Social and political activism has always had its champions, usually outstanding individuals capable to shake the masses and inspire even deep changes. However, activism can lead to tragic consequences, as shown in the dramatic events that marked the imprisonment of Aaron Swartz and his death in 2013. Through a thorough comparison between the actions of Swartz and the rhetorical vehemence of Frederick Douglass, activist and social reformer of the nineteenth century, this paper aims to suggest that The State allows and includes the activist protest to a certain extent, yet The State strikes hard when the risk of losing the control over the outcomes of a protest becomes real and dangerous.
Established Canons and Undefined Rules In and Against Activism
On March 31, 1849, Frederick Douglass addressed the New England Convention urging the delegates to abolish slavery (Douglass). The force of his rhetoric is overwhelming, and Douglass provokes and irritates part of the audience by highlighting the hypocrisy of praising the Republican victories in France while turning their heads as regard the slavery in the United States (Douglass). The activism of Douglass, however, followed the coeval canons debating, and his opponents could address his actions following the same behavioral standards. The recent case of Aaron Swartz violating the large academic database JSTOR is more complex: it mirrors a more multifaceted society, and it suggests that protesting and debating follow random canons or no canons at all.
Standing Against the Big Powers
Douglass was an activist operating in a well-established world, where ideas, opinions, and divergences were debated in the institutional venues or in the public squares. The contemporary world is different. On one hand, it is more open and, apparently, everyone can have free access to large numbers of information. On the other, however, the today world is full of shady areas, where information is synonymous with huge economic interests and, ultimately, power. Swartz came into contact with these big powers and scared them. He was not just a hacker, he was techno-geek with a social conscience. He devoted his skills to create software aimed at contrasting the evident unfairness, inequality, and hypocrisy of the current American capitalism (Naughton). Quite predictably, through his work Swartz trampled on powerful institutions, including the racket that ruled the provision of court transcripts and some pharmaceutical companies (Naughton).
The JSTOR Affair. Imprisonment and Death of Swartz
In 2011, Swartz managed to access JSTOR and to download a large number of articles (Naughton). The fact was relatively irrelevant under the perspective of the damages caused to JSTOR, yet Swartz was arrested and charged with a potential jail sentence of 35 years. (Naughton). A few months later, Swartz committed suicide. The question arises spontaneously, why the Federals prosecuted Swartz in such a obstinate and ruthless way? Indeed, Swartz was a thorny character, a genial geek with a successful story of designing tools such as RSS, Markdown, and Reddit, and with an alarming tendency to stand for social equality (Naughton). These qualities, and his natural sense of justice made Swartz a menace to the established order. In his article, Naughton suggests that Swartz was the sacrificial victim utilized by the Federals to discourage others to follow his path (par. 8). The scenario is quite disturbing: Swartz was becoming too effective and inspiring, and he had contributed mobilizing the global community against the SOPA bill. It seems that The State, through the long hand of the Federals, has issued a warning: activism is tolerated to certain extent, and when it is conducted following certain standards. Otherwise, it is wiped away.
Douglass and Swartz were both activists, each carrying a unique charisma. Douglass was endowed with a great oratory through which he lashed and urged his contemporaries to abolish slavery. Swartz devoted his superfine mind, his technological skills, and ultimately his life to disclose the shady areas of the contemporary online world. Both of them clashed against The State, but while Douglass followed certain predictable rules, Swartz was unpredictable and he scared the big powers underlying the American society. For this reason, and to create an example, he was sacrificed.
Douglass, Frederick. History Is a Weapon, 1849. Web.
Naughton, John. The Guardian, 2015. Web.