Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
When programmer and Internet activist Aaron Swartz killed himself on January 11, the outpouring of grief from those who knew him and appreciated his work was immediate and intense.
Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor who befriended Swartz years before his suicide, wrote that overzealous prosecutors drove him “to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying.” Swartz’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, told a reporter that she blamed a “vindictive” legal system for the 26-year-old’s death. And Swartz’s father, Robert, put it most bluntly, when he told the mourners at his son’s funeral in a suburban Chicago synagogue, “Aaron did not commit suicide — he was killed by the government.”
But in an article in the current issue of the New Yorker, staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar dismantles the myth surrounding Swartz. Near the beginning of her article, she flat-out rejects the narrative presented by Swartz’s nearest and dearest, calling it strategic and disingenuous:
Since his death, his family and closest friends have tried to hone his story into a message, in order to direct the public sadness and anger aroused by his suicide to political purposes. They have done this because it is what he would have wanted, and because it is a way to extract some good from the event. They tell people that the experience of being prosecuted is annihilatingly brutal, and that prosecutors can pursue with terrible weapons defendants who have caused little harm. One of the corollaries of this message is that Swartz did not kill himself; he was murdered by the government. But this claim is for public consumption, and the people closest to him do not really believe it. They believe that he would not have killed himself without the prosecutors, but they feel that there is something missing from this account—some further fact, a key, that will make sense of what he did.
MacFarquhar’s article is worth reading in full, in part because the writer doesn’t stop with the obvious question about any suicide – “Why?” No, MacFarquhar’s article is most notable for connecting the theories behind Swartz’s particular suicide to the implications his friends, family and followers have been trying to attach to it. The picture it paints of Swartz is very different from the wunderkind who many would like to christen as the Internet’s martyr. Indeed, he might turn out to be just another Internet meme.
Swartz’s biography wasn’t well known before his suicide. The young genius was involved in the development of a number of web-based sites and technologies, including RSS and the social news site Reddit, and later became involved in Internet activism, promoting free access to information.
It was in this last role that Swartz crossed the law. In 2011, he was arrested, and a U.S. attorney charged him with having illegally download millions of files from the nonprofit academic database JSTOR. The action was described by many as an act of civil disobedience, and Swartz was charged with crimes for which he could have faced 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
Many writers have mined Swartz’s lifetime of blog entries and numerous public statements to uncover clues about the inner life of this apparently tormented individual. A former girlfriend, tech reporter Quinn Norton, recently published an account of her own involvement in the prosecution against Swartz in The Atlantic.
But in MacFarquhar’s telling, Norton and others who were among Swartz’s hagiographers in the aftermath of his suicide collectively present Swartz not as the icon of the Internet, but as a person with weaknesses commensurate in size to his substantial gifts.
MacFarquhar makes pretty clear that while Swartz may have said he wanted to help people, he fundamentally did not understand them. And despite fashioning himself as an activist, Swartz’s success in changing society appears to have been rather limited.
Among the projects with which Swartz has been credited was the effort to turn back the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). That bill, which was crafted with the support of Hollywood, died after a Silicon Valley-backed public outcry reached a fever pitch. But it would be a stretch to say that Swartz played anything more than a supporting role.
(As a side note, two of the Web-based organizations that arguably led the public fight against SOPA were Wikipedia and change.org – and, according to MacFarquhar’s article, Swartz had started web sites based around similar ideas before either one had been founded. Neither of Swartz’s endeavors was successful.)
Still, for those within the community of hackers and information activists, Swartz’s accomplishments have become cemented in lore. MacFarquhar quotes from a blog post written by John Atkinson, who did not know Swartz. Atkinson wondered why the young man’s death had affected him so profoundly:
“Aaron Swartz is what I wish I was,” he wrote. “I am a bright technologist, but I’ve never built anything of note. I have strong opinions about how to improve this world, but I’ve never acted to bring them to pass. I have thoughts every day that I would share with the world, but I allow my fears to convince me to keep them to myself. If I were able to stop being afraid of what the world would think of me, I could see myself making every decision that Aaron made that ultimately led to his untimely death. This upsets me immensely. I am upset that we have a justice system that would persecute me the way it did Aaron. I am upset that I have spent 27 years of my life having made no discernible difference to the world around me.”
Which brings us back to the effort, in the aftermath of his suicide, to turn Swartz into a political martyr. The factors that drove Swartz to suicide appear, in MacFarquhar’s telling, to have been quite varied. Nonetheless, his supporters initially claimed that it was the U.S. government drove him to suicide.
In a sense – though they’d never say so – these activists are trying to turn Swartz into a modern-day Walter Benjamin. Today, the 20th-century philosopher and literary critic is widely cited, credited with laying the groundwork for fields like film theory and other forms of art criticism. But during his lifetime, outside of a small cadre of very influential colleagues, Benjamin was barely known. Like Swartz, Benjamin was a committed critic of the modern world, and Benjamin’s unfinished masterpiece – a project examining the development of 20th-century Paris as seen through the arcades built during the 19th – could be seen as a precursor to the blogs and social media Web sites of today, in that it exists only in pieces, with snippets of Benjamin’s own writings interspersed with quotations from other writers and artists. And Benjamin, like Swartz, was pursued by an oppressive regime that eventually led him to commit suicide at a young age.
But that was in September 1940. Benjamin -- who was, like Swartz, Jewish -- was trying to flee occupied France, where the Vichy regime would ultimately hand over 75,000 Jews to the Germans for deportation to death camps. When his group was turned back at the Spanish border, Benjamin took his own life.
Swartz may have been facing jail time, but he wasn’t facing Nazi extermination camps. Perhaps, then, a better model for mourning Aaron Swartz might be found in a more recent suicide: Kurt Cobain.
The two men aren’t at all similar: Cobain was as broadly famous as Swartz was unknown; Cobain’s oeuvre of work was worth millions even after his death while Swartz dedicated his efforts to making all such work freely available.
But their suicides are. Friends of both Cobain and Swartz said that they had seen signs of suicidal impulses in advance, and both were described after their deaths as being prophetic, or somehow ill-fitted to the world in which they lived, especially when lavished with such success and adulation.
Cobain’s songs may still be on the radio, but his lasting impact on the world is hard to discern. After his death, devotees armed with markers turned a park bench into a makeshift memorial. Years later, a sign was placed near the edge of the town where he was born.
Will Swartz’s suicide’s impact be more lasting? In the immediate aftermath of Swartz’s death, it seemed possible. Internet activists around the world tried to advance their own agendas -- about making more of the world’s information publicly accessible – in Swartz’s name. Now, a few months later, as a more complicated story about Swartz emerges, maybe it’s time to consider remembrances of a more mundane – and less politically driven – variety.
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February 11, 2013 | 2:13 pm
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
After Sami Rahamim’s father, Reuven Rahamim, was killed in a workplace shooting in Minneapolis on Sept. 27, the 17-year-old high school senior began going to synagogue early every morning to say the Mourner’s Kaddish.
He has also become an advocate for stricter gun regulations in Minnesota, spending many days at the Minnesota state Capitol, as well as speaking at churches and synagogues, according to the Huffington Post.
Tomorrow evening, when the President delivers his State of the Union address, Rahamim will be in the gallery of the House of Representatives along with at least 16 other people affected by gun violence, part of an effort by gun control advocates in Congress to urge their colleagues to pass “common-sense gun law reforms.”
“Sami suffered a tragic loss. Yet he has stepped forward to make a difference in our community and our nation and I am proud to have him as my guest at the State of the Union,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D – Minn.), in a statement.
Ellison, who is the first Muslim elected to Congress, Rep. Jim Langevin (D – R.I.), who was paralyzed as a teenager after being shot, and three other Representatives succeeded in persuading at least a dozen of their colleagues to invite victims of gun violence and family members of shooting victims to the speech tomorrow evening.
Three Jewish Freshmen in Congress, Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D - Long Beach), Rep. Brad Schneider (D - Ill.) and Rep. Lois Frankel (D - Fla.), are among those who have invited victims or family members of victims to join them as their guests.
Joshua Stepakoff, who was six years old in 1999 when he was shot by a white supremacist at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, will attend as the guest of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D – Calif.).
“Josh is a remarkable young man whose life was forever changed by a senseless act of mass gun violence,” Feinstein said in a statement. “It is important for members of Congress to see the faces behind these tragedies of gun violence.”
The gunman wounded five people at the JCC, including Stepakoff, who is now 20. He fired 70 rounds using a semiautomatic weapon, the sale of which had been prohibited in 1994 when Congress passed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. That ban expired in 2004; last month, Feinstein, who sponsored the original legislation, introduced a new bill that would ban the sale and manufacture of assault weapons.
The effort to introduce new gun control legislation has proceeded at a furious clip since the shooting of 20 young children at a school in Newtown, Conn. Rahamim learned how to lobby last summer by participating in a program run by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, according to the Huffington Post, and has been putting that knowledge to use in his fight for gun law reform.
He participated in a round-table discussion with President Obama earlier this month and flew to New York to speak with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who started a group of mayors dedicated to curbing gun violence, which kills 33 Americans every day.
“My father lived the American Dream, but he died the American nightmare,” Rahamim wrote in an article for The Daily Beast, in which he urged Congress to pass the President’s proposals.
Some of the President’s proposals -- including banning high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 bullets and instituting a universal background check for all gun purchases – will require action from Congress, something that gun control advocates acknowledge may be difficult to achieve.
For evidence of how much resistance there will be to new gun control legislation, one need only look to who another Representative has invited as his guest on Tuesday. Rep. Steve Stockman (R - Tex.) has invited Ted Nugent, the rock star and board member of the National Rifle Association, according to the New York Times.
January 31, 2013 | 10:22 am
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
A judge in a Santa Monica courthouse rejected a request for a new trial from the Hotel Shangri-La and its owner on Jan. 31.
In August 2012, a jury found the boutique hotel in Santa Monica and its owner, Tehmina Adaya, guilty of discriminating against a group of young Jews and others who were attending a party at the hotel’s pool. On Thursday morning, Judge H. Chester Horn, Jr., who presided over the original case, denied a motion for a new trial as well as another post-trial motion submitted by attorneys representing Adaya and the Shangri-La.
Attorneys for the hotel, who had argued in a brief that a juror who cried during the original trial was grounds to grant a second trial, focused their arguments in court on the damages awarded to the plaintiffs, two of whom were in the courtroom on Thursday. The defense argued that the amount – more than $1.6 million awarded by the jury in different amounts to the 18 individual plaintiffs -- was excessive.
Even as he rejected the defense’s argument, Horn did direct a word of caution to the plaintiffs, saying that if an appeals court felt differently about the damages, it might not simply reduce the sum; the higher court could decide to grant the defendants’ request for a new trial as a remedy.
Adaya was not in court on Thursday, but Ellen Adelman, chief development officer for the Shangri-La, said the hotel would “absolutely” appeal the case in higher court, adding that she was “encouraged” by Horn’s remark.
James Turken, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said Horn’s statement might have been aimed at getting the parties to come to a settlement. Turken didn’t hold out much hope for that to happen, though.
“The decision was 100 percent in our favor," Turken said outside the courtroom on Thursday. “I expect this to go to the court of appeals because Ms. Adaya has been acting consistently with her past behavior, and refuses to accept reality.”
January 29, 2013 | 11:18 pm
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
If the candidates alone got to select the next mayor of Los Angeles, City Councilwoman Jan Perry would win the city’s top job in a landslide.
Asked by Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, who moderated a forum with the five leading candidates at his synagogue in Westwood on Jan. 29, who they would vote for if they couldn’t choose themselves, all four of Perry’s competitors said she would get their support.
The candidates gave varied reasons for selecting Perry: City Controller Wendy Greuel cited Perry’s record of creating jobs downtown and noted that Perry – like Greuel – would give Angelenos the chance to elect the city’s first woman mayor. City Councilman Eric Garcetti said Perry inspired him by fighting for the causes in which she believes. Kevin James, the lone Republican in the race, said he’d vote for Perry because she exposed “back-room dealings” at City Hall, and Emanuel Pleitez, a technology executive, also picked Perry for her “courage” in admitting mistakes.
[Watch the entire debate at jewishdebates.com]
Wolpe’s question was just one of a number intended to put the mayoral hopefuls off of their pre-scripted stump speeches. The candidates had met for a televised debate just 24 hours earlier and at least 18 more forums and debates are scheduled to take place between now and the primary election on March 5.
Despite the rabbi’s efforts, each candidate stayed mostly on message.
Greuel highlighted her work as controller in identifying waste, fraud and abuse, and pledged to be a mayor “for all of Los Angeles,” a slogan that also appears in her first TV advertisement, posted on her website earlier on Tuesday.
Garcetti pointed to his success at revitalizing Hollywood, pledged (along with every other candidate) to abolish the city’s gross receipts tax, and said he would continue his work to improve public education in the city, even if the Mayor’s powers in that arena are limited.
Perry said she would follow the example of former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, by advancing her agenda “in a hands-on way,” taking ideas to community members first. “By the time you bring it back into City Hall for a vote, you build energy, you build momentum, you build consensus and community support,” she said.
James, a first-time candidate, kept his message as clear as it has been from the start: Los Angeles is a city in the throes of a “leadership crisis,” he said, and the elected officials on the stage should be held responsible, not given a promotion.
“They are City Hall,” James said on Tuesday evening. “It is broken. They broke it.”
Pleitez sounded a similar note in his closing statement. “If you’re happy with the results and the experience, you have three great choices, and you should vote for them,” he said, referring to Greuel, Garcetti and Perry. “I present to you an alternative.”
Pleitez, for the record, was the candidate who Perry picked, in her response to the question that won her so much support from her opponents. Perry said she admired the 30-year-old candidate’s enthusiasm and intelligence.
Speaking to a reporter after the debate, she didn’t dwell much on her opponents’ kind words.
“The rabbi made this an unusual evening in the way he conducted the forum, and I really enjoyed it,” Perry said.
For full video of the debate, visit www.jewishjournal.com/debates.
January 27, 2013 | 2:46 pm
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
Junior’s Deli may be gone, but its space – and iconic blue-green sign – are about to have a new occupant: Lenny’s Deli, a Jewish delicatessen that had a brief residency in Pacific Palisades, will open for business “soon,” according to a banner first spotted by Eater L.A.
On Sunday, The Non-Prophet snapped a pic of some new cursive letters on the old Junior’s sign.
Junior’s, long a favorite of movie industry types – “Mel Brooks was a regular and is even said to have written parts of ‘History of the World Part I,’” per The Wrap – was mourned widely when it closed in December.
No one could be reached at Lenny’s on Sunday, but from a quick comparison of the menu posted on Lenny’s site and a takeout menu still available on Junior’s website, the offerings and prices of the new deli should be familiar to those who frequented the old one. (The phone number also appears to be unchanged.)
Lox, eggs and onions, anyone?
January 3, 2013 | 11:24 pm
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
At a debate held on Thursday evening at Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, five candidates for Mayor of Los Angeles may have been addressing a Jewish audience in an Orthodox synagogue, but the subjects they covered were anything but sacred.
Questions about economic development, public safety, education and traffic all were covered during the forum on Jan. 3, but the topic that brought to the fore some of the clearest distinctions between the candidates was the fiscal future of Los Angeles.
“Leadership is not telling people about what they want to hear, but what they need to hear,” Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti said when asked what he would do as mayor to help the city avert bankruptcy.
Los Angeles is facing a $222 million budget deficit, a sum that is only set to grow in subsequent years, and is driven in large part by commitments made by the city to its workers.
Story continues after the video.
In 2007, Garcetti voted for a deal to give city workers raises, which has helped contribute to the deficit. He told the audience of about 350 people on Thursday that he would negotiate “respectfully but tenaciously” with the leaders of public sector unions over the terms of their contracts.
The other two elected officials on the stage at Beth Jacob, Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel and Councilwoman Jan Perry, also voted for the 2007 pay raise, and each offered different ways of closing the budget deficit facing the city.
Greuel, who served on City Council before being elected Controller, emphasized economic development as a way of closing the deficit, but also said that some pension reform would be required, promising to crack down on the practice of “double-dipping,” when workers collect pensions while remaining on the city payroll.
Perry, who has said that she regrets her 2007 vote, spoke about refocusing the city’s attention on providing core services – like public safety -- and suggested Los Angeles might benefit from outsourcing the management of its convention center and the zoo, or privatizing those facilities completely.
Neither of the two other candidates who took part in the debate, Kevin James and Emanuel Pleitez, has held elected office, and both pointed to the past actions taken by the city as evidence that their better-known opponents were unfit to lead the city.
Pleitez, a self-described “progressive” candidate who just turned 30 years old last month and whose campaign reached the fundraising threshold to receive matching funds from the city two days before the debate, proposed raising the retirement age for public sector workers. Pleitez also advocated converting city worker pensions to 401k-style plans and generally adjusting the benefits so that workers pay more and the city pays less.
James, a gay Republican radio talk show host who whose campaign has been getting more attention lately, didn’t offer specific measures to reduce the deficit, but he did pledge to use the threat of bankruptcy as a bargaining tool with city workers. He called the actions taken by his opponents “municipal malpractice.”
The debate, which was moderated by Jewish Journal President David Suissa, was organized by CivicCare, a grassroots group dedicated to engaging and educating Jewish voters in Los Angeles on matters of importance to local governance.
December 31, 2012 | 4:06 pm
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
This year, Googlers in the Jewish state were more interested in making money than in making out.
In Israel, “How to make money” topped the list of “How to...” queries typed into the search engine in the past year. The finding, which comes from Google Zeitgeist, the Web search giant’s annual roundup of data from 2012, shows that Israel was the only country among 53 surveyed whose top “How to...” web search was focused on stacking up the Benyamins.
Among the other countries surveyed, the top “How to...” searches had to do with updating or disabling Facebook, finding and attracting someone a mate and learning how to kiss them properly and discovering methods of weight-loss.
Only in Israel (to crib a theme from a Hebrew children’s song sung in many a Zionist summer camp) was the year’s top inquiry about money-making. French Googlers sent “getting rich” to the fourth spot on their nation’s list; in recession-ravaged Spain, “Cómo ganar dinero” showed up at #5, right between “Cómo hacer cupcakes” and “Cómo ser feliz.”
The finding – which I first saw in Quartz -- may solidify the anti-Semitic perceptions of some and confirm for others Israel’s reputation as a “Start-Up Nation” of budding entrepreneurs.
For the complete lists – including the rest of Israel’s top ten, which covers varied topics such as picking up women, making babies, divorce, tanning, app-building, quitting smoking, and yes, French kissing – check out Google’s Zeitgeist site.
Happy New Year.
December 7, 2012 | 1:59 pm
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
Since deciding to host the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s (MPAC) 12th annual convention on Dec. 15, All Saints Church, Pasadena has received dozens of hate-filled messages.
“We’ve begun to receive some of the most vile, vituperative, ugly, mean-spirited email correspondence I've ever read in all of my life, talking about All Saints participating in terrorism by being hospitable to Muslims,” Pastor Ed Bacon told his congregation in a sermon on Dec. 2.
Rev. Susan Russell, senior associate for communications at All Saints, shared some of the messages with the Huffington Post, including one that compared Islam to Nazism and called Muslims "Body Snatchers":
Another quote reads, “You are Consorting with the Enemy that is Killing Christians Worldwide.”
Russell writes of another, from South Carolina, that reads, “The problem is that by providing cover and legitimacy to an organization dedicated to overthrowing the Constitution, and substituting Sharia law therefore, you endanger my country and my grandsons' future."
MPAC, which calls itself “a public service agency working for the civil rights of American Muslims,” is going ahead with the planned convention. On Dec. 6, the church was the site of a press conference at which Bacon and more than a dozen other faith leaders from around Los Angeles expressed solidarity with MPAC and All Saints.
“We want to convert you,” MPAC President Salam Al-Marayati said, addressing the “hatemongers” who sent the messages to All Saints. “We don’t want to convert you to our religions; we have more than enough adherents in each of our religions. We want to convert you so that we can remove that hatred and prejudice in your hearts and replace it with understanding.”
Among the Jewish clergy present was Rabbi Sarah Bassin, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.
“We’re affirming the centrality that we are all belonging to the same community,” Bassin said at the press conference, a video of which is available on YouTube. “And in that same community, we face shared struggles and we face shared interests. That’s what I believe All Saints is doing here, is creating a space for our community to address those needs together, by hosting MPAC and by opening their doors.”
Bassin is scheduled to appear at the conference on Dec. 15, where she’ll participate in a panel discussion called “Faith Authority & Freedom,” along with Bacon, MPAC Senior Adviser Dr. Maher Hathout, and Narinjan Singh Khalsa, the chairman of the LA City Human Relations Commission.