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Different Jobs

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I knew that my Facebook post would ruffle some feathers and, at the extreme, get me fired. But that's nothing new; if not for gallows humor, I'd have none at all.

Last week, in the wake of Steve Jobs' death, an outpouring of sadness flooded most every channel of social media. People—and I know more than a few of them—began posting mini-hagiographies to their various accounts, drawing parallels between Jobs and Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. It wasn't so much mourning as millions of Macintosh devotees writing "R.I.P. Steve Jobs" over and over on their collective Trapper Keepers (or on those super-svelte iPad 2 covers). "Good Lord people," I wrote, "it's not like the man cured Cancer." I settled back into my desk-chair and waited for the pushback.

I'm not an asshole so much as a heavy-browed cynic. I wasn't trying to discount Jobs' death as much as lampoon the reaction to it. The story of Apple and Steve Jobs' role there is certainly a wonder, and I have respect for anyone who—by way of talent, gumption or luck—reaches such heights of professional success. But his accomplishments should be viewed in the proper context.

Like Henry Ford, Jobs' greatest contribution may not be the product that made him untold billions and made him an icon, but an idea. Ford popularized assembly-line production, thereby changing labor practices and, arguably, the American brand of democracy. Likewise, Jobs had a futurist vision where people formed a connection to a personal computing device—that is, if they could afford it. He and the crack team of marketers employed by Apple made computers cool. Now, anyone with a smart-phone and a data plan can, for better or worse, communicate their experience of life to an audience only limited by those who seem to care.

But none of that makes Steve Jobs a hero. He was an icon of American capitalism and a celebrity. People rending their garments in such a way for the death of a celebrity seem all the more distasteful when real heroes die; and last week, hours before Jobs passed, a real hero did die.

Fred Shuttlesworth, a man whose legacy I'm embarrassed to say I was unaware of until a few years ago, also died on Wednesday, at the age of 89. He was a firebrand civil rights activist in Alabama back when that could, and often did, get people killed. He was also one of a cadre of local activists who persuaded King to come to the flashpoint of the civil rights movement that was Birmingham in the '60s. For all of his accomplishments, though, he'll be remembered—if he's remembered at all—in King's colossal shadow.

This is not to say that Jobs' death was any more or less tragic than Shuttlesworth's. Or to say that Shuttlesworth is due more press coverage, though that would have been acceptable. It's to say that moral courage in the face of physical harm—selfless moral courage applied to further what I'll tentatively call the greater good—should be valued as much as the ostensibly enviable traits that compelled Jobs. To me, that's clearer than any screen on any iThing Apple will ever produce.

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