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 indispensible 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 October 5th of 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 a pause, the measure of 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 I-Phone 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 I-Pad 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.
This piece originally appeared in Relevant.
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 www.davidmasciotra.com