Last month, I gave this tribute to Aaron Swartz, an internet activist, when I hosted a special Capitol Hill showing of the documentary Killswitch. Aaron was targeted for prosecution for his political views and, facing decades in prison, he killed himself. The documentary not only demonstrates how modern technology threatens our privacy and freedom, but it also recognizes the sacrifices that Aaron Swartz and Edward Snowden made on behalf of those fundamental principles. Aaron used to work for me. So when I introduced the film, I had a few personal things to say:
I’d like to begin by sharing my war experience with you. I remember when I was under fire ... Confederate fire. And Oliver Wendell Homes turned to me, and he said to me, “Get down, you fool.”
I’m sorry, no, that wasn’t me; that was actually Abraham Lincoln. I’ll confess: I’m not Abraham Lincoln, nor am I Bill O’Reilly. But the nice thing about living at this point in time, in the early 21st Century, is that you can actually check my story, right? You can go on the Internet, and find out whether Oliver Wendell Holmes actually ever said that to me. (By the way, he did say it to Lincoln.)
We need to do what we can to preserve that freedom, the freedom to find things out. The freedom to have that magical machine that people started to write about in the mid-20th Century, that magical computer where you could ask any question you wanted, and out came the answer.
That’s a magnificent accomplishment for humanity. But there is another even more important, magnificent accomplishment, which is that the Internet lets us find each other. Not just find out facts, not just find out numbers, but find other spirits, other souls who, in some way that matters to us, are like us. Kindred spirits. That’s a space humanity has created for itself now, that never existed before. It lets you connect with somebody in Bombay, or Tokyo, on very deep levels, when just a short time ago, they were not even a part of your imagination. And that’s something that we have to work hard to protect, because it will always be the case that selfish interests -- whether it’s multinational corporations, the military-industrial complex, the spying-industrial complex, whoever it might be -- they will try to take that freedom away from us. It’s happening right now. That’s what you’re about to see [in this documentary].
Now, we’re going to hear about two people. I never met Edward Snowden, but I did know quite a bit about Aaron Swartz. In fact, he worked for me, for a period of time, a few years ago. And he was brilliant, as you’ll see for yourself. I’m sure that whatever this film may say about him, it can barely do justice to what a special human being he was.
There were a couple of things about Aaron that, I have to tell you honestly, I found disconcerting. One this was that Aaron would always come up better assignments than any assignments that I could come up with. I’d tell Aaron, “Would you please do this?” And Aaron would say, “Well, sure, but do you mind if I also do that?” And always, ‘that’ turned out to be much more important than ‘this.’ Every single time.
Another interesting thing that disturbed me about Aaron was that he really got things done. [Laughter.] Now here, in Washington D.C., that’s a lost art. People really don’t know how to do that anymore. Time after time, after time, we wait ‘til the very last minute, and we somehow manage, often but not always, to somehow get through it, without actually accomplishing anything, but actually just barely avoiding disaster. Aaron wasn’t like that at all. Aaron would think of this amazing thing -- I was stunned by his audacity that he’d even think of it -- and then a few weeks later, it’d be done. He was magnificent that way.
And over time I realized that my reluctance that I had, my frustration that I couldn’t give him assignments that were better than what he’d come up himself, it really reflected more on me than on him. So I stopped thinking about it, entirely.
Now he had a very special quality, which some of you may have, yourselves. Aaron liked to rock the boat. He didn’t mind rocking the boat. And that’s a unique quality in human beings. All over the world, I think, you’ll find that there’s a deep resistance and hesitation to rocking the boat. I’ve said that there are roughly 2,000 human languages on this planet, and I would venture to say that in every single one of those languages, there’s an idiom for the phrase: “Don’t rock the boat.” Well, he rocked the boat. Not only by creating Reddit at the age of 19, something which by itself would have given him the freedom to stay in bed for the rest of his life, and order in pizzas, to be delivered, never having to move beyond the bathroom. He could have had that life. But instead he wanted more. He wanted to go out and, as you’ll see, he wanted to imprint on the world his own sense of freedom -- the freedom I just talked to you about -- the freedom to be able to connect with other people.
Now, here’s the funny thing about what happens when you rock the boat. Sometimes when you rock the boat, the boat rocks you. It rocks back. And Aaron actually understood that, and he took it in good spirits. You have to pay a price for orienting your life in that manner. For some of us who try to rock the boat, we lose our family. For some of us who try to rock the boat, we lose our property. Some of us go to prison. In Aaron’s case, he lost his life. But he always understood that that’s the price that sometimes you must pay if you were that kind of person; if you have the impulse to go ahead and make a difference.
He was a person of enormous talent. And sometimes we are very hard on people with enormous talent. At a memorial service for Aaron, I mentioned Alan Turing, whose story since has become famous in a Hollywood movie. I think that there is a very deep and important point in talking about Aaron, in talking about Alan Turing, in talking about Oscar Wilde, who suffered for his greatness, too. In talking [about such people] all the way back to Socrates. These are people whom we made to pay a price because they were so good at what they did that it disturbed us, it got under our skin. We look at them with some degree of, I don’t know, maybe you could call it guilt. Maybe you’d call it jealousy. But we took their lives, and we crushed them. They became human sacrifices, as you are about to see [in the documentary].
And that’s a pity, because people of talent make our lives better. And although we may think that we have to protect ourselves from them, in reality, it’s they who need protection from us, as we’ll see in this movie. And far from our needing protection from them, they’re the ones who make our lives better. If Alan Turing had lived, he would have won two or three Nobel Prizes after cracking the Nazi codes, and inventing the Turing machine, which is the basis for all of modern computing. If Oscar Wilde had lived, we’d not be enjoying only three or four major plays, we would be enjoying ten, or twelve or fifteen of them. And of course if Socrates had lived, then Plato wouldn’t have been such a bad guy after all.
So we have to learn to cherish those people who stand out; not to hate them, not to be jealous of them, not to punish them, not to ridicule them; and for sure, not to kill them. But rather to understand that the things that make us special are in fact the things that make us different, not the things that make us the same. And that any well-organized society takes advantage of our differences; doesn’t try to undermine them or hide them; doesn’t try to get over them, or overcome them; but rather seeks to cherish them. And make sure, in any event, that the prosecution that Aaron faced doesn’t become a persecution for the way he was.
Because, as Margaret Meade said, it’s people like that, those few people who can organize, who can assert themselves, who actually achieve advancement for all us, the entire human race. It’s the only thing that ever has.
So with that, I’d like to turn you over to the film. I would like to mention that you’ll be enjoying a Q&A after the film with Professor Lessig. Professor Lessig actually joined me in that memoriam for Aaron Swartz a few years ago. Here’s a couple things you may not know about Prof. Lessig. Unaccountably, Christopher Lloyd once depicted him in a film, but not me. I don’t know why. It seems that he’d be a natural to [portray] me, but that’s never happened yet. Professor Lessig is also the sixth most famous former University of Chicago law school professor. Who can name some of the others? Anybody? [Audience responds.]. Barack Obama, yes. Barack Obama, three Supreme Court justices and Judge Douglas Ginsburg – my thesis advisor at Harvard – who somehow neglected to invite me to any of his pot parties. I feel very bitter about that to this day, obviously.
Anyway, understand that the film that you are about to see, which focuses on two incredible people, focuses not only on their personal bravery and the sacrifices they made, but also is a hallmark for our time. It is a landmark, on the road to either heaven or hell. And that decision is ours. Thank you very much.
Rep. Alan Grayson
To see the video, click here.