Not So Simple Explanation

I don’t have time at the moment to capture my thoughts about the response to Aaron Swartz’s suicide, but I’m offended by the popular simple-minded explanation for his death: the government was prosecuting him, he committed suicide, therefore the government killed him. I’m not offended that his family and close friends embrace of this explanation–were he my son, my lover, my mentee I’m sure I would feel the same. I don’t know anything about Aaron Swartz that I’ve not read in the past week, but clearly that does not prevent me from commenting about the case–with a few exceptions (e.g. Larry Lessig) most of those embracing this binary view did not know him either.

Swartz wrote about his depression. Depressed people cannot think clearly and rationally about why they feel low–otherwise they could reason their way out of their depression.  Did the prosecution over-charge Swartz–that is, did it wring every possible criminal claim out of the facts? Assume it did, then ask: how many other criminal defendants currently awaiting trial in Massachusetts have also been over-charged? Two? Two hundred? Two thousand? 80%? The answer is, “a lot”–assuming one could reach agreement on what it means to over-charge. Defense lawyers always think their clients have been over-charged. Prosecutors always think the charges are appropriate. Prosecutors have considerable discretion–which may in fact be a problem, but like most things legal the solution is not to straightjacket discretion.

Over-charging and aggressive prosecution are not unique to this case. How many criminal defendants believe they are being prosecuted unfairly? How many kill themselves because of it?  Suicide is not a rational method for solving problems. Should the government not prosecute defendants who are clinically depressed?

I’ve already gone on longer than I intended. The point is that suicide of a depressed person cannot generally be explained with binary “but-for” analysis–a point that Eileen McNamara expresses more clearly than I have in this piece from WBURToday: Carmen Ortiz’s Case Didn’t “Kill” Aaron Swartz. Swartz’s death is a tragedy–because he was evidently a talented, passionate, and sensitive person whose gifts are now lost to the world due to mental illness. But I won’t blame the U.S. Attorney for his death.

Sidewalk Sam

Few of AFC’s younger readers are likely to know of Sidewalk Sam, although they may have seen his work–colorful, faithful chalk reproductions of iconic and lesser known paintings on sidewalks and plazas around Boston. Sidewalk has been creating his public art for more than 40 years. I came to Boston in 1971 so I cannot remember the city without the delight of stumbling upon his art. He is still working, despite a mid-1990’s accident which paralyzed his legs. Sidewalk is Robert Guillemin, a mid-1960’s graduate of Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, and BU Today has an article and video about his work and career.

Every Day is the Start of a New Year

2,307 days–from 8-Sep-06 to 1-Jan-13. Six years, three months, 24 days. 1,163 published posts–one post every two days (actually 1.98 days, or 47.52 hours). When I wrote that first post I had no idea how often I would post or how long I would stay with it. I planned to integrate A Foolish Consistency into my courses, without a clear vision of how that might happen. I imagined blog posts and comments extending spirited discussions outside the classroom, but I did not require students to read A Foolish Consistency. Compelled participation is low-quality participation. A few lively discussions ensued, some students used blog comments as a proxy for classroom participation (with my blessing), and some students continued to read and comment on my posts long after they left my courses.  As an extension of the classroom I give A Foolish Consistency a C grade–a 73. Just above C-.

If extending the classroom had been my only reason to write A Foolish Consistency I would have abandoned it long ago. Writing the blog helped me think through issues, indulge my sense of humor, advise prospective law students, and voice my views of matters large and small. Providing content was a chore from time to time, but every fallow period ended with a satisfying burst of posts. As a vehicle for self-expression the blog gets a solid A-. 91.

However–(you knew that was coming)–my production tailed off this fall. Teaching sixteen credits spread across six courses with five preps left little time non-course activities. I posted less often, and thought less often of posting. I was not driven to write. I was sanguine about failing to maintain my pace. I felt no expectation-driven pressure.

I’ve decided to change my relationship to A Foolish Consistency. How, I don’t know, but I want to move beyond self-imposed constraints on my voice. Knowing that students comprised most of my audience I held back, keeping distance between my posts and my self. I will no longer present this blog as an extension of the classroom. The aspect of A Foolish Consistency that I graded C- will exist no more. I don’t know what will replace it. Don’t expect an outpouring of my most private self. I’m changing the blog, but I’m not changing. I have no expectations about how often I’ll post or what voice I’ll use. But why not change? Announcing this on New Year’s Day is heavy-handed, but that’s mostly a matter of timing. Today’s the first day I’ve had time to write what I’ve been thinking about for weeks. As one of the smartest and most interesting people I met this semester wrote to me today, who says the new year is a time for resolutions anyway?  I can resolve to changing old ways whenever I want!

Happy New Year.