Saturday, April 07, 2012

Layton & Jobs: Idealists

The year 2011 was a tough year for the admittedly narrow demographic of left-leaning Canadian Apple aficionados. In August, we lost Jack Layton, the leader of the New Democratic Party, to cancer at the age of 61; and in October, we lost the founder and CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, also to cancer. 

At first glance, the two men didn’t have much in common. Layton was a career politician and a man of the people. Steve Jobs was one of the most successful businessmen of our time and an intensely private man. Yet both were highly respected among their peers and inspirational to those who looked to them for leadership. And the public outpouring of grief at their untimely passing was of a scale and intensity that has not been seen for decades for a politician, let alone for a businessman. 

Both managed to take the reins of their respective organizations and lead a gradual but seemingly inevitable reversal of fortune, Apple going from a nearly bankrupt computer maker to the most valuable company in the world; the NDP going from an afterthought party to the official opposition. 
But respect and success will only take you so far. Certainly it doesn’t automatically elicit the kind of widespread public mourning that Layton’s and Jobs’ passing did. Of course part of it is that they died far too young and that their lives were cut short at the height of their success. It’s only natural that we feel the tragedy in this more acutely. 

But it occurs to me that the one important thing these two men had in common was an unrelenting idealism that they somehow managed to preserve in fields where compromising one’s ideals is pretty much par for the course. Idealists in politics are generally don't last long; they either get out of politics or make that deal with the devil. Idealists certainly do not rise to party leadership. But Jack Layton was able to stay true to his principles more than any other Canadian party leader in recent memory, and Canadian voters were just beginning to sense this when he died. Steve Jobs’ unwillingness to compromise when it came to user experience is what ultimately set Apple's products apart from those of its competitors. It was what made him a legendary badass among the Silicon Valley elite, but it was also what earned him the grudging respect and admiration of those who worked for him. And it was what endeared him to several generations of Apple fans. When we use an Apple product, we get the feeling that it has been designed specifically to delight us in a thousand different ways, not simply to coax a few hundred dollars from our wallet. This was Steve Jobs’ doing. 

The incredible impromptu public memorials that sprang up after Laytons’ and Jobs’ passing were monuments to idealism. And in this age when people simply assume that all politicians are corrupt and all businessmen are crooked, the grievers were also tapping into the same sentiment that the Occupy Wall Street protesters were channelling. I know this sounds melodramatic, but in some sense, they were mourning the death of truth and honesty and protesting against cynicism.

It’s tough when we lose the good guys. They’re too few and far between.

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