Some Are Holier than Thou
Specifically, the dynamics of an action-adventure — and the corresponding logic of an ‘eye for an eye’ — blinded us to our own moral distinctions. It encouraged us to see justice in terms of vengeance, and the resulting death/s succeeded in eliciting a questionable pleasure response from consumers. As importantly, such a characterization of events discourages many Westerner’s from asking some very troubling questions—like why Bin Laden had grown so angry with America in the first place – making it difficult to break the cycle when implicated in such a vicious circle. Since we viewed his death through the lens of an action movie, the concern is that there might be inevitable (or unintended) sequels. To cut a long story short, the narrative we chose to tell ourselves ended up telling an entirely different story, too: it made us look like an enemy we claim to be morally distinct from.
Two larger than life men died in 2011 – figures that loomed so large on the cultural landscape that not even the grim reaper could cut through the crap. While Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens lived very different lives, they did share some things in common. They were both angry men who tried to create the world in their own image, and both succumbed to cancer at a relatively early age. There were also widespread attempts to canonize them when they passed away – which only goes to show that their reality distortion fields had also spread far and wide.
According to Steve Jobs’ 2005 Sanford commencement address, “death is the destination we all share” and “is the single best invention of life. It cleans out the old to make way for the new”. Indeed, death appears to have been invented just so people can say extraordinary things about you. It certainly came as a surprise to hear that death wasn’t invented by Steve Jobs or an Apple trademark, too. Nonetheless, it obviously helps if you were the head of the largest publicly traded corporation in the world by market capitalization – corporate media will form long queues just so they can also profit off you. Indeed, when Job’s died, the media fell over itself to sing the praises of a world class asshole – he was packaged and sold as a beloved genius that was somehow single handedly responsible for many of the creations that helped change our lives.
Never mind that many of Job’s new inventions had established precedents, and that his real genius consisted in tweaking and capitalizing on other people’s creations. Fame and fortune had its perks in death too, especially when you were the major shareholder (and public face) of a multinational corporation employing some of the best talent money could buy. At least that way you could surround yourself with brilliant people and be officially given credit for their work, as well. Perhaps what is most telling about the media spin was the fact that news outlets had clearly been drinking the Kool-Aide in Apple’s Genius Bar, too.
Part of the reason for all the hyperbole, of course, is that Jobs had helped us interface with a brave new world. It’s no accident that he was on the cover of Time magazine so many times – the charismatic CEO had become one of the faces of the computer age, and genuinely believed in the transformative powers of new technology. Computers weren’t just ‘product’ or ‘devices’ to him: they could be seen as an extension of our own personalities, too.
The ‘I’ (pod, pad, tunes, etc.) had become its own meme, or a self replicating unit of meaning. Individuals could therefore create and traverse shape shifting worlds, interacting with (aesthetic) objects as if they were an integral part of the design. Jobs infused passion into new commodities, and Apple products provided their own arguments from teleology. Perhaps that’s why Jobs spoke like a God lording over his creation. Design “is the fundamental soul of a man made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers…(so that)...each element plays together” and can be integrated into our whole lives (James B Stewart, “How Jobs Put Passion Into Products”, 7 October, 2011).
The Apple creator had, of course, a near death experience once before – he was fired from the company that was the amongst the first to spread the gospel about computers, and his ‘second coming’ ensured his place in the pantheon. The rise, fall and rise again of Steve Jobs, nonetheless, raises its own questions about the meaning (or teleos) of ‘design’. We ask the following questions not to impugn his accomplishments, but to follow Job’s own lead and similarly incorporate the issue of holism (the relation between part and whole) into the trajectory of our own lives. Specifically,
2. How could Jobs – a person who succeeded because he was inter-personally exploitative and was able to convince other people to see the world through his eyes – not recognize the self refutation when insisting other “I’s” not to waste their time “living someone’s else’s life” or “with the results of other people’s thinking?”
3. What are we to make of a) an individual who accumulated so much wealth and power, but (unlike other inspirational figures) was reportedly uninterested in sharing his good fortune with the less fortunate or b) a situation where Job’s social standing (and our own pleasure and status seeking) remains implicated in the suffering and exploitation of others?
4. Given that Job’s believed in “karma” and “destiny”, what does his premature death say (if anything) about his life choices and/or Job’s own place in the grand design of things?
There was a time when Christopher Hitchens might have been interested in asking such questions. The former left wing critic liked nothing more than to take on sacred cows, ruffle people’s feathers and provide a corrective to received opinion. Since September 11, however, one of the most terrifying rhetoricians that the world has yet seen had more important things to worry about: like waging war against the enemies of Western civilization and cutting God down to size.
When Hitchens lost the battle to cancer, it was clear how high he was held in many people’s regard: many colleagues made a point of raising their glasses to their former drinking companion and cast him in the most flattering of lights. There were at least two ironies to be seen in the loving afterglow. The first is that Hitchens was unlikely to approve of a media shielding people from unpalatable truths. Indeed, their “safety-first version of public opinion” merely obscured our view of an increasingly dangerous public figure (to quote Christopher Hitchens himself, “Truth and Consequences”, 18 February, 2008). The other irony is that the famed atheist was also famous for his holier than thou attitude. Hitchens might not have believed in a God, but he certainly liked to think in absolutes and with unquestionable moral authority. Indeed, his proselytizing for the Iraqi war and/or increasing religious intolerance cannot be simply cast aside – they throw into question the status of his own legacy.