The Best Essay Yet on Aaron Swartz

Wesley Yang has become one of our most astute chroniclers of male self-torment and the underside of the cult of high achievement. And though I imagine Swartz’s friends and allies will object to at least some aspects of Yang’s take on the death of the young left-wing activist, this concluding paragraph really resonates:

François de La Rochefoucauld once observed that it’s not enough to have great virtues; one must use them with economy. As I listened to the tributes to Aaron Swartz in Highland Park and New York and online, this aphorism came to mind. Swartz had skipped out on the lessons taught by the American high school—the lessons in cynical acquiescence, conformity, and obedience to the powers that be. He was right to think these lessons injure people’s innate sense of curiosity and morality and inure them to mediocrity. He was right to credit his “arrogance” for the excellence of the life he lived. But if nothing else, these lessons prepare people for a world that can often be met in no other way; a world whose irrational power must sometimes simply be endured. This was a lesson that he contrived never to learn, which was part of what made him so extraordinary. It was Swartz’s misfortune, and ours, that he learned it too late, from too unyielding a teacher. It cannot serve society’s purpose to make a felon and an inmate out of so gifted and well-meaning a person as ­Aaron Swartz, and thus he was a victim of a grave injustice. But it bears remembering that the greater injustice was done to Aaron Swartz by the man who killed him.

I recommend taking a look, particularly if you’ve followed the fallout from Swartz’s death closely. Yang’s essay struck me as particularly depressing because I’ve speculated that Swartz might have been aware that his suicide would have the potential to galvanize a small but influential group of people into taking a stand against the abuse of prosecutorial power, an idea that if true would make an otherwise senseless act seem both shrewd and humane. But Yang suggests that this was not at all the case.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...

Most Popular