Sunday, August 19, 2012

Freakonomics Radio: Legacy of a Jerk


This Sunday is a Sunday for considering death and legacies here at Wenatchee The Hatchet.  This is also a Sunday for considering, however tangentially, what some say a person's legacy in the world ought to be and what prescriptions may be given for how one should spend one's time.  Thus, we get to Freaknomics podcast "Legacy of a Jerk". Give it a listen, if you would.  


This fascinating podcast deals with different jerks in history and how they have been perceived.  What made them jerks?  More importantly, how do we as a society establish jerkitude, on what grounds, and on what grounds do we impute jerkitude with malice to a figure or defend it on the basis of identification with a cause the jerk identified with?  Some interesting examples from the podcast deal with ... baseball.  Now I'll admit I don't care at all about baseball but Roberto Clemente and Ty Cobb were interesting to hear about.  That Cobb's reputation as the great jerk of baseball was cemented by a single author who basically seems to have had it in for the man was interesting to learn.  One well-positioned person with an axe to grind can ensure that a person has a legacy of jerk that substantially outlives those who have passed on and have no capacity to explain or defend themselves.  

Others get defended even though their capacity for cruelty is well-known.  Why?  Often, most often, this is because the cruelty is seen as defensible on the basis of the cause for which the person was cruel.  Steve Jobs could frequently be callous and dismissive toward others but he is defended because he catalyzed products, services, and industry many of us find useful and life-changing (which is not overstating things when you consider the sheer scope of Jobs' influence, investments, and innovations and I'm saying that as someone who uses PCs).  

But another defense of the jerkiness can be relative, grading on a curve, which is to say that the great historical jerk can be defended with the observation that if the person was completely a jerk no one would stick around.  This may underestimate by a substantial margin the level of narcissistic or sociopathic pathology with which people will endure for the sake of being part of a legacy themselves. A defense of "He/she was a jerk but not THAT bad of a jerk" may not be the greatest defense of the dead.  A variation I've heard and read about the living, no less, goes roughly like this, "If you just understood what he/she is reacting to and understood how big that problem is you'd find that the firm reaction to a big problem justifies not mincing words."  

The world is full of enough suffering and want that it's not a big surprise that saints and sinners have continually been graded on a curve by those who share the stories of those who have passed.  David and Saul come to mind in the Samuel/Kings account of the early Israelite monarchy. If we believe in the ideas and ideals espoused by a person we can be willing to forgive all sorts of heinous words and deeds.  

Some bloggers have considered the Sandunsky case and Paterno, and how a little wrong can undo a great deal of an otherwise positive legacy.  I'm not into college sports of any kind so I don't have a dog in that fight.  But I do try to keep track of things in more churchly circles.  A man can have what most would consider a pretty solid reputation overall and all it would take is one egregious case of deception, abuse, political chicanery or indiscretion with sex or finances to bring that man's entire reputation down.  

I know I have spent quite a bit of time at this blog discussing how I think that Christians should not sacrifice the lives of others on the altar of whatever legacy they think God wants for them.  Adolf Schlatter once wrote that it is endemic to human idolatry that they fashion God in their own likeness and through that sanction their own lusts as God's will.  We tend to read that kind of observation in terms of "lust" in a colloquial and sexual sense but that lust can (and often does) work itself out in what might be more piously described as "legacy".  It's not a bad thing to want a positive legacy just beware the temptation to make human sacrifices in the quest for that legacy.  It would not be a huge shock for a lot of people to observe that in many cases the jerk chose to be a jerk precisely because the jerk wanted a legacy. 

If you are a Christian your legacy is already accounted for in and through Christ.  It's easy to say that and sound pious about it but how many people believe that?  The oracle Isaiah gave to the eunuchs was obviously not in some vacuum.  You don't fret about being a dry tree if you're sure that your name and legacy are secure.  You also don't tweet about how critics don't get monuments built in their honor if you never once had a thought that maybe, someday, a monument might be built in your honor.  

As the author of Ecclesiastes so gloomily put it, inside of a single generation you're going to be forgotten after you're dead, most likely, and you can't control whether your legacy, whatever it is, won't be handed over to some idiotic tool who fritters it away.  You don't know whether your legacy will be that of a jerk or that of a saint, no matter how desperately you try to shape it. 

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