is the major figures in control of the various parts of the Executive or Legislative branches or our most highly-paid commentators upon our national life, one grows weary looking for a sign the election made any difference whatsoever.

Frustrated myself over the near-hysteria I witness daily, as people carry on about Barack Obama's tyranny, and the various threats to impeach or otherwise curtail efforts by the Executive Branch to work on solutions to our gun violence problem, I realized the answer was both obvious and sitting right in front of me.

As those crazy kids say these days: It's all about the Benjamins.

Nothing made that more clear to me than reading this piece from Rick Perlstein, published this past fall in The Baffler.  A marvelous history of the rise of Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich, the grand poo-bahs of right-wing fundraising (I remember coming across their names back when I was in college; you could occasionally see Viguerie doing TV spots, voicing various right-wing verities with a practiced smile that reminded me of every con-artist I'd ever seen portrayed on television), Perlstein does a masterful job linking the insane world of the wingnut money machine, a whole network of what he identifies quite correctly as the snake-oil salesmen who sell everything from pyramid schemes to real-life snake-oil to gullible readers of right-wing literature, and the culmination of this whole history of untruth in Mitt Romney Presidential campaign.  Perlstein's conclusion is both correct and devastating: Romney's unending dishonesty wasn't a flaw in the system.  It was the fruit of a system that has relied, since the misty days after the defeat of Barry Goldwater, on dishonesty as a way to separate people from their pocket change.

We liberals tend to believe that things like good ideas that work, actual evidence from the world in which we all live, and the democratic process giving us elected officials to enact the policies or support the laws they said they would do when they campaigned; we believe these things matter.  While the fundamental anti-democratic spirit of the right is both well-known and well-documented, what Perlstein does in this article is make clear how much fundamental dishonesty in the pursuit of money, rather than any real desire to win elections, sway public opinion, or change public policy, lies at the heart of the right-wing political machine.  The argument between the left and the right in America doesn't really exist because each side is engaged in completely different activities.

When we read stories that Karl Rove just signed another multi-year contract with FOXNews, after a very public - and quite funny - on-air flame out after his months and years of mendacity caught up with him, viewers of Fox should understand just how much contempt the network has for you.  When we read stories that a recently elected Senator has set up a Political Action Committee that raised over $1.6 million, spending only $78,000 actually supporting candidates for elected office, we shouldn't be surprised.  Just after the election, having read story after story about a vaunted Romney GOTV effort that failed miserably, we read political autopsies that included quotes from leaders of this alleged vote-getting machine who were surprised that Obama's GOTV organization actually . . . got people to the polls!  They couldn't believe the Obama campaign wasn't a get-rich-quick scheme, paying people to produce good soundbites for local and national news organizations.

That's why so many liberal bloggers still get accused of secretly pocketing money from George Soros.  On the right, all sorts of entities, organizations, individuals, and even corporations pay a whole lot of money to news aggregators, blogs, and multi-media "personalities", so they just assume folks on the left are doing the same thing.  These accusations give up the game, however, demonstrating as they do the fundamental dishonesty of too many right-wing pundits.  They are honest enough that they're in it for the money; they assume folks on the left are, too.

If you see and hear claims that the President has a secret plan to confiscate all the weapons in America prior to establishing UN Agenda 21, remember: These claims are birthed not in a careful consideration of the actual evidence from the President's actions or policies.  Rather, they are lifted from fundraising letters from the NRA and Glenn Beck's Citadel, who promise either to fight the usurpation of power by a tyrant or a haven of freedom from the creeping authoritarianism.  All of it, along with miracle cures for cancer, online get-rich-quick schemes, and the promise of a better tomorrow can be yours, as long as you send these organizations - and far too many more - your money.

In a world of ideas, the idea that no one ever got rich overestimating the intelligence of the American people continues to provide more than a decent living for phony politicians, and the hucksters and snake-oil organizations of the American Conservative movement.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Bogus History

The Second Amendment was not enacted to provide a check on government tyranny; rather, it was written to assure the Southern states that Congress would not undermine the slave system by using its newly acquired constitutional authority over the militia to disarm the state militia and thereby destroy the South's principal instrument of slave control. In effect, the Second Amendment supplemented the slavery compromise made at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and obliquely codified in other constitutional provisions. - Carl T. Bogus
If you click the link, you will be directed to the law review article, "The Hidden History Of The Second Amendment" from the University of California at Davis Law Review 31 (1998): 309.  I won't comment on the article itself, offering it only as an antidote to so much of the nonsense out there, such as this:
 The primary purpose of the Second Amendment is to ensure that the citizenry has a fighting chance to resist tyranny
When people write this, they are exploring the deep recesses of their ass.

I will include the following detail that is left out of most history text books.
This was a no- holds-barred struggle, and the adversaries pressed every available strategic or tactical advantage. The following example gives a sense of the intensity of the struggle. The day after delegates to the Philadelphia Convention signed the proposed new Constitution, Federalists sought to have the Pennsylvania Legislature, which had been meeting upstairs at the Philadelphia State House while the Constitutional Convention was in session downstairs, vote to convene a ratifying convention in Pennsylvania two months hence.[64] Lacking the votes to defeat this proposal, the anti-Federalists sought to block the measure by failing to return after the noon recess, thereby preventing a quorum.[65] The legislative session was due to end the next day, and without a quorum there would be considerable delay before the Pennsylvania Legislature could consider the matter again.[66] The Federalists, capitalizing on the opportunity to create a sense of momentum by having Pennsylvania vote to convene a ratifying convention before the ink had dried on the proposed new Constitution, directed the sergeant of arms to fetch the missing members.[67] The sergeant located two¾ just [Page 325] the number needed to complete a quorum ¾ escorted them against their will back to their seats in the State House, and barred the doors until the assembly voted by a narrow margin to convene a state ratifying convention.
I should add that, while important, this history shouldn't drive people to insist the Amendment is either irrelevant or unnecessary. It's important only to make clear that the insistence the Federalists supported armed insurrection, while nonsensical from a logical point of view, isn't supported by the actual historical record.  How courts interpret the Amendment today, and how those interpretations impact how we regulate or do not regulate firearms in this country should rely on contemporary jurisprudence, keeping the history only as a touchstone rather than front and center.  After all, I don't want our understanding of any of the Constitutional Amendments limited to their meaning at the time of ratification.  That leaves no room for growth, change, or for the Amendments themselves to continue to live and breathe in different historical settings.

I do feel sorry for a guy named Bogus, I gotta admit.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reality Vs. Fantasy

Suicides in the U.S. military surged to a record 349 last year, far exceeding American combat deaths in Afghanistan, and some private experts are predicting the dark trend will grow worse this year. (Source)

Dobbs responded by claiming that Obama is "so committed to constraining or dismissing outright our Second Amendment rights, it makes you wonder why he's not ridding the Constitution of the First Amendment as well." He later said, "You've got to wonder why the president doesn't double down in his assault on the Constitution, taking on not only the Second, but the First Amendment, the Fourth, the Fourteenth." Dobbs then suggested that the reason Obama has "begun with the Second Amendment" is because "[w]ithout our rights under the Second Amendment, removing the rest of our Bill of Rights would be a lot easier."(Source)

The Pentagon has struggled to deal with the suicides, which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others have called an epidemic. The problem reflects severe strains on military personnel burdened with more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, complicated by anxiety over the prospect of being forced out of a shrinking force.

“The White House’s recent announcement they will use executive orders and executive actions to infringe on our constitutionally-protected right to keep and bear arms is an unconstitutional and unconscionable attack on the very founding principles of this republic,” Stockman said in a statement. “I will seek to thwart this action by any means necessary, including but not limited to eliminating funding for implementation, defunding the White House, and even filing articles of impeachment.” (Source)

Military suicides began rising in 2006 and soared to a then-record 310 in 2009 before leveling off for two years. It came as a surprise to many that the numbers resumed an upward climb this year, given that U.S. military involvement in Iraq is over and the Obama administration is taking steps to wind down the war in Afghanistan.
"Now that we're decreasing our troops and they're coming back home, that's when they're really in the danger zone, when they're transitioning back to their families, back to their communities and really finding a sense of purpose for themselves," said Kim Ruocco, whose husband, Marine Maj. John Ruocco, killed himself between Iraq deployments in 2005. She directs a suicide prevention program for a support group, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS.

“Postponing sequestration doesn’t prevent, it just prolongs the uncertainty for our force and for our military families,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Readiness is what’s now in jeopardy. We’re on the brink of creating a hollow force, the very thing we said we must avoid.”(Source)

“But for the rest of the force, operations, maintenance and training will be gutted. We’ll ground aircraft, return ships to port, and sharply curtail training across the force,” he said. “Within months, we’ll be less prepared. Within a year, we’ll be unprepared.”
“I don’t know what to do,” sighed Gene Rosen. “I’m getting hang-up calls, I’m getting some calls, I’m getting emails with, not direct threats, but accusations that I’m lying, that I’m a crisis actor, ‘how much am I being paid?’” Someone posted a photo of his house online. There have been phony Google+ and YouTube accounts created in his name, messages on white supremacist message boards ridiculing the “emotional Jewish guy,” and dozens of blog posts and videos “exposing” him as a fraud. One email purporting to be a business inquiry taunted: “How are all those little students doing? You know, the ones that showed up at your house after the ‘shooting’. What is the going rate for getting involved in a gov’t sponsored hoax anyway?”(Source)
And finally, a last dose of reality: Since the Sandy Hook shootings, as of January 15, there have been 919 shooting deaths in the United States.  That's around thirty a day.(Source)
As a free people, we always have the choice not to pay attention to matters of public importance.  We have the choice to follow the siren song of those who, not having our interests or the public interests at heart, manipulate our feelings on a particular matter, creating a tempest in a piss pot (as a friend of mine wrote recently on Facebook).  All the while, matters of very real concern to all of us pass unnoticed.  Things about which we should exercise our emotions and our intellect are ignored for the illusions ginned up through fear and lies.  A day will come when we will mourn the fact that we ignored the reality in front of us for the fantasies cooked up by powerful interests to further their own purposes.  All I can say is, don't say no one told you.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Pounding On The Shell Around Bizarro-World

As I wrote yesterday, I'm still trying to come to grips with the whole matter of the suicide of Aaron Swartz.  Not because I knew him well, as I also made clear.  On the contrary, part of my own sadness is that I didn't even recognize the name, or know even one of the many contributions he made in his too-short life.

In this remembrance, economist John Quiggin mentions Swartz's role in Quiggin's own work debunking something I had no idea existed!  Apparently, for a couple decades, there was a concerted effort to create this alternate universe where DDT was a harmless chemical whose use was moving us toward a world without malaria; this near-utopia was foiled by the evil Rachel Carson and her junk science, which resulted in a worldwide ban on the use of DDT, resulting in the deaths of millions of children, particularly in poor countries.  Since we all know that liberals are the real racists, it is obvious this was her plan all along - to kill little black and brown babies through the evil machinations of her fake, alleged "science".

Apparently, there's even a web site with a "malaria death clock", with Rachel Carson's image right next to it. Some writers have said she is responsible for more deaths than Hitler (yeah, I always love it when they drag that failed Austrian artist's name into their arguments).

In 2003, Quiggin published a piece on his own website outlining the history of DDT's use and overuse, and the resultant multiple problems that arose.  It was a response to an alleged "balanced approach" that did not call out junk science as junk science.  Even ten years ago, Quiggin was clear enough that DDT was being phased out even before Carson's Silent Spring was published because its overuse had resulted in a noticeable lack of effectiveness.  The other hazards from DDT - the near-extinction of several species of raptors who fed on DDT-infected fish, resulting in weakened egg shells; it correlation with certain cancers when ingested by humans - were only beginning to come to light, and added impetus for the drive to end its use.

Now, all this is history and science, which as most folks know, are things certain quarters of the American Political Right are actively hostile toward.  In 2007, Swartz wrote a slightly longer piece, outlining much the same historical facts, as well as the rather loud and boisterous media campaign aiming to brand Rachel Carson as some kind of anti-human criminal.  Toward the end, Swartz did something very clever: he showed that he had heard Deep Throat in All The President's Men and had followed the money.
Perhaps the most vocal group spreading this story is Africa Fighting Malaria (AFM). Founded in 2000 by Roger Bate, an economist at various right-wing think tanks, AFM has run a major PR campaign to push the pro-DDT story, publishing scores of op-eds and appearing in dozens of articles each year. Bate and his partner Richard Tren even published a book laying out their alternate history of DDT: When Politics Kills: Malaria and the DDT Story.
A funding pitch uncovered by blogger Eli Rabbett shows Bate's thinking when he first started the project. "The environmental movement has been successful in most of its campaigns as it has been 'politically correct,'" he explained (Tobacco Archives, 09/98). What the anti-environmental movement needs is something with "the correct blend of political correctness (...oppressed blacks) and arguments (eco-imperialism [is] undermining their future)." That something, Bate proposed, was DDT.
In an interview, Bate said that his motivation had changed after years of working on the issue of malaria. "I think my position has mellowed, perhaps with age," he told Extra!. "[I have] gone from being probably historically anti-environmental to being very much pro-combating malaria now." He pointed to the work he'd done making sure money to fight malaria was spent properly, including a study he co-authored in the respected medical journal the Lancet(7/15/06) on dishonest accounting at the World Bank. He insisted that he wasn't simply pro-DDT, but instead was willing to support whatever the evidence showed worked. And he flatly denied that AFM had ever received money from tobacco, pharmaceutical or chemical companies.
Still, AFM has very much followed the plan Bate laid out in his original funding pitch to corporations: First, create "the intellectual arguments to make our case," then "disseminate these arguments to people in [developing countries]" who can make convincing spokespeople, and then "promote these arguments ... in the West." The penultimate page gives another hint that stopping malaria isn't the primary goal: "Is the DDT problem still relevant?" is listed as an "intellectual issue to be resolved"--once they got funding. (When asked for comment on this, Bate became upset and changed the subject.)
 Quiggin, who is both clever and tenacious, published a piece in the Prospect  with co-author Tim Lambert the next year.  As he makes clear in his remembrance written over the weekend, it was Swartz who brought to his attention this link between the junk-science of the pro-DDT crowd and the tobacco lobby, in particular Roger Bates.
By 1990, it seemed that the public health issues surrounding DDT had been largely resolved. In developed countries, DDT had been replaced by less environmentally damaging alternatives. But soon the situation changed radically. The tobacco industry, faced with the prospect of bans on smoking in public places, sought to cast doubt on the science behind the mooted ban. But a campaign focused on tobacco alone was doomed to failure. So the industry tried a different tack, an across-the-board attack on what it called “junk science.” Its primary vehicle was the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), a body set up by PR firm APCO in the early 1990s and secretly funded by Philip Morris. . . .
Tobacco companies created a European version of TASSC, the European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF), led by Roger Bate, another tobacco lobbyist. In the late 1990s, Bate established “Africa Fighting Malaria,” a so-called “astroturf” organisation based in Washington DC. His aim was to drive a wedge between public health and the environment by suggesting that by banning DDT to protect birds, environmentalists were causing many people to die from malaria. Between them, Milloy’s TASSC and Bate’s Africa Fighting Malaria convinced many that DDT was a panacea for malaria, denied to the third world by the machinations of rich environmentalists. 
 Bate responded, and while Quiggin's reply was polite, his co-author pulled no punches.  The first part of Tim Lambert's reply made extensive use of the trail first laid down by Aaron Swartz the year before.
Bate implies that all he did for tobacco interests was a little consulting on “international health” and that the money did not influence his opinions because it was paid after he wrote the two articles and because Philip Morris approached him. Unfortunately for Bate, the Tobacco Documents are available online, and Bate and the ESEF feature in many of them.
What follows is an extensive citation list from the online Tobacco archive, demonstrating that Bate's role in the pro-DDT business was in fact part of a far larger public relations campaign to discredit anti-tobacco science to prevent regulation.  The whole thing is worth a look, if for no other reason than to demonstrate two things I find fascinating in our digital age: First, don't misrepresent yourself online, because it's just way too easy to find out just how disingenuous you are; second, the sheer quantity of information available online does make it difficult to find a place to land if one is trying to do research.  Lambert does an excellent job culling through the thousands of pages of documents to demonstrate just how intertwined Bate was with the tobacco companies.

Lambert's second reply deals specifically with the ways Bate has misrepresented the history of DDT.  Again - don't lie online!  It's just way too easy for someone to find it out.

Now, this little bit of internet history may seem marginal.  In fact, however, it is not.  First, and most important, it demonstrates the way nonsense can go viral on the internet.  As Swartz's 2007 piece demonstrated, the claims against Carson were getting wide play in mainstream publications, without the reporters making clear how wrong they were.  Second, it demonstrates the way the "war on science" is actually an attempt by large corporations to protect their financial interests by creating  a climate of doubt in a public that is just way too willing to pretend there might be another side to any story.  The pro-DDT campaign wasn't important for the tobacco company in and for itself; it was a way for them to test the effectiveness of a media campaign waged against public health organizations on what was thought to be long-settled public policy and well-documented science.  That there are still right-bloggers out there who push nonsense like this is irrelevant; that they have no idea how they've been used by large corporations to push an entirely different agenda is kind of sad.

Finally, Swartz's role in this whole story is important because he was central in pointing out the role large corporations were playing in our seemingly never-ending fight to remind people that science is a legitimate enterprise.  This is a big deal.  Using online sources to point people in the direction of generous contributions from corporate entities to groups doing particular lobbying and PR campaigns can be daunting; Swartz did it easily, and presented his case clearly.

Remember this.  He did this at 21.  Imagine, given support and time, rather than harassment, indictment, and suicide, what else Aaron Swartz could have helped uncover.  Cracking the shell around right-wing Crazy Town is always commendable; doing it in a way that exposes the role of corporate money in manipulating both the public and policy makers is an enormous contribution to our common life.  The guy deserved a medal instead of prosecution.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Pulling Out A Single Thread

Do you use an RSS feed?  Are you on Reddit?  Are you among those - myself included - who set to one side the legalize surrounding what is and is not permissible, downloading material from the internet without a thought or care?

If any of these things are true, then the death of Aaron Swartz yesterday should mean something to you.  Taking his own life at the very young age of 26, Swartz had already managed to invent the RSS feed, as well as get in on the ground floor of the social networking site Reddit.  At 19, he heard about independent researcher Rick Perlstein and created a website for Perlstein free of charge.

In July, Swartz was indicted by federal prosecutors in Massachusetts for allegedly illegally downloading millions of documents from the online scholarly journal archive JSTOR.  Defending himself against the charges would have exhausted what resources he had managed to accumulate in his short life.  If convicted, he faced over thirty years in federal prison.

As Charlie Pierce noted in a comment on one thread somewhere discussing Swartz's suicide, perhaps if Swartz had been laundering billions of dollars of drug and terrorist money, he would be OK.  Heck, if he had imploded his company and nearly collapsed the world economy, he could sue he US government, like AIG! Instead, Swartz, acting out of the conviction that intellectual property - in particular intellectual property that was created with public money - is not something from which anyone should derive profit, but rather the property of all people, downloaded millions of pages of documents from JSTOR.  For this, the US Attorney's office in Massachusetts unleashed the hounds on this young man.

Of course, it should also be noted that Swartz was a chronic depressive.  Rick Perlstein notes that Swartz wrote extensively of his identification with the late author David Foster Wallace after Wallace killed himself.  Perlstein, the one among the many who've written about Swartz over the past twenty-four hours who seems to have been most deeply effected by the young man's death, was blunt yesterday: He places the blame for Swartz's death squarely on the federal government for hounding this young man to death.

In response, some have noted that, as a chronic depressive, eliminating personal responsibility in such a fashion removes any agency Swartz himself should have.

Knowing little other than what I've read, I find these arguments of little value (except perhaps to reveal much about those who make them).  What I do know for certain is this: Even though I couldn't have named him before yesterday morning, what I've read in just 24 hours convinces me that all of us have lost, and lost dearly, with this young man's passing.  Whether a tragedy or a crime, his suicide has robbed us of a tremendous human being, a young man who packed more living in his short life than many twice his age.  He gave to man freely; he offered the world the fruits of his intellectual labor not for his own aggrandizement but to make the world a little bit better place.  He was a firm believer in the power of knowledge, that the world runs not on "information" but understanding, and put his tremendous resources of intellect and passion behind those persons and institutions and causes that furthered as broad a dissemination of real understanding as possible.  Reading the many, many things this young man has done made me wonder about the old metaphor about pulling a single thread, then watching the whole piece of stitching unravel.  Swartz's participation in so much of our contemporary wired intellectual life was such that, losing him, we lose a component that holds so much of it together.

We are all the less, whether we knew his name or not, for the death of Aaron Swartz.  Over the next few days, as I digest just some of the amazing things he did, I may revisit not only his accomplishments, but be a tiny part of a growing number of people trying to shine a light on what seems an over-the-top prosecution.  Did this contribute to Swartz's decision to kill himself?  Is he solely responsible for his death, perhaps mitigated by a struggle with depression?  These are questions that, absent clear evidence one way or another, I believe are probably in the realm of unanswerable.  The least service I can provide, I hope, is to make clear all Swartz has done, the good things for which he worked and fought, and the many ways he has made our lives better.

It isn't enough, I know.  But I hope it might be possible to take that thread and, if not reconstruct the whole piece of cloth, at the very least show how it fit in the larger work.

Virtual Tin Cup

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