OPINION: Paradoxes of freedom or lack of thereof (II)


Let me be specific about comparing the action of Pussy Riot to the action of Aaron Swartz, as on the surface they seem quite different. From a cultural point of view, Pussy Riot's guerilla performance and Swartz's urban guerilla action of stealing JSTOR's data through MIT's computer closet both contained classical elements of political action and performance art.

While Pussy Riot can be viewed as bona fide conceptual performance artists, Aaron's alleged "crime", his alleged "felony" was also nothing more than a jest, a performance action, antics meant to attract attention to the lack of protection of scholarly data, and to the notion Aaron passionately believed in: that scholarly data, such as that found on JSTOR, has to be free for all. It was a calculated, deliberate performance action involving an elaborate scenario with real life props: penetrating the closet, installing the computer, hacking MIT and JStOR's systems, and complete with a carnivalesque disguise: a bike helmet as a mask, followed by his arrest and the subsequent return of the stolen data.

The benevolence of Aaron's action was underscored by the fact that his attempt to hide his identity behind a bike helmet was rather laughable, buffoonish, and he eagerly returned the stolen data as his point had been made. He never planned to personally enrich himself as a result of his actions. He rather used his act as a pulpit, a soap box to attract attention to the issues he considered vitally important for him and for society.

Like Pussy Riot he was ready to put his comfort on the line for his beliefs, and like Pussy Riot he took it upon himself a role of a "holy fool," of an obscene jester, of a naïve savant speaking truth to power from the pulpit of his idealistic innocence.

In conclusion I would like to share one rather somber observation regarding Aaron and the hacker community. Yes, there was a great deal of chest beating and outrage among the members of the geek community upon learning of Aaron's tragic death. Yes, he was popular and beloved, but where were they, the almighty hackers en masse supporting him the way artists and musicians came to support Pussy Riot? Where were the international celebrities and anarchists and cyberpunks and philosophers, NGOs and pro bono lawyers? How come he was quietly tortured to death in the plain view by Carmen and her henchmen?

One answer is that Aaron was a strange bird - neither entrepreneur millionaire nor a guerilla hacker--He was a effete, sensitive, rich, successful, famous child of the elite, almost corporate, almost like another Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg. Almost, but not quite, as he was a political activist, a "holy fool" speaking truth to power, a Don Quixote fighting his windmills. He was a dreamer and a radical.

But as a radical he was not a cyber-anarchist like Anonymous, he was not a barricade fighter. He was unique and therefore utterly alone.

And one can also say sadly that an effete, depressive, intellectual computer whiz kid is no match to seasoned political artists such as Pussy Riot, Ai Wei Wei, Banksy, Pyotr Pavlensky, or professional political activists like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. He was not made or trained to withstand the incredible psychological pressure the American Justice system can unleash upon an individual. He was fragile and he broke, he "fought the law and the law won..." to paraphrase Sonny Curtis and the Clash...

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