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Steve Jobs, Fred Shuttlesworth & Modern Heroism

The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was a civil rights legend and American hero. Born deep in the Jim Crow South during the 1920s, he grew from the humble but durable roots of poverty, family and Christianity to become a leader of principal and power. He co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He played a pivotal part in the 1963 Birmingham campaign of boycotts, protests and civil disobedience, which led to Martin Luther King’s arrest and King’s writing of the beautiful manual of justice, "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."

He was attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, harassed by police officers and threatened on daily basis. Through all the violence and attempts at intimidation he persisted, selflessly dedicating himself to the cause of freedom, love and equality. Diane Nash, who was a student activist at the time, said that his presence on the Freedom Rides was indispensable and irreplaceable: “Fred was practically a legend. I think it was important—for me, definitely, and for a city of people who were carrying on a movement—for there to be somebody that really represented strength, and that’s certainly what Fred did. He would not back down, and you could count on it. He would not sell out, and you could count on that.”
 
Shuttlesworth represented and embodied a template of citizenship and model of integrity that has always been in short supply. Selling out is an American tradition, and he refused to cooperate and conform. After Shuttlesworth, Rev. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and millions of peaceful warriors defeated segregation and struck a major blow to institutional racism, he did not retire into an easy life of non-confrontation and self-interest. He became pastor to a church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and worked to find and provide affordable housing to poor families. In 1998, he was one of the first signers of the Birmingham Pledge, a community program targeting racial prejudice that is used in fifty states and twenty countries worldwide.
 
He died, surrounded by his children, in his hometown of Birmingham on Oct. 5, 2011—the same day as Steve Jobs.
 
Shuttlesworth did not live in obscurity and his service rightfully received award and adulation, culminating in Bill Clinton honoring him with the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001.
 
On the day of his death, however, and the weeks following it, American culture collectively mourned and praised the CEO of Apple Incorporated without taking the pause, the measure of a single breath, to nationally celebrate one of its champions for justice, community and freedom.
 
In the outpouring of tearful tributes to Jobs, countless people crowned him with the rare title of “hero.” Millions of average citizens updated their Facebook statuses with lamentations over losing their “hero.” General Electric Chief Executive Jeff Immelt presumptuously called Jobs a “hero to everyone in his generation.” Newspapers, from the Baltimore Sun to the New Jersey Star Ledger and The Washington Post, ran articles either labeling Jobs a hero or analyzing the millions who believed him to be such. The Ron Paul presidential campaign blog led with the headline, “Steve Jobs: American Hero,” and Time magazine is reportedly favoring Jobs as their 2011 Man of the Year.
 
Many high-praise words apply to Steve Jobs—genius, inventor, innovator, wizard. “Hero” is not one of them. The unthinking uniformity the American public showed in elevating Jobs’ life to not only one of excellence, which it was, but one of heroism, which it was not, demonstrates the degeneration of the cultural understanding of the word “hero” and the triumph of consumer capitalism.
 
Steve Jobs created products people bought to make their lives more fun and convenient. For that, millions worshipfully adore him as a hero. The winning conception of heroism is entirely self-directed and self-contained. Jobs is a hero, people will claim, because his products brought more entertainment to their lives. Entertainment is the ultimate virtue of American life, and no one provided it more effectively and efficiently than Jobs. He was not an entertainer himself, but he was an innovator whose items enable people to entertain themselves anywhere and everywhere at all times. Steve Jobs was consumer capitalism’s greatest creator, but he was also its greatest creation. He personalized consumer capitalism. His products were not mere fodders for passive absorption. They were devices of individuated engagement that gave people profound control over their consumption.
 
There is also the newly popular idea that the inventions of Jobs have led to the organization of mass movements committed to improving the conditions of suffering people around the world. Shuttlesworth never had an iPhone, and he managed to get a lot done in his commitment to the same project. Communicative technology may accelerate and assist organization, but an honest observer can no more credit Jobs with creating movements than he could blame Jobs if people ever use an iPad to do evil.
 
The antiquated, outdated, pre-information age idea of heroism, which turns on sacrifice for a public interest and greater good, is too other-oriented for the new standards set by customized consumer capitalism. The life of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth had nothing to do with the self. Shuttlesworth did not live his life for himself, and although his heroism enhanced the quality of life for millions of people and improved the futures of many communities, when one reflects on his work, one is not likely to think of one’s self. One is not likely to think of the pleasure gained by the work of Shuttlesworth, but rather will consider the battles won, losses endured and triumphs gained for a better world of love, respect and moral growth.
 
Steve Jobs is not responsible, nor should be held accountable, for the increasing self-centeredness of American culture and Americans. He was an incredible person whose enormous talent, intellect and imagination left a permanent mark on the world. He is worthy of tributary celebration, and acknowledging his accomplishments in the wake of his untimely death is fair and just. Going a step too far and calling the man a hero in the unanimous cultural, cacophonous roar of Twitter trending, social network communication and televisual reporting, especially on the same day that the death of a real hero barely registered as a blip in the mainline media, is indicative of how much American culture is losing its way.
 
American culture is losing memory, distorting reality and forgetting humanity, and it is managing to do so in an era when it has access to more information than ever before.
 
David Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books). He is a columnist with PopMatters. For more information visit DavidMasciotra.com.

9 Comments

85,089

Guest commented…

What fucking utter horseshit. We'll see how you praise equality and anti-racism twenty years from now when a black or Muslim Hitler rises up in the US and western Europe, promoting everything society was once against, even making it gospel; when you're enslaved on your own continents by your own hand electing and favouring policies descendants of those whom your ancestors vanquished, foes they didn't see fit to call animals, the infinitely small fraction of humanity not put to death by war, starvation or disease will learn this lesson for generations to come.

85,089

Bee commented…

I am ashamed, horrified andembarrassedthat someone still thinks like this in the 21st century. I'm not American but this saddens me deeply.

85,089

Anonymous commented…

The irony is that RELEVANT didn't cover the Shuttlesworth story when it broke either. Not enough page views in it, I suppose, which is why we're reading about it nearly six weeks later... The reality is that in terms of the things of the Kingdom, Jobs contributed virtually nothing, while Shuttlesworth's contribution is immeasurable. Assuming the publication of this post indicates editorial approval of the content within, perhaps RELEVANT should attempt to take its own advice to heart and start providing a vision of what the Kingdom looks like, rather than keeping up with the latest meme...

85,089

JV commented…

Phenomenal article!

Thanks for sharing your insights.

85,089

Dmoten3 commented…

Eloquent, though a bit one-sided. With he and Wozniak inventing the personal computer, they propelled technology in a way that was revolutionary. Not only was it a novel invention, it also gave birth to a generation of careers, and passions. Steve's love for both computer science and humanities made GUI as we know it possible. (Imagine how difficult it would be to impact an entire world from the convince of your mouse and keyboard, if in-fact steve hadn't been a part of that innovation.) Your argument for Fred Shuttlesworth is sound; but think about it, the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded for cultural AND SCIENTIFIC advancements. Why should the title of hero be any different?
Steve Jobs is definitely a hero in scientific achievement. The consumer based marketing in later apple products may have watered that down a bit, but lets not forget that without his innovation, this conversation, with an individual i have never met, wouldn't be happening.
Mr. Shuttlesworth was an amazing soldier in the fight to bring justice and humanity to the human predicament. I celebrate his desire to see the world better than it is, just as that of freedom fighters in the rich legacy of brothers and sisters like Dorothy Height, Cornel West, Bill Clinton, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs. Sometimes you can become a hero through innovation.

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