The first reaction to a
threat or a possible threat is one of fear or anger. We are emotional by default
and once our feeling and intuitions are engaged, our so-called rational mind’s
duty is to justify the hot emotion that has us sweating and short of breath.
When the State is the one creating fear, the emotions are heightened. Isn’t the
State supposedly the one to protect us against those who would induce
That is the story the
State wishes us to believe. The dividing line between States isn’t so much
democracy and autocratic but between those States which spin a story of
protection against outside fear that most people believe is true. We are at
heart, all of us, security seekers. That plays to the advantage of the State as
the officials rely on the reality that there isn’t an alternative. A revolution
merely changes those who operate the State and as history shows the new
operators are no different than the ones they replaced—in many cases, they
become addicted to terror to cow their rivals into submission.
Criminal laws regulate
conduct and are the citizens’ first line of defense against the ‘wrongful’ or
‘bad’ conduct of others. In reality, many criminal laws authorize the State to
protect itself against those who would challenge its authority. Broad and
imprecise wording—like ‘national security’—allow those who enforce the laws
broad powers and substantial penalties to charge, convict, and imprison a person
whose activity is thought to be a threat to those in power. The threat of
prosecution chills the exercise of free speech—stops political discussion. The
State uses such power in the age of Internet access to censor what is sent and
received by users.
The State is an intangible
entity. We rail against an oppressive or abusive ‘State’. These emotional
outbursts are like taking a swing at a cloud. You never quite connect your
feelings with the object perceived to cause those feelings.
The functionaries and
officials who make up the State are many. They interact with each other. Some
are more powerful than others, and there is an institutional bias or culture
that prevails across those institutions as well as legacy traditions and customs
within individual agencies. This makes assigning responsibility difficult. Who
do you point the finger at when the State acts to criminalize political speech?
Or criminalizes conduct that serves the interest of a small but powerful elite
that benefit from a cone of secrecy and immunity from criticism?
In the new Orwellian
world—everyone is guilty, and those charged are selected through the exercise of
prosecutorial discretion to send a message to all the other potentially guilty
citizens that they, too, are being watched and are vulnerable. And there is
nothing they can do and no one to turn to.
Placed in the situation of
being charged and the realization there was little chance of escape is thought
to have led Aaron Swartz to commit suicide in New York. He was a 26-year-old
computer genius, co-founder of Reddit, who’d been charged for ‘freeing’ academic
data at M.I.T. Since his death there has been a firestorm of protest,
questioning, criticism and hand-wringing.
The best piece written on
why writers write is George Orwell’s essay On Writing 70 years
Orwell said that the
subject matter of a book is determined by the age in which the writer
Context is what matters.
Look around your space, inside the room where you are reading this essay, when
you go out, look around the city. And think for a moment, it wasn’t always like
this and won’t stay like this. But for the moment, the present, this is our
context that determines how we think about books, each other, information,
security, politicians, guns, drugs, pollution, women, police, and doctors and
hospitals. We think of them in the now.
Commentary like this
essay, films, books, comments others make online, are collections of our context
where we find: social things, cultural things, psychological and political
things. We try to make sense of all these signals, picking through the noise. It
is hard work. The noise is always far greater than the signal. With the
distractions and limited attention we can bring to anything directly in front of
us should give us pause. It should give us a sense of humility. We are
overwhelmed by the emotional words of others, the details pile up, the ambiguity
increases. We hate doubt. We love certainty. One we avoid, the other we
Those employed by the
State understand this bias. To avoid randomness and uncertainty gives the State
actors an edge. Officials promise that they can and will remove the dread of
doubt and once removed, we will feel safe and happy. The State understands that
we are first and foremost emotional creatures. That insight is the source of
their broad, vague powers and discretion.
We filter the
justification, defenses, words of State officials as they weave a pattern that
shows their actions are lawful, correct and in the interest of the State and its
citizens. Orwell taught that writers had a duty to challenge these State
manufactured patterns, deconstruct them, and offer original, alternative
patterns. You can read volumes of Internet commentary taking this road about the
official actions of the State in pursuing Aaron Swartz.
The best writers
communicate an essence of insight, meaning and purpose. They distinguish between
intuition and rationale, objective evidence. To use Daniel Kahneman’s
distinction, one is automatic, lazy thinking and the other is slow, deliberate
thinking. They are connected. The lattice of biases that we all have ultimately
shape and distort the way we think about reality.
The best books embody the
way people think and feel. A good novel or short story hits an emotional chord
in the reader that seems true.
The best books reflect
emotional attitudes as people bumped up against the reality found inside the
context where we live. The emotions we find floating above us include: Anger,
hostility, envy, suspicion, jealousy, suspicion and deception.
Crime novels embrace these
negative emotions and fine-tune them into stories where characters seek to
escape their context, their destiny, or their moment in history. No matter how
fast you write, the book is much slower than the click of a camera shutter, and
even at that speed there is a transformation captured and the reality that
follows that moment.
Orwell wrote that authors
have four reasons or motives to write:
egoism. The desire to appear clever, talked about, remembered after
death. The great mass of people are far less selfish than writers. Serious
authors are vain and self-centered.
enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the patterns found in the exterior
word and converted into prose. The firmness of good prose, the rhythm of a good
story that carries you along.
impulse. To see things as they are outside of the filters, biases and
prejudices that every context presents as barriers to truth.
purpose. To use words to push the world in a certain direction—to
shape or alter people’s idea of the kind of society we live in and whether that
society is fundamentally just and fair.
Psychology has advanced a
fifth reason Mindset Exploration to identify the connection
between our emotional, impulsive, intuitive mind and our deliberate, rationale
mind. To understand the interplay between the two aspects of our cognitive
resources that create our system beliefs we defend and define the perimeters of
Our impulses war against
one another and change over time, but our beliefs are difficult to shift even
when the evidence is clear that what we believe is false or wrong. The Aaron
Swartz suicide and background prosecution has ignited a debate about core
beliefs about the role of prosecutorial discretion, freedom of speech, the
nature of information, who owns it, has access to it, and can use and exploit
Context of Aaron Swartz’s death engages at the emotional level when the
distrust of State actors and their bona fides are in doubt. His death is used to
emotionally confirm our worst fears—the State is patrolling the products of our
mind and our actions seeking to find violations of laws. And the question being
asked is whose interests are being served in such prosecutions?
In The Orwell Brigade, a dozen authors, including Barbara Nadel,
Quentin Bates, and Matt Rees who blog on this site, have joined John Burdett,
Colin Cotterill, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Mike Lawson, Ernesto Mallo, and Gary
Phillips to reclaim the role of telling truth to authority, to examine abuse of
power, and to question the false histories and narratives officials use to
justify their decisions and policies. The traditional media have retreated to
the safety of entertainment and gossip to turn a profit. We have paid a high
price for that retreat. One positive legacy of Aaron Swartz’s life is this
questioning official exercise of power that once was done by journalists,
essayists, and novelists has spawn a thousands, if not millions of voices. It is
difficult even for the State to shut down, arrest, and lock up all of these
people. I suspect they will lie low, wait for the faint breeze of time to blow
away the anger. Once that happens the State, through its officials, will slowly
creep back and remind us that without them we will live in a State of