The Cult of the Steve Jobs (and a bit of Hugo)

I am a thinking person. So, actually, no, I don’t have to sit back in awe of Steve Jobs and pat him on the back for being a jerk. I can actually manage complex thought. I can admire his creative genius and at the same time temper it with well-reasoned criticism of his many failings.

Photo: Matthew Yohe via Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t know much about Steve Jobs’ personal life or personality. I didn’t (and don’t) really care. I know I love Apple products, but I also know I have qualms about their business practices, and I definitely know no one should feel suicide is the only escape from a bad manufacturing job.

When Jobs died, predictably, first there was the tsunami of fawning obituaries. Then, there was cautious criticism. Then there was Gene Marks at Forbes who decided – no, f**k it, I don’t care if someone did something bad, they’re rich so I’ll idolize them anyways. Ok, so that’s a bit of an oversimplification. (But not much.)

After Ryan Tate at Gawker (who I having a sneaking suspicion wrote at the Daily Cal when I was at Berkeley) wrote a pretty straightforward look at the darker side of Steve Jobs’ legacy, Marks decided to go ahead and defend, well, being an a**hole.

I know, edgy right? Way to buck what’s acceptable by doing something daring like defending “being a jerk.” Except it isn’t. It’s the opposite of edgy, it’s feeding right into the cult of corporate wealth, born of our looooong puritanical history of seeing wealth as some divine judgement on our characters.

Marks writes:

Jobs had an extra little something going on that further separated him from his peers:  He was a jerk.  Good for him.

…I’m not a jerk like Jobs was. Which is the biggest reason why I’m just a moderately successful business guy, and not a super billionaire.   That’s because being creative and hard working isn’t that uncommon.  Being a jerk is.

And in response to a story about Apple threatening an employee with immigration trouble for possibly leaking information Marks gushes: “Wow, the Apple Gestapo.  I love that too.”

Which pretty much gives you the idea.

This all reminded me of a bit from Victor Hugo (seriously, if you haven’t read Les Miserables, do it now, it’s f-ing awesome, and feels juuuust right in the middle of economic crisis). Anyways, Vic lamented:

We live in a sad society. Succeed; that is the advice which falls drop by drop, from the overhanging corruption. We may say, by the way, that success is a hideous thing. Its counterfeit of merit deceives men. To the mass, success has almost the same appearance as supremacy…Success, that is the theory. Prosperity supposes capacity…..Beyond the five or six great exceptions, which are the wonder of their age, contemporary admiration is nothing but shortsightedness. Gilt is gold….The mighty genius by which one becomes a Moses, an Aeschylus, a Dante, a Michaelangelo, or a Napoleon, the multitude assigns at once and by acclamation to whoever succeeds in his object, whatever it may be…They confound the radiance of the stars of heaven with the radiations which a duck’s foot leaves in the mud. [emphasis mine]

Thanks Vic.

More succinctly, my problem with Marks is that his argument boils down to this: X was “successful.” X did Y while becoming so. Hence, Y is not only acceptable, but admirable.

Do you see the flaws here? There are a couple.

The first is the assumption that Y (being a jerk) is essential to success. Marks himself certainly didn’t go any way to proving this, just speculates that it must be so. Which is too bad, because there is some credence to this idea – being a jerk may help in the corporate world. Recent research even suggests that CEOs are four times as likely to be…..wait for it…..psychopaths.

Which brings us to the second problem, which is: If we were really taking time to, you know, THINK about this in a wider context, it may give us pause that our society rewards with material success those who are manipulative, cruel, lacking in empathy and social awareness, anti-social, ruthless, uncaring and unable to maintain healthy relationships.

But that’s if we were to stop and think. On a wider level.

And we obviously can’t do that. We can either be a stupid hippie who’s jealous of Steve Jobs’ success and hypocritically uses his products while condemning his business practices (that’s tomorrow’s blogpost), or we can idolize him for being the heartless go-getter we only wish we could be. But nothing in between. Because we’re morons.


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