Aaron Swartz died three years ago today

by Henry Farrell on January 11, 2016

The New Press has put out a book collecting some of his writing. I contributed a short piece, as did some other people who knew him; since my contract allows me to, and since no-one conceivably wants to buy the book to see what I have to say, I’m putting it below the fold.

People who didn’t know Aaron remember him for his tireless work for a variety of public causes. They usually don’t realize that this work went together with a myriad of private kindnesses. I got to know Aaron as an extraordinarily intelligent commentator on Crooked Timber, an academic blog that I contribute to. At first, I didn’t know about the other great things that he had done; he didn’t talk about them unless he was pressed. He just wanted to get involved in conversations with other people who were interested in the same topics of political inquiry and social justice as he was.

He also wanted to help – when we had major technical difficulties because our audience was outpacing the capacities of the server space we had leased, he suggested, without any fuss, that he would be very happy to take over our technical responsibilities and provide us all the facilities we needed. He privately helped many other people, in equally unfussy ways. Rick Perlstein, the political historian of the rise of the right, is now famous. Before he was well known, Aaron came across his work, realized that he didn’t have a website, and offered to make one for him. Rick was a bit nonplussed to receive so generous an offer from a complete stranger, but quickly realized that Aaron was for real. They became good friends.

We asked Aaron to guestblog for us for seminars, but also we just published his work when he had something to say, and asked us if we were interested (we said yes, and for good reason). He brought many worlds together. His activism went hand-in-hand with a deep commitment to the intellect and to figuring out the world through argument. This could discomfit other activists, since it meant that he often changed his mind. He had the profound intellectual curiosity of a first rate scholar without the self-importance that usually accompanies it. If he could be accused of arrogance (and some people did so accuse him) it was a curiously egoless form. He simply expected other people to live up to the same exacting standards that he imposed upon himself. But he could also take a joke. When the New York Times ran a story on him with an accompanying photo, which portrayed him brooding and backlit behind the screen of his Macbook, I teased him about it, and he was clearly delighted to be teased.

It’s hard to face up to what we’ve lost. He wasn’t just an activist, or a programmer, or an intellectual. He was a builder of bridges between many different people from many different worlds. I only began to realize how many people he corresponded with after he had died. When I write now, it is often in an imaginary dialogue with him, where I imagine his impatience with this or that plodding sentence which is too far removed from the real concerns of real people. That imaginary dialogue is no substitute for the real thing. He was smarter than I am, and always capable of surprising me. I miss him very much.



Bruce B. 01.11.16 at 11:10 pm

That’s a darned good memorial, Henry.


Darren Foster 01.11.16 at 11:39 pm

Nicely put, I’m sure Aaron would approve.


js. 01.11.16 at 11:57 pm

Seconding Bruce B.—this is a lovely piece.


Daniel 01.12.16 at 1:06 am

Also there’s a biography of Swartz that comes out tomorrow: http://books.simonandschuster.com/The-Idealist/Justin-Peters/9781476767727


Corey Robin 01.12.16 at 3:13 am

Thanks for this, Henry. Lovely.


Luis 01.12.16 at 4:06 am

“I only began to realize how many people he corresponded with after he had died.”
I remember seeing tributes pour out that awful morning, and thinking something similar – I knew he’d touched many, but not that many. It was overwhelming. I think that’s tied to the “lack of self-importance” you mention: he was focused on you, your problems, the world’s problems, and solving them; if he knew someone who could help one of those things, he’d mention them, but not otherwise. Not a name-dropping bone in his body. We could all do worse than to develop a small Aaron in our heads.


Sebastian H 01.12.16 at 7:33 am

He was a good networker of people. Not in the cheesy sense of seeing what he could get out of you–the powerful sense of knowing the right person to help the right other person.


Jim Pharo 01.12.16 at 12:43 pm



melissa 01.12.16 at 5:20 pm

lovely and touching. thanks, henry.


Waiting for Godot 01.12.16 at 7:23 pm

Sigh…the anger over his death is still numbing. I’m so sorry AAron.


geo 01.12.16 at 7:42 pm

Beautifully put, Henry. He was a rare combination of genius with a sweet, generous nature. Among the “many other people” you mention whom he volunteered to help was the reincarnated Baffler, at a time when we were broke and clueless. (Well, even more broke and clueless.)


nnyhav 01.12.16 at 10:51 pm


Kyle C 01.13.16 at 1:33 am

Any such loss is tragic. Now that an interval has passed, I think it would be useful to hear more from those who considered themselves Mr. Swartz’s friends about whether they think they overlooked any warning signs of his emotional struggle.


Maria 01.13.16 at 9:32 am

Thank you, Henry. A beautiful tribute (and as I write that I think Aaron would probably have thought ‘nice tribute, but what are we going to do ).


Cian 01.13.16 at 5:38 pm

It’s astonishing to me how much he did for so many people. Never knew him, admired him from afar.

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