Depression

Ken White, discussing Aaron Swartz, writes the following.

Aaron Swartz suffered.

He suffered long before the implacable system began to grind him up. He was open about his depression and the pain it caused him. Even the government knew it.

But we don’t want to believe that a person like Aaron Swartz — strong, brilliant, beloved, with hopes and goals and ideals, supported by family and friends — would take his own life despite all those things because of a disease. It is, strangely, less terrifying to think that a cruel government persecution overcame his ability to cope. It’s awful thing, but an notable thing, an unusual thing, not something we imagine happening to us or the people we love. Accepting that the government drove Aaron Swartz to kill himself doesn’t force us to ask this question: what if we gave someone we love everything we have, and they had every reason to live, and it wasn’t enough? What if someone we love were suffering that much, and we didn’t see it?

It’s more comfortable to believe that circumstance drives people to kill themselves. That’s the premise, and we don’t question it. We should. It’s wrong. Depression lies, and depression kills. It kills the forgotten and the cherished alike. It kills rich and poor, genius and dolt, the scattered and the capable. It kills the strong with the weak. It kills people undergoing terrible hardship and people who seem to have everything. It can be killing the person you know and love best in the world and you might not see it.

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12 thoughts on “Depression

  1. Generally I’d agree that it’s discomfort that makes people not want to believe that people kill themsleves because of that terrible disease. But in this case, I think White’s assessment is a bit too generous to many people’s mode of engagement with Swartz’s case. People highly invested in the case, this is just my guess, tend to be highly educated, and will be aware of the psychological facts of the disease – its destructiveness to life and happiness. In this case, in my opinion, in the majority of cases the operative reason for the non-acknowledgment of those facts is that feigning ignorance of them and trying to blame the government (who certainly did over-prosecute Mr. Swartz, to be sure) serves a variety of political agendas for a variety of different observers too well not to put on that ruse.

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  2. I don’t know how to say this other than bluntly.

    Mr Swartz did not kill himself before being threatened with life in prison. He did kill himself after being so threatened. This does not lead me to conclude that the threat was irrelevant to his actions. It’s true that some people, so threatened, would have resolved to fight, while others would have chosen to go quietly and make the best possible plea-bargain. Mr. Swartz, alas, did neither, and no doubt depression was a key factor. But if he’s not put in that position, he’s quite likely alive today.

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    • It seems pretty clear that over-prosecution and the potential long-term consequences it entailed were the proximate causes of his suicide. It’s not wrong to blame these things. Depression was, at the very least, a big part of the ultimate cause, however, and I wish more people would talk about it. Hell, it’d be nice if we had a real conversation about how the government treats people suffering from mental illness.

      Fuck the government for doing what they did to him, but fuck depression too.

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    • Ken White is a fairly consistent and outspoken critic against government abuses of power, so that suggests to me that he takes government bullying of people quite seriously. He’s also critical of the way federal prosecutions work, although he doesn’t see the Swartz case as exceptional in that regard, just that Swartz was more visible and sympathetic than others subjected to prosecution.

      That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s right about the cause and effect here, but it does suggest he makes this statement about depression more against his own reflex to criticize the government for things.

      One of my pet peeves when something tragic like suicide happens is when people look back at bad things that happened immediately before and say, “x happened, therefore he was sad, therefore he killed himself,” when there may very well have been other problems or underlying conditions like depression or anxiety.

      Again, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong here or White is wrong there.

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    • I am uncomfortable with this because there are many (millions?) of people that are over-charged every year and do not commit suicide. If, instead of a prosecutor, the thing that happened was that his girlfriend dumped him or he lost his job, do you place the same amount of blame to the ex-girlfriend or boss as you assign to the prosecutor? Why or why not?

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      • Breaking up with someone or firing them may have the effect of making the other party feel unhappy and powerless, but that’s not their sole purpose. Overcharging is done specifically to break the victim’s will to fight back.

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      • Is it used to break their will or is it merely a negotiation tactic*? The purpose is to make the possible outcome of going to trial and losing bad, so as to make the plea agreement (in Swartz’s case 6 months in low security) look more appealing and to make it more likely that the plea is accepted. Swartz killed himself after he was offered (and rejected) 6 months in prison.

        * I think overcharging is a horrible tactic, so I am not defending it

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      • I’ll split the difference and say that it *is* a negotiation tactic, with the *side effect* (very, very debatable how much “side”) of “breaking will” (negotiation IS, in one sense, attempting to break or at least shape the will of another to get everything they want, while imposing to some degree your will to get something you want).

        IF we think that it’s a good thing that the system attempts to plead some cases out to save time and money, then I don’t see how we can expect prosecutors not to use such tactics. They are attempting to make gambling unattractive, to nudge the defendant toward the cheaper/faster resolution (or, to put it another way “break his will to take a chance on fighting”), theoretically to *everyone’s* benefit.

        OTOH, overcharging like this HAS to be psychologically stressful, as it necessarily must heighten the potential outcomes of the gamble (“hmmm, I’ll either serve six months or FOUR BILLION YEARS”) to achieve the desired effect.

        On the third hand, they should never overcharge – this isn’t supposed to be a gamble or “game”. This is supposed to be the coolheaded evenhanded administration of justice.

        As is often the case, disentangling cause and effect here is a motherfisher.

        If the system wasn’t so clogged with BS cases (like, arguably, Swartz’s) then there would be a reduced need to grease the system these sorts of prosecutorial games – games that undoubtedly played a part in what happened to Swartz.

        Of course my libertarianish self goes back to its usual well of wondering if it’s possible we just have too many laws and are dragging too many people into criminal court.

        An alternative would be to better fund the court system to relieve the pressure, but frankly the system already wields massive power over defendants, which is why it can credibly make these “clobberin’ time” type threats anyway.

        But, the more clogged it gets, the more perversely-incentivized it is to swing for the fences each and every time.

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      • The problem is not plea bargains per se, but the tactic of threatening a catastrophic outcome so they can get a guilty plea for a lesser crime that they probably couldn’t prove in court. That is, it’s specifically used as a tactic to convict people who’ve committed no crime.

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