Aaron Swartz and polarized responses to civil disobedience

I keep reading these really polarized op-eds that either vilify or passionately defend the decisions of folks like Aaron Swartz, Edward Snowden, and others who have been in the news with varying plots of transparency, exposure, demonstration, and crises of conscience. We have everything from Julian Assange documentaries to legal defenses for JSTOR and journalists at the Guardian; in highly charged discussions of Wikileaks, Aaron Swartz, and Edward Snowden respectively. I remember noting that the principles of civil disobedience have always involved paying the price for the indiscretion that a righteous demonstrator, protester, leader or objector commits. But our discourse needs not only to look at a polar question of right and wrong, but at the complex decision-making models behind the situation and person in question- and in the end, our societal mores and folkways. For instance, one of the more interesting arguments I’ve heard recently about Aaron Swartz’s intended electronic release of JSTOR journal articles and manuscripts was that this was stealing from authors. Being new to academia, I can’t say I’m yet as prolific as I am working to be, but I have a few eggs in that basket.

Most of the authors* in JSTOR do not own their copyrights. I can’t access my own articles without getting around a pay-wall either through an institution or my own credit card. Authors are not paid for these publications other than through academic capital, which varies greatly and isn’t comparable to the massive money that JSTOR and other publishing outfits harvest from what is essentially taxpayer money in the first place. So releasing JSTOR articles was illegal, but I would hope we can process that as a society and continue to look at the facts behind the civil disobedience- rather than be deflected from facts by strong rhetoric.

As far as Snowden, the outrage of [the NSA] getting caught has fueled accusations toward him. “Look at what this has done to our relationship with Germany!” … I used to work with adjudicated juveniles in a lockdown facility- when asked why they were there, they’d answer “because I was caught.” Granted, in Snowden’s case, I don’t think he chose the correct path of refuge. I also believe civil disobedience necessitates paying the price. However, I’m “trillions” of times more concerned about what he exposed, than how or who exposed it. We’ve been embarrassed, not by Snowden. Any of the NSA information that has been leaked and confirmed by insiders from tech companies like Apple, Google, etc. would have been fodder for a paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis if we had heard this stuff a decade or two ago. Now it’s just a flood of desensitizing outrageous believe-it-or-not infotainment, served up alongside Kanye and Kim’s “you named your baby what” stories. And that’s the problem. I hope we can approach social problems by changing our society, rather than going after the messenger- slavery, women as property, and genocide have all been features of societies in our history- laws that needed to change.

Some well reasoned discourse and accountable policy needs to spring from our experiences of people like Swartz and others- not this polarizing rhetoric that I see: “moronic”.. “traitor”.. “patriot” .. what about the math, social justice, public policy, ethics, and economics; among other subjects, that result from these revelations? If we brush information like this aside and write it off as the result of having been caught, if we blame “the snitch” and fail to address the underlying deficiencies, we will continue to experience a society crippling cognitive dissonance. There is a middle road, and it is evidence based and factual. And it must be followed through.

For every wrong in an evolving society that must be righted, there is civil disobedience. Prices are indubitably paid. Hopefully we can look to the underlying issues and follow through with collective self improvement, every time we are presented with a Swartz, Manning, or Martin Luther King.


*Edit 1/13/14: I declared in haste that nobody in JSTOR owns his or her copyright, but that is not true. A small number of authors do retain rights to what they write.

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