Supreme Court of Assholedom: The People vs. Steve Jobs

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Steve Jobs speaks during an Apple Special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

NOTE TO READERS: I will have something on the developments at Zucotti Park soon, and will also be appearing on Countdown tonight to talk about it. In the meantime, here is the long-overdue summary of our recent Assholedom court proceeding against the late Steve Jobs:

Thomas Edison electrocuted an elephant once. The cheery moment is captured in a classic production called Electrocuting an Elephant, a black-and-white film the inventor used as part of a lengthy marketing campaign against his commercial rival, Westinghouse, and his former protégé Nicola Tesla.

Edison was trying to prove that Westinghouse's AC current was more dangerous than his own DC current, so he first fried a succession of cats and dogs in a sort of zoocidal barnburning tour, then finally conflagrated a Coney Island circus elephant named Topsy as part of what was, one must admit, a very inspired public relations idea befitting the greatest corporate innovator of his time.

Thanks to the equally brilliant technological innovations of our own time, you can watch Electrocuting an Elephant at a moment's notice anywhere on the earth's surface. Just do what I did – flick on your iPad, and within seconds you can be watching ten million volts of Alternating Current blasting Topsy's brains out his ears.

With the faintest movement of an index finger you can use your iPad to rewind and replay Electrocuting an Elephant at will, lingering if you like before the flick of the switch to watch Topsy’s unsuspecting calm, or at that moment a few ticks later when his head snaps back in surprise and the great beast lurches forward in a cloud of dust and sparks.

You can use your iPad to cast a "like" or "dislike" vote on the film, or you can click through to related videos of animal electrocutions. You can even leave a comment for other readers like yourself, perhaps something funny like "sucks to be Topsy lol!!!" or "ha ha ha stupid fucking elephant."

The genius of the iPad is instant worldwide community experienced simultaneously though multiple media, so you can share your elephant-electrocution reactions in words, pictures, and sounds with people all around the world from practically anywhere, and you don't have to use a lot of fancy buttons like you would with Microsoft-based platforms, leaving your hands free to throw a child into a panel truck perhaps, or autoerotically asphyxiate yourself while hanging from a shower rod.

When the Supreme Court of Assholedom decided to consider the case of the late Steve Jobs, we instantly collided with a problem we'll call the Edison Conundrum. This dictates that the question of whether or not a person is an asshole can be complicated by the utility of that person's assholedom.

In other words, if being an asshole is part of what brought us electric light, motion pictures, the phonograph, or (more pertinently) the iPhone, do we excuse the assholedom? Or do we just share in it?

Is Thomas Edison an asshole for electrocuting Topsy (and judges were mostly agreed that electrocuting an elephant is, as Justice Kreider wrote, “an almost Montgomery-Burns-like distillation of assholism”), or are we the assholes for gladly stepping over Topsy's sizzling corpse in order to turn on the bedroom light and listening to records?

All of these things come into play with Steve Jobs. Jobs, like Edison, was undeniably a pathologically driven and totally ruthless corporate competitor who would have screwed his own mother out of her last penny, who took credit for inventions that were not entirely his own, and engaged in serial underhanded mistreatment of colleagues and employees alike, all in the name of bringing us handy gadgets at cheap prices.

With Jobs the issue of slave labor also comes screamingly into question, a fact that stands in nauseating juxtaposition to Apple's cheerfully childlike design and brand identity. There's something even more disgusting about those toylike buttonless gizmos with their kiddie coloring, pushed on TV by timelessly presexual teen-muppet Justin Long, when you consider, as Assholedom Justice David Rees noted, that many of those Crayoloid devices were literally assembled by children.

But we consume the fruits of international child labor a hundred times a day, and most of us know it and regularly walk right on into Wal-Marts and Targets to buy piles of cheap kiddie-stitched or kiddie-assembled stuff anyway, so exactly how much grief we should throw at Steve Jobs for tossing a few pebbles into our great canyon of demand for foreign child labor is a legitimate question.

I personally don't buy that this brutal reality about us and our culture makes Jobs any less of an asshole (this reminds me of Goldman, Sachs's "Morgan Stanley was just as bad" excuse), but as a whole the court struggled to dump all the weight on the Apple founder when his customers were so clearly crucial accomplices in this part of his assholedom.

This in fact turned out to be one of the main questions the court considered in the Jobs case. Jobs is the cream of the entrepreneurial crop in a capitalist system that "not only rewards assholism but mandates it," as Justice Timothy Kreider wrote. So do we punish him for that? Or do we put ourselves in the dock?

Answering that question depended in part on the answer to a different question the court considered. Justice David Sirota, reassuming his role as the Brandeis-style "People's Lawyer" visionary of this court, identified the problem using the vernacular of the common man:

In limited circumstances, assholism can be a virtue... The threshold for such a determination, though is whether achieving something virtuous ... required you to be a raging motherfucking asshole.

On to the case:

The People Versus Steve Jobs

The court considered a number of questions in the Jobs case:

Is assholism ever a virtue?

The court struggled mightily over this issue, although in the end I think we largely agreed. This was a rare case where the two cartoonists, Justices Rees and Kreider, did not senselessly attack each other – although not so much out of solidarity, I think, as out of laziness. In any case, Rees eloquently reframed the question:

The vexing question here is whether making beautiful, intuitive, powerful computer gizmos crosses the good-cause threshold. I don't think it does, unlike his supporters, who insist that "the bulk of his contributions to society may reside in the quality and innovation of Apple’s products ...." This is EXACTLY the kind of weird category error that gives me the creeps: "Oh, he was a good man because he had exquisite taste and made the coolest phone in the world."

Justice Adam Whitmer, meanwhile – the sole member of the court with military experience – articulated what we ultimately decided to call the “useful douchebag exception” by drawing from his own experience:

I was a marksmanship coach for 3 years, which involved weapons training and general safety. A couple of times, a shooter would point a gun at me or another shooter, or just do something generally unsafe. In these circumstances I had to be a huge douchebag to these people and shame them/make them feel like a complete idiot so I knew they wouldn't do it again. Sometimes being an asshole is the only way to get the job done.

The court definitely agreed that being an asshole is occasionally necessary and even laudable. We were happy to make new law there.

Where we struggled was in deciding whether or not Jobs qualified for this “useful douchebag exception.” Clearly, Jobs's assholism was necessary to bring Apple products into the world. But are Apple products necessary? The court in the end decided to punt on the issue, using a technicality to send the question of Apple’s necessity back to the circuit courts for an en banc review.

Still, we considered other questions, like:

Does public demand for an asshole’s services ever vindicate the asshole to any degree?

Justice Mara Schmid, the moralist of the court, expressed the majority opinion here best:

[Public demand] doesn't vindicate the asshole, but it additionally condemns the ones demanding the assholism.  Like Rush Limbaugh fans.

We generally agreed that Jobs’s nearly undeniable assholism – particularly in the area of using child labor – made all of us accomplices in his crime. One proposal we considered was parceling out some of Jobs’s asshole points to all of his customers – for instance, if the court gave Jobs 5000 points on a scale of 10,000, each of his customers would be given 500 points of their own.

What was particularly troubling, however, was how little the prospect of punishing ourselves seemed to scare any of us. Echoing the collegial spirit of George W. Bush’s unabashedly anti-UN UN Ambassador, John Bolton, our very own Justice Drew Magary openly shat all over the Court’s authority when he wrote:

I mean, on a certain level, if you talk about exploiting kiddie workers or whatever, we're ALL assholes.  So sure, give me 500 points.  I'll survive.

Justice Jenny Boylan took the opposite approach on this question, getting all serious on us:

The issue of redistributing an asshole’s points to all of us who use that asshole’s products sets an important precedent …. This is a fundamental problem of democracy …. If we all really had to suffer the consequences for enabling Apple, or Microsoft, or, I don't know, say, the Pentagon, it'd be a different world.  Instead we – I – just lollipop along, members of world bound by such mind-blowing webs of injustice and mendacity that we feel safe just shrugging and concluding that it's all too huge for us to do anything about.

This was eloquently put by Justice Boylan, but I never got to read her whole opinion because all that gravity started to bum me out, so I decided to play “Angry Birds” on my iPad to cheer myself up. Then I spent the whole night watching old BBC detective shows via my Netflix app.

Eventually, of course, we took on the biggest question:

Was Steve Jobs an asshole?

By a vote of 8-1, we decided he was.

In the end, we gave Steve Jobs 3,613 asshole points, which places him above Elton John (despite Justice Boylan’s contention that Jobs "does not meet the exacting Elton John standard") but well below Hosni Mubarak (squaring both with Justice Whitmer’s rule that nobody who hasn’t killed anyone should get more than 5,000 points, and my own rule that columnist George Will’s 5,000 should represent the maximum score for a non-homicidal defendant).

Curiously, however, we also voted on Thomas Edison, and gave him 5,629 points; the court apparently counted Topsy the elephant's death as a homicide. Edison’s inflated score vis à vis Jobs was largely due to his vastly more extensive record of idea-stealing (particularly with regard to Nikola Tesla), his proud history of cat-and-elephant-frying, and his tireless advocacy of the inferior DC system.

The lone dissenter on Jobs was Justice Mara Schmid, who wrote:

I'm sure he was [an asshole] at times.  But overall, I don't think he embodies assholism. The asshole that he sometimes was came, I believe, from a place of passion and obsession and dedication, and I'm willing to consider that okay.

Justice Amy Bearden, who doubles as the Clerk of the Court, quite sensibly complained that we were late to the party – "I get pissed when Maureen Dowd beats us to the punch" – and also admitted that her vote was compromised by her love of her iPad ("the pending media hype currently circulating is too much when I fucking love my iPad, MacBook, and iPhone").

This led to the only rancorous exchange in the debate, when Justice Jessica Kourkounis awoke from a longstanding indifference to the Jobs case to lash out.

I start off thinking I don't feel passionate about the whole Steve Jobs thing and then someone mentions not wanting to do this vote because they love their iPad, iPhone, etc., and suddenly I feel a fire building in my gut .... Are we that low?

Fight! Fight! But cooler heads prevailed and both Kourkounis and Bearden ended up voting "Yes" on the asshole question.

The rest of us, meanwhile, mainly agreed that Jobs was in fact an asshole (his labor record being a huge part of that calculation), and his score was definitely affected by the revolting lionization of Jobs in the commercial media (" am creeped out by the Princess Diana/Michael Jackson-level grief that followed the death of a guy who successfully marketed consumer gizmos," wrote Kreider).

But generally speaking, we were in agreement that Jobs was, as Sirota wrote, a "my-way-or-the-highway dick" who gave virtually nothing to charity despite being one of the richest men on earth, who tried to squirm out of the paternity of his own daughter, and whose atrocious labor record was only slightly mitigated by the utility of his assholedom.

"I think you have to be something of a demanding asshole to get your designers to create a music player that has no buttons," explained Magary. "But Jobs is proof positive that the world NEEDS assholes, that it wouldn't necessarily be as good of a place if assholishness were somehow made extinct."

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