Swartz, Mehanna, and the Freedom to Dissent

This is a guest post by Rebecca Gould, a professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. Her article, “Aaron Swartz’s Legacy.” appears in the January-February issue of Academe.

Aaron Swartz is gone but his legacy lives on. In my article for the current issue of Academe, I offered a few reasons why his brief life, including his prosecution, is worth remembering. Here are a few more ways in which Swartz’s tragedy intersects with the broader political world.

The same year that Swartz was charged with downloading too many articles, and in the same city, Boston, Egyptian-American dissident Tarek Mehanna faced similar accusations from the office of the same prosecutor, Carmen Ortiz. In the years leading up to his arrest, while Swartz was busy promoting his agenda of global open access, Mehanna was busy discussing the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in online forums, and translating Arabic materials on Islam into English. Mehanna argued for the right of Muslim peoples invaded by other countries to self-defense. He discouraged his fellow Muslims from gratuitous acts of violence, but defended anti-American violence in contexts where he perceived this violence to be legitimate.

As punishment for his dangerous opinions, Mehanna was sentenced to seventeen years in a Supermax. The prosecutor never claimed that Mehanna had ever done anything to harm anyone, or expressed any intention to do so. The object of prosecution was his mind, not his actions. As evidenced by his sentencing statement, Mehanna understands the hypocrisy of such logic when implemented by a country for which freedom of expression is one of its founding principles.

The cases of Swartz and Mehanna differ in their causes and implications, but both demonstrate the destructive impact of prosecutorial overreach on human lives, as well as the ways in which mainstream American culture, along with its prosecutorial legal apparatus, works to silence dissent in the post 9/11 age. Had Swartz lived to hear Mehanna’s story, we can only imagine the ingenious technologies he would have invented to protect the right of people like Mehanna to dissent.

Political theorist Andrew March, who served as an expert witness in Mehanna’s trial, offered a profound indictment of the American criminal justice system, and the flawed logic underwriting its persecution of dissent. Glenn Harlan Reynolds considers the problem of prosecutorial overreach broadly with respect to Swartz’s case and other similar abuses of power. (See here an open access version of Reynolds’ article.)

Aaron Swartz is dead. Tarek Mehanna remains incarcerated. Academia has so far remained largely silent concerning both injustices. Let’s try to bring that silence to an end. To start, you might consider boycotting Elsevier, and writing to your congressperson about Mehanna’s case.

5 thoughts on “Swartz, Mehanna, and the Freedom to Dissent

  1. Interestingly enough, resolutions on issues such as these were not on the recent MLA’s Delegate Assembly agenda, were they? American academics by and large feel far more comfortably “safe” in attacking perceived injustice outside the borders of our own nation.

    However, as a not incidental aside: One wonders whether and for how long faculty at Yale -NUS, like the author above, will enjoy true freedom of expression and inquiry. Indeed, the entire Yale-NUS enterprise can be viewed as essentially antithetical to everything that Swartz was fighting for, can it not? Yale-NUS, born outside of the parameters of any true Yale faculty governance and situated in a country renowned for state control, appears to be yet another “closed” enterprise for the circulation and control of knowledge among primarily affluent elites.

    • Critiques such as the above–including the questions about academic freedom at Yale-NUS–are very welcome. The only issue I take with this is that it does not seem to be based on any clear concept of what it means to be a faculty member at Yale-NUS in Singapore. I think many of us agree that the vetting process at Yale could have been handled more democratically. But that is an issue that has more to do with Yale than with Yale-NUS.

      If one is going to raise concerns about academic freedom in Singapore, Isn’t the real issue what is going on in Yale-NUS classrooms? We must all be vigilant with respect to academic freedom wherever we are, but from my vantage point (that of a Yale-NUS classroom where I have been discussing racial oppression, sexual discrimination, Marx, Gramsci, and even copyright law) I don’t see any grounds for singling out this institution. I have reflected on this here:

      Swartz was interested in engaging with the world, in making information available to everyone, so I definitely do not agree that Yale-NUS as such is antithetical to what Swartz was fighting for.

      • As a Yale alum, I have been following the Yale-NUS debates internal to Yale and have found the coverage by the Yale Alumni Magazine especially useful. No, this commenter is not a faculty member at Yale-NUS (but used to have a faculty appointment at Yale); nevertheless, as the old saying goes, “you don’t have to be a chicken to know a good egg.”

        Further, the idea that the singular place that an AAUP member need be concerned about academic freedom in Singapore is “what is going on in Yale-NUS classrooms” relies upon a sadly limited view of academic freedom, freedom of speech, and faculty governance principles. By this token, Yale faculty and administration need only be concerned about speech inside the classroom, whether in New Haven or in Singapore — discussions outside of class, Web and Internet writings or other “public” communications of coursework, etc. would all be fair game for attack.

        Further, the author of the blog article above refers us to her earlier posting at http://www.opendemocracy.net yet failed there and fails here to comment on the serious objections posted there by commenters Ray Langenbach and Rey Buono immediately beneath her posting at that site — objections which echo my own. In fact, the earlier posting by the author contains the seeds of its own deconstruction (sorry, Yale influence): the controversial text discussed there is an Indian literary work politically suppressed in India, not of a Singaporian text suppressed in Singapore. Additionally, the anecdote about Dostoevsky includes a reference to the fact that “[t]hankfully, Russian is no longer a language of empire.” Thus, the Yale-NUS humanities curriculum is a “safe” one in its lived Singaporean political context — exhibiting an (un)conscious self-censorship which is just what the Singapore government believes it has a right to expect.

        Lastly, the thinly-veiled implication in the referred posting that perhaps only in places like Singapore (or at least outside of the U.S.) could faculty develop a curriculum that might revolutionize education is hardly credible. For example, it is not clear to the public how the Yale-NUS faculty are selected, for example, nor what if any faculty governance structures exist at that campus that do (not) exist in New Haven. I concede, more than in passing, that Yale in Connecticut is not a paragon of AAUP principles; clearly, that university should long ago have been formally placed on the current AAUP censure lists for endemic and arrogant violations of the 1940 Statement, governance standards, etc. Indeed, that this is not the case underscores some of the questionable priorities of the AAUP leadership as the organization’s centennial approaches.

        In short, these two universities — Yale and its satellite Yale-NUS — together with the debates surrounding them are fraught with irony on all levels. It is not at all clear that Aaron Swartz would have approved of the establishment of yet another elitist training ground. Let the dialogue continue.

      • (reply to comment below from “professor_at_large”)
        I just wanted to note I think the commentator below makes some excellent points. It seems to me that the issues raised here are best suited to a venue other than a comment thread, and I hope to engage them as they deserve at some point. I just hope we can all recognize, as scholars, that the most satisfying conversations about Yale-NUS are going to be the ones that move beyond the tendency to polarize matters into simple good/bad dichotomies. Isn’t it possible for the concerns aired above to have merit (I agree that the Ramayana is a “safe” text in Singapore, and that teaching it here necessarily neutralizes its political salience, although that is arguably true for any pedagogy of world literature) and yet for the curricular and other innovations of Yale-NUS to have a positive significance, politically and intellectually (for example, for our disciplines)?

        I think really advancing this dialogue would mean stepping aside from its partisan dimensions, and trying not to speak from a position of “for” or “against” (easier said than done of course). Anyway, I hope this does not come off as defensive. Thank you for your input.

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