concerning the dead

by Roderick

This week we learned of some notable deaths, most prominently that of Steve Jobs. He was 56. He had a relatively public fight with pancreatic cancer. Jobs co-founded Apple, and was widely credited with the meteoric rise of his company’s fortunes in the last decade. His death has prompted a rather effusive outpouring of eulogies from almost everybody.

Moments after I saw the first Facebook status updates about Jobs’ passing, I happened to wander into my parents’ kitchen to clean some dishes. KUOW, a local public radio station, was on in the background. I heard the closing minutes of a moving story about the life of the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth. This was followed by an announcement of the news about Jobs. I made a mental note to look up Shuttlesworth when I got back to my computer.

As it turned out, the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth had also died on Wednesday. One could (and many people did, without question) make it through the day without the vaguest notion of who this Shuttlesworth character might have been. I am quite confident that, were it not for the timing of my trip to the kitchen, I would probably never have known who he was, what he did, or when he died. But that would have been a pity, because he was by all accounts a pivotal figure in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. He led the demonstrations in Birmingham in 1963 that generated the horrifying images of Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor and his officers unleashing fire hoses and police dogs against peaceful protesters. To read Connor’s opinion of Shuttlesworth is to recognize at once the latter’s tenacity and the former’s moral depravity:

Mr. Shuttlesworth suffered chest injuries when the pummeling spray of fire hoses was turned on him. “I’m sorry I missed it,” Mr. Connor said when told of the injuries, The New York Times reported in 1963. “I wish they’d carried him away in a hearse.” [1]

It is fitting to remember Steve Jobs. He and his company had a profound influence upon our lives, particularly with respect to the technology that is now so pervasive. He was a visionary of uncommon clarity, and sold his vision to us with unrivaled effectiveness, and became fabulously wealthy as a result. His legacy will be vast.

But its value is more equivocal. While the role of Apple in advancing the ubiquity of very portable electronics is indisputably pivotal, the balance of benefit and detriment to our society and the world is extremely difficult to gauge or even evaluate.

In contrast to Jobs’ morally ambiguous legacy, there can be little doubt Shuttlesworth contributed materially to the advancement of social justice in the United States of America. He was outspoken, iconoclastic, and through his actions revealed his opponents as morally bereft. What sort of a person would rather live in 1960s Birmingham than a world without Apple computers? (Please don’t say a white person.)

I understand that, as it concerns an indescribably more public and dramatically more contemporary figure (Shuttlesworth’s major body of work was nearly 50 years ago; Apple announced a new iPhone, a product and market for which Jobs is largely responsible, the day before he died), Jobs’ death was always going to draw more attention than that of an 89-year-old civil rights leader. We have been affected more visibly and proximally by modern technologies than the (relative) absence of discriminatory laws and racial violence that Shuttlesworth fought. But I think it becomes us to remember not only the famous and influential, but the just and brave.

There are some who point to our men and women in uniform, and they declare that freedom is not free. It is fought for with blood, toil, tears, and sweat. Both of those sentiments are true, but to suggest that our armed forces are the only ones who make grave sacrifices in the name of freedom (if indeed they do that at all, particularly in modern times) is terribly misleading. It is only thanks to those like Shuttlesworth that there is freedom and justice for our fine armed forces to defend.

I do not mean to diminish Jobs’ legacy. I think his impact on technology and by extension, our lives has been undeniable. And certainly, the technological landscape he helped to shape has played a role in political movements around the world. But I don’t think it is fair to attribute to him such distal effects, especially when there is no evidence of intent on his part. He was not in Tahrir Square. He was not gunned down by Syrian troops in Homs.

He changed the world, but so have many others, at much greater cost and to much less fanfare. So while we remember the significance of a figure like Steve Jobs, let us not lose perspective. We call ourselves the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” not the land of the wealthy and the home of the iPhone. Though perhaps we should change it to be more accurate?

[1] Nordheimer, Jon. “Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, 89, Dies; Fought on Front Lines for Civil Rights.” New York Times, October 6, 2011. Accessed October 6, 2011.