Booing Bill Gates

Why do we resent the super-successful?

As these words are being written, Michael Jordan and the mighty Chicago Bulls have a 500 record. Software giant Microsoft is battling antitrust suits brought by the U.S. government. And once-dominant children's entertainer Barney is now the subject of innumerable vicious parodies, with whole Web sites devoted to his gory demise. These three unrelated things delight us in similar ways. In each case, someone or something that was staggeringly successful for a long period of time has undergone a fall from grace.

Clearly, there is a general appreciation for this sort of reversal of fortune; the urge to root for the underdog and against the favorite is a quintessentially human one which extends back to and probably even predates the story of David and Goliath. Still, it is worth examining the odd equalizing urge to hope not only that the little guy makes good in the end, but also that the big guy (i.e. Microsoft) suffers some slings and arrows along the way.

While the mass media fetishizes fame in the persons of actors, elected officials, musicians and similar sorts of people, the popular attitude toward these objects of secular worship is nowhere near uniformly positive. No matter how good the economy is and no matter how few Washington peccadilloes have come to light in a given year, there always seems to be an undercurrent of "throw the bums out" sentiment among the electorate. Incumbents often try to present themselves as reformers or agents of change so as to avoid the public's perennial dislike of the current power structure.

Outside of the realm of politics, this distaste for continued success is equally evident. In the realm of sport, perhaps the most obvious example of a fall from grace is the case of America's (Most Wanted) Team, the cartoonishly hated Dallas Cowboys. Microsoft, the biggest corporate success story of the decade, is commonly referred to by programmers who do not work for the company as "the evil empire." When Bill Gates appeared on screen at this year's MacWorld Expo to announce his timely financial bailout of Apple Computer, he was soundly booed by the crowd despite what were clearly good intentions on his part.

Even here at fair Harvard, essentially a vast secular temple to success, there exists a certain amount of resentment toward those who succeed. An article which appeared several weeks ago in this newspaper about the current crop of Rhodes and Marshall scholarship nominees began by jokingly noting that the students who had been nominated were finally beginning to reap the rewards of "staying home all those Saturday nights." While it was nothing more than a mild and probably fairly accurate gibe, this line is indicative of a certain resentful "Yeah, they got nominated, but at least they have no social life" attitude toward these people who are some of the most hardworking and successful students at Harvard.

This sort of behavior seems strangely at odds with the ideal of the American dream, that perennial occupant of this country's collective unconscious which causes us to love the rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger, class of 1852, sort of underdog who beats the odds and from poor and humble beginnings acquires vast wealth. If we love successful underdogs as they approach fame and fortune, why do we not continue to love them as they attain ever-higher pinnacles of achievement, whether it be by doubling and redoubling their billions or by winning an increasingly ridiculous number of consecutive championships?

Perhaps it is the trappings or the consequences of success rather than success itself which excite popular frustration--the Cowboys clearly have not behaved in exemplary fashion since attaining greatness and Bill Gates' company uses its position of dominance to gobble up smaller software producers with what sometimes seems to be relentless monopolistic zeal.

But even apart from the hedonistic excess sometimes associated with fame and fortune, there seems in many cases to be a certain finite lifespan of public popularity due to achievement, irrespective of the behavior of the successful party. The vilified purple dinosaur, after all, has never been caught with a stash of illegal drugs, firearms or prostitutes, and indeed did nothing more offensive than continue to preach his universal message of goodwill. The Bulls, who we are so pleased to see falling in the standings, are guilty only of playing excellent basketball for many years.

Maybe it is just that the public grows bored after a while of seeing the same names in the headlines and reacts accordingly. Maybe it is as simple a phenomenon as jealousy of the success of others. Maybe the brief half-life of celebrity is due to our much-maligned disposable MTV culture, which tailors advertisements and events to viewers who are assumed to have the attention span of an electron.

Whatever the reasons for it, this public backlash against the successful is an intriguing and powerful phenomenon which, regardless of its occasional unfairness, at least makes good copy. We may need villains to root against as much as we need heroes to cheer for, and who better to wear the black hat than those people or organizations that the public made famous and successful in the first place?

David M. Weld'98, of Eliot House.