Martyrs, causes and history



No other blog I have written for IHE has prompted me to think as deeply as the one the other day about Aaron Swartz. The issues surrounding his life and death are obviously complicated. They have excited many people from different political spectrums and intellectual dispositions to react in a panoply of ways. The various issues that now attach: the discord between law and technology wrought by the \”Internet\” and information economy age; intellectual property; technical security laws; crime and punishment; mental illness; Internet culture, law and politics ring out from his name.

To this magnet I would like to stick a discourse on the role of martyrs to causes and history. If not already, Mr. Swartz, I predict, will be become the martyr to the cause of taking law and social policy issues related to information technologies seriously. By that I mean not merely recognizing the dissonance that exists between law and technology but pressing our leaders and politicians to take meaningful action on these issues. Should this prediction come true, then that outcome will be Mr. Swartz\’s legacy.

It is far easier to look back into history and honor martyrs than to observe the process in the present day. Those early Christian martyrs the nuns taught us to adore in the Catholic schools I attended would have died by the time I arrived at St. Augustine\’s Grammar School in 1963 anyway. Why not honor them for their sacrifice? Why not revere them for standing up for something, a belief, an idea, social justice, righteous rebellion against the Roman oppressors or catalysts in myriad other societies for constructive social change? Martyrdom infused their lives with meaning. Even if the practical norms of American Catholic socialization in mid-20th century steered away from such extremes, the lives of the martyrs were an example of the sacrifice we should all expect to make in assuming adult responsibilities as either lay persons or clergy members of the faith.

By nature I am a high-spirited person. In youth these ideas appealed greatly to me. Even in middle age, they still hold sway. But I confess, father, I have sinned. I have come to make room in my heart for a broader portfolio of devotions. I would not, for example, as Sarah did with Abraham, allow the father of our children to carry them off to a sacrifice on an alter. Years of prayer before the crucifix and statues of Mary have not resulted in a desire to play that kind of maternal role. I have two boys, one of whom is highly idealistic and off this summer to Cupertino and perhaps a career in technology, but I will be damned before I would entertain much less exalt even the thought of giving his life for the cause of Apple, or Google or Facebook or Time Warner or Comcast or Cisco or Oracle or Cornell or Congress or the Electronic Frontier Foundation or the Berkman Center at Harvard or whatever other corporate or material or even immaterial underpinning of his nascent experiences in technology — including in that list many places I love and respect greatly.

I therefore find curious the emphasis that some people have placed on the events surrounding the life and death of Mr. Swartz to enshrine him in this way. Count me among the many who have called out for change in the law at sixes and sevens with our information economy. But separate me from those who need or want martyrs for the cause. I am enough of a historian to recognize that often it takes martyrs — intentional, as Mr. Swartz might be, or unintentional as were the children at Sandy Hook — to bring about change. Their tragedies signal the clarion call that ultimately moves people. Let us move on swiftly then to the next stage. In the area of gun control, that is what Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature have done; it is what President Obama, and let us hope Congress, will do too. Rather than bicker over the various strands of how or why Mr.Swartz chose to die, let us unite in accomplishing what makes sense of his life.