The prosecution and suicide of Aaron Swartz took place in a context of celebrity. Swartz besides being a highly skilled developer was also a political person. “Swartz also focused on sociology, civic awareness and activism. In 2010 he joined the Harvard University Center for Ethics. He cofounded the online group Demand Progress (known for its campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act) and later worked with U.S. and international activist groups Rootstrikers and Avaaz.”
So was the person who prosecuted him, Carmen Ortiz. She was gunning for high office in Massachusetts. The appropriateness of Ortiz’s legal actions is beyond my competence to comment on, but the context of her actions is pretty interesting anyhow. The Boston Globe ran a highly revealing article on Ortiz shortly before Swartz committed suicide, describing her as the protege of high Democratic Party officials. The Globe article began with this bombshell:
In a recent private meeting, the [Mass] House speaker and Senate president were stunned when Governor Deval Patrick, according to a person briefed on the conversation, raised the prospect of US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz running for governor and spoke favorably of the prosecutor whose investigation of the state Probation Department has rattled the Legislature.
According to the person, Patrick said the federal prosecutor, whose Puerto Rican-born parents raised her in a New York public housing project, has a great story to tell about her successful legal career. He left the impression he was suggesting that the two should meet her.
The phrase “a great story to tell” may be the most fatal political expression of modern times. Ortiz had just assumed her new position as US Attorney for Massachusetts and was already set to aim for higher office. “In 2009, she was nominated to the position by President Barack Obama. Ortiz is both the first woman and the first Hispanic to serve as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts. … Noteworthy prosecutions by her office include those of Tarek Mehanna (ending in conviction) and Aaron Swartz (committed suicide prior to trial).”
While she doubtless had other qualifications, surely one of them was running on a “great story”. While no one can accuse Ortiz of base motives, it’s fair to say that had Swartz not spoiled the narrative by suicide, his scalp would have looked good on her wall next to Mehanna’s. The “narrative” plays such an important part in public life these days that people can hardly go anywhere without it. From Lance Armstrong to Manti Te’o everybody seems to need an angle.
The role of drama and stagecraft in politics has gone beyond the use of styrofoam pillars. Recently Emma Margolin defended president Obama’s use of children as a setting to announce his gun control measures by asserting that “both sides use children”. By accusing the president of using kids as props, his critics are attacking children since everybody does it.
It’s nothing new to call the current debate over gun control vicious. But somewhere between the mass murder of 20 elementary school students in Newtown, Conn., and President Obama’s decision to include four young kids during Wednesday’s gun control announcement, the political debate over guns has turned particularly nasty, and it has settled on a new target: children.
No longer are opponents of gun control attacking just the politicians. Attacks from the far right focus on children so intensely that it is sometimes hard to tell who is really in their bullseye–gun control advocates or the children themselves.
Girlsfriends, life stories, inspirational anecdotes — these and not a track record are what people rise on today. And if you don’t have a story, invent one. If Te’o had an imaginary girlfriend, Barack Obama had a composite one. Not that anyone can blame him for gilding the lily. In a world of 48 fps 3D video, where fantasy actually looks better than reality ever could, who can settle for humdrum truth. We live in a world of Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk. People with real girlfriends or a US Attorney who didn’t grow up in a housing project while Hispanic and female are out of the running.
Real people are boring. They are also actual. That circumstance in the past outweighed their lack of skintight body tights and superhero boots. But as pointed out in an early post, we live today in a world of “impossible objects”. And that’s where people want to stay.
Swartz and Ortiz were pulled around by the gravitational forces of publicity. He was not just another developer and she was not simply another US attorney looking for dangerous people to jail. In that distortion lay the seeds of a tragedy. They were a Romeo and Juliet of sorts. And such blooms are not alone. They are everywhere you look.