Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Blame, blame, blame!

Many people have thought a lot about the Newtown murders. Few if any people have noticed that we did there what we do every day when bad things happen, we look for the culprit, we identify a person or thing or situation to blame. We blame inadequate gun control laws, or inadequate registries of persons with mental difficulties; we blame violent computer games. Finding someone to blame usually offers a remedy which we then espouse passionately. Then we are done.
No one seems willing to have a thoughtful conversation about guns, about registries of mental illness—are mentally ill persons not entitled to some privacy?--or the free speech issues raised by blaming the publishers of violent computer games.
No one wants to talk. We just want to distance ourselves quickly from the latest tragedy by saying:” It does not have to do with me. It is the fault of . . . “
The daily papers are full of disasters of one sort and another. Our response is always the same. We look for the guilty party, we blame that party and prescribe an appropriate punishment. And then we go to look at the next disaster.
Today's paper has two startling instances of that: a 10-year-old boy in California shot and killed his neo-Nazi father who had regularly abused him. The parents had recently divorced. It is not difficult to see the enormous complexity of this event. The boy was ten years old. What was he thinking? Did he fully understand what he did? Did this failed family have any other relatives? If so, what were their connection to all of this? Did anyone—teachers, lawyers, divorce court judges—know of the boy's suffering? The judge in the case had no interest in these questions. He had no difficulty finding the culprit and sentenced the now 12-year-old boy to 15 years in prison. Case closed.
Adam Schwartz, a brilliant but sad young man, hacked into a nonprofit library of scholarly papers. The organization, J-Stor, sells access to such papers. Schwartz believes that these articles, especially when they were financed by government grants, should be available to the public free of charge. So he downloaded a great number of them. He never had a chance to actually allow the public access to them. The US attorney in Boston threatened him with 35 years in prison and $1 million fine. His attorney had already bargained them down to six months in prison. Deeply depressed, Schwartz hanged himself.
What happens next? Everybody looks for someone to blame. Since Adam Schwartz had a loving family, a woman he lived with, former teachers who cared deeply for him, the only person to blame turned out to be the US attorney. Commentators rushed in to point fingers at the Federal Prosecutor.
In the frenzy to blame, the really interesting issue gets forgotten and Schwartz's legacy is ignored. He was critical of the way in which the public must pay for access to scholarly material. Many people agree with his criticisms. But these are by no means straightforward issues.
The original impetus for copyright and patent laws was to make new ideas and inventions available to other inventors and scholars, and to the public in general. The reasoning went as follows: If new ideas are not protected from imitators, everyone who has made an interesting and, potentially, important discovery will keep it a secret in order to be able to profit from it, rather than have imitators enrich themselves from the inventions and discoveries made by others.
That has seemed a reasonable arrangement for centuries. But critics, like Schwartz, were looking towards a world where the discoveries and inventions of the gifted—and the lucky—belong to everyone. After all, the inventors and discoverers were educated in the country's schools. Teachers took them under their wing to help them develop their native abilities. The society as a whole provided opportunities for them to do the work of discovery and invention. Why should the society not have free access to the new findings of their gifted members?
That, too, is reasonable. Schwartz raised a perfectly sensible question. The answer, however, is by no means obvious. If the intellectual work I do is useful for someone else, they should have access to it. But I, of course, also need to eat and have a roof over my head. The question of copyrights and patents is connected with the other question of how talented persons are to earn a living. That opens a lengthy conversation.
These interesting and important questions that Schwartz, among many others, raised have been overlooked in the rush to blame someone for his suicide. It seems to me that we would do much better to honor him by thinking about what he was trying to tell us than by finding someone to blame.
The 10 year old murdering his father ( who had taken him to Neo-Nazi gun trainings) should make us raise questions about the many ways in which the suffering in our society remains hidden, and the victim without support and aid. We would be better off reflecting about that challenge instead of sending a 12 year old to prison.
But in the rush to distance ourselves from the troubles of others, we find a culprit so that we can put the whole sad story behind us. We blame others because we do not want to be bothered to think about the questions raised by the daily disasters in our lives.