The media’s favorite capitalist.
Of the dead you shall speak no ill, the ancients taught, and as an often dazzled, frequently frustrated, occasionally maddened user of his company’s products, I’ve had no reason to think or speak ill of Steve Jobs since his death in October. I’m an advocate of rapacious capitalism, red in tooth and claw, and we are unlikely to ever find a more rapacious capitalist—a colder, more calculating and ruthless capitalist—than Steve Jobs.
Which is why I am confounded by the rose petals that came fluttering from every media outlet this fall, first at the news of Jobs’s retirement and then, a few weeks later, when word came of what we are apparently now required to call his “passing.” Since when did liberal journalists become fans of rapacious capitalists?
Reporters and columnists who cover business may be the most ideologically motivated journalists in any large newsroom. Various explanations have been advanced for why this is so. One possibility is envy: If you’re of a certain cast of mind, few experiences are more embittering than watching people who are dumber and less sophisticated than you make a lot more money. Whatever its cause, we shouldn’t question the hostility that most business reporters express toward buying, selling, marketing, investing, and every other underregulated activity that a businessman uses to create wealth that the reporters can’t get their hands on.
Yet even business writers loved Jobs—especially business writers. Steven Pearlstein, a left-wing, Pulitzer-winning business columnist for the Washington Post (but I repeat myself), advised President Obama to “think big” like Steve Jobs, whose “brilliance and strength of character” had made his company “a symbol of what American workers and American business and the American economy can achieve.”
Pearlstein almost outdid another veteran business writer, Joe Nocera of the New York Times, who has called Jobs “the single most indispensable chief executive on the planet [he was referring to Earth]….It’s exhilarating watching him work his magic in the marketplace.” So magical was Jobs that Nocera, in his tribute, credited him with inventions he hadn’t invented, like the first personal computer equipped with a mouse. The misattribution was scarcely noticeable in those dizzy days of uncontrolled eulogizing. Nocera could have said Jobs invented the weed whacker and readers would have believed it. (“A visionary genius who forever changed the way Americans relate to yard work…”)
Other liberal commentators were so grief-stricken by Jobs’s death that they had no choice but to insult Republicans. In honor of the “great inventor, great businessman, great innovator, great American,” Jamie Malanowski of Washington Monthly mocked the conservative interest in marginal tax rates: “Do you think for an instant he ever said, ‘You know, this i-Pad [sic] is just sensational, and the i-phone [sic] is just going to rock the universe. Thank God the marginal tax rate isn’t three points hire [sic—he’s blogging!], because otherwise, I just couldn’t be bothered.’”
The environmental reporter for ThinkProgress wondered, “What with Republicans slashing funding for clean energy, who else will be the engine of innovation, efficiency, and dematerialization?” (Dematerialization? Now that would be magic.) And the veteran journalist James Warren contrasted Jobs’s futuristic vision with Republicans who “think small”; he cited House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s reluctance to spend federal money on disaster relief unless it was offset by other spending cuts.
“If one can’t help neighbors in need,” Warren wrote, “it doesn’t speak well of figuring out the future.”
It was an interesting contrast to draw, because one thing Jobs himself avoided doing was “helping neighbors in need.” There is no public record of him giving a dime to charity, and on several occasions he was ostentatious in his refusal to do so. When Andrew Ross Sorkin, post-passing, dared to broach the subject in the New York Times, he sounded almost apologetic. Jobs’s “single-minded focus on work over philanthropy,” as Sorkin delicately called his stinginess, was an extension of his belief “that he could do more good focusing his energy on continuing to expand Apple.”
Now, this is a defensible position, for, as Milton Friedman pointed out, an executive’s first responsibility is to his shareholders, and by creating wealth he will help everyone who participates in the general economy. (Some people call this “trickle down.”) But it’s impossible to imagine a Times writer making the same argument on behalf of any other billionaire.
Indeed, Jobs’s astonishing success with Apple was a model of predatory capitalism—like a fantasy concocted by Vance Packard, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and Friedrich Engels during a boozy all-night game of “Top This.” As the inventor, producer, and marketer of high-end, stylish consumer goods, Jobs showed no sign of the egalitarian impulse that sometimes mollifies liberal critics of business.
His eulogists compared him with Henry Ford, another inventor-turned-marketer who liberated the common man with the private automobile. But that wasn’t Jobs’s method at all. The true counterparts to Ford in the personal-computer revolution were Michael Dell and (yes) Bill Gates, who pushed down the price of a valuable, rarefied technology so that it could be accessible to nearly everyone. But they are usually contrasted unfavorably with Jobs—as colorless nerds who weren’t even Buddhists.
What an opportunity the liberal press missed! There’s hardly a cliché in the leftist lexicon liberals couldn’t have applied to Jobs and his customers: commodity fetishism, false consciousness, objectification and alienation, manufactured wants, the marketing of desire, and, most obviously, planned obsolescence. This last is the hoary charge from mid-century that American businessmen designed a product so it would soon be superseded by a similar product, compelling consumers to buy, buy, buy.
The accusation suits the case of Jobs and Apple. He kept his market churning and his customers constantly in estrus, MasterCards drawn. Every time he unveiled a new gadget, he sold it as epochal, the culmination of centuries of human striving—until the following year, when it would be withdrawn from the market and kicked down the memory hole, to be replaced by a newer, often more expensive culmination.
With his mock turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers—if anyone wrote an appreciation that didn’t mention the sneakers, I missed it—Jobs didn’t look like a Thomas Nast cartoon. Still, no cigar-chomping robber baron ever manipulated customers with greater ingenuity or success. His manufacturing plants emitted nearly four million tons of CO2 a year, and the innards of his products required the environmentally disastrous mining of minerals like coltan. And yet a “green” website could run a story about Apple’s environmental practices under the headline, “Does It Matter?” The answer, of course, was no.
Forget Thomas Nast’s cigar-chomper. A more suitable image for Jobs is the dominatrix. Whatever indignity he placed before his customers, he could make them pay for it: iPod batteries they couldn’t replace, music they could buy from iTunes but not transfer to other devices, even the special screws he invented so they couldn’t pry open his machine and fix it themselves. “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” he famously said, and his axiom applied even to stuff that they did not, in fact, want.
Perhaps my favorite post-passing line came from Scientific American, where one writer noted, “An original iPod would be laughably inadequate today.” In one sense, this observation is itself laughable—what, an original iPod won’t play music anymore?—but from the Jobsian perspective it’s perfectly sensible: He had taught customers to crave more, and they did.
I suppose I should repeat: All this is fine with me. Capitalism is a splendid system, the surest and most efficient means to general prosperity, and Jobs understood its mechanisms better than any living practitioner. Among those he mastered was the art of using flattery to lure the customers into the tent. “Here’s to the crazy ones,” Jobs wrote in a legendary Apple advertising campaign. “The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently.” I can’t imagine a more concise description of the self-image held by the aging Boomers who man America’s newsrooms. They so terribly want to be rebels, to be troublemakers—especially against the capitalism that exploits the vain and weak-willed—just so long as they can make enough money to afford the iPad 3, due out next year. The upgrades are supposed to be insanely great.
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Press Man: The Steve Jobs Snow Job
Must-Reads from Magazine
Not a departure but a partial return to the norm.
President Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday stuck to the core themes that have defined his foreign policy since he took office. The ideological cocktail was two or three parts John Bolton, one part Steve Bannon. From his national-security adviser, Trump absorbs the traditional GOP hawkishness and sovereigntism that forms the cocktail’s base. Meanwhile, distinct traces remain of the ex-Breitbart chief’s harder-edged populist nationalism. Call that the modifier.
The main elements of the cocktail blend smoothly in some areas but not in others. Boltonians are wary of liberal, transnational institutions that seek to restrain U.S. power, and they aren’t shy about sidestepping or blowing past those institutions when national interest demand it. Bannonites detest the transnationalist dream even more intensely, though their hatred extends to mutual defense treaties and trade agreements that GOP foreign policy has historically welcomed.
Both camps, moreover, claim to have shed the illusions that they think got Washington into trouble after 9/11. They don’t believe that all of human history tends toward liberal democracy. “We are this,” they say to non-Western civilizations, “and you are that. You needn’t become like us, but don’t try to remake us in your image, either.” The Boltonians might pay some lip service to Reaganite ideals here and there, but as Bolton famously wrote in these pages: “Praise democracy, pass the ammunition.”
That’s where the similarities end. The Bannonites don’t share the Boltonian threat assessment: Vladimir Putin’s encroachments into Eastern Europe don’t exercise them, and they positively welcome Bashar Assad’s role in Syria. Boltonism favors expansion, Bannonism prefers retrenchment, if not isolation. Boltonism in its various iterations is the default worldview of the key national-security principals; not just Bolton himself but also the likes of Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo. Bannonism is where I suspect the president’s own instincts lie.
It is hard to assess fully how these tensions are playing out in American foreign policy in the age of Trump. But one intellectual temptation to guard against is the tendency to view every move and every piece of rhetoric as a crazy Trumpian violation of the Eternal and Immutable Laws of American Strategy. In the main, Trump’s foreign policy appears alarming and discontinuous only to those who forget how far Barack Obama departed from mainstream, bipartisan foreign-policy traditions.
Bashing or withdrawing from UNESCO and the Human Rights Council because anti-Semitic, anti-Western “jackals” have taken these bodies hostage? That’s straight out of the Reagan-Bush-Daniel Patrick Moynihan playbook.
Ditto for rejecting the universal jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court because it would mean ceding American sovereignty to “an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy,” as Trump put it Tuesday. Successive American administrations, including President Bill Clinton’s at various points, have opposed the creation of a world court that could be used by the “jackals” and their transnationalist allies to legally harass U.S. policymakers and soldiers alike.
Nor was there anything uniquely Trumpian, or uniquely sinister, about the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Legislation enacted by Congress more than two decades ago had required the State Department to recognize Jerusalem and move the American Embassy, and as the president noted in his speech, peace is “is advanced, not harmed, by acknowledging the obvious facts.” The move also reinforces the sovereigntist idea that a nation’s decision about the location of its embassy is not open to scrutiny by foreign busybodies.
Nor, finally, does praising imperfect but valuable allies somehow take Trump beyond the pale of respectable American policy. Trump’s support for Riyadh, Warsaw, and Jerusalem is a course correction. For years under Obama, Washington neglected these powers in favor of the likes of Tehran.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t some wild elements to Trump’s foreign policy. For those who came of age in the shadow of certain postwar certainties, it will never be easy to hear the commander in chief threaten tariffs against various rivals and partners from the podium at Turtle Bay. And if Obama disrespected allies with his policies, Trump does so with his rhetorical outbursts against allied leaders, especially in Western Europe, and his bizarre refusal to directly criticize Vladimir Putin.
That’s that irrepressible Bannonite modifier in the cocktail, though the color and flavoring are all Trump’s own.
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A blow for sanity.
At some point earlier this year, America’s sources inside the Kremlin went dark. U.S. officials who spoke to the New York Times about their dangerous new blindness said they didn’t believe that their formerly reliable sources had been neutralized. Instead, their spies went into hiding amid a newly aggressive counter-espionage campaign from Moscow. The Times sources offered a variety of theories to explain what could have spooked their assets, but the most disturbing among them was the fact that the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee had exposed a Kremlin-connected FBI and CIA source as part of a campaign of unprecedented disclosures regarding America’s intelligence gathering process.
The disclosure that compromised a U.S. informant is only one in a seemingly endless cascade of classified information that Republicans claim must be revealed to the public if we are ever going to get to the bottom of the sprawling conspiracy that was put together to prevent Donald Trump from becoming president. The president’s allies in Congress have appealed to previously unused methods to reveal confidential House Intelligence Committee memos and even highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants, but none of it has satisfied Donald Trump or his defenders. There is always another document to release.
Last week, President Trump publicly ordered his Justice Department to declassify the redacted portions of a FISA warrant targeting Trump campaign advisor Carter Page, related FBI interviews, and text message sent by former FBI Director James Comey. These documents were supposedly related to the special counsel’s investigation into his campaign, even though he confessed that he had “not reviewed them.” Of the investigation, the president said, “This is a witch hunt.” The move satisfied many in Congress who insist that the president’s own Justice Department is persecuting him, but Trump confessed that he had ordered the declassification at the behest of his ardent supporters in conservative media such as Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro.
Trump’s order triggered a brief review of the most sensitive aspects of the intelligence he was prepared to declassify, and it seems that this information was sensitive enough that Trump’s advisers were able to convince him of the need to reverse course. And so, he did. On Friday, Trump announced that he would not allow the release of documents that “could have a negative impact on the Russia probe” and would jeopardize American relations with its key allies. And though he reserved the right to disclose these documents in the future, they would not be forthcoming anytime soon.
Trump’s allies in Congress were crestfallen. Three members told Fox News Channel’s Catherine Herridge that they were “blindsided” and “demoralized” by Trump’s about-face, but the president made a sober and rational decision. Not only has the withholding of these documents avoided the appearance of interference with Robert Mueller’s probe, but the president has also preserved America’s intelligence-sharing relationship with what he described as “two very good allies” that objected to the declassification.
Trump’s defenders in Congress who are inclined to flog the “deep-state” conspiracy theory should not be so disconsolate. According to ABC News’ sources, the documents Trump was prepared to disclose—just like documents before them—contained no smoking gun. Their sources insist that the documents and communications at issue would not have confirmed the suspicion among some observers that the FBI’s probe into the Trump campaign was based on the intelligence provided by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Instead, they would have confirmed that the investigation into Trump’s campaign began well before the FBI’s receipt of the “Steele dossier.” And when these disclosures failed to satisfy those who are most invested in nursing Trump’s persecution complex, there would be demands for more declassifications and more disclosures.
Conservatives with a healthy mistrust of federal agencies and the prevailing political culture within them may scoff at skeptics who are not eager to see U.S. intelligence documents sloppily released to the public. There are, after all, valid questions about the FISA Court’s oversight and the extent to which Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights are protected in counter-intelligence investigations that long predate Carter Page’s travails. But the interagency process and the oversight of appropriate redactions are designed to protect American intelligence assets and the assets of U.S. allies. It is all intended to preserve the integrity of U.S. sources and the methods they use to keep Americans safe.
If the Democratic Party was demanding these unprecedented disclosures with no regard for the geopolitical fallout and national-security risks they could incur, Republicans, you could be certain, would be raising hell. And they would be absolutely right to do so.
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RIP Paulina Płaksej.
It’s only Monday evening, which means Americans face another full week of political and cultural squalor. For an antidote, consider Paulina Płaksej, who died Sunday, aged 93. Our former COMMENTARY colleague Daniella Greenbaum broke news of Płaksej’s death on Twitter, which alerted me (and many others) to her inspiring life and that of her family, Polish Catholics who fed, hid, and rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Zachariasz and Bronisława Płaksej, Paulina’s parents, moved from Lviv, Ukraine, to Kałusz before the outbreak of the war. There, Zachariasz worked as an accountant at a local mine and developed warm relations with the area’s Jews. Toward the end of 1941, when the Nazis forced the Jews of Kałusz into a newly created ghetto with an eye toward their extermination, Zachariasz and his family “acted as couriers, smuggling notes in and out of the ghetto,” according to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. Soon, assisting persecuted Jews became the family’s main business.
It helped that they resided on the outskirts of town. As Paulina later recounted, “we lived in seclusion and not in the center of the town, so it was very convenient for us. We were surrounded by gardens, orchards, the river was flowing nearby, and there was a slaughterhouse not far away. The Germans rarely visited this place, so our life was peaceful…” Even before the creation of the ghetto, Jewish children would stop by the Płaksej home for a bowl of hot soup and a brief respite from the cruelty of daily life under occupation.
Her father, Paulina recalled, “was a very religious person, and he believed that you should always help a man, your fellow creature, as our religion has it. The Jewish victim was not simply a Jew, but your fellow, a human being, wasn’t he?”
The Płaksejs took extraordinary risks to that end, creating an underground pipeline from the Kałusz ghetto to safety for Jews targeted for liquidation:
The first family to escape [the ghetto] was Sara, Solomon, and their son, Imek. They temporarily hid at Paulina’s house. When it became too dangerous for them to stay there, Zacharias found a safer place for them to hide. He brought Sara, Solomon, and Imek to a trusted friend who was already hiding Jews in a bunker beneath his barn. Later, another Jewish woman, Rozia, escaped from the ghetto and sought out the Plaksej family. They also brought her to the farmer’s bunker. Paulina regularly brought whatever food and supplies were needed. Sara, Solomon, Imek, and Rozia, along with thirteen other Jews, stayed in this bunker for over a year. To this day, the identity of the farmer is not known.
In 1944 Miriam, another inhabitant of the ghetto, learned that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto and deport or murder the inhabitants. Miriam asked Zacharias to save her two-year-old daughter, Maja. Zacharias contacted Miriam’s former maid and arranged for her to come rescue Maja. The maid brought a horse and cart, and the Jewish police helped smuggle the little girl out of the ghetto. The maid told her neighbors that this little girl was her daughter who had just returned from living with her grandparents.
Miriam was in one of the last groups of Jews to be deported to Auschwitz. As her group was marched to the train, Miriam quickly took off her armband and joined the crowds in the street. She went straight to the Plaksej house asking for help. They hid her in their wardrobe for a number of months. Zacharias obtained forged papers for her and took her to another village where she would not be recognized as a Jew. There she was picked up as a Pole and sent to a German farm as a forced laborer. After the war, she returned to the maid’s house, picked up her daughter, and reunited with her husband. Due to the efforts of Paulina and her family, all of the Jews they helped survived the war.
The State of Israel in 1987 recognized Paulina and her parents as Righteous Among the Nations. May we never forget these stories, and may we all strive to follow in their footsteps, even and especially amid our contemporary squalor.
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Podcast: Kavanaugh and Rosenstein.
Can you take what we say about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh seriously considering we’re conservatives and he’s a conservative? Are we defending him because we are genuinely discomfited by how insubstantial the allegations against him are, or are we doing so because we agree with him ideologically? We explore this on today’s podcast. Give a listen.