The interesting thing about Seven Pillars of Wisdom isn’t that it is great literature (it isn’t) or that Lawrence of Arabia did great things in Arabia (well-known, if questionable). The interesting thing about it is that, unlike most biographies of political operators, Lawrence makes little attempt to make his actions or morals more palatable or to sell himself as a man who loves puppies. He makes it very clear what sort of person he is, and he is a bastard. He pushed armies around like expendable cattle, manipulated people, lied, tricked, betrayed, and although he felt bad about ‘unnecessary’ deaths in battle, it seemed as much a matter of technical pride as anything.
Perhaps it is unfair to pick on people in wartime, since it rarely brings out just good in people, but the point is that these people (Churchill for example) were admired as people, not merely for their sometimes dubious achievements. It’s one thing to say ‘This man is a bastard but we need his skills right now’, it’s another thing to then turn him into a hero.
There are, of course, always things to be said in defence of these much-admired figures. As the article above says of Steve Jobs: “He was a polymath, a skilled motivator, a decisive judge, a farsighted tastemaker, an excellent showman, and a gifted strategist.” But, and I can’t help coming back to this, he was also a bastard.
I also, personally speaking, question the need for his products – or rather, they have no relation to matters of ‘need’ at all. Since I’ve picked such an arbitrary historical figure to compare Jobs to I think I’m going to take it even further. Lawrence was involved in a highly dishonest campaign to fight Ottoman Turkey that (a) was never going to give the Arabs the independence promised and (b) had as much to do with maintaining the British Empire after the war as winning the war at that moment. It probably helped get the British Mandate for Palestine that has had such wonderful results since.
It’s not that I want everyone to be nice – in fact I’ve even argued that the niceness of politicians is irrelevant. Besides, sometimes I’m not particularly nice myself and I would never expect it of anyone all the time. I am however suspicous of the claim that some people ‘need’ to behave nastily. This argument is entirely dependent on certain power imbalances – the ones that allow them to be nasty without consequences – being in place and accepted. And I wonder about the causes and the effects of deifying these people who are known to have systematically screwed people over. What does it say about our culture? Or perhaps more to the point, what does it say about the people who decide who is important in our publicly shared culture? They value achievement, clearly, but not just any old achievements I suspect. They value achievements that benefit the right people, and accept unpleasant behaviour as necessary to the system of power because they personally benefit from that system of power.
As for us, those who aren’t the right people, in my experience it feels good to do yourself the favour of rising above the hero-worship of our lords and masters. Instead we can admire the achievements of those who threatened the right people, or admire people who achieved nothing, or not in the ordinary sense of achievement. I admire ordinary people I meet who know how to treat everyone around them with care and respect. One day I hope to be like them.
Until then, I’ll probably carry on being rude to people who admire Steve Jobs.