By Sam Wolfe
If you’ve been following the news recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Peter Thiel ’89 JD ’92 – quirky tech entrepreneur who founded PayPal and invested early in Facebook – posed an existential threat to happiness itself. New York Magazine’s Brian Feldman penned a piece deriding him as a “national villain,” The Intercept labelled him “dangerous” (albeit “fascinating” as well), and Jim Downs, a history professor at Connecticut College, shamefully denied him his identity when he claimed that, in light of Thiel’s politics, he was “not a gay man.” The media have painted him as a scheming tech-genius mystagogue, intent on weaseling his way into government and whispering foul pestilence into the ear of President-elect Trump, slowly eroding our democratic norms and ushering in an epoch of chaos and darkness and Silicon Valley hegemony …
Surely Thiel must have done something truly nefarious to merit his placement on the media’s proscription list, right? Let’s examine his diabolical activity to see if this characterization bears any relation to reality.
Look, I’m as worried about the prospect of a President Trump as most people are – I have nothing good to say about the man’s character (not to mention his foreign policy) and would have voted for Hillary Clinton had I been eligible. But I am of the view that someone believing something that I do not believe is not grounds for me to immediately hate that person. And, as Thiel has explained, he truly believes that Western civilization is in decline. In a 2011 article for the National Review portentously titled “The End of the Future,” Thiel sketched a portrait of the West as stagnant, innovating far less than it used to, and set to continue growing sluggishly for the foreseeable future if governance doesn’t radically change.
Whether or not you agree with Thiel, it’s clear that he cares, and that his support for Trump is part of a broader world view that deserves respect. But, in any case, simply supporting Trump wouldn’t be enough to earn Thiel quite the reputation that he has. This brings us to Thiel’s second malefaction: bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker.
And if there were ever an instance of the media being as transparently self-serving and callous as many deride it as, this is it. Gawker outed Thiel as gay back in 2007, an appalling misuse of their public platform. Thiel is clearly a man who thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold, so when Gawker published non-consensually filmed and obtained footage of Hulk Hogan having sex in 2012, Thiel saw an opportunity to get back at Gawker. He funded Hogan’s (successful) lawsuit against Gawker and rightfully sent them into bankruptcy.
Only a journalist could see this as wrong. You would have to be so deeply enmeshed in your beliefs about absolute informational transparency to even countenance the idea that publishing explicit footage of somebody without their consent is okay. In any case, Hogan and Thiel won on legal grounds. Not because Thiel was an evil billionaire trying to squash the poor little media company, but because he was in the right. To the extent that this sets a “precedent” and deters similar acts of journalistic malpractice, it is a good one. If people are worried about frivolous lawsuits driving media firms out of existence, reform tort laws. Don’t scapegoat the rich guy.
Which leads us to Thiel’s final dastardly act: his belief in unorthodox things. And I’m not even kidding here: His support for Seasteading, an objectively harmless (though clearly unusual) project to found floating libertarian cities, and his funding of life-extension technology are the basis for another set of attacks on him. That his ideas are weird. That they’re different.
It reminds me of something that he said in a conversation with Niall Ferguson. Thiel was talking about the unusually high number of people with Asperger’s Syndrome who work in Silicon Valley. His comment is damning:
“We need to always turn this around as an indictment of society, and say: What is it about our society, where if you are not suffering from Asperger’s you will … be subtly talked out of all your interesting, original ideas before they’re fully formed? You … pick up on subtle cues from the people around you, ‘Oh that’s a little bit too strange, people are looking at me funny, I better not say that, I better not do that.’”
Contact Sam Wolfe at swolfe2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.