Thursday, October 13, 2011

Speaker for the Dead - Jobs and Davis

In Orson Scott Card's brilliant Speaker for the Dead, he develops what is essentially a priest character (Ender from Ender's Game) who 'speaks for the dead'--that is, he provides a eulogy that truly tells the story of the person's life as he tried to live it: his motivations, his failures, his successes. The goal was a truer history of a person's life on earth.

We don't have that today. What we have today is a tendency when someone dies to elevate them to saintly status and conveniently forget all the nastiness of their lives. It is the antithesis of Antony's speech in Shakespeare; where he once famously said, "The evil men do lives on after them; the good is oft interred in their bones", we find it to be the opposite today. The good is elevated and applauded; the evil is carefully and quietly hidden away.

It is said that this is done for politeness; perhaps so. I think more likely, however, this is done because of the preference by society at large to deny the inherent evilness of mankind and instead tell us that we are all basically so good. Anti-depravity, it would seems, requires that we have short memories about how people live their lives.

At any rate, with the recent deaths of two controversial luminaries, Steve Jobs of Apple and Al Davis of the Raiders, we find this principle of polite forgetfulness writ large. Both completely dominated their industries, literally changing the game fundamentally in their roles. Without them, neither the NFL nor technology looks even remotely the same as it does today. Their visionary influence is hard to overestimate, and they fundamentally shaped much of our world. And that is all that you will read about.

The greatness they do lives on after them; the evil seems to be interred in their bones.

But let us not forget that both were far from universally loved during their lives.

Jobs was famously hostile and spiteful; tales of his management style almost always discuss his dismissiveness, hostility, and fear-inducing leadership. He was near-Orwellian about centralization of power in the company, and was sometimes loudly criticized for the outsourcing of production to Chinese factories whose commitment to fair work practices was questionable at best. Under Jobs, Apple became one of the most aggressive censors of information on any Internet device, squashing a great deal of offensive material ("offensive" also apparently including anything invented by other companies). Further, he even established a sort of internal affairs team to seek out whistleblowers and leakers. A visionary he was; a saint, he was not.

Al Davis had his own issues too. He changed coaches like some men change shirts; he was known for being near-impossible to work for, and wasn't opposed to trying to publicly humiliate those whom he had recently fired. He moved his team twice (despite the effect on his fans); he fought legally with the NFL on a nearly constant basis; he was seen as paranoid and hostile; he has nearly sunk the Raiders into obscurity with his micromanagement. Davis vindictively attempted to get Pete Rozelle fired after Rozelle won the commissioner role following the AFL-NFL merger (a position Davis coveted). And let us not forget that he hatefully benched Marcus Allen for two years over a contract dispute, nearly ruining his Hall of Fame career.

Both men were visionaries. Both men transformed our world. Both men bring a lot that we can learn from. But both men were paranoid, mean-spirited, quick to sue critics, angry at any who disagreed, and vindictive to those whom they disliked.

Why is it important to remember these things? It is critical that we all remember that our sins do matter--and they matter just as much after we are dead as before. It does matter that Jobs and Davis stepped on people on their rise to the top. It does matter that they hurt people--many people. It does matter, because it matters when we do it as well.

Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, we say: so how will we (and our children) learn from the history of these great luminaries if we politely wipe clean the slate of sins that they left us with in their paths to the next life?

Both men are perfect examples of what I say on this site often: humans are amazing creatures, capable of great good, creativity, and vision; we are also capable of, and all too frequently guilty of, great evil. To forget that in our dead is to accept it in our living.

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