It’s been a wild year for Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel. The Facebook board member and co-founder of PayPal has been in the media spotlight since last May, when he was revealed to have poured $10 million of his own money into the notorious Hulk Hogan “sex tapes” lawsuit against Gawker Media. Right around the same time, Thiel’s name popped up on the list of California delegates in support of Donald Trump’s ultimately successful run for the Republican Party presidential nomination.
Unfortunately for Thiel — and Facebook — both of these circumstances link him with two rather unsavory outcomes. The Hogan lawsuit has been widely excoriated as a heavy-handed (and successful) attempt to quash a news organization, a threat to the first amendment’s freedom of the press, and the Trump campaign has been widely condemned for its affinity with racism, sexism, fascism and xenophobia.
Peter Thiel has some ‘splaining to do
Though Trump handily won the Republican nomination, his support within his own party was weak from the beginning and it is now in a state of almost total collapse. That’s partly due to his proclivity for making overtly racist statements and attracting racist supporters, including prominent leadership in the Ku Klux Klan and the so-called alt right movement.
As a result, Trump has garnered practically zero support from African-American voters. He has also willfully antagonized Mexicans and other immigrants, all Muslims (American citizens or not), Jews and women.
Through all this, Thiel has continued to express his steadfast support for Trump. However, he has done so in a way that protects himself from public discourse.
If recent news is accurate, Peter Thiel cemented his dedication to Donald Trump just last week, with a reported $1.25 million donation to the Trump campaign as it heads down the home stretch.
Following Thiel’s pattern of non-disclosure, no public statement accompanied reports of the donation, which was apparently Thiel’s first monetary contribution to the Trump campaign.
In sum, Thiel has played a significant role in enabling the candidacy of Donald Trump, and yet he has declined any responsibility to explain his position in an open discussion with any news organization, or in any other format.
Thiel’s continued support for Trump has left Facebook in an awkward position.
After all, Facebook’s business model is based on connecting humanity on an equal footing, regardless of race, gender, religion, nationality or station in life. All you need is an Internet hookup and Bob’s your uncle.
Nevertheless,Thiel has not once engaged in a public conversation about his choice of candidate.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg steps up
Facebook has also been reluctant to engage the public in a discussion about board member Thiel’s support for Trump, but apparently some employees have been questioning the relationship.
In response, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a note to employees on an internal message board, to explain why Thiel has not yet been booted off the board.
I want to quickly address the questions and concerns about Peter Thiel as a board member and Trump supporter.
We care deeply about diversity. That’s easy to say when it means standing up for ideas you agree with. It’s a lot harder when it means standing up for the rights of people with different viewpoints to say what they care about. That’s even more important.
Forbes goes on to cite this passage:
“We can’t create a culture that says it cares about diversity and then excludes almost half the country because they back a political candidate,” wrote Zuckerberg. “There are many reasons a person might support Trump that do not involve racism, sexism, xenophobia or accepting sexual assault.”
The problem is that in this context, Zuckerberg strips any consequential meaning from the word “diversity.”
Respecting diversity does not necessarily require respect for speech and actions that by any reasonable measure are racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, or which otherwise express a social outlook that is far out of step with an environment that aspires to tolerance and inclusion.
Those expressions are, in fact, the ones that are intolerant of diversity.
Zuckerberg’s argument boils down to this: confronting racism is a form of racism.
More defense for Thiel
Coincidentally or not, Zuckerberg’s post appeared right around the time The Week published an op-ed defending Thiel under the title, “Silicon Valley’s Shameful Purging of Peter Thiel.”
It was written by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, whose byline describes him as a “writer and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.”
According to the watchdog organization Sourcewatch, since its founding in 1976 EPPC has “functioned as the cutting edge of the neoconservative-driven culture war against progressive theology and secularism, and the associated effort to ensure right-wing control of the Republican Party.”
If you are assuming that the EPPC platform shapes Gobry’s defense, you will not be disappointed.
Here’s his lede:
If there are saints in the church of secular progressivism, the Hollywood Ten are surely among them.
Gobry goes on to argue that Thiel is facing the same kind of witch hunt that occurred during the height of the 1950’s anti-Communist witch hunts, which destroyed the careers of writers and other professionals.
However, Gobry overlooks a critical difference. The Hollywood Ten and other purported communists faced the full wrath and power of the federal government, under the instigation of U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy.
So far, Thiel has faced only the judgement of his peers in business.
In fact, Gobry’s main complaint is not over any harassment of Thiel by the government. Gobry zeroes in on venture capitalist Ellen Pao, who earlier this week announced that her pro-diversity group Project Include would drop its relationship with startup funder YC, where Peter Thiel is described as a “part time, unpaid partner.”
In a powerful essay, Pao describes Thiel’s $1.25 million donation as the last straw in a list of questionable choices.
On his part, YC president Sam Altman has defended the Thiel relationship (while endorsing Hillary Clinton for president) along the same lines that Zuckerberg has taken:
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. The polarization of the country into two parallel political realities is not good for any of us. We should talk to each other more, not less.
Zuckerberg and Altman assume that “talking to people” will fix things, but they seem to assume that the repair will favor tolerance. That would be a pleasant outcome, but it is not necessarily the only outcome.
The Republican Party has been talking to people who are “very different” for a while now, and look where they ended up.
Zuckerberg has a right to defend Thiel. Many others, like Pao, have a right to disassociate themselves from someone presents a clear threat to a tolerant, civil society.
Pao sums it up (emphasis hers):
We agree that people shouldn’t be fired for their political views, but
this isn’t a disagreement on tax policy, this is advocating hatred and violence.
And donating $1.25 million is a lot more than speech.
Money is power.
Giving more power to someone whose ascension and behavior strike fear into so many people is unacceptable. His attacks on Black, Mexican, Asian, Muslim, and Jewish people, on women, and on others are more than just political speech; fueled by hate and encouraging violence, they make each of us feel unsafe.
Image credit: Peter Thiel on March 3, 2015 by JD Lasica via flickr.com, creative commons license.