Between Micropolitics and Martyrdom

Lawrence Lessig and Aaron Swartz (2002) / Rich Gibson / CC BY

Lawrence Lessig and Aaron Swartz (2002) / Rich Gibson / CC BY

I can’t really add much to the beautiful eulogies for Aaron. Except perhaps one thing.

Somewhere back in the 1970s micropolitics emerged as the dominant paradigm of change. As a Generation Xer, it’s really all I’ve ever known. My parents grew up in the civil rights age, where the idea was to get hold of the levers of power and use them. I grew up in the Think Global/Act Local age, where we all try to affect our immediate environs by being slightly better people and somehow this is supposed to lead to a better future.

You can see the massive failure of this Act Local paradigm in environmentalism, which sold us on micropolitics as a solution. We have a population now that busily sorts its trash while we careen towards global apocalypse. And while polluters continue with abandon, even supporting our cute little recycling efforts.

So one problem with micropolitics is that it does not work.

The second problem is that the Rosa Parks’s of the world did not really go away. But when they emerge nowadays, micropolitics is a lousy way to break their fall. We need money in the movement, people to staff it. We need think tanks and lobbyists. We need media people, lawyers. People like Aaron should not have to worry that they will bankrupt themselves or that there is a chance in hell that they will go to jail for 30 years.

The most depressing reaction I have seen to Aaron’s death is the “PDF tribute” — put up your your PDFs of articles! Pay tribute!

Putting up your PDFs will change things about as much as sorting your trash will stave off global warming.

This is not a micropolitical problem. The reason a prosecutor could act with such cruelty is that there is a set of people with hands on the levers of power, and those people reward cruelty in IP cases of this sort.

If you care about this stuff, stop mucking around with sorting trash, and get your hands on the levers. The  conspicuous lack of strong macropolitical institutions creates the hole activists like Aaron fall through. It creates a system that requires we feed it martyrs. We should be looking for ways to address that, not posting the PDFs we should have been posting anyway.

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