Two years ago, when I was the target of an online shaming campaign, what helped me through it were hundreds of messages of support from friends, slight acquaintances, and strangers of every background. I vowed then to return the favor, by standing up when I saw decent people unfairly shamed. Today I have an opportunity to make good.
Some time ago I had the privilege of interacting a bit with Sam Altman, president of the famed startup incubator Y Combinator (and a guy who’s thanked in pretty much everything Paul Graham writes). By way of our mutual friend, the renowned former quantum computing researcher Michael Nielsen, Sam got in touch with me to solicit suggestions for “outside-the-box” scientists and writers, for a new grant program that Y Combinator was starting. I found Sam eager to delve into the merits of any suggestion, however outlandish, and was delighted to be able to make a difference for a few talented people who needed support.
Sam has also been one of the Silicon Valley leaders who’s written most clearly and openly about the threat to America posed by Donald Trump and the need to stop him, and he’s donated tens of thousands of dollars to anti-Trump causes. Needless to say, I supported Sam on that as well.
Now Sam is under attack on social media, and there are even calls for him to resign as the president of Y Combinator. Like me two years ago, Sam has instantly become the corporeal embodiment of the “nerd privilege” that keeps the marginalized out of Silicon Valley.
Why? Because, despite his own emphatic anti-Trump views, Sam rejected demands to fire Peter Thiel (who has an advisory role at Y Combinator) because of Thiel’s support for Trump. Sam explained his reasoning at some length:
[A]s repugnant as Trump is to many of us, we are not going to fire someone over his or her support of a political candidate. As far as we know, that would be unprecedented for supporting a major party nominee, and a dangerous path to start down (of course, if Peter said some of the things Trump says himself, he would no longer be part of Y Combinator) … The way we got into a situation with Trump as a major party nominee in the first place was by not talking to people who are very different than we are … I don’t understand how 43% of the country supports Trump. But I’d like to find out, because we have to include everyone in our path forward. If our best ideas are to stop talking to or fire anyone who disagrees with us, we’ll be facing this whole situation again in 2020.
The usual criticism of nerds is that we might have narrow technical abilities, but we lack wisdom about human affairs. It’s ironic, then, that it appears to have fallen to Silicon Valley nerds to guard some of the most important human wisdom our sorry species ever came across—namely, the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment. Like Sam, I despise pretty much everything Trump stands for, and I’ve been far from silent about it: I’ve blogged, donated money, advocated vote swapping, endured anonymous comments like “kill yourself kike”—whatever seemed like it might help even infinitesimally to ensure the richly-deserved electoral thrashing that Trump mercifully seems to be headed for in a few weeks.
But I also, I confess, oppose the forces that apparently see Trump less as a global calamity to be averted, than as a golden opportunity to take down anything they don’t like that’s ever been spotted within a thousand-mile radius of Trump Tower. (Where does this Kevin Bacon game end, anyway? Do “six degrees of Trump” suffice to contaminate you?)
And not only do I not feel a shadow of a hint of a moral conflict here, but it seems to me that precisely the same liberal Enlightenment principles are behind both of these stances.
But I’d go yet further. It sort of flabbergasts me when social-justice activists don’t understand that, if we condemn not only Trump, not only his supporters, but even vociferous Trump opponents who associate with Trump supporters (!), all we’ll do is feed the narrative that got Trumpism as far as it has—namely, that of a smug, bubble-encased, virtue-signalling leftist elite subject to runaway political correctness spirals. Like, a hundred million Americans’ worldviews revolve around the fear of liberal persecution, and we’re going to change their minds by firing anyone who refuses to fire them? As a recent Washington Post story illustrates, the opposite approach is harder but can bear spectacular results.
Now, as for Peter Thiel: three years ago, he funded a small interdisciplinary workshop on the coast of France that I attended. With me there were a bunch of honest-to-goodness conservative Christians, a Freudian psychoanalyst, a novelist, a right-wing radio host, some scientists and Silicon Valley executives, and of course Thiel himself. Each, I found, offered tons to disagree about but also some morsels to learn.
Thiel’s worldview, focused on the technological and organizational greatness that (in his view) Western civilization used to have and has subsequently lost, was a bit too dark and pessimistic for me, and I’m a pretty dark and pessimistic person. Thiel gave a complicated, meandering lecture that involved comparing modern narratives about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs against myths of gods, heroes, and martyrs throughout history, such as Romulus and Remus (the legendary founders of Rome). The talk might have made more sense to Thiel than to his listeners.
At the same time, Thiel’s range of knowledge and curiosity was pretty awesome. He avidly followed all the talks (including mine, on P vs. NP and quantum complexity theory) and asked pertinent questions. When the conversation turned to D-Wave, and Thiel’s own decision not to invest in it, he laid out the conclusions he’d come to from an extremely quick look at the question, then quizzed me as to whether he’d gotten anything wrong. He hadn’t.
From that conversation among others, I formed the impression that Thiel’s success as an investor is, at least in part, down neither to luck nor to connections, but to a module in his brain that most people lack, which makes blazingly fast and accurate judgments about tech startups. No wonder Y Combinator would want to keep him as an adviser.
But, OK, I’m so used to the same person being spectacularly right on some things and spectacularly wrong on others, that it no longer causes even slight cognitive dissonance. You just take the issues one by one.
I was happy, on balance, when it came out that Thiel had financed the lawsuit that brought down Gawker Media. Gawker really had used its power to bully the innocent, and it had broken the law to do it. And if it’s an unaccountable, anti-egalitarian, billionaire Godzilla against a vicious, privacy-violating, nerd-baiting King Kong—well then, I guess I’m with Godzilla.
More recently, I was appalled when Thiel spoke at the Republican convention, pandering to the crowd with Fox-News-style attack lines that were unworthy of a mind of his caliber. I lost a lot of respect for Thiel that day. But that’s the thing: unlike with literally every other speaker at the GOP convention, my respect for Thiel had started from a point that made a decrease possible.
I reject huge parts of Thiel’s worldview. I also reject any worldview that would threaten me with ostracism for talking to Thiel, attending a workshop he sponsors, or saying anything good about him. This is not actually a difficult balance.
Today, when it sometimes seems like much of the world has united in salivating for a cataclysmic showdown between whites and non-whites, Christians and Muslims, “dudebros” and feminists, etc., and that the salivators differ mostly just in who they want to see victorious in the coming battle and who humiliated, it can feel lonely to stick up for naïve, outdated values like the free exchange of ideas, friendly disagreement, the presumption of innocence, and the primacy of the individual over the tribe. But those are the values that took us all the way from a bronze spear through the enemy’s heart to a snarky rebuttal on the arXiv, and they’ll continue to build anything worth building.
And now to watch the third debate (I’ll check the comments afterward)…
Update (Oct. 20): See also this post from a blog called TheMoneyIllusion. My favorite excerpt:
So let’s see. Not only should Trump be shunned for his appalling political views, an otherwise highly respected Silicon Valley entrepreneur who just happens to support Trump (along with 80 million other Americans) should also be shunned. And a person who despises Trump and works against him but who defends Thiel’s right to his own political views should also resign. Does that mean I should be shunned too? After all, I’m a guy who hates Trump, writing a post that defends a guy who hates Trump, who wrote a post defending a guy’s freedom to support Trump, who in turn supports Trump. And suppose my mother sticks up for me? Should she also be shunned?
It’s almost enough to make me vote . . . no, just kidding.
Question … Which people on the left are beyond the pale? Suppose Thiel had supported Hugo Chavez? How about Castro? Mao? Pol Pot? Perhaps the degrees of separation could be calibrated to the awfulness of the left-winger:
Chavez: One degree of separation. (Corbyn, Sean Penn, etc.)
Castro: Two degrees of separation is still toxic.
Lenin: Three degrees of separation.
Mao: Four degrees of separation.
Pol Pot: Five degrees of separation.