This week I watched two documentaries that sustain the notion of brilliant people being absolutely nuts. One is about an egomaniacal Web savant who advocated reality television before it existed, and the other a radical soapmaker who obsessively spread messages of universal unity. Both films made me wonder if these men were brilliant because they were insane, or went mad because they were geniuses.
We Live In Public follows a self-serving tech mogul and his premature discovery that people like watching people who know they’re being watched. His name is Josh Harris, and although he’s unlikable, he’s intriguingly twisted. Through heaps of namedropping and bucketfuls of smirks, he explains how our future entertainment will revolve around omniscient video surveillance. Yes, he should have worn one of those “I’m kind of a big deal” T-shirts, but beneath the egocentric bullcrap is a man who was reared by TV sets instead of parents. He learned life lessons not through family, but episodes of Gilligan’s Island. And so he devised an empire of web-based applications designed to overthrow television. After reaching a net worth of $80 million, he launched a series of draconian underground webcam experiments that resulted in him fleeing penniless to Ethiopia. His grotesque alter ego Luvvy the clown was almost as awkward as his lust for depriving his subjects of their privacy. But when you think about it, he’s no more disgusting than Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Rock Of Love, or Real Housewives Of Atlanta.
On a more literal soapbox is Dr. Emanuel Bronner, the subject of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox. I’ve used his famous soaps for years and have always been curious about their 30,000-word labels demanding peace and unity for all mankind. The doctor was an accomplished chemist and seventh-generation soapmaker, but he brought hyper-nonconformism to a new level. Like Harris, he endured familial strife. He emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1929 and lost his parents in the Holocaust. His sister committed him to a mental hospital from which he escaped, and he later sent his own children to live with rotating foster parents so that he could continue his mission of saving humanity. The detailed moral code that he created and affixed to all of his products sought to unite humanity through one faith, one God, and extreme goodwill. An exercise fanatic, health nut, and talkaholic, he married four times and eventually became blind. He spoke of his liquid peppermint soap as though it was the world’s only sundry worth acquiring. Since his death in 1997, his family members have quietly achieved some remarkable goals. Without any vehement proselytizing, they developed our country's first 100% post-consumer recycled bottles, donate more than 70% of their profits, and capped their salaries so they don’t make more than five times that of their lowest paid employee. Crazy or not, some stories are just worth sharing.