In my last post, I accused Chomsky of whitewashing U. S. domestic repression when he described it as “undetectable” in comparison with the rest of the world. This incited some haggling with fans who think it’s reasonable to temporarily disappear, for rhetorical effect, two million people languishing in U. S. prisons, based on a percentage contest with Palestinians.
No doubt these bean counters consider themselves internationalists the way Chomsky does, but it’s actually the height of parochialism to measure horror with census figures. For the person consigned to a cage, it’s hardly mitigating that he shares his condition with one in one hundred residents of some place, rather than with one in ten in some other. This should be obvious, but this is the discourse you get when people like Chomsky are the official guiding lights.
To show that the whitewashing I mentioned in the last post was by no means a one-off, and to examine some additional problems, I am going to turn now to a lengthy interview Chomsky did last year in March at the British Library with Jonathan Freedland. At one point, Freedland asked:
Can you give an example of a dissenter who is, kind of, pushed aside by the system — the example of Aaron Swartz at your own university, MIT…did you have a response on that?
Chomsky’s answer is long but revealing. I am going to take it in three parts. Part 1:
The number of dissenters that are pushed aside is almost universal, either they’re in jail… if it’s Latin America they get their heads blown off. In the United States they’re marginalized in various ways. The United States is a free country…there is more protection for freedom of speech [than in Britain]…But essentially they can’t get jobs, they’re marginalized, they’re vilified. All sort of things, not much punishment, frankly, but, it’s real.
Once again we see the whitewashing of domestic repression that I touched on in Part 1 and this time I am going to refute it at greater length. First of all, being vilified and made unable to support oneself is actually quite a lot of punishment, if your baseline is ‘not persecuted’ as opposed to ‘not murdered.’ But the repression of U.S. dissenters doesn’t end with extreme marginalization. It’s beyond scope here to list all the U. S. political dissidents whose persecution exceeds trifles like ostracism and financial ruin, especially if we don’t limit our timeframe, but the following should suffice to make the point:
- Ali al-Timimi, a Muslim cleric in Virginia, sentenced to life in prison for exhorting his followers to fight for the Taliban following 9/11
- Anwar al-Awlaki, executed without due process for extolling violent resistance to the United States. His 16-year-old son was murdered a few weeks later with no official justification.
- Samir Khan, executed without due process for editing a magazine allegedly connected to al-Qaeda.
- Tarek Mehanna, sentenced to 17 years in prison for translating publicly available pro-jihadist documents and posting them online.
- Chelsea Manning, at the time of the interview, in prison for almost three years without trial and subjected to brutal conditions. She recently received a 35-year sentence for leaking military and State Department documents.
- John Kiriakou, former CIA officer, sentenced to 2 1/2 years for disclosing classified information to journalists while blowing the whistle on waterboarding.
Any consideration of how “free” US society is must also factor in the harassment, raids and stings used against Muslims, anarchists, hacktivists, militant environmentalists and animal rights activists; the brutality and arrests routinely unleashed by militarized police on peaceful protesters; and the mass incarceration of African-Americans and other marginalized communities which is, among other things, a pre-emptive measure against political mobilization. Chomsky is aware of these particulars, which is why his overall sanguine assessment is, at first glance, extremely odd. Things don’t improve when he gets to Swartz:
Aaron Swartz is a different case and a very interesting one. He was a very bright young kid, a hacker, did very interesting work on computers. He was part of the hacking community which is in favor of opening up all sources. And the way he went about it was he broke into the MIT computer system, and what they call “liberated” Jstor. . .[a service] that takes articles and professional journals and libraries or individuals can subscribe to it, and then you can get Internet access to articles coming out in journals.
So Aaron, is a [unintelligible] very nice kid, um, he committed suicide. What happened is that he broke into the MIT system, he freed up JSTOR. JSTOR pressed MIT to do something about it, he was stealing their stuff, [MIT] didn’t know who he was and they called the police, they identified him. Then the Federal prosecutor got involved, and the State prosecutor and proposed a ridiculous sentence, she said he had to go to jail for 40 years, and he committed suicide. Actually there was an offer, that he should agree to a jail sentence for a couple of months but the family didn’t want that and he committed suicide. It is a terrible event, everyone involved should have pressed the prosecutors not to do anything.
Whether deliberate or not, there’s a lot of misrepresentation here. First of all, Swartz did not “[break] into the MIT computer system.” MIT provides JSTOR access to anyone who is on campus. Swartz simply logged in with a guest account. That he “liberated” and “freed up” JSTOR is also misleading. He used a program that enabled rapid downloading, but he wasn’t publishing it anywhere. It was being saved to a laptop he had hidden in a closet. What he intended to do with the files is still not known. (source)
I have found no account claiming that JSTOR pressed MIT to call the police. They simply cut off MIT’s access to their repository. (source) MIT was at liberty at that point to just pull the plug on Swartz’s guest account and harden security, but they called Cambridge police and the Cambridge police brought in the feds. JSTOR removed itself early, discouraging prosecution and settling for payment of $26,000. When Chomsky says “everyone involved should have pressed the prosecutors not to do anything” he means MIT. (source)
The proposed plea deal was for six months’ jail time, not Chomsky’s “couple months” and it required that Swartz plead guilty to 13 felonies. It was not his “family” that rejected it. It was the 26-year-old Swartz and his attorney who wanted to force federal prosecutors to justify their pursuit. A trial risked a jail term of between 7 and 35 years. Swartz and his attorney proposed other plea deals, but prosecutors rejected them. (source).
If you’re wondering if perhaps there’s a bias in Chomsky’s skewed account — exceeding even his loyalty to MIT — let him explain:
…there is another issue that has to do with freedom of information: if you take JSTOR and make it public, JSTOR goes out of business. We live in a capitalist society, they can’t survive if they don’t get subscriptions, if JSTOR goes out of business nobody gets access to the journals. So the next step is, OK, let’s ‘liberate’ the journals. In that case the journals go out of business and nobody has anywhere to publish. You can’t just ‘liberate’ things pretending you don’t exist in the world. A lot of young kids think you can do that, they are not thinking it through.
Well, there are ways around this, but they involve collective action, of the kind that doesn’t fit with the new spirit of the age. What ought to happen is that there ought to be a public subsidy for creative work, and there would be no copyrights, no patents, there would be huge savings and everything would be open. But that requires we do something together and we are not allowed to do that, we have to be out for ourselves. . .
For students of political repression, the Swartz case is rife with dots to connect: the federalizing of local police, the draconian justice system, the military-academic complex and the government’s intense dread of hackers. So it’s shocking that Chomsky is clearly more vexed by Swartz’s “stealing” of JSTOR’s “stuff” than by anything else, and turns Freedland’s interesting question about dissent into an opportunity to defend privatized scholarship, denounce Swartz and distort the record.
We know by the end of Chomsky’s reply what he meant at the outset when he said Swartz is “a different case.” He meant he wasn’t a real dissident. He was a “kid”, in thrall to the anti-collective “spirit of the age”, out for himself, too young and selfish to realize that there is only one way to democratize academic information: spend a lifetime petitioning the state to subsidize it. If he were a real dissident, he might have only been marginalized, subject to “not much punishment, frankly” instead of driven to bankruptcy and suicide by vindictive prosecutors. What happened to Swartz was a tragedy, “a terrible event”, but it wasn’t repression. The United States is a free country.
Chomsky’s sales job for institutional power requires that he misrepresent Swartz’s politics more recklessly even than he misrepresents his case. So he can’t even see Swartz as a resourceful agitator, whose civil disobedience would complement Chomsky’s imagined mass movement to make state subsidies flow. Instead he rips Swartz’s JSTOR intervention entirely from the communal spirit of the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, and from the context of Swartz’s hybrid politics which, as his work on SOPA made clear, did not preclude the kind of activism Chomsky approves of.
It’s disquieting that Chomsky thinks that minimizing Swartz’s dissidence and, by extension, the significance of his death, is so very important that he’d already preached his Swartz sermon, word for word, in a Young Turks interview, only weeks after Swartz’s suicide. There is no point in going over this sermon a second time, except to point out that his condemnation is more explicit, aligning Swartz’s direct action with the “pathologies of our society”, and stating that the “obvious way out”, which apparently Swartz hadn’t considered, is to have creative work “subsidized by the government.” In the same interview, Chomsky also preemptively whitewashed MIT’s complicity before the investigation of its conduct had even commenced:
Cenk Ugyur: Have you put any thought into the culpability of MIT there and do you have any thoughts on it?
Chomsky: To be precise, MIT didn’t pursue charges against him. MIT was culpable in my opinion, but for what they didn’t do. MIT didn’t intervene to try to block the charges. . . MIT did provide the police with the information that someone had broken into the computer system, but, you know, that you’d expect. Then came these extremely harsh charges from the prosecuting attorney and what MIT should have done is taken some initiative to protest the severity of the charges and they didn’t and I think they’re culpable for that.
While it is true that MIT didn’t pursue charges, the school’s complicity in Swartz’s persecution went well beyond standing silently aside:
- MIT technicians installed the video camera in the wiring closet where Swartz had stashed his laptop. A video of Swartz entering the closet led to his arrest. (source)
- MIT’s police identified, chased down and arrested Swartz, confiscated his USB drive and turned it over to the Secret Service.
- MIT never told the feds that Swartz hadn’t hacked into JSTOR but had accessed it by the same means afforded all visitors to the campus, even though the bulk of the allegations against Swartz dealt with him “exceeding authorized access” under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
- MIT padded its account of expenses, bumping them into felony territory.
- IT staff from MIT helped Secret Service agents hack into Swartz’s confiscated laptop.
It’s impossible to know if Chomsky knew any part of the above when Ugyur interviewed him, but a year later, after the information had been made public, Chomsky’s spin hadn’t changed:
“The MIT investigation seemed to me reasonably well done. MIT’s contribution to the tragedy was mostly negative: It didn’t take aggressive measures to try to free him from the charges, or at least mitigate them, as it should have,” Chomsky told HuffPost.
He’s also still swinging at Swartz for rejecting the plea deal:
“Part of the tragedy is that there were apparently very good opportunities to reduce the punishment to something fairly limited, nothing like the crazy threats of the prosecution in the early days.” (source)
I complained in my last post that Chomsky spends too much time telling everyone how horrible things are while offering too few specifics on what to do. But after reviewing his conduct toward Swartz I may have to revise that, because between his words and his actions, it’s really all right there. It’s just not worth knowing.
End of Part 2. (Series to be continued)
Thanks to RH commenters @lastwheel and Ned Ludd for inspiring this post.