Thursday, October 6, 2011

800 Words: The American Hero Who Died Yesterday

Steve Jobs was a douche. There, I said it. Anybody who spent two minutes last night on Facebook, Twitter, blogs or anything else internet related can realize exactly how misplaced are the priorities of our generation. To say that is not to deny that he's probably the most influential businessman of the last thirty years. That's not to deny that to lose him so young is an incalculable loss for America, the business world and potentially humanity. That's not even to say that he may be the very last of the great American entrepreneurs. It's just to say that he's a douche. And all the blubbering sentimentality of Apple Cult cannot change two simple truths about Steve Jobs:

1. He really was one of the most fascinating people of our time.
2. That’s mostly because he was not a very good one.

As Dan Aykroyd used to say when he impersonated Bob Dole: you know it, I know it, and the American people know it. Steve Jobs was not simply a nasty person, he wasn’t a good one. It's not because he was an authoritarian boss, it’s not because he viewed every rival company as an enemy to be crushed. All is fair in business and war, and sometimes it takes unpleasant people to create the best results. It’s not even because his highly touted $1 salary was probably a ploy to cheat the US government out of millions of tax dollars.

The reason Steve Jobs was a douche’s douche is because in 1997 he eliminated all corporate philanthropy at Apple. For all the hugeness of Apple’s influence, this is a corporation that has not contributed a cent in nearly fifteen years to advance the cause of bettering humanity. And it is a company worshipped by the very people who would condemn it most loudly if it were any other company in the world.

Whatever bad things one can say about Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the charitable work of the Gates Foundation will be an enormous part of both their legacies. The wealth of Gates and Buffett is used to improve the lives of people who truly need it. The wealth of Steve Jobs was used to improve the lives of an upper-middle class that needed nothing more than it already had.

No, Steve Jobs was far from a hero. But a real hero died yesterday. A great man, a true leader and an example to the world of America at its best.

Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth once vowed to “Kill Segregation or be killed by it.” It’s probably fair to say that no civil rights leader was put into harm’s way more often. And no Civil Rights leader’s survival seems more miraculous. Even Martin Luther King called him 'The most courageous civil rights fighter in the South.'

In 1956, Fred Shuttlesworth was 34 years old. He was Pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and Birmingham’s Membership Chairman for the NAACP. When the State of Alabama outlawed membership in the NAACP, Shuttlesworth co-founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). With nothing more than a collection box at meetings to raise money, they used the courts to draw attention to the injustices perpetrated by segregation. When the Birmingham police refused to accede to the ACMHR’s demand to hire black police officers, the ACMHR took to the courts.

In December 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation in nearby Montgomery, Alabama was unconstitutional. The ACMHR announced soon thereafter that it was time to end segregation in Birmingham. On Christmas Day, 1956, unidentified assailants hid sixteen sticks of dynamite under the Shuttlesworth bedroom window. The house was nearly destroyed, but Shuttlesworth was unharmed. When Shuttlesworth came downstairs for the first time, a police officer who was also a Klansman told him “If I were you I’d get out of town as quick as I could.” Shuttlesworth told the policeman to tell the Klan that he wasn’t leaving and “I wasn’t saved to run.” Years later he was quoted in a newspaper as saying: “I believe I was almost at death’s door at least 20 times. But when the first bomb went off, it took all fear from my mind. I knew God was with me like he was with Daniel in the lions’ den. The black people of Birmingham knew that God had saved me to lead the fight.”

The next day, Shuttlesworth announced that the time had come to challenge segregation laws. On that day, December 26th 1956, Shuttlesworth led a group of protestors with the express intent of desegregating Birmingham buses. The police arrested 21 people. When he arrived home, he returned to find that his congregants were taking turns standing guard around his house.

It was the next year that Shuttlesworth joined forces with Martin Luther King and more than half a dozen other eminent pastors to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The motto for how they protest was all-too-simple: “Not one hair of one head of one person shall be harmed.”

In 1957, after Shuttlesworth enrolled his children in an all-white public school, he and his wife were attacked by a mob of Klansmen. The assailants beat him in the streets with chains and brass knuckles while his wife was stabbed. In 1958, a church member spotted a bomb and threw it into the street before it went off.

In 1961, Shuttlesworth became involved in planning the Freedom Rides. The idea behind the Freedom Rides was to board inter-state busses starting in Washington DC and heading south. On every ride, at least one black person would sit in the front, a man and woman looking like an interracial couple would sit in adjoining seats in the middle, and at least one white person would sit in the back. The riders would continue riding uninterrupted until they were able to reach New Orleans, be arrested indefinitely, or be beaten.

Shuttlesworth begged the other planners to consider an alternative less guaranteed to put protestors in harm’s way, but James Farmer and the other planners were set on the plan. Riders were arrested in North Carolina and Mississippi, and a rider named John Lewis (now a congressman) was beaten in South Carolina. But the violence endured in South Carolina was nothing compared to the violence which Lewis and all the other riders encountered in Alabama.

On Mother’s Day, 1961, a group of Klansman met the first of the initial two Freedom Ride buses in Anniston, Alabama. The bus attempted to leave Anniston, but a car blocked its way at every maneuver. Meanwhile, the Klan proceeded to slash the bus’s tires. Undeterred, the bus managed to get out of the bus terminal drove onward; only to be forced off the road by the pursuing Klansmen after a few miles. The Klan, followed by a supportive mob, launched a firebomb into the bus. The mob held the doors firmly shut in an attempt to burn the Riders to death. The Riders managed to break free, but not before incurring vicious beatings from the surrounding mob. It was only warning shots from a highway patrolman that prevented a full lynching.

At a hospital, most of the Riders were refused care. Fearing the angry mob growing outside the hospital, the hospital ordered the Riders to leave immediately at 2 AM. It was Fred Shuttlesworth who organized a convoy of cars to brave the mob and rescue the injured Freedom Riders from a mob that was otherwise certain to finish what it started earlier.

When the second bus reached Anniston (an hour after the firebombing), eight Klansmen boarded the bus, beat the Freedom Riders to semi-consciousness and deposited their bodies in the back of the bus. Undeterred, the bus continued on. When the bus reached Birmingham, the riders were met again by a mob of Klan members - this time armed with pipes, bats and chains. The Birmingham Police Commissioner, Bull Connor, privately assured the Klan that they would have fifteen minutes to carry out the beatings without intervention from the Police, and was true to his word. After the second beating, this group too was refused treatment by hospitals. In response, Shuttlesworth made a decision to use his church as a recovery ward, where Freedom Riders could recuperate from their injuries. The violence continued in Montgomery, but thanks to Shuttlesworth’s efforts the Freedom Riders reached their final destination.

But it was in 1963 that Shuttlesworth became a leader in the Civil Rights Movement perhaps second only to Martin Luther King. It was Shuttlesworth who convinced King to use Birmingham as the place to make the big push for desegregation. Shuttlesworth’s plan was called ‘Project C’ - the ‘C’ standing for ‘Confrontation.’ The mission of ‘Project C’ was all too simple: make Birmingham realize that the financial cost of segregation was so great that the city could no longer sustain it. The way to do that was through publicity.

From long experience, Shuttlesworth realized that Bull Connor and the KKK would respond to any ‘provocation’ with extreme measures. When Birmingham encountered non-violent protests in their streets, Connor would respond with water canons, police dogs and beatings administered to unarmed men, women, and children alike. These images would then be broadcast to the world (along with images of the 16th St. Church Bombing), causing irreparable damage to the city’s reputation and forcing citizens with privileged connections to publicly distance themselves from the brutality of these measures. Since Connor was determined to maintain segregation by any means necessary, it would be impossible to maintain segregation in the face of so much violence.

Nearly as much as Martin Luther King or Lyndon Johnson, it was Fred Shuttlesworth who desegregated America. Steve Jobs was a towering businessman and a very creative thinker. But there was an American hero of vision and drive who made the world a better place died yesterday. And the plaudits he deserves are being stolen.

Addendum: Mrs. Der Miksic points out yet another example of Steve Jobs's utter douchery which I hadn't even heard or thought about in nearly two years. Like every other bad thing about Steve Jobs, it was simply swept under the rug.


  1. Evan,

    A friend of mine pointed me towards your blog. I note these words here:

    "The reason Steve Jobs was a douche’s douche is because in 1997 he eliminated all corporate philanthropy at Apple. For all the hugeness of Apple’s influence, this is a corporation that has not contributed a cent in nearly fifteen years to advance the cause of bettering humanity. And it is a company worshipped by the very people who would condemn it most loudly if it were any other company in the world. "

    I'd point you to this article at the Harvard Business Review:

    Most important is this paragraph:

    In a statement Bono defended Jobs, noting that Apple has been Product (RED's) "largest contributor to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria -- giving tens of millions." More important, Bono stated that, "Just because he's been extremely busy, that doesn't mean that he [has] not been thinking about these things." Steve Jobs has traded his time for human progress. Not for personal pleasures. This is not a man who spent his time building homes or custom yachts or who otherwise obsessed with how to spend his billions on himself. And no one would say of him that he ever seemed to have a lot of spare time on his hands.

    When we judge those we know very little about because they live lives less public than Gates or Buffet...when we criticize those whose charity doesn't fit the modern mold of ostentatious gift giving...when we seek to hold icons to a moral standard that imposes our own prejudices about charitable giving upon them...when we do those things, we ourselves become "douches."

    I'd venture a guess that, given the manner in which Jobs lead a very private life, we know far less than we ought to know before we start making moral judgements of the man. I'll reserve such judgement because my own ignorance makes me think the better of it, because I don't know many Buddhists who give to the world in the way Gates and Buffet have, and while Jobs was not a practicing Buddhist, his life was influenced by Buddhist practices. But even if you held him to some Christian ethic of charity, the Apostle, Matthew, exhorts us to maintain the dignity of the poor by remaining anonymous in our donation.

    None of this is to argue that Jobs was a "good person" whatever your standard for that mythic concept is. The work ethic, focus, and dedication to task that mark "genius" accomplishments often rob time and presence from the lives of those who love us and paint us as callous, unloving people. For example, Einstein left his first wife to whom he was far less than kind. And Seneca reminds us that "there is no great genius without some touch of madness." So sure, there's probably a great deal about his life that will come out in Isaacson's biography this month that will be less than flattering.

    But really, your argument that he's a douche (whatever the hell that means), well you're just plain wrong. Maybe you ought to "Think Different."

  2. Well, for someone who warns to withhold judgement if you don't know a person, you seem to be judging me quite a bit. But I'll simply point out that the The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has been subject to very serious accusations of widespread and documented corruption. Germany and Sweden have blocked all of their government donations until the charity gets its house in order.

    As for the article you linked to, it is as bad an example as one can find of using generalizations to advance an argument. I'll refer to these paragraphs:

    "We'd still be waiting for a cell phone on which we could actually read e-mail and surf the web. "We" includes students, doctors, nurses, aid workers, charity leaders, social workers, and so on. It helps the blind read text and identify currency. It helps physicians improve their performance and surgeons improve their practice. It even helps charities raise money.

    We'd be a decade or more away from the iPad, which has ushered in an era of reading electronically that promises to save a Sherwood Forest worth of trees and all of the energy associated with trucking them around. That's just the beginning. Doctors are using the iPad to improve healthcare. It's being used to lessen the symptoms of autism, to improve kids' creativity, and to revolutionize medical training."

    I can't deny any of this. But technology is value neutral, and the same technology used by doctors and teachers can be used by dictatorships, secret police and organized crime organizations throughout the world to coerce people more effectively. There is no such thing as a person who is above judgement. And I judge Steve Jobs to be a douche based on what I deem to be enough evidence. Feel free to disagree, as you obviously do.

    But lastly, I'll say that there is something a little sinister about saying 'How dare you make a value judgement.' There are candidates for honest bad-mouthing, and there is more than enough evidence of the bad which Steve Jobs has done for him to merit some, but the fact that someone like you would be moved to make such a vociferous defense of him makes it all the more necessary that somebody challenge the preconceived notions of millions of people who share exactly your opinion.

  3. So wait...I provide evidence of corporate charity from Apple to counter your assertion that "the reason Steve Jobs was a douche’s douche is because in 1997 he eliminated all corporate philanthropy at Apple. [That] for all the hugeness of Apple’s influence, this is a corporation that has not contributed a cent in nearly fifteen years to advance the cause of bettering humanity" and you cling to your belief with: "I judge Steve Jobs to be a douche based on what I deem to be enough evidence." What evidence is that? That he gave to a "bad charity?" I just did some reading. The Economist reported in February of 2011 that the $160 million dollars raised by Product (RED) for the fund was not part of the scandal. But even if it was, how does that indict Jobs?

    Again, I'm not arguing he was a saint. I've granted that he probably has many personality traits I'd not want to see in my own children. I'll even grant the media's lionizing is gushingly effusive. What I'm arguing is your premise that he's given no money to charity and he is, therefore, a douche.

  4. I'm not clinging to anything. It's an extremely corrupt charity the nature of whose every donation has now to be called into question. Once again, you may feel free to disagree. You obviously feel that I am not free to do so. Be that as it may, I shall kindly ask you to change your tone or simply find a blog you deem better to comment on.