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Brutally Honest Obits
2011 saw the deaths of two fascinating, brilliant, and —many would argue — mean men: Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens. Obviously, Hitchens' death is still the subject of numerous stories and obits. Slate and The Atlantic have flooded their sites with articles remembering Hitchens, and many of them turn a blind eye to the unfavorable aspects of his personality.
The same thing happened when Jobs died. There's something seemingly natural in us to sand down the rough edges of a person's personality when we memorialize them. Part of me likes that — it seems to speak well of us as humans that we want to remember the good parts of a person and forgive the bad. But it's also, let's face it, dishonest.
My favorite Jobs obituary was by Ryan Tate at Gawker and it was titled, "What Everybody is Too Polite to Say about Steve Jobs." Rather than focus on the "individuality" that Apple puffed its chest about, it focused on Jobs' growing penchant for censorship. And instead of harping on the brilliant minimalist aesthetic Jobs cultivated, Tate criticized the cruelty with which Jobs dealt with his coworkers and friends and family. Most importantly, while many stayed mum about the international labor concerns at the Foxconn factories where Apple had its products made, Tate drew attention to the issue.
Now we're still soaking in the sunny glow of Hitchens obituaries, where his ironically dogmatic secularism and lacerating bitterness are treated as, at best, charming, and, at worst, tactless. James Fallows offers a take that considers the negative aspects of his genius.
I like these more brutal memorials. And I think they are honestly more memorable than the glowing remembrances. I can understand why those closest to these men would momentarily forget and forgive their more brutal sides, but for those of us without a personal connection, it's important to see all sides of a character. Saints are few and far between, and knee-jerk canonization of those with deep flaws simply because of the gifts they gave our society feels cheap.
Greatness, fame, and celebrity often come with baggage, and force people to make sacrifices. When a great person dies, it provides an opportunity to tally up those sacrifices and estimate the true measure of a man or woman, in talent and influence, and also in deeds and character. It prompts us to think about what greatness really is. But only if we have the whole story.