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Activism and Perseverance: Thoughts on Losing Aaron Swartz

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Like a whole lot of other people, I was stunned by the news of Internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz's suicide this weekend. Swartz, archetypal tech prodigy and developer of the RSS protocol some of you are using to read this article, took his own life Friday. And I've spent the days since thinking about the price people pay when they try to make the world a better place.

It's important to remember that no one knows what was taking place in Swartz's mind when he took his own life. He was facing prosecution, and the possibility of severe sentencing, on charges stemming from an act of civil disobedience on behalf of open access to peer-reviewed journals -- an act that even the organization from whom he "stole" the articles, JSTOR, has said has already been resolved to its satisfaction. Swartz's close friends and family have slammed overzealous federal prosecutors for hounding him.

Still, the only person who really knew why Swartz killed himself was Swartz. It's tempting to read motivation into his act that fits whatever narrative we want to ascribe, and there are big honking narratives here just begging to be incorporated. Some of them may be more or less correct. We don't know, and most of us never will know, whether our guesses are educated ones. Depression has its own logic.

When I was Swartz's age, before he was born, I too faced federal prosecution for deliberately violating a law as an act of conscience. I'd refused to register with the Selective Service System shortly after Jimmy Carter reinstituted draft registration in 1981. I was contacted by the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney's office in Buffalo, N.Y. -- where I lived at the time of my "offense" -- compiled a case against me. According to my FBI file, portions of which I obtained a decade later, I missed being formally indicted only because of a shift in policy on the part of the Reagan administration.

Also like Swartz, I fought crippling depression through my 20s, and -- to some extent -- to this day, three decades later.

Compared to the ludicrous sentences Swartz's antagonists were bandying about, 35 years and millions of dollars in restitution, I faced only a potential five year term in Federal prison. But despite Swartz having faced seven times as long a sentence, the commonality I felt with him in the wake of his final decision made this past weekend seriously unnerving: That could have been me.

To the degree that people think of activists at all these days, it seems the common conception is that of a person with supreme self-assurance -- that Rosa Parks style "little light" that serves as an internal moral compass and source of strength even in the most difficult days. It's the pop-history version of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez; modern-day secular saints.

The writer Paul Rogat Loeb has argued eloquently that this image of the activist dissuades regular people from working to change things for the better. "Chief among the obstacles to [activism]," writes Loeb, "is the mistaken belief that anyone who takes a committed public stand, or at least an effective one, has to be a larger-than-life figure --someone with more time, energy, courage, vision, or knowledge than a normal person could ever possess."

Over the last 40 years I've met hundreds of lifelong activists who've worked with the peace movement, the prison reform movement, the feminist and environmentalist and gay rights movements. I've met activists who were famous and activists who had some renown within specific circles and activists who were essentially unsung, activists very old and very young, and of those hundreds of activists maybe two came close to fitting the saint stereotype. At least outwardly.

Instead, many of the activists I've known, including some I'd call truly heroic, were and are beset by private doubts. They second-guess themselves, devalue their worth and the worth of their work. They magnify their flaws and write off their victories.

Yes, there are also activists who self-promote, relegating their flaws to blind spots which they defend tooth and nail. Most activists, in fact, will do some of each. We're human, after all. But in my experience, the people who do the best work are the people least likely to see the real value of their accomplishments.

Swartz had money. He helped develop the underpinnings of the popular site Reddit, and earned what was apparently a significant amount of cash when the site was bought by Conde Nast. Most activists do not share that privilege. There is no money, most of the time, in challenging the status quo. If a developer wins a fight to clearcut the last ancient oaks and build substandard housing that will eventually go unoccupied, that developer stands to earn large sums. Those who tree-sit in the ancient oaks to fight the developers earn little except a sense of temporary satisfaction if they win. A chain store cuts hours and benefits for its workers and can increase its wealth by millions; work to fight the cutbacks and you'll likely lose your minimum wage job.

Among my late friend David Brower's many timeless aphorisms was this one about environmental activism: "All of our victories are temporary, and all of our defeats are permanent." That's true of a lot of other kinds of activism as well. Start caring about making the world a better place and you've essentially signed up for a life sentence of rearguard actions and fighting battles you thought you'd won already.

Activism and depression walk hand in hand. The background rate of depression is already high in the U.S.: about one in ten adults suffers one form or another of the disease. Take that background rate and add hard work, significant stress, and rewards that tend toward the intangible when they happen at all, and you have a veritable Petri dish for culturing depression even in those you wouldn't think susceptible.

Add to that the fact that most people who become activists do so because they care deeply about something and feel that it's threatened -- their ability to marry who they want, their control over their bodies and lives, their children's future, the land they live in -- and those depression stakes get raised even higher.

A number of years ago, during the course of an intake session as I was seeking help for my own depression, the clinician I was meeting asked me a list of questions to gauge how they could best help me. One of the questions was this: "Have you ever felt an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness?" Without even thinking, I answered "I'm an environmental journalist." I didn't mean it as a joke, and I didn't have to explain what I meant. He nodded and wrote something down on his pad.

Environmentalism is a classic example of a cause that breeds depression, because there are a lot of days when it seems like everything you care about is doomed. But that's not exclusive to us enviros. You can achieve the same kind of overwhelming hopelessness as a feminist activist, watching women's rights get rolled back in the few countries where they've been won, while horrific atrocities are visited on women around the world. Labor activists can get there too, what with the current all-out assault on the right to organize on a scale unprecedented since the 1870s. Or neighborhood beautification activists, as predatory robosigning lenders turn one neighborhood after another into abandoned meth tracts.

You get involved in a cause that means something to you, and you necessarily change your life. You focus more and more on that urgent thing that demands your attention. You put more and more work into it. One day your cause suffers a setback, but you learn from it, regroup, and bounce back with renewed vigor. Then another setback comes. Each little loss means the bouncing back takes a little longer, the recovery less complete when it comes. It's estimated that people with more than mild depression lose about half their productivity, and when you're working on things that seem like emergencies that loss of productivity only adds to your stress and guilt, deepening the depression. And your opponents pop up hydra-headed, backed by a seemingly infinite pile of resources, while you have to choose between keeping the campaign's web site up and paying your car insurance, and any future you can imagine consists of things getting worse than they are now.

And you look at someone like Aaron Swartz, with his brilliance and his influential set of friends and his money and his youthful energy and idealism, and you think "if he didn't survive this, how the hell will I?"

Yucca schidigera clone ring | Photo: Chris Clarke

Right about here, in essays of this kind, is where the reader may reasonably expect a sort of rhetorical pivot, in which the writer brings to light some hopeful news that offers a solution to the problem being described.

I don't have anything like that to offer you, I'm afraid. But I do have a story.

A few years ago, confronted with a mounting series of threats to the Mojave Desert landscape and feeling like any effort I put in was more or less wasted, I took a walk in the desert. I came upon a picturesque clump of Mojave yucca, one of my favorite desert plants, and I sat there with it for a while looking at the horizon dozens of miles away.

I was in my last day of a weekend spent outside the city, and I resented having to go back. In the desert I could lose the preoccupation with both my work and my disintegrating personal life; that was much harder to do outside the desert. In the desert, I was as close to content as I ever get. And yet my life kept calling me back.

How much better it would be if I was a yucca like this one, I thought. Growing in this spot for 700, perhaps 900 years already, no need for provisions or gasoline, drinking water a couple times a year, and spending the rest of the time being part of the landscape in a way I never could?

I spent a moment in rank, absurd envy of that yucca, cursing my luck for having been born a human being rather than a succulent plant, wishing I could will myself to change form and sink weathered roots into the gravel on that remote alluvial fan.

And then the realization sank in. That yucca, for all its age, wizened trunk, and fearsome leaf spines, was vulnerable in a way I was not. It could endure against time and heat and drought, but not against the threats I knew it was facing. It had evolved ways to conserve water, to guard against sun and wind, but it had not evolved a defense against bulldozers.

Or had it? It couldn't leave this place and speak in its defense. But I could.

And I did. And it didn't work: that yucca was shredded by a big machine, and an industrial solar plant now rises from the place where it grew. It lost -- I lost. But I had to try. And about a week into the deep funk I navigated when I knew that yucca had been lost, I remembered there were hundreds just like it in places still under threat that had not yet been destroyed. It's hard to give up when I have things I care about that depend on me. Call that a blessing or a curse, whichever you like.

It's six of one, a half dozen of the other. Each of you working to make the world a better, kinder, safer place: we need you, and if you deprive us of yourself, you undo the work you struggled so hard to get done.

You have to persevere. There's no other choice, really. Except the one Swartz took, and look at us all now without him, called on to persevere without his help.

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