I met Larry Lessig in an empty train, one cold evening of November 2013, somewhere between Marseille and Paris. He had boarded before me and was trying to force the door into the sitting compartment.
At the time, I had just published a novel on the collusion between finance, politics and media. I was frustrated by the fact that nobody seemed to care. I was also obsessed by Edward Snowden’s revelations on NSA. The nature of whistle-blowing fascinated and puzzled me. Of what it takes. But the arguments about Snowden had disintegrated into the same this-side, that-side posturing. There again, I was feeling quite alone.
Suddenly, by chance, I was staring at an icon for free culture, an ocean away from his home, on a Friday night ghost train, fumbling with an unfamiliar door latch. Into my compartment.
The impossibility of this chance meeting emboldened me. So I asked for an impromptu interview, arguing that Le Monde would publish it. He kindly agreed to believe me (there was no wi-fi on the train, hence eliminating any competition.) We had one hour.
I assumed we would talk about free culture, copyright and other issues I associated with him. But I was in for a surprise. Instead, he launched into a dazzlingly articulate description of his patient, documented work on the plague of “legal corruption,” or to be more precise, on the toxic influence of money on politics. And his insane plan to defy it by walking in New Hampshire, inviting similarly outraged citizens to join him. The march would commence in eight weeks. It seemed unbelievable. A Harvard professor who once clerked for Justice Anton Scalia was starting a civil disobedience movement to end corruption? He suggested I come and see for myself.
And so I did. Here is what I saw walking with him. And what I discovered it might take to make real change happen.
Only in America
An icy rain is falling on Dixville Notch, 18 miles from the Canadian border. On this January 11, 2014, in the rounded hills of the Appalachians, the mountains of New Hampshire ooze a muddy mixture of ice and snow. The Balsams Grand Resort, an imposing structure of wood and concrete by a dark lake, looks like the hotel from the horror movie The Shining.
The Balsams Grand is closed for renovation and Dixville Notch all but deserted. Every four years since 1960, this ghostly place becomes the stage of the first scene of the presidential election, a political Brigadoon. Shortly after midnight, CNN and Fox News cameras take over the ballroom to report the results of the very first primary elections. A handful of voters, the dozen or so residents of the village, cast their ballots for the Republican and Democratic candidates. They are the vote locally, they set the tone nationally. Since 1960 they have rarely been wrong.
But in a non presidential year, Dixville Notch has the desolation of the Brigadoon swamp between appearances. In a rainy parking lot a quarter of a mile from the empty hotel, Lawrence Lessig grits his teeth. Clear blue eyes behind thin-framed glasses, his broad forehead and delicate scholarʼs hands are hidden underneath a big, green poncho. The Furman Professor of Law and Leadership and director of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University adjusts his ice cleats, cursing himself.
At the age of 52, he is about to leave the well-trodden path that would have propelled him from a sterling academic career to a Supreme Court Judge position. Having exhausted all the traditional means to make his case—lectures, conferences, books, media soundbites— all thatʼs left for the star professor is walking. A solid three-hour drive from Boston, from his family, his classes and students, miles away from his Washington acquaintances, he is launching the New Hampshire Rebellion, his crusade against the corrupting influence of money in politics.
Pelted by the icy rain, Lawrence Lessig can barely manage a smile for the twenty-odd people who answered the call posted on his blog eight weeks prior. His improvised army of walkers comes from all over the country. Wearing Gore-Tex, carrying walking sticks, they are ready to brave the cold, the snow. And their doubts.
They are retired lawyers, computer developers, free-software and Constitutional reform activists, former Marines. There is a firefighter and his father, a couple of psychotherapists, unemployed people and cyberpunks all bundled in hats and caps. They met up the night before at the initial rallying point, the Boston Express bus station. Up until then, they had only exchanged emails, sharing their motivations, skills and what they can contribute: drive one of the vehicles, prepare hot coffee, treat blisters and cramps. Or simply walk.
Shedding the masks
Between a vending machine and a plastic palm tree, Rick, Kevin, Chris, Cailin, Bruce, Mark and Mary shared a brief hello, then stood in silence. Some considered going back home.
Few words were said. They all came with their own baggage, their reasons to walk. Now they are all here together. No two are alike; they range between 27 and 78 years old, from wildly different backgrounds. They donʼt know what to expect, but they are ready for adventure. And now they are all looking at Larry Lessig to see what is in store.
A little hunched, he greets each person individually. They have been listening to him for years. He knows American history as if written in his bones. He knows Washington as an insider. He understands the rules of the game with the depth of one who has lost unfairly. And he knows what he must do in Dixville Notch today. To tear off the masks we all wear, he must first take off the various hats he himself dons as a brilliant lecturer, powerful lawyer, messiah of Internet freedom. And be ready to lead.
Larry Lessig is a UFO on the American intellectual scene. He is respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, influential in Silicon Valley and Wall Street. He is the “the Elvis of Cyberlaw,” as Steven Levy wrote in 1993 in Wired magazine. He may not play guitar but he is The King of his discipline. A thorn in the side of culture and entertainment dinosaurs, from Microsoft to Disney, Lessig revolutionized copyright policy with the concept of free licensing and creative commons.
As a speaker, Larry Lessig is an aesthete. His polished presentations are timed down to the second, each word carefully weighed. He is naturally reserved and discreet, and can easily become taciturn. But give him a microphone and his chest puffs up, and his voice and his eyes harden. He fills conference halls without making any effort to please. A masterful lawyer with an education in philosophy, economics and law, a sometime poet protected by his brilliant academic background, he is an intellectual figure flown first class around the world.
Seven years ago he abandoned his favorite topic to speak out against the almighty dollar in Washington and the much-needed renewal of democracy. In his opinion, no significant reform — on the environment, financial regulation, gun control or education— is possible as long as campaign finance remains the same. Money provides access, access yields influence, and influence determines decisions. Ideas and promises donʼt matter. In 96% of cases, election outcomes are a function of money. Members of congress spend between 30 and 70% of their time fundraising. “It becomes a constant obsession. They only listen to their donors, become hyper-sensitive to their demands,” Lessig explains.
Invisible and implacable lobbies are rotting away the foundations of democracy. The people, the general interest and public debate are given a back seat. “No one, no morality can resist the amounts at stake,” he says. “Itʼs as if you opened the doors of an airplane at high altitude, the human body just explodes. We need politicians to pass the necessary reforms to put a stop to it.” The government has lost its way in wars against terrorism. The enemy is within. We entertain ourselves with House of Cards. But the truth is even worse.
Lessig has advised Republicans and Democrats alike. He campaigned for Barack Obama, a former colleague at the University of Chicago, before accusing him of selling out. On many occasions, he thought he had found his champion. Before long, they all disappointed him. Larry Lessig has been looking for his place. He considered becoming a congressman to reform the system from the inside. He launched countless initiatives. Projects, speeches and honors piled up. Despite his talent, his network and his reasoning, he never really managed to make change happen. So far.
The rain beats down harder and colors everything gray. The morning light never comes. Japhet Els, 6 feet 2 inches of kindness and common sense, hands out fluorescent orange vests. A handsome guy with a bright white smile, he gives basic instructions: “Walk in single file, watch out for the snow plow, be careful of the rain it will freeze you to the bone, donʼt leave anyone behind, and watch out for each other.” Japhet takes on the role of the solid, helpful boy scout. In the middle of the parking lot, he unrolls a banner for the New Hampshire Rebellion. The walkers gather behind it; Larry Lessig kneels, no smile on his face. This is becoming real. They now have to leave this no-manʼs land for adventure and the 185 miles to go. To challenge Washington by walking with an army of unknown volunteers in the middle of winter, do you have to be crazy or desperate?
To challenge Washington, do you have to be crazy or desperate?
Silently, Larry Lessig leaves the parking lot that is more like a skating rink. This is the beginning of a new life, in ice cleats, in contact, with no books or lecterns to hide behind. Under his green poncho, his skinny legs are swallowed up by a pair of dark jeans. His black polo with the letters “Aaron Swartz” on it is like a hair shirt. More than just the start of this walk, January 11, 2014 is a day of mourning. And if heʼs crazy today, itʼs from grief.
Without warning, eyes fixed on the frozen pavement, the Harvard professor crosses the road, muttering “Now I am scared!” He remembers the words of a drunken customer in the motel the night before “Youʼre going out on our roads without any kind of protection? Youʼre all going to die!” Larry Lessig is driven by his quest for meaningfulness. He is fighting his own pessimism. But what about fear? Is it an accident he is worried about, or adventure and the metamorphosis that should come with it? Will he have the strength to carry the other walkers when he isnʼt even sure that his own legs will carry him? Will he have the strength to talk to them when he canʼt find his words this morning? Who is he really: a member of the elite or a rebel? Star professor or a messiah in cleats?
He reaches the other side of the road and turns to look back; no one has followed. Heʼs annoyed, but at whom? Will they slow him down or has he already forgotten them? He motions with his head; the walkers join him for the first stage, 12 miles in the rain. Leaving for the front, putting your body on the line, is never without sadness, violence and sacrifice. It creates a rift. Strange beginnings: the New Hampshire Rebellion starts off like a funeral procession, family at the front. That day, he wants to walk ahead alone, alone with the shadow of Aaron.
When they met, Aaron Swartz was a 14 year-old kid who had just created the RSS feed format. He had just read Larry Lessigʼs Code Is Law. For Aaron, Lessig was one of the few adults who understood the political significance of the Internet, and he had come to tell him that. Lessig saw a boy in “grown-up” T-shirts who lugged a backpack loaded with his computer, charger and hard drives everywhere he went. Lessig was already living in his own bubble, filled with brilliant minds. With just a few words Aaron Swartz, this kid, barely five feet tall, had cracked it; Lessig had just met a wise man in a childʼs body.
Despite the 26-year difference between them, Larry and Aaron became inseparable. Did they provide each other relief from the feeling of never being fully understood? They shared a passion for books, a vibrant desire to understand and explain the world. Larry Lessig had an idea; Aaron Swartz made it possible.
They completed each other. Together, in 1999 they created the Creative Commons licensing platform that broke the intellectual property codes and made free culture on the internet possible. Aaron “accidentally” made a fortune at the age of 19 when he sold Reddit to Condé Nast. He joined and then brusquely left the media group after just a few weeks, crying tears of boredom in the bathroom. He didnʼt fit in as a student at Stanford, either. On a bench in Berlin in 2007, he convinced Larry Lessig to dedicate himself to ending endemic corruption in Washington. He realized before anyone else did the fatal, systemic effects it had on freedom of speech. It seems he was part of all his mentorʼs projects, and fought his battles with and for him. In fact, it was Aaron who guided Lessig.
“Hackers for right, we are one down.”
Larry Lessig saw his friend grow and mature, earn a million, and become an activist. He loved him like a son, listened to him like a teacher, and protected him like a jewel. He helped him fight depression, loneliness, and the awful trial that pitted him against the American government after he downloaded millions of files from servers at MIT, then his wonderland. “Aaron was dangerous, not because he stole credit cards, blocked government sites or got his hands on confidential information. He was dangerous because he wanted to change the world by setting the Internet free,” Lessig says to me. He has obviously said this many times. But his voice still cracks as he says his friendʼs name.
Ruined by a two-year persecution, haunted by what seemed like the inevitable verdict, Aaron Swartz hanged himself at the age of 26, shocking the web community. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, tweeted: “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.” Larry Lessig, the adult who had been his friend and confidant, who had watched the child grow into a man, didnʼt see it coming.
Lessig resurfaced a few weeks later in Long Beach on the TED stage, where he gave one of his most compelling speeches. He explained to the elite crows, his face expressionless for 18 minutes, how their ideas and technologies to “make life better” would mean little as long as nothing was being done to free political decision making from the clutches of big money.
The TED talk reached a million views online. Lessig retreated to his work and his family—he is father to three young children—in order not to slip into the deep end, battling the feeling of guilt at not having done enough. Of having failed Aaron. To distract himself and escape he accepted a few invitations, the oddest coming from the Bilderberg group, Mecca of the Westʼs 0.001%. He kept a low profile, stayed shut up in his room, at a loss for how to understand it all. Everywhere he went was painful, because he was in pain. He had lost a son and the world a genius. A double loss.
Like on orphan on the New Hampshire roads
As the anniversary of Aaron’s death approached, Lessig thought about walking somewhere, in the cold, braving the elements. He wanted to face mourning head on and alone. He hoped he could reconnect with some part of his friend, stop time. To keep from giving up on his plan, he shared it. He could have told his “friends” from Silicon Valley or Washington, used his impressive Rolodex. Instead he called Japhet, whom he had spotted in 2007 campaigning for John Edwards. Before anyone else, Lessig confided in him his desire for rebellion.
Japhet jumped at the chance to transform mourning into a political act. Lessig should walk, but he should walk for something. “Blood, sweat and tears — America is made of myths, conquests and sacrifices,” the young man said enthusiastically. Its history had been written by impossible heroes like Lessig, and through speeches like his. What was missing was an unexpected and significant venue: New Hampshire, its key role in the electoral process and its independent spirit were the perfect fit.
In minutes, they had drawn up a plan: walk 185 miles through the state north to south, in the cold and the wind. But to really wake up the rebellious souls sleeping there, they needed icons. Larry and Japhet immediately thought of Doris Haddock, better known as “Granny D”, a symbol of New Hampshire’s independent mindset. At age 88, she started a campaign against the influence of money in politics. She began by canvasing her neighborhood wearing a “Campaign Finance Reform” sign on her bone-thin back, puzzling her family and neighbors. They stopped laughing on January 1, 1999, when she left Los Angeles, alone and on foot, heading for Washington. Along the way, local residents gave the feisty woman food and shelter. Yet she had to faint from heat exhaustion in Death Valley before the media paid any attention.
After surviving 18 months of thirst, heat and snow, she was greeted by 2200 people in DC. The great-grandmother of 16 ran for Congress in 2004, at the age of 94. When she died at 100, former president Jimmy Carter declared “the issue with Granny D is that she made us all look like fossils.”
Larry and Japhet had their narrative: the New Hampshire Rebellion would start on the anniversary of the death of Aaron Swartz, the child of the internet, who committed suicide because he felt so misunderstood. It would end on the birthday of “Granny D”, the incarnation of a relentlessly disobedient America. Aaron Swartz and “Granny D”, two resilient minds who fought tirelessly against the culture of resignation, representing two key generations with enormous electoral weight: the retired people with nothing to lose; and the youth with, potentially, everything to gain.
To run the operation, they called on Jeff McLean, a Top Gun-looking 30-something who headed one of Larry Lessig’s citizenship mobilization projects. He brought intimate knowledge of the geographical and political topography of New Hampshire. Together they traced out the itinerary, finding motels or volunteers who could provide the walkers with a place to sleep. They identified the difficult sections of the route, convinced local figures to organize public speeches, collected $15,000 and found a team to film the march.
To write History, you have to master it. A week from the start date they called Szelena Gray, a tall, young Hungarian-American woman. Lessig had hired her when she graduated from Harvard to help him with his research and projects. Japhet and Szelena had known and worked with Aaron Swartz. All three witnessed the despair his death left Lessig with. In order to face the unknown, Lessig surrounded himself with new blood, enthusiasm, benevolence. Protection. They answered the call, embraced the opportunity, made his cause theirs. Lessig wanted to walk against corruption and for Aaron, for whom he was almost like a second father. But on the New Hampshire roads, he is the orphan.
America at its best
The New Hampshire Rebellion starts in a desolate landscape. For safety reasons volunteers walk in pairs. Walking takes things back to a human level and a pace, enabling eyes, head and mind to lift skyward when rain and cold allow. From day one, Greg is struggling, lagging behind. His age, 65, and his old army equipment weigh him down. He tries to hide his pain behind his military man’s tough face. He was always in front. Now, betrayed by his exhausted body, he finally gives up and climbs into Dan’s van.
The trailer becomes a refuge with hot coffee, shelter, a seat, an encouraging word or just a smile. The lockers are packed with jars of peanut butter, bread, organic cereal bars, apples, mandarin oranges, small tubs of hummus and moleskin for blisters. Around the dining table, walkers with bad shoes display their battered feet. To create bonds within a group, start by showing your little wounds. Before sharing bigger ones?
At dusk, the walkers arrive in Errol, a New England village split down the middle by Route 26. Not far from the snowmobile museum, between the hardware store and the church, stand the town’s diner and its sole motel, re-opened for the occasion. The walkers share rooms. Lessig keeps his distance. It is his only privilege. He sleeps alone with his pain when he has exhausted all other excuses. When there are no more blog posts to write, no more speeches to pen, no more children, back home, to comfort.
Japhet sighs with relief. Nobody got hypothermia, or was mowed down by the enormous trucks loaded with logs from Canada. The New Hampshire Rebellion welcomes anyone and covers all costs. An accident, an injury and the beautiful story of the Harvard professor on a crusade against corruption collapses. Tonight, everyone gets a hot shower, a proper meal and a clean bed. Now they only have to repeat this fourteen times, for fourteen days.
The smell of bacon frying, brightly lit signs, sugar and ketchup on the table: the Errol diner is America at its best. Conversation starts to flow with the first shared beers and miles. Behind an unruffled mask, Lessig is fuming—at himself. To end this first day, he wanted to show the documentary dedicated to the memory of Aaron Swartz, The Internetʼs Own Boy. It was a way for him to thank the walkers, and to share his pain. And it was the one-year anniversary of Aaron’s death. He had everything prepared in a backpack…computer, DVD, speakers, projector. And the backpack is still in the trunk of his car, at the Boston Express bus station.
“Here you go, honʼ!”
The chicken served up looks like an old sponge and the egg yolks glow with a fluorescent tinge. “This is poison,” grumbles Lessig as he reads the menu. When he started combating corruption, he changed his lifestyle — no more junk food, very little meat or bread, lots of vegetables and almonds by the handful. Food in the United States is, he says, a classic case of Washington bowing to lobbies. And itʼs a catastrophe: condemned to eat junk food, the population is suffering from type 2 diabetes from childhood. Everything brings him back to his favorite topic. Everything is intertwined.
In seven years of fighting corruption, Lessig has lost a lot of weight and looks five years younger. It seems he has not updated his wardrobe. His oversized clothes serve as a reminder to himself. He has witnessed it often in the leaders he advises or becomes friends with; it is so easy, so human, to be corrupted. But right now he is starving and devours his salad with no dressing, ordering another straight away.
Debby the waitress dances from table to table. In honor of the group, she is wearing a new sweater. When she learns why theyʼre walking, she doubles the portions. She’s 65, but in her tightly fitting jeans, there’s no way she looks it. She is a tough cookie, used to hard winters and isolation; she knows that in January 2016, the “new crop of Washington puppets” will come to court New Hampshire, to her diner even. At churches and Sunday barbecues they will listen to residents, answer their questions, sleep in the local motels, have a beer and catch up on local events. And carefully take notes. During his last campaign, Obama made 20 trips to New Hampshire.
“Voters here have a lot of political weight. New Hampshire makes history,” says Japhet. “It determines the major campaign topics—if residents here get involved, money in Washington could become THE topic for the next presidential elections.” Lessig wants them to pressure candidates with the only significant question: “How are you going to end the system of corruption in Washington?”
With her smokerʼs voice, Debby sets down each platter with a “Here you do, honʼ!” Kevin, Greg and Rick are all on the north side of 60. They are prepared to walk miles every day. Heads held high, but with kind eyes, they wonʼt give an inch. “You guys are fantastic,” she adds, smiling.
Greg, the veteran and Kevin, the war resister
Leading absolute strangers down icy roads in the middle of winter comes with risks and surprises. Japhet spends his time trying to anticipate problems. On the evening of the first day, Lessig officially opens the debate. “Ninety-six percent of our fellow citizens feel that Congress is useless. Ninety-one percent think that they canʼt do anything about it,” he says. “I want you to help me find and mobilize that 5%.” Glancing at Greg, the veteran from the Laos and Cambodia wars who was lagging behind, he adds, “We arenʼt here as individuals, but as a group. This walk isnʼt a competition, what matters is getting through it, together.”
Now that they are bound together, they each tell their story in a few words. Lessigʼs face softens; the Harvard professor is no longer among strangers, or even the wackos he was worried he would attract, but individuals, real people with their own anger and frustrations. Like Lessig, they do not buy the status quo. With him, they might do something out of it.
They donʼt believe in the rotting corpse that traditional politics has become. They feel marginalized, hemmed in, left out. Theyʼve come seeking courage, a purpose. The youngest among them meet experience, the older ones find energy. They arrived alone; twelve hours later, they are a community. They have all been looking for a way to become involved, again or for the first time. “There has to be a way out of this cycle, something we can do.” exclaims Oliver, a self-declared anarchist who earned his stripes in Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, in the 1988.
“September 11th shut up all the activists,” he moans. “We became apathetic. They used the culture of fear to manipulate us. Personally, this is the first time Iʼve been able to move past that.”
To hear them tell it, the New Hampshire Rebellion is the place where they can just “be.” This test of will, through 185 miles in the cold, is a path to dignity. The cleats are useful, but, like Lessig, they must let down the masks they hide behind. Get rid of the lies they have lived with. Starting with their country. Is it because they have been through war, that blind spot in the American Way of Life? They easily agree, their country and its “myth of progress and freedom is a huge scam.”
Greg, the war veteran, talks about his deep-rooted anger upon returning home: “America should be something other than the argument about good that covers up the reality of evil.” He came back from war with a case of PTSD that he thought was dead and buried, until the death of Aaron Swartz: “I didnʼt know that boy, but that day, my PTSD came back. I knew something serious had happened, that it was serious.” He dedicates his walk to him and cites Slovenian philosopher Slajov Zizeck, “We no longer have the words to express how screwed we are,” he says. “We have lost our capacity to be vulnerable. It has come back to haunt us.”
With his cowboy physique, his sun-weathered skin, clear, bright eyes in his haughtily held head, Kevin is the most impressive member of the group. While they are all shivering in their high-tech fleece gear, he walks strong in a faded denim shirt. Over 75 and not a day softer, he blazes the trail from the fifth day. The road is his daily bread. He feels no need to shout his anger to the skies.
A resister to the Vietnam war, Kevin spent 20 months in prison with the Berrigan brothers, two major figures of the anti-war movement; “Jail was my education,” he says. Once out, he decided to live on the fringes of “society,” making a living at odd jobs and practicing civil disobedience. As a pacifist, he joined the Plowshares Movement, the Berrigan brothersʼ campaign against nuclear weapons, and learned about climate science for 20 years. If he had not made those choices, he says, he “never would have had access to the truth, the beauty of humanity and the grave decline of our system.” For him, Obamaʼs failure at the Copenhagen climate summit “is worse than Nixonʼs decision to bomb Vietnam.” His hatred for Americaʼs wars today (“We must stop killing people,” he says) is as strong as his love for his fellow citizens. “Iʼm sorry that they have been so misled, but I love them.”
Greg contemplates him, embracing the lesson learned here: “Kevin and I made opposite choices. I donʼt regret anything, but frankly, I fought in Vietnam and look how much trouble I have today, all messed up with Agent Orange! Kevin ignored the call of the flag, and look how heʼs trucking along. Now I get it. Silence is powerful.”
Ending up in textbooks
Michaelʼs life too was turned around by war. Now 30, he admits he enlisted to escape his fate. “I was a failure,” he says. “My wife was cheating on me, my father was dying, I couldnʼt quit drugs. The army had a field day with me.” He stayed eight months as a military nurse in Afghanistan. When he came back to the US in 2008, he was worried about falling back into his drug habit and so, he kept himself constantly busy with a mix of different therapies. He used the GI Bill to go back to college, where he began analyzing the subprime crisis because at the time, “nobody knew what had happened. It was time I started thinking for myself; the Army breaks that habit. Thatʼs their goal.”
When the first tents of the Occupy movement began popping up in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, he became one of the pillars of the camp. “I come from a Catholic family, this movement taught me the values of the Left,” he says. As winter approached, he negotiated the dismantling of the camp in exchange for building a homeless shelter. “People held it against me. From then on, I didnʼt do anything, I was petrified.” Battered and disillusioned, Michael spiraled downward, until the death of Aaron Swartz, whom he followed on Reddit; “I was afraid I would never get involved again. I was looking for the right opportunity because I know when I get into something, it becomes my life.”
During the 15 days of the New Hampshire Rebellion, Michael fights his demons. One day, the man who as a kid “drew in school to keep from being bored” makes a fabulous portrait of Granny D. The next day, he is talkative and helps everyone carry their bags. The day after, he is silent and dozes in the front of the van, wondering if he should leave.
Jacob, a video game developer, met Michael in the Occupy Providence camp. Cailin, a pretty Brooklynite with bleached blond hair who works with autistic children is also a veteran of the Occupy movement. They loved the energy, the non-violent action and the collective decision making process, at least at the beginning. But they hated that nothing came of it. The New Hampshire Rebellion learns from Occupy and the Tea Party movement. What it brings is clear objectives and tangible actions.
Rudolph and Mary, both retired lawyers, also signed on for this adventure. They lived abroad for years; on the walk they are rarely apart, take few breaks and chalk up the miles without complaining. This is their first experience with activism.
Allan, 65 years old, convinced his son Jonathan, a firefighter in San Diego, to walk with him. Father and son both have an athletic build, and they share an openness and concern for their country. Allan sits on the board of directors of Coalition for Open Democracy in New Hampshire. Like Rick and Dick, both retired, he has long advocated for more transparency and integrity in politics.
His son Jonathan immediately becomes a key man on the walk. He has been designated the expedition nurse because he clearly has a way with moleskin. Although he came dragging his feet, he confides on the morning of Day 3: “I dreamed last night that what weʼre doing will end up in textbooks”.
A few of the more reserved walkers, like Bruce, are excited to be out in the natural world; he says “Walking is contemplative, it lets you dream and think for yourself. I so needed that. It was time I got out of my car, that I stop.”
Others, like Alex, a thirty-something mathematician who dreams of working for the FBI white-collar crime department, set up a walk schedule based on discussions they want to have: “Itʼs so rare to have time to meet someone and learn everything about a totally new field.”
If not us, then who?
On the road they talk about themselves, Quantum Accounting, social networks, Obamacare, the USʼs role in Afghanistan, manipulation, Hollywoodʼs power, life in the woods, climate issues. “Our days are filled with conversations that will connect us forever,” remarks Kevin, the quiet one.
As the sun returns, the atmosphere lightens. The walkers are moved by the sight of a bald eagle, the United Statesʼ national emblem. Lessig remarks, a touch of irony in his voice, “This magnificent raptor kills the majority of birds, just like our country; we are a world problem.” Everything comes back to the urgent need to reinvent their country. “Every generation has amended the constitution, except ours.” laments Mike. “We need to reinvent the myth of progress,” Greg adds. The word “we” hangs in the air. Lessigʼs question comes up again and again — “If not us, then who?”
At the end of the first week, Jonathan the firefighter and his father are all smiles on the front page of the Daily Hampshire Gazette. The galvanized walkers are floating. Thatʼs fortunate: a blizzard is on the way and the temperature has plummeted 30 degrees Fahrenheit in just a few hours. With the arctic blast, they take a vote to see who will walk with Lessig and who will travel some of the stages in cars. Rigid with cramps but with his inner circle watching over him, the Harvard professor is silent and unstoppable. The New Hampshire Rebellion continues anyhow. Lessig gets to practice one his favorite disciplines, in the field, real time and unfiltered: “Leadership is not about what you say, itʼs about what you do. Itʼs like with children.”
The miles pass. Whether they came for Lessigʼs reputation, in memory of Granny Dʼs or Aaron Swartzʼs work, the walkers deal with and cure their feeling of hopelessness. The New Hampshire Rebellion is not only a personal combat with physical limits, but with resignation and cynicism. It started as a challenge and a reality check, but it has become an enchanted time out.
They leave the White Mountains and enter suburban areas. The local media are impressed by this unlikely group, walking single-file along the road carrying political signs. Cars honk, people roll down their windows and wave. Encouragement comes from all sides. “Itʼs moving to see in peopleʼs eyes that you can actually change things,” exclaims Rudolph.
The meditative long walk by the frozen lakes is over; now it is mobilization time. A cup of coffee glued to her hand, Szelena films volunteersʼ stories and recruits them to do telephone outreach The table in the trailer becomes a call center. A list of phone numbers and emails has been purchased and fundraising targets set. The walkers are fine-tuning their pitch, gathering signatures for their petitions and talking to people on the street. Szelena is trying desperately to find an Internet signal so she can send the footage shot by the film director embedded with the march. Lessig, the untouchable intellectual, goes door to door, stuffing trash he picks up along the road into a plastic bag; he doesnʼt want to “miss any opportunity to clean things up.” At every stopover, Jeff makes sure the venue for the eveningʼs speech is ready.
The pain of making it
As they walk south, the evenings spent by the fireplace in mountain lodges give way to talks with local figures and elected officials, like the Senator from Maryland or one of the founders of Ben and Jerryʼs Ice Cream. The song We Walk, written by Colin Mutchler, one of the first artists to adopt the Creative Commons model, is sung like a mantra. On the road, in the snow, as they march into towns, in the morning as they leave or on the steps of the New Hampshire capitol building, they sing the words
“We walk with love for our country
To honor our grannies and sons /
We walk for an end to corruption /
Till the will of the people is done”
As the days pass, the fast-approaching end begins to feel painful. Lessig finally manages to share the documentary on Aaron Swartz, after getting it from his car halfway along the route. The heartbreaking story of the tender genius whose life ended too soon, kills the atmosphere. “I made a mistake,” he admits later. “The movie is too powerful to watch with a group.”
Kevin, Michael and Greg leave before the last day, afraid of showing too much emotion. For once in his life, Lessig misses a speech, the last one, in a church in Nashua. Is it the unexpected arrival of his oldest son on the trail? Or something else he will not confide ? He forgets to thank the hundreds of walkers who protected him and symbolically carried him through the march, meeting him eye to eye and matching him step for step.
The march has ended and we have answers to some of the questions that hovered over the event. Why walk? For salvation. Larry Lessig got on the road with his infinite sorrow over the loss of Aaron, his acute view of what is at stake, his anger at his peers, his love for his country, his admiration for those who overcome their weaknesses.
Why keep walking? For the community that has emerged, for the adventure shared. The New Hampshire Rebellion is a starting point, the beginning of a journey. It would be the first of many marches. Singer Gilberto Gil recorded his own remix of We Walk and gave it back to the movement. Kevin has started a climate march from Los Angeles to Washington. Bruce, who meditated the whole walk with his face in the clouds, is running for a senate seat in Massachusetts. “The question isnʼt, ʻwhy am I here?ʼ but rather, ʻwhy isnʼt everybody here?ʼ” comments Alex, the future FBI white-collar crime investigator.
What makes destiny? After looking for the answer among his peer, Larry Lessig left their ranks. Walking along the blacktop, he hid his emotions, walking fast, working late, speaking little. The inventor of free licensing sought to create something useful, collaborative. Meaningful.
Behind his austere appearance, Lessig is a Pirate Captain 2.0. He wants to, he will, hack Washington. On the roads of New Hampshire, he came a long way and changed. It shows in the beard he doesnʼt want to shave off just yet, in his constant desire to be on the road, in his expansive gestures, the return of his smile, the illuminated look in his eyes. In many ways, Lessig not only inhaled fresh air himself but freshened the air for his followers. As he said to the walkers in an email a few weeks after the march, “And now where are my friends ?”
A lost and found story
That January walk opened a few doors, at least, in Lessig’s mind. He refers to it as a religious moment. “I’m not talking about God,” he said some months after the march, “but about this feeling that produced a belief that it was possible to get people to rally around this issue and to care about it and to want do something about it.”
During the walk, Japhet, Szelena and Jeff were wondering when Lessig would announce he was running for Congress. But that never happened. He had a different idea that he shared some weeks later on his return to the TED Stage, this time in Vancouver. He reported on the first edition of the New Hampshire Rebellion, his pain for a kid gone too soon, for a country gone too mad. And what he understood. “There’s no way to address this problem until we have a Congress that’s willing to pass the kind of reform this issue needs,” he said. No, Lessig was not running for Congress himself. But he announced his desire to run ON Congress with his next insane idea, a David versus Goliath experiment: the MayDay Pac, a Super Pac to end all Super Pacs. He would use the toxic Pac system—that perfectly legal weapon of mass corruption (contributing almost a billion dollars to the last presidential election, and growing fast)—against itself. His PAC, funded on the Internet by citizens, would help elect candidates willing to pass his reforms in Congress.
After his TED talk, the concept went viral. Led by Szelena, it was designed to run like a start-up, every stage is an experiment, an opportunity to fine-tune the strategy. Lessig threw himself into the effort with desperation: he needed some wins at the midterm elections, seven months later. Some proof of concept.
The money came, if not in Koch proportions. After two waves of crowdfunding, the MayDay Pac raised more than $10 million from almost 70,000 Netizens. Among them were a handful of web entrepreneurs such as Sean Parker (Napster founder and former Facebook president), Peter Thiel (co-founder of Pay Pal and Palentir), and Reid Hoffman (founder of Linkedin) with donations of $150K to $500K.
The MayDay Pac backed eight candidates — two Republicans, five Democrats, one Independent — all committed to passing campaign finance reforms. But if Lessig’s Congressional push was a test, it earned a failing grade. Only two of the candidates supported by the MayDay Pac were elected. Pundits were all too happy to point at the poor results after all the great buzz. The mid-term election results themselves seem to mock any hopes of an alternative that could redistribute power. In fact, they embodied the nightmare Lessig was trying to end: a record of more than $ 3.7 billion spent, only 36.4% of voters showed up (another record low).
That was a serious blow. Yet Lessig seems ready for the long run. His goal is still to return the interests of the citizens back to the center of political decisions. “I guess I’m looking for the button to push and get people to react,” he says. “We don’t yet have that one big red button which we can push and then the revolution will happen, but we’re slowly finding ways to identify how to pull people in, and get them to believe that there’s something we can do.”
It was a lost cause and to many extents, it still is. But putting his body on the line, he is inspiring new hope. And hope is where it all starts. Before expanding to a rebellion, he’s thinking of his campaign as a political hack. According to sociologist Everett Rogers, five percent is the minimum adoption rate required for major change to happen. Certainly five percent of the people can believe the situation in Washington is unacceptable but not irremediable. Lessig wants to rally those.
And how will he do it? Another march at least to come up with more insane ideas about this insane reality. He’s going back to the Granite State for the second edition of the New Hampshire Rebellion next month. This reprise will include four separate routes, with everything converging in Concord on January 21. The first and longest route will commence once again in Dixville Notch—on January 11, two years since Aaron died.
There’s really no alternative for Lessig. “I don’t kind of fit in any place, any more,” he says. “And that makes things uncomfortable. You know, there’s a nice compartment for professors, or politicians, or activists, but there’s none that fits what I’m doing right now.”
Lessig is still looking for his place. And for his friends. Aaron’s death might haunt him still, but his legacy is more and more inspiring. The Internet’s Own Boy has been shortlisted for the Oscars. The Gates Foundation has just announced it is adopting an open-access policy for grant-funded research, now under Creative Commons licensing.
Larry Lessig has put his body on the line, for a free culture, a free Internet, free knowledge, and above all a free political system. He comes far. Yet this might well be just the beginning of the journey. His work in progress.
All illustrations by Christophe Merlin
This story was initially published in June 2014 by La Revue XXI in France. It was translated with Kate Davis and updated for Medium in December 2014