CEOs are not like the rest of us


The death of Steve Jobs brought forth a spate of worshipful obits, didn’t it?  I honestly had no idea.  I mean, rest in peace and so forth, but as a businessman, he was – hmm – brilliant but a little monomaniacal.  But I heard people quoting the most inane Jobisms, and odd little reminiscences – his (very substanceless) Zen meditations, his quick temper . . .



I am seeing, under all of this, a creepy renascence of the Victorian figure of the Captain of Industry.  For one thing, there’s that repugnant CBS show “Undercover Boss,” in which CEOs dress up in bad wigs and goatees and take front-line jobs in their own stores; it always turns into a Cinderella story, and the boss turns out to be Just A Guy After All, and Not So Bad.  He hands out gifts and bonuses and so forth at the end of the show, and pledges Never To Forget The Little People Again.



Phooey.  I bet.



I never said CEOs were bad.  I simply assume that they are, like the rest of us, greedy and venal.  The main differences between CEOs and the rest of us is that they have gotten their hands on some boodle, and have now shifted their focus to hanging on to what they’ve got.



They have also generally convinced themselves that they are somehow magical high priests of the material world.  There are large segments of the media (CNBC, the Wall Street Journal, even my beloved Financial Times) which constantly assure CEOs that they are very smart



The FT interviews a famous person every week over lunch; they even include the menu and the bill.  A few weeks ago, it was the pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who had some insightful things to say.  The following week, however, it was the CEO of J. Crew, a nonentity named Mickey Drexler, who was incredibly full of himself, running around being very cute, telling everyone very loudly that he knew everything. (He predicted that the restaurant’s best-selling pizza would be margarita, and was delighted with himself when he turned out to be right; then he ranked the most popular cookies: chocolate chip, right?  Then oatmeal.  Maybe oatmeal raisin.  Then sugar.)



Genius, right?



The FT often asks CEO questions like: “Describe your work ethic in ten words.”  You can imagine the answers; I won’t reproduce them here.  But the column often also asks them: Do you deserve your salary?



And, do you know, every single one of them so far has said “yes.”



No demurral at all; no “Well, I hope so.” 






As Archy the Cockroach said almost a hundred years ago: “Yours for red rum, ruin, revolt, and rapine.”



The places where revolutions begin


The Stonewall Inn is nothin’, really. Partner and I were on Christopher Street in Manhattan a few years ago when we suddenly realized we were right in front of it. There were some tacky signs in front, and the usual gay-bar postings – bands, drink specials – but there was nothing distinctive about it.



On June 28, 1969, a couple of weeks before the first moon landing, the police raided the place, as they used to do periodically. The regulars were sick and tired of being raided, and fought back. The protests went on for several days. Then they spread. Activist groups sprang up.



It was, as Malcolm Gladwell might say, a “tipping point.”



I’ve been following Tunisian politics lately, as I lived in Tunisia for two years, and I still have friends there. The Tunisian revolution which happened very suddenly this year found its tipping point in a smallish town called Sidi Bouzid. A young vegetable vendor was harassed by a member of the police, who insulted him, slapped him, and confiscated his wares.



So he set fire to himself.



Within weeks, the country was (metaphorically) on fire too.



As revolutions go, the Tunisian revolution was pretty brisk and effective. There was violence, but only on a small scale. The government collapsed in short order. The replacement government (which was quite obviously the old government in disguise) got laughed off the stage within weeks.



I was recently chatting online with a Tunisian friend, in the usual mix of English / French / Arabic. He speaks very proudly of “la nouvelle Tunisie,” the new Tunisia.  There are still problems – he didn’t hide that – but he’s happy.  No, actually, I would say that he’s exhilarated.



And wouldn’t you be?



And, as I write this, the United Nations has just endorsed a resolution confirming gay rights.



And the state of New York (holla, Cuomo and Bloomberg!) has just legalized gay marriage.



And it all begins in a small town in Tunisia.



Or in a seedy bar in downtown Manhattan.



Revolutions start in the damndest places.



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