Saturday, January 12, 2013

so strange

Timothy B. Lee has written a remembrance of Aaron Swartz that contains a constant drip of bizarre, out-of-context American chauvinism, suggesting that Swartz's activism and curiosity are less indicative of his character and upbringing and more a consequence of his country of origin. It's a shame, because Lee's post hides a far more humane, far better point about genuine disobedience, one that's lost in the useless consideration of the fiction that is Americanness. It's like he can't help himself. To be fair, Lee is playing off of Paul Graham, but the whole enterprise is just profoundly strange. Lee equates Americanness with unruly experimentation, apparently having never heard of Alan Turing or Niels Bohr or Yoshihiro Yakamatsu, or that cultures like those in France or the Netherlands have a far deeper history of tolerance for actual disruption-- as opposed to that which only serves capitalism-- than in the United States. He is also apparently unaware that what Silicon Valley is most interested in producing is new ways to send people photos of your junk and social networks for cats.

More than the ugliness of the American chauvinism is the simple failure to make the argument he wants to make. I see absolutely no reason to think that Swartz would not have been the person he would have been had he been born in another country; no reason to believe that he would have been less likely to have been prosecuted in an earlier decade; and no reason to believe that this whole awful scenario says anything about some special Americanness and its lack among those in other countries. The whole piece uses the pitched emotions inspired by Swartz's death to obscure the fundamentally failures of Lee's argument. Lee would, no doubt, admit that there are brilliant, creative, and unruly thinkers the world over. So what provokes this sort of thing? He's writing this at a time of profound American failure-- military, economic, political. At such times, arguments inevitably sprout up to assert American superiority. I think it's a straightforward example of the patriotism of anxiety.

I cannot imagine occupying the mindset that responds to this tragedy by looking for an excuse to engage in nationalism. It's particularly unfortunate because so much of the ideology of digital activism and freedom of information that Swartz represented is explicitly, defiantly international, with no use for patriotism or borders. Indeed, few things could be less patriotic than disobedience; invocations of country are, after all, a mechanism of control.

1 comment:

cian said...

Do you know who would have been the first to call bullshit on that article: Aaron Swartz.

One of the wonderful things about Aaron was that he was a square peg in the round holes of cyber-activism. There really was nobody like him in that world. He was hugely influenced by Doug Henwood (an early encounter I had with him was on Doug Henwood's mailing list), he helped revive the Baffler, he was a good friend of Rick Perlstein. He simply was not the guy in that tribute. If you want to get some idea of who he was, read this tribute from Jacobin: