When the Genius Men of Silicon Valley Suddenly Don’t Seem So Smart

Tech acolytes are defending their relationship with a major Donald Trump surrogate and financial backer — and exposing how poorly they relate to situations outside the Silicon Valley bubble.

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 21:  Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal,  delivers a speech during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18.  (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Peter Thiel delivers a speech on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016, at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Last week, a variety of women accused Donald Trump of a litany of vile acts across many years. He chose to defend himself by saying his accusers were too unattractive to sexually assault, at which point venture capitalist Peter Thiel decided to write a $1.25 million check to Trump’s presidential campaign — among the strongest ways possible to say I condone this person’s actions. This is, to use a non-loaded word, deplorable. But to some of Thiel’s colleagues in Silicon Valley, it’s political “diversity” in action.

Thiel’s fresh embrace of Trump has been particularly awkward for Sam Altman and Paul Graham, both founders of successful tech firms and both now associated with Y Combinator (Graham is YC’s co-founder), the most prestigious startup incubator in the Valley and perhaps the world; Thiel is a “part-time partner” at Y Combinator. Until now, the incubator’s reputation has been sterling. To be selected by YC is to obtain cachet, recognition, and $120,000. Part of the draw is access to wealthy startup luminaries, who impart their expertise and values in the hope that their mentees will themselves become wealthy. One of these mentors is Thiel, who joined Y Combinator last year with great fanfare — “Peter is one of the two people (along with [Paul Graham]) who has taught me the most about how to invest in startups,” gushed Altman, YC’s young leader.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 24:  Paul Graham of Y Combinator and Charlie Rose (R) during  TechCrunch Disrupt New York May 2011 at Pier 94 on May 24, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Joe Corrigan/Getty Images for AOL)

Paul Graham speaks with Charlie Rose during TechCrunch Disrupt New York on May 24, 2011, in New York.

Photo: Joe Corrigan/Getty Images

Together this week, Altman and Graham have presented a unified front against the many people who are both aghast at Thiel’s support of Trump and dismayed that he’s in a position to impart values on young people at YC and reap the reputational benefits that mentorship provides him. For all his eccentricities and fringe beliefs — seasteading, libertarianism, and a reportedly keen interest in receiving the blood of younger men — Thiel remains very much a member of the Silicon Valley mainstream, serving on the board at Facebook, as chairman of government contractor Palantir, and as an executive at three venture capital funds, all of which he was involved in creating. His enduring ability to forge and exploit valuable relationships in the Valley is due in no small part to his softer ties to groups like Y Combinator. (As a disclosure, I must add that Thiel destroyed the company through which I first covered these relationships as a journalist, Gawker Media, by covertly funding lawsuits. Those suits continue to affect people I know personally, who face financial ruin, and two more cases, brought by the lawyer Thiel used against Gawker, continue against me.)

What possible justification is there, critics are asking, for Y Combinator to retain as a partner a person who not only served as a delegate and Republic National Convention speaker for a presidential candidate associated with white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, and fascism, but who is willing to donate over a million bucks to that candidate at his nadir? What kind of message does that send to, say, the women and racial minorities who are already so often ignored in Silicon Valley? Why not replace Thiel with someone who at the very least is a political conservative but refrains from funding the campaign of a man who said he’d be dating his daughter if they weren’t related and encouraged the beating of protestors at his rallies?

It’s easy to understand their criticism — and anger:




Ellen Pao, the former CEO of Reddit who was effectively ousted by the site’s users because she’s an Asian American woman (and wanted to delete communities like the expressly racist “CoonTown” subreddit), published a post on Monday severing ties between her new inclusion-advocacy organization and Y Combinator:

We saw an opportunity to work with YC companies interested in building vibrant and diverse organizations, and we actively invited YC as a contributor to our VC Include program to gain access to its nearly 1,000 companies and CEOs, who are greatly admired and emulated.

But Thiel’s actions are in direct conflict with our values at Project Include. Because of his continued connection to YC, we are compelled to break off our relationship with YC. We hope this situation changes, and that we are both willing to move forward together in the future. Today it is clear to us that our values are not aligned.

In spite of all this, Altman and Graham have insisted that it would be unfair, un-American, and irresponsible to end their relationship with Thiel. Their arguments are a wild ride of attempted reasoning:

1. YC will not fire someone because of their political views:

2. Trump is a figure comparable to Hitler, Altman still believes, presenting an existential threat to the United States:

3. Thiel is worth keeping around because of the “diversity of opinion” he offers:

4. Peter Thiel barely works for YC, so who cares, anyway?

In a blog post published Monday, Altman repeated his belief that Trump represents a catastrophic threat to the national fabric (“Trump shows little respect for the Constitution, the Republic, or for human decency, and I fear for national security if he becomes our president”) and his assertion that Thiel’s role at YC is minimal (“Peter is a part-time partner at YC, meaning he spends a small fraction of his time advising YC companies, does not have a vote in how YC is run, and in his case waives the equity part-time partners normally get”).

It’s not hard to see how all of the above is contradictory. Altman is adamant that he can’t “fire” Thiel because that would be “unprecedented,” but then concedes that “Donald Trump represents an unprecedented threat to America.” And from his description of Thiel’s “part-time partnership,” ending the relationship would be in no way comparable to firing an employee. Altman attempts to hold as true simultaneously the arguments that Trump’s beliefs are horrendous and unacceptable and that Thiel, who necessarily believes that these very same things are good and fine, represents valuable “diversity of opinion.” This is akin to arguing that having Pamela Geller in your office every other Thursday would be a boon — just imagine being able to pop in and get her take on the global Islamist conspiracy! What a unique perspective!

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 23:  (R-L) Moderator Kim-Mai Cutler speaks with Sam Altman of Y Combinator onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2015 at Pier 70 on September 23, 2015 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Moderator Kim-Mai Cutler speaks with Sam Altman of Y Combinator at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2015 on Sept. 23, 2015, in San Francisco, California.

Photo: Steve Jennings/Getty Images

But where Altman’s rhetoric veers furthest off track is when he floats the notion that dissolving the YC-Thiel connection would be the start of “[purging] people for supporting the wrong political candidate.” Altman is absolutely right that Trump is unprecedented as a nominee, but it’s not because he’s a political figure; Trump is an ideological figure with very few actual political views. His popularity is due almost entirely to his cultivation of American hate. To endorse Trump is, then, to endorse this hatred — not a political affiliation at all. Perhaps the most self-damning sentence in Altman’s post comes in a parenthetical toward the end, when he admits that “of course, if Peter said some of the things Trump says himself, he would no longer be part of Y Combinator.”

Reached by phone, Altman immediately came across as thoughtful and troubled by the situation, but defended his inaction: The “members of our community … that have said anything to me have said, ‘I really hate Trump and I think it would be really crazy if YC fired Peter over this.’” He said that even though he considers Trump “a monster,” he doesn’t think Thiel should be punished for his support: “I am not willing to believe the 43 percent of the electorate that supports Trump supports the awful things about him,” and, quoting Nietzsche, he added, “I don’t want to become a monster” by ending Thiel’s admittedly minor relationship with YC. Still, Altman says he understands why so many people are upset by his decision so far to keep an in-house Trump surrogate: “I would definitely feel uncomfortable talking to this guy because of his support of Trump if I were a Latina woman, I think that’s totally reasonable.” But despite realizing the ugliness of the dilemma, Altman still seems to consider it one that can’t be resolved and maintains that Thiel is entitled to the protections of any ordinary, full-time employee: “I don’t think you lose your right to fairness if you’re a billionaire.”

(One cynical explanation for all this reluctance comes courtesy of Altman’s recent New Yorker profile, wherein he describes his disaster-preparation hobby and his fear of a global viral outbreak: “If the pandemic does come, Altman’s backup plan is to fly with his friend Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist, to Thiel’s house in New Zealand.”)

Paul Graham too has chimed in with his personal brand of TED Talk aphorism and false equivalency:

This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Graham’s recent history, filled with confusion about how culture and society operate when they’re not inside a conference room signing a venture capital fundraising agreement. When the New York Times infamously quoted Graham saying he could be tricked into funding any startup founded by someone who “looks like Mark Zuckerberg,” he defended his very unintentionally revealing remark by saying that it had merely been a joke about, uh, pattern recognition? His point is still unclear: “Could anyone be so naive as to think that resembling Zuck would be enough to make a founder succeed?” Graham asked in a self-posted apologia. “And is it plausible that we, of all people, who’d interviewed thousands of founders, would think such a thing?” Yes!

Graham had to blog about the taste of his own foot again in 2014, when in an interview with The Information he said hiring women at technology firms was difficult because they don’t think like men (“We can’t make these women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years”). His explanation this time was that we, the public, were only upset with this answer because we weren’t dealing with the same subset of data that Graham was referencing:

The mystery was cleared up when I got a copy of the raw transcript. Big chunks of the original conversation have been edited out, including a word from within that sentence that completely changes its meaning. What I actually said was:

“We can’t make these women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years.” I.e. I’m not making a statement about women in general. I’m talking about a specific subset of them. So which women am I saying haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years? This will seem anticlimactic, but the ones who aren’t programmers.

(Emphasis added.)

Graham did not return a request for comment.

Mark Zuckerberg too subscribes, somehow, to the notion that Trump support is just another form of valuable diversity, according to a photo of a post in an employee-only Facebook forum that appears to have been taken from someone’s computer screen:

The screenshot was confirmed by Facebook as authentic to David McCabe of The Hill. As Cory Doctorow pointed out on Boing Boing, “presumably, they feel the same way about the millions who believe in the ideology of Osama bin Laden,” though inviting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and David Duke to join the board of Facebook would be more contemporary picks to increase the political diversity of Facebook’s board.

Dismaying and impossible though they may be, these responses shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the Silicon Valley ethos that any problem can be solved with a sufficient amount of technology. Rather than saying Damn, that was a shitty thing to say, but you know what, I’ve identified that I’m part of the problem and now I’m going to take specific steps to fix the problem (32 words), Graham wrote two longwinded posts attempting to debug The Information’s reporting and explaining why his personal status quo is fine (3,476 words). Sound familiar?

Paul Graham and Sam Altman are not dumb. They are both well-educated, hyper-competent, and most of all, two of the most important living figures in Silicon Valley. But like so many of their colleagues, they seem to trip over themselves whenever they step beyond the world of apps and org charts and address messier, more obviously human problems in realms like politics. Maybe we should be easier on people whose entire lives involve thinking and talking about software — maybe we should expect less. And in fact, I’m fine with expecting much, much less than I already do. But arguing from six sides of your mouth about why Peter Thiel is at once vulnerable, valuable, despicable, crucial, unimportant, mistaken, and righteous seems like a perfectly fine place to draw a line.

Top photo: Peter Thiel delivers a speech on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016, at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

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