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Excerpt: "We all hear from a very, very young age, 'Don't rock the boat.' ... And yet Aaron wanted to rock the boat. Not just for the sake of boat-rocking, but for the sake of improving the lives of ordinary people. And that's a beautiful, a wonderful quality."

Congressman Alan Grayson. (photo: Getty Images)
Congressman Alan Grayson. (photo: Getty Images)

Aaron Swartz, R.I.P.

By Alan Grayson, Reader Supported News

23 February 13


aron Swartz was an internet leader and free-speech advocate. He helped organize the worldwide movement to keep the internet free from censorship and corporate control. After Aaron downloaded a large number of scholarly articles from the JSTOR website without JSTOR's permission, he was indicted for violating JSTOR's terms of service. Facing long years in prison, Aaron committed suicide last month, at the age of 26.

At a recent memorial service for Aaron in Washington, DC, Congressman Alan Grayson was invited to speak. Here is what he said:

CONGRESSMAN GRAYSON: Aaron worked in my office as an intern. He had a quality that I found unnerving. He could come up with better things for him to do than I could come up with for him to do. Time and time again, I would give him something to do, and he'd say, "Is it okay if I also work on this other thing?" And "this other thing" turned out to be much more important than anything that I could come up with.

I learned to live with that. I learned to live with that shortcoming, which I took to be a shortcoming of my own, not one of his.

The other unnerving quality that I found in him was the fact that when he would conjure these assignments, they actually came to fruition - an unusual phenomenon here on Capitol Hill. [Laughter.] He'd give himself something to do, I would recognize that it was very worthwhile, I let him do it, and it got done! He was a remarkable human being.

Another thing that I found unnerving - but also very endearing - about Aaron was that Aaron wanted to rock the boat. Now, we all hear from a very, very young age, "Don't rock the boat." I would venture to say that of the 2000 languages spoken on this planet, probably every single one of them has an idiom in that language for that term: "Don't rock the boat." And yet Aaron wanted to rock the boat. Not just for the sake of boat-rocking, but for the sake of improving the lives of ordinary people. And that's a beautiful, a wonderful quality.

We're talking about somebody here who helped to create Reddit, an important world-wide service, at the age of nineteen. Honestly, somebody who probably could have spent the rest of his life in bed, ordering pizzas, and left it at that. And yet he didn't. He continued to strive to do good - good as he saw it. And that's a rare quality in people. Many of us, we just have to do our best to get through the day. That's the way it is. Many of us struggle to do just that. Very few of us actually can think big thoughts, and make them happen. But Aaron was one of those rare people.

And he was willing to take the heat for rocking the boat. Now, you know, sometimes when you rock the boat, the boat tries to rock you. That is exactly what he encountered, right up until the end.

And it's a sad thing, that that's the price you have to pay. For some of us who rock the boat, we end up losing our property. For some of us who rock the boat, we end up losing our freedom. For some of us who rock the boat, we end up losing our families. And in Aaron's case, his life.

And yet, he was willing to face the facts, and to let that happen. To keep striving, to keep struggling, to keep trying to shake things up.

Aaron's life reminded me about a different life that came to the same end. It's the life of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician. He lived in England, and was born one hundred years ago. Alan Turing was the greatest mathematician of the 20th Century. He not only invented the Turing Machine, which is the basis for all modern computing, but Alan Turing also broke the Nazi codes during World War II, and allowed the English and the Americans to defeat the Nazis.

You would think that someone like that would be cherished. Someone like that who, if he had managed to have a full life, might have won one, or two, or even three, Nobel Prizes. But in fact he was vilified, because he was a homosexual, which, at that point in England, in those days, was illegal. And I'm sure that at that point in England, in those days, there were people who said, "Well, the law is the law. And if you disobey the law, then you should go to prison." Because of that, because his boyfriend turned him in, Alan Turing was convicted of perversity, and sentenced to prison.

Given the choice between spending hard time - years and years of his life - instead of doing the mathematics that he loved, or alternatively, to accept estrogen injections, well, Turing took the estrogen injection choice. And that broke not only his body, but his mind. He found that he could not do the thing he loved the most, mathematics, any longer. So after two years of this, Alan Turing committed suicide.

And who lost, out of that? Well, Alan Turing lost. But so did all of we. We lost as well. All of us who would have benefitted from that first, and second, and the third Nobel Prizes that Alan Turing had in him. And that Aaron Swartz had in him.

We're the ones who lose.

If we let our prejudices, our desires to restrain those with creativity - if we let that lead us to the point where that creativity is restrained, then going back all the way to the time of Socrates, what we engage in is human sacrifice. We sacrifice their lives, out of the misguided sense that we need to protect ourselves from them, when in fact it's the opposite.

Our lives have meaning, our lives have greater meaning, from the things that they create. So we're here today to remember Aaron - and also to try to learn from the experience. To understand that prosecution should not be persecution.

This morning I reached into the closet, randomly took out this tie [showing necktie], and wore it. And I have a sense that sometimes, things are connected in ways that are not exactly obvious. It happens that this tie is a painting of "Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh, someone else whose life ended all too soon.

In a Don McLean song about Vincent Van Gogh, it ends this way: "They would not listen. They're not listening still. Perhaps they never will."

It's time to listen.

"And when no hope was left in sight,
On that starry, starry night,
You took your life, as lovers often do.
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you."

-Don McLean, "Starry, Starry Night" (1971).

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+91 # PABLO DIABLO 2013-02-23 15:57
THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU Congressman Grayson.
Welcome back. We missed you.
+75 # DerHermanator 2013-02-23 16:35
Thanks, Alan Grayson.
+66 # Barbara K 2013-02-23 16:49
Thank you, Congressman Grayson and welcome back. It is so sad that we lost such a beautiful young man this way. His life held so much promise. RIP, Aaron Swartz, you left this Earth much too soon.

+50 # jon 2013-02-23 17:06
The story of Socrates is a good analogy. How many more examples in history fit the same mold, the boat rockers, the guy who said the emporer wears no clothes, and so forth.

The current political version of the flat earthers - republicans - are not going to be satisfied until they bring back feudalism.
+6 # soularddave 2013-02-25 22:56
Others? Bradley Manning comes to mind, and there's time to save him from an imposed fate.
+51 # A Different Drummer 2013-02-23 17:23
A most fitting eulogy for a brilliant life cut short by persecution by an out of control government. Thank you Alan. Now it's your turn to rock the ship of state.

After Vietnam and all the subsequent war crimes by one American administration after another, I have no more tears. Yet my heart screams for Aaron's unimaginable terror of a long prison term that caused him to strangle himself to death. I truly doubt he died quickly. Think of how panicked that dear man was as he left this vale of tears we call Earth. He is free and we lost. The toll of what we lost will never be known. What would Aaron have accomplished if allowed to do so?

We who remain silent in the face of creeping totalitarianism will look back at these days with intense grief, at that time, remember Aaron, he warned us.
+48 # WestWinds 2013-02-23 17:53
Aaron Swartz is just another example of abuse of power like Julian Assange and Sgt. Manning. This government is engaged in wrong-doings and they are trying to control it by 'making examples' out of certain people for trying to oppose such evil with freedom of speech and information. This is supposed to be an open society but the evil-doers want global domination and to take the world back to the eleventh century where the masses are unpaid indentured slaves who must work all of their lives for nothing to support a vicious and corrupt ruling class.

Those among us who are not paying attention and don't know how to properly interpret the meaning and intent of this predatory and sadistic behavior think this is okay behavior. The rest of us know better.
+35 # hobbesian 2013-02-23 17:59
May we hear from those responsible for his unnecessary pursuit and harassment, who should be held accountable; at least - questioned on young Aaron's behalf.
+8 # James Marcus 2013-02-23 18:02
Aaron for President
The Drone Ranger, and ALL his 'Hatchet/Yes' men,
for prison.
+20 # charsjcca 2013-02-23 18:08
They paved paradise and made it a parking lot. That is the task that must be dissed.
+38 # barkingcarpet 2013-02-23 18:14
We can change the world folks, AND leave a planet worth living on for future life, or, we can continue on with our consumer lives and not really get involved, or stick our necks out for things outside our warm beds and handy remotes, thermostats, and supermarkets. What ARE we producing or leaving behind in our wakes?
+43 # hoodwinkednomore 2013-02-23 18:18
Yes, thank you, Alan Grayson. Your piece is such an important reminder on so many levels: to be humane, courageous, tolerant, celebratory, thankful, etc. etc. It would be the best if some of your colleagues up on the Hill would take heed of the most remarkable examples set by Aaron Swartz, Alan Turing, and others...
+7 # pbbrodie 2013-02-24 06:51
The others including Alan Grayson!
+23 # Kootenay Coyote 2013-02-23 21:11
It's good to be reminded that there is also an America that can think & speak like this.
+25 # artmensor 2013-02-23 22:01
Alan Grayson! I can only say I am glad a majority of Floridians woke back up!
+11 # pbbrodie 2013-02-24 06:50
Too bad it wasn't a majority of Floridians, just a majority of the ones in Alan Grayson's district. Alan could not get elected to statewide office in florida at this time but maybe he can someday. wouldn't that be a day to remember!!!
+10 # to be 2013-02-24 07:59
Thank you so much for this. I suffer from colitis like Aaron Swartz did, and would not be able to do prison time. Aaron is a true hero for me, knowing he would have to give his life long before anyone else understood it. RIP my friend.
+15 # davehaze 2013-02-24 08:49
Alan didn't mention what drove Arron to suicide. The Justice Department. The Obama Justice Department.
+16 # futhark 2013-02-24 10:20
Yes, it is awkward for many who frequent this site to admit they actively supported the person most responsible for the outrageous treatment of both Aaron Swartz and Bradley Manning. Republican primary candidate Ron Paul lauded Bradley Manning as a "hero" and a "patriot". The current White House occupant, always a supporter of the surveillance state apparatus programs, apparently does not regard Messrs. Swartz or Manning as either heroes or patriots, since he has had the power to drop all charges against them and has failed to act on their behalf.
-13 # rockieball 2013-02-24 10:02
In my mind suicide is a permanent solution to a short term problem. In a few years Arron will be forgotten except as a footnote about a person who did something could have done more but committed suicide when the going got ruff.
-3 # rockieball 2013-02-25 10:23
Knew I'd get negatives for this. But I stand by it. A person does not take the out when the going gets tough, they stand and fight back. Suicide is opting out of what one started because they cannot handle the challenge before them. To me once Arron started and once the going got ruff he should have stood up and stood strong. Sure he did good but he could have stayed and did better.
+2 # babaregi 2013-02-26 17:48
He had Colitus and knew he wouldn't survive his term in prison. Also, clinical depression robs strength from a person to put up a fight in a way you obviously can't understand.
But since you're not suffering from such impediments, let's see what you accomplish after doing some serious boat rocking, tough guy! When the MAN is rocking your world big time we'll see.
-2 # Interested Observer 2013-02-25 08:37
A note on the author's take on Turing. The Turing machine is an abstract model of computation, one of three equivalent models (along with recursive functions and lambda calculus) important in the mathematical theory of computation but not critical to the development of actual computer hardware and most software. The emergence of the computer industry would not have been even slowed if there were no Turing Machine. The primary results of the theory set limits on what can be accomplished with the discovery of undecidable problems and non-computable functions, and measures of complexity that measure the practical solvability of problems. These are very important discoveries but they do not break down critical barriers to the design and implementation of computers or most applications although one must be aware of such results to avoid designing an application whose function requires doing something plausible that is in fact provably impossible. Not to diminish Turing's contributions, the author's suggestion that Turing's work in computation theory was critical to the existence of today's data processing is an overstatement. No commercial computer is or was ever literally a Turing Machine.
+4 # babaregi 2013-02-26 18:03
".Turing is widely considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence". (according to Wikipedia). How come others haven't challenged that (besides you)? I suggest you correct the Wikipedia information and see what other knowledgable people may say on the subject.
I'm no computer whiz so I can't weigh in on the matter but it would have been interesting to see what he could have accomplished if given the support.
For me, stopping the Nazis by breaking their code is good enough to not be nitpicking.
+5 # lark3650 2013-02-26 09:34
"A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people." - John F. Kennedy

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