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Perhaps Jeff Atwood Should Stick to the Code

22 January 2013

Like everyone else with an internet connection and a brain, I am deeply saddened by the passing of Aaron Swartz: a brilliant activist, programmer and visionary who was (according to family members) pushed to suicide by a vindictive prosecution. One of the many people to write about Aaron's death was Jeff Atwood (whose main claim to fame is StackOverflow, the programming Q-and-A site he founded), posting an article a few days ago entitled "The End of Ragequitting".

"Ragequitting" — for those who are not avid gamers, and as Atwood explains — "... is Internet slang commonly used to describe the act of suddenly quitting a game or chatroom after either an argument, extreme frustration, or loss of the game." To me, the word itself is unimportant: it's trite to the point of being offensive, but the real damage lies in the underlying argument, which is better expressed in so many words. Jeff Atwood is apparently saying that Aaron Swartz was taking an underhand route to escape the consequences of his activism, and that he was being a bad activist in so doing. This is made clear as the article progresses:

One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.

(emphasised excerpt from an MLK quotation)

But also, I must admit that I am a little disappointed in Aaron. .. he chose the path of the activist long ago. And the path of the activist is to fight, for as long and as hard as it takes, to effect change.

Ragequitting is childish, a sign of immaturity. But it is another thing entirely to play the final move and end your own life. To declare the end of this game and all future games, the end of ragequitting itself.

What happened to Aaron was not fair. Not even a little. But this is the path of the activist.

So here we have a man whose only experience with a courtroom is, by his own admission, as a non-participating juror and whose only brush with activism is a highly-questionable appeal to the public not to learn programming, proclaiming that Aaron Swartz just made his bed and didn't want to lie in it.

I am a some-time political activist, and I have lived through a small part of the state's response to protest that it deems illegal. Firstly, I can assure Jeff Atwood that the reality of police and legal persecution is worse than he, I or anyone else imagines it will be ahead of time. The criminal justice system is precisely designed as a form of psychological attack and control, and the true awful details are hidden from the public to make the whole framework morally palpable. In the book "Every Twelve Seconds", Timothy Pachirat quotes sociologist Zigmunt Bauman to define a "zone of confinement ... a segregated and isolated territory ... invisible ... and on the whole inaccessible to ordinary members of society", and this description precisely fits the physical spaces in which the majority of the violence of the criminal justice system is inflicted: police stations, courthouses and prisons.

As Pachirat continues, "concealment and the creation of distance mark the primary relation between power and sight in the contemporary era", and in the US that power is exercised to terrifying effect in the dark corners of cells and at the barrel of police guns in city streets. Close to 1000 dead in custody, 350 killed by police each year1, 200,000+ victims of prison rape, unknowable hundreds of thousands serving life sentences for draconian "three strikes" drug laws. The savagery is horrifying, so is it not understandable to be horrified in response? Jeff Atwood, from his glib quote about "loving acceptance" of this state violence, does not seem to be in a position of great knowledge — perhaps a single visit to a prison or a single night in a jail cell would be helpful before passing further comment about the moral imperative to bear it all with civil passivity.

There is no justice in a system that magnifies the differences between rich and poor, for instance letting off a bank which assisted in laundering $60 trillion per year on the same day as sentencing a 27-year-old woman to a life in jail for cocaine found in her house, and allows personal ambition to be one of many unsavoury factors influencing the uneven application of justice (as occurred with Carmin Ortiz's strategic pursuit of Swartz). To imply that Aaron's death was some kind of poor sportsmanship is to pretend against all evidence that life is fair in the first place: we cannot replace a gigantic machine that imprisons and destroys and drives to suicide merely by holding our heads high while we are cut down by it. Jeff — if you ever happen to glance at this post — you would do the world a great service to highlight the horror inflicted by the system that was starting to chew up Aaron Swartz, and be clear that an exhortation to stay alive to carry on a cause must come with compassion for those who have been broken by it.

Comments below or on HackerNews.

  1. According to the Bureau of Justice Death in Custody Reporting Program; latest figures available are from 2009 for deaths in custody and 2005 for "arrest-related" deaths.