Internet Martyr

The life and cruel death of Andy Stephenson.

Internet Martyr

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve covered the life—and what turned out to be the last days—of Andy Stephenson, a Seattle voting activist who died amid a blazing online controversy after a battle with pancreatic cancer. (See “A Fight to the End,” July 13, and “Cancerous Campaign,” July 6.)

The Internet made Stephenson a national force. The onetime candidate for Washington secretary of state became known for his work with voting watchdog Bev “Black Box” Harris of Renton and Web sites like Democratic Underground, which helped turn him into one of the nation’s leading voices for voting reform. He was an advocate of verifiable paper ballots, distrusted the promoters of electronic voting, and worried about the corporate takeover of our elections system. He helped expose deceit and incompetence among those promoting electronic voting as a kind of panacea for accurate elections. According to one of the eulogizers at Stephenson’s memorial service in Seattle last Saturday, July 16, Stephenson felt the same about paper ballots that Charlton Heston felt about his gun: “You’ll have to pry my paper ballot from my cold, dead hands,” he once proclaimed.

Stephenson saw real ballots—not virtual, easily hacked, and corruptible electronic ballots—as the literal, physical foundation of democracy. “Take away my ballot,” he wrote, “my real-life paper ballot, and you’ve undermined my faith at the most basic level. The tactile level, the level at which I can touch and feel the reality of my vote. I am not a Luddite, and I’m not against machines counting paper. But I wouldn’t trust a bank without deposit slips, or an ATM without a receipt.”

Ironically, for a man who believed so passionately in the tangible, the Internet became his medium. Through grassroots organizing and networking with a web of activists all over the country, Stephenson helped rally people to the cause of voting reform, especially those disillusioned by Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004.

The Internet, though, has a darker side. For every well-meaning Web minuteman or citizen journalist fighting his way to the truth, there’s a sniper eager to shoot him down, or a lynch mob waiting in the wings. Stephenson became a target, especially for some on the far right who chose to attack him at his time of greatest vulnerability. The folks at the Free Republic Web site made great sport of it, as did others. It’s not surprising, in a way: A lot of Web activists—right, left, and way out there—are fueled by paranoia. Many are inflated with a sense of being on the leading edge of a coming apocalypse that can only be forestalled by their efforts. Passion and rage often mix with fear. The best of them fight with the facts. The worst are character assassins.

For many of Stephenson’s critics, the Web was a means to destroy him, Swiftboat-style. When Stephenson became ill with what turned out to be cancer, and when his activist friends stepped up to raise $50,000 over the Internet to help him pay for surgery, his enemies pounced. They started a campaign that questioned his diagnosis and his motives, and they poured vitriol into a sick man’s wounds. According to some of Stephenson’s supporters, the questions they raised temporarily stalled his friends’ fund- raising, delaying Stephenson’s cancer surgery. They accused Stephenson of fraud, filed complaints against him, and accused him of lining his own pockets. Even when Seattle Weekly offered proof that Stephenson was hospitalized, gravely ill, and had indeed had cancer surgery, they continued to attack. They tried to make a dying man’s final days a worse hell than they already were.

Stephenson proved his worst critics wrong by dying from the illness they claimed he never had. But it was no victory. Some, unwilling to concede to reality, wondered if he’d faked his death, or said good riddance. Remember the old tag line to the TV series The X-Files: “The truth is out there”? Well, lies are out there, too. Cruelty and savagery, also, wrought by people with no life other than spewing hate with a keyboard.

Some of Stephenson’s supporters, like writer/activist William Rivers Pitt, have vowed revenge. “I think you fuckers should be forced to dig his grave. I think you should be buried with him,” he wrote shortly after Stephenson’s death. “You are graveyard rats. I am going to grind you under my boot-heel, scrape you off with a blade, and feed you to my cat.”

None of that rage was evident in Pitt, though, when he spoke powerfully and briefly at Stephenson’s Town Hall memorial service. He encouraged his fellow activist mourners not to lose their humor or their inner human core. Another eulogist reminded mourners of wise advice Stephenson had once given: “Have a heart, tell the truth, do the right thing.” Words to live by.

The beautiful thing about the service was the tangible reality it evoked. The Internet bullshit was confined to cyberspace. In real space, there was a room full of the living—friends, family, his partner, and his mother, and activists from across the country—gathered to celebrate Stephenson’s life with memories and hymns.

In death, Andy Stephenson was no longer an Internet abstraction, someone who could be obliterated the way you would annihilate a character in a video game. He was a nonvirtual, three-dimensional person, a vital spirit, a good-humored and passionate man, whose death left a big hole in many people’s lives and, some say, our democracy itself.

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