‘Enlightened,’ Aaron Swartz And The Consequences Of Activism

At the end of the second season of Enlightened, HBO’s strange, precise show about Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), a former corporate drone who has an awakening and decides she has to bring her employer, Abaddon Industries to justice, Amy finds herself in shock after she is caught stealing corporate documents and turning them over to Jeff (Dermot Mulroney), a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “They just fired me,” she tells him on the phone, clearly frightened despite her show of bravado to the company’s president. “They said they were going to sue me.” “Well,” said Jeff, who had been putting up some pretense of dating her to enhance their emotional bond while she continued to feed him documents, “we knew that was going to happen.” “We did?” Amy asked him. “Amy, this story is going to shift the paradigm, man,” Jeff tried to reassure her, appealing to her rather grandiose ego and desire to be an “agent of change” on a massive scale. “They can’t stop it, okay? It’s all worth it.” When Amy told him “We’ll see,” she sounded more sobered, and more realistic, than she has at any other point at the show, even at the moment of her biggest triumph.

Enlightened is a beautiful, wonderful, extraordinarily difficult show on any number of levels—I find it so hard to watch even though I think it’s remarkable that I marathoned the entire second season yesterday so I could enjoy and get it over with at once. And Mike White’s long and quietly been doing critically important work about how hard it is to live out your principals in America, whether he was writing about Dewey Finn (Jack Black) finding another way to make a career out of his love of music in School of Rock or showing Amy crumple in the first season as she learned that the salary for her dream job at a non-profit would leave her bobbing around the poverty line. But even though Enlightened had a semi-triumphant finale, it made one of the most painful points White’s ever gotten across: that you can be right on the merits, you can even win a major political or social battle, and still be treated like a pariah, fired, sued, or jailed. Winning doesn’t save you from consequences—in fact, your continued suffering may be the price of your victory.

This is a point that—with the exception of martyr stories like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X—is often significantly absent from our popular understanding of history and our mass culture. We remember Harriet Tubman’s heroic work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and never bother to learn that she had her arm broken by a train conductor while white passengers called for her to be thrown off the train, that she didn’t receive a pension for her Civil War service until 1899, and that she was the victim of a kind of prototypical 419 confidence fraud. After Frank Kameny was fired from the U.S. Army Map Service after his arrest in Lafayette Park for cruising, he was never employed again, friends and family supported him as he pursued activism, and it wasn’t until 2009 that Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry apologized to Kameny on behalf of the government and gave him the Theodore Roosevelt Award.

Seeing the gap between the public impact of activism and the private consequences for activists unfold in Enlightened hit me in a particularly painful way because I watched the show’s second season on the same day that the New Yorker put Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of Aaron Swartz, the activist and programmer who committed suicide in January, online, and the day after The Atlantic published Swartz’s former partner Quinn Norton’s account of her involvement in the federal case against him for downloading documents from JSTOR. I would never compare Swartz to Amy Jellicoe as activists on the whole, because Amy’s talents and understanding of political systems are so nascent, and because she fundamentally lacks the talent for making friends that Swartz, in my and many others’ experiences, possessed. But in that lack of full cognizance of the consequences of their actions, they seemed to have something in common. MacFarquhar writes:

Two years ago, he was indicted on multiple felony counts for downloading several million articles from the academic database jstor. It is not clear why he did this. He may have wanted to analyze the articles, or he may have intended to upload them onto the Web, so they could be accessed by anyone. It is clear that he did not anticipate the astonishing severity of the legal response. He did not consider his JSTOR action an act of civil disobedience for which he was prepared to sacrifice a portion of his life in prison. It was not a project that was particularly important to him. There had been a time when he cared deeply about copyright issues, but he had moved on.

In the wake of Swartz’s suicide, there’s been a lot of discussion about overprosecution, and about the prospect of an Aaron’s Law that might whittle down the penalties in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. But watching Enlightened and reading the so many profiles of Swartz that have been published since his death, I wonder if, just as Swartz had broadened his interests far beyond computers and copyright to questions of politics, governance, small-but-effective regulations, and the influence of corporate money on our political system, our discussions of his life and death might honor him more if expanded to the larger political context.

It’s not just hackers who face severe punishments for their activism, and who may not be prepared for the consequences they face. Labor activists face risks of retaliation and firing if they push for more humane work environments and better pay. The Occupy activists who were netted, arrested en masse, and pepper-sprayed were a powerful illustration of what a militarized police force can, and will do to people protesting for change, even if they’re doing so without breaking the law. Whistleblowers who are less spacey and self-deluded than Amy Jellicoe get fired. These sorts of consequences are extremely powerful tools of the corporations and governments who have vested interests in maintaining the status quo, raising the consequences of protest and organizing so high that many, many people can’t afford the entry fee. Whether Aaron Swartz killed himself because of the pressures of the prosecution brought to bear against him, his life in the two years before his death are a dramatic illustration of the tab activists can be presented with: millions of dollars in legal fees, the circumscription of their ability to speak and act, and profound disruption of their social and private lives, and overwhelming fear. Maybe Swartz should have been prepared to pay it, and understood the price before he took action so he’d know what was likely to come due to him. But maybe the bill for him, and for many other activists, even ones like Amy Jellicoe, should come in at a lower cost.