Individualism

2013: The Year Defiance of the State Became Cool

The year saw many Americans rally behind rebels, explicitly siding with them over the government, in opposition to the powers-that-be.

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Aaron Swartz
Fred Benenson

For some high-profile people who publicly told the government to go to hell, 2013 was, personally, a bit rough. Information freedom activist Aaron Swartz took his own life under threat of a brutal prison sentence. Revealer of inconvenient government secrets Bradley/Chelsea Manning actually ended up in prison. And surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden went into exile in Russia to escape what promised to be a "fair" trial followed by a first-class hanging. But tough consequences aren't unusual for people who defy the state. What was different and encouraging was how many people rallied behind Swartz, Manning, Snowden, and other rebels, explicitly siding with them over the government, in opposition to the powers-that-be.

Swartz's case was supposed to be a warning to us all, after he violated the terms of service of the JSTOR archive by downloading academic papers in bulk instead of one at a time, the better to make them available far and wide. What should have been a civil matter between him and the archive became federal felony charges, with United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz threatening "up to 35 years in prison … and a fine of up to $1 million."

This was all "pour encourager les autres," as an ambitious prosecutor sought to demonstrate how tough she could be on the high crime of intellectual property violations.

But after his death, Swartz, already known as a principled activist for making information accessible, quickly became a cause celebre. The case was immediately held up as an example of prosecutorial overreach, even inspiring the introduction of a law to rein-in such legal abuses. Swartz was posthumously inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame. Americans didn't just support the activist; they despised his persecutors—people started talking about the end of Ortiz's political career.

Which is to say, Aaron Swartz, who started the year as a deliberate defier of the law, under criminal indictment, was immediately elevated by many people to the status of the good guy in the conflict. Government officials could either join the bandwagon or sputter in outrage that they were considered villains by their constituents.

Chelsea Manning
Chelsea Manning

Chelsea Manning's case followed a similar, if less lethal, trajectory. Imprisoned by the United States government for leaking a treasure trove of sensitive and often embarrassing documents to WikiLeaks, the story quickly became one about government transparency, mistreatment of prisoners, and the lengths to which officials would go to target its critics.

Manning quickly disclaimed any association with pacifism, saying she acted for the sake of transparency. That was a credible argument, given her connection with WikiLeaks, and one that rang a bell at a time when the U.S. government is seen as both dangerously intrusive into people's lives, as well as excessively secretive about public officials' behavior. (President Obama's claims to run a transparent administration poll as a laugh riot.)

Truthfully, the government didn't help its case by mistreating Manning during detention, prompting the judge to award Manning with 112 days credit toward the ultimate sentence because of the illegal abuse. Yes, that's a small fraction of the 35 years eventually passed down. But it doesn't look good when jailers are forced to explain in court how they were ordered to keep a prisoner confined to a cell, naked and shivering.

Just as troubling were the lengths to which the federal government went to investigate people who merely supported Manning. Officials stalked David Maurice House so they would know when he'd left the country, making himself vulnerable to a search of his digital data at the border, beyond the protections of the Fourth Amendment.

Even after sentencing, in prison, Manning became spokesperson not just for government transparency, but for gender identity—that is the right to choose your own.

Edward Snowden
Laura Poitras / Praxis Films

Edward Snowden is, of course, the 2013 poster child for deliberately working against the state. He did so in order to let Americans, and the world beyond, know just how subject to super-creepy spying they are by the United States government. Snowden took jobs that gave him access to troubling National Security Agency secrets—and then released them to journalists for publication after he left the country and whatever unpleasant fate might be planned for him. He's even believed to have retained an info-bomb of truly sensitive material that will "detonate" if the feds try to grab him from his current refuge in Russia or otherwise silence the whistleblower.

In years past, government officials would have counted on the public to boo and hiss at Snowden on command. You're not supposed to spill the government's secrets to the world at large.

But Americans are horrified by those secrets—published revelations of NSA snooping have helped drive public revulsion at "big government" to record high levels. Snowden himself gets more of a split decision, but over a third of people tell Reason-Rupe that what he did makes him a patriot (with even higher support for him among younger Americans). That's almost equal to the percentage of respondents who give him a thumbs-down. Those would have been unthinkable numbers in a different era.

And if powerbrokers in D.C. want to call Snowden a "traitor," lawmakers on the outs with the leadership have been moved by his actions to try to curtail the surveillance state.

Swartz, Manning, and Snowden have all incurred personal consequences for their actions. So did Ross William Ulbricht, who as the (alleged) "Dread Pirate Roberts," ran the famous (and still-functioning) Silk Road online drug marketplace. Before his arrest on federal charges, the Dread Pirate Roberts developed a following for setting up an illegal Website that emphasized honesty and allowed users to rate dealers. He also led libertarian political discussions, backing his illicit economic activity with activist conviction.

Cody Wilson, of Defense Distributed, shares similar activist convictions, though he hasn't suffered legal consequences for introducing the world to functioning firearms created by people, on their own, with 3D printers. The same can be said of "Satoshi Nakamoto," the pseudonymous creator of the Bitcoin virtual (and anonymous) currency that has eased transactions in illegal goods and the protection of wealth from tax collectors. They may have (they definitely have) angered the powers that be, but governments have yet to find a practical way to criminalize innovation that enables activities they don't like.

Wilson, "Nakamoto," and their creations have also won wide world-wide followings, exlicitly linked to the authority-defying power of what they've done.

Flipping the bird to the state doesn't guarantee universal acclaim. It certainly doesn't ensure personal safety. But more than at any time in recent memory, defying governments and their laws has a constituency—a large one—that sees such action as necessary and even heroic.

Government officials may still act against the rebels. But instead of whipping up the public into a shared two minutes hate against a common foe, they're increasingly finding themseves viewed as the enemy by people who cheer acts of defiance.

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  1. I don’t know. The number of people who see defiance of the state as cool seems vastly, vastly smaller than can remember from years ago. In fact, it was considered totally uncool to complain about defiance of the state, and now we have the vast majority of news outlets doing it constantly.

    1. Certainly compared to the draft resistance movement, this is small beer. But the momentum is on our side. Both right (Obamacare) and left (NSA) have major issues to rally around.

      We need someone willing to say “The most feared words in the English language are: I’m from the govt and i’m here to help.”

      1. These are excellent rallying points, as are other issues that have forced their way to the forefront at one time or another, but will the reaction to them be enough for real change? I’m dubious, given the progression over the last couple of decades.

        1. I’m dubious as well. A leader within either party will have a hard time condemning that party’s transgressions along with the others. Rand and Amash come close, but still fall short of calling out W’s malfeasance and prevarications.

          1. Rand’s candidacy will be interesting to watch. He’s still very much a dark horse as far as the odds go, but he could make a big splash, bigger than his dad made. And, maybe, he could even win. I’ll be amazed if that happens, but people are starting to finally get scared about the future.

            1. The question is who will get more of the anti GOP establishment vote, Paul or Cruz? The nomination will come down to those two and Tubbs from New Jersey. I still can’t believe Tubbs could get many votes outside the Northeast. But, I keep meeting more and more people who like the fat bastard.

              I honestly don’t see anyone else being a serious candidate. Danials is a wet noodle. Walker could have been a contender but pissed away his chance by going on a spending spree in Wisconsin. Huckabee couldn’t win when there were a lot more single issue SOCON voters than there are today. Who is left? Jeb Bush? No way.

              1. Cruz might be the guy over Paul, but either would be a vast improvement over what the GOP has offered up in recent, well, decades.

                1. I agree. I would be happy with either of them. Reason will get its nose bent out of shape if it is Cruz because they think he is a SOCON. But I am not convinced they wouldn’t find a way to bitch if it is Paul because that is just what they do.

                  1. I’d prefer Paul, sure, but Cruz would get my vote, too, if Paul were out of the picture. Neither is perfect, but both seem to strongly dislike the trend toward unlimited government.

                    1. I hate to say it, but even Fat Bastard would be a huge (yuk yuk) improvement over what the GOP has offered in a long time.

                    2. Fat Bastard would be an improvement over Obama. But I don’t see how he is any better than Romney. In fact he is probably worse. Romeny had at least been in the private sector.

                      Fat Bastard with a militant GOP Congress to keep him in line might be an acceptable President if we were very lucky, which we usually aren’t.

                    3. Whoah whoah I think Fat Bastard would totes be better than Romney. Romney would be the civil service’s bitch all day every day. I think FB would be happy to push back.

                    4. I think FB would be happy to push back.

                      His actual record in New Jersey says otherwise. He has been a spending machine. He just slapped around a few idiot union activists for show.

                    5. FB has explicitly said that libertarianism is a bad and dangerous thing, so, no I’d prefer Romney over him — though I voted for G. Johnson, of course.

                    6. To be clear, if it’s between Christie and whatever moronic candidate the Democrats vomit on America, I’m voting LP. I’ll vote for a Cruz or Paul in the general.

                    7. Except that he explicitly endorses the NSA surveillance state. Once both parties have vested interest in it, it becomes permanent. The GOP has to nominate a candidate who will campaign against these abuses, or the 4th will die completely.

                  2. Meh. Just send them a crate of Mydol, and ignore them when they call the candidate a racist.

      2. Yeah now that those draft resisters are in charge government is just peachy and killing asians is a ok.

    2. I tend to agree. State love seems so much more mainstream and so much “cooler” for many than it ever has been in U.S. history.

      1. That’s merely Obama fellation. Now that Ocare is disintegrating and the lies are being exposed, the MSM will be more likely to question the Admin, if not the Black Saviour himself. We need to stoke this fire in any way we can.

        1. Well, they were anti-Bush, but were they anti-government? We clearly need more than partisan hate, because they obviously are fine with the institutions so long as their guy is in power. Note how much Obama is doing exactly the same stuff that was so awful under Bush, with almost zero protest.

          1. were they anti-government?

            No, they are pro Top Men.

          2. Sadly true. But the NYT and WaPo have printed at least a few anti-gov articles. Obama is the ideal Prez in one sense. They will blame the semi-permanent bureaucracy since Obummer is above reproach. Better than nothing. A steady drumbeat of this could help turn donkeys against big gov that is betraying their Chosen One.

        2. They will never be anti-government. The press loves power too much for that.

          But if things go badly for the Democrats in the 2014 midterms, Democrats are going to feel compelled to distance themselves from Obama. When that happens, I imagine the media will do the same.

          And even if they don’t, as the 16 elections approach, if it looks like a Republicans might win, the media will have to do a few things to try and make it look a little less obvious when they go after a Republican President. So expect them to cover Obama a bit more fairly and more critically after doing so no longer makes any difference.

  2. You know, I just noticed this, but doesn’t Swartz look a little like the kid who helped blow up people in Boston?

  3. Snowden and Swartz, sure. But wasn’t Bradley Manning (“his Momma call him Bradley, I call him Bradley”) a bit more…indiscriminate in what he did?

    1. Snowden = Awesome
      Schwartz = Sad
      Manning = Douchebag

      1. Good list but I would only add that Assange is an even bigger douche. There was nothing linked by Manning that was even in the same universe of notable as what Snowden linked. The most noteworthy thing that happened here was that Doherty promulgumated some lies about the US killing cameramen, which is typical for Doherty.

      2. I agree with that GM, but I’d slightly modify.

        Snowden = Patriot
        Schwartz = Sad
        Manning = Traitor

        1. Agree 100%. Snowden deserves a medal for revealing the extent to which the govt has violated the 4th Amendment while Manning deserves a noose for indiscriminately revealing state secrets. There is no equating of the actions of these two people.

    2. Yeah. Sadly, the Reason staff seems out to try to draw the two comparably. And I just don’t think it applies. Manning basically did a data dump of a lot of legitimate state secrets as well as some embarrassing revelations because (s)he was in a snit with his/her officers. Snowden was scrupulous in making sure he didn’t give away any U.S. intelligence assets.

  4. I understand offing yourself is a refusal to help the government, but calling it defiance is a stretch. At least Manning will still be around defying in 2014, even if he/she is effectively dead to the population at large. Swartz stopped defying by his own choice.

    And not a word about Assange.

  5. For some high-profile people who publicly told the government to go to hell, 2013 was, personally, a bit rough.

    It certainly ended in conflagration for Michael Hastings. I am still not sure if he was one of the good guys.

  6. Am I the only one who thinks that some of what Swartz did actually should be illegal (though probably not with such stiff penalties), and that he really doesn’t belong with Manning/Snowden?

    1. No. Swartz was a victim of an evil prosecutor. What he did was hardly courageous and hardly pointed out anything that anyone didn’t already know or was really that big of a deal.

      Manning doesn’t belong with Snowden. Manning didn’t leak anything that could be described as something the public had a right to know and needed to be leaked.

      The bottom line with Snowden is that whatever his reasons, Snowden leaked information that should have never been withheld from the public and that the government had been lying about. That makes him a legitimate whistle blower in a way Manning or Swartz were not.

      1. Manning didn’t leak anything that could be described as something the public had a right to know and needed to be leaked.

        Bullshit. We sure as hell have the right to know when the US military commits war crimes.

        -jcr

        1. But he didn’t leak any evidence of that. He leaked a video that people doctored to use a propaganda against the US.

          Manning didn’t leak a single piece of information that implicated the US in any war crimes. He leaked a bunch of mundane diplomatic cables and a video that showed that the military kills people in combat.

          You are full of shit Randolf.

          1. B-b-but brown babiez!!1

    2. The most punishment that Swartz could reasonably have deserved for what he did would be the school restricting his access to their computers. Criminal charges were asinine, and the persecutors who hounded him to death should starve on the streets as pariahs.

      -jcr

      1. Yes., Swartz was a victim of our justice system not a whistle blower. He belongs with the people doing absurd sentences for drugs not with Snowden and Manning.

      2. Swartz was restricted from accessing the school’s computers, he found dubious means around that including accessing the network from a non-public area. His death is on his emotional issues not on the prosecutorial excess.

      3. Didn’t he actually have to physically break in to a server room? That’s more than a drug crime.

  7. The picture and the headline do not work together

  8. Most of the Progressives I talk to ants Edward Snowden’s head on a platter. These are the same people during the Bush Administration went into a fit over the Administration’s civil liberties violations.

    1. It is amazing how quickly they fell in line isn’t it? If Bush were President Snowden would have a full tenure offer from Harvard. Once they got their guy in, they fell right in line and are all about America and Apple Pie.

      1. I have like one or two progressive friends ho hate Obama but the other ones mostly fall in line. Whenever they tried to start a discussion with me, I simply bring up ho Bush and Obama are one in the same. My gawd, the silence is awesome.

  9. “Swartz’s case was supposed to be a warning to us all, after he violated the terms of service of the JSTOR archive by downloading academic papers in bulk instead of one at a time,…”

    Swartz also broke into a utility closet to connect to the network he had been banned from accessing by regular means because of his activities. He was perhaps a victim of prosecutorial excess but what he did that led to that prosecution was not worthy of honor or respect.

    1. Reason and some others here are quick to conflate ‘anti-authority’ with being automatically righteous.

    2. He was certainly a victim. But his case is about hating that bitch US Attorney not admiring Swartz.

  10. How much is it is a libertarianish desire to reduce the size of government or is it just anger that TOP. MEN aren’t running things? Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler were all anti-government while they were in opposition after all…

    1. In Illinois in the 80’s they reduced the size of government by reducing the number of representatives in the state congress.

      So, less representation = less government to statists. The remaining reps all got MORE power and of course the number of laws and government employees has never decreased.

    2. Have you heard Hitler’s comments? It’s all State this and State that. He clearly always wanted more government, not less.

  11. I’m still quite sad about Aaron. I ran into him online more than a decade ago when he was still “just” a very precocious kid exploring this amazing online world, finding like-minded friends, and choosing lefty info-commie libertarianism over the righty entrepreneurial version I prefer.

    Did he need to pick this fight with MIT to begin with. Nope. Did they need to bring the hammer? Absolutely not. Did federal prosecutors need to get involved? I’m sure they felt our way of life was at stake. Those people suck.

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  13. “Even after sentencing, in prison, Manning became spokesperson not just for government transparency, but for gender identity?that is the right to choose your own.”

    The only false note in all this good news. Defiance of the overweening State – bracing and necessary. Defiance of plain physical fact by means of mutilation – not quite the same.

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  15. Happy new year!
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