Political Violence and Distraction Theories

This is the 4th post of 5 con­tain­ing the tran­script of a pod­cast hosted by Eric We­in­stein in­ter­view­ing Peter Thiel.

Interview

Automation

Eric We­in­stein: So, this is why I try to sell you some­times on a more pro­gres­sive view of the world, which is I want dereg­u­lated cap­i­tal­ism. I want the peo­ple who have the rare skil­lsets to be able to in­te­grate across many differ­ent ar­eas, and to be hon­est, this is the thing that I wish more peo­ple un­der­stood about what you bring, which is that you’re able to think in, I don’t know, 15 differ­ent idioms that most peo­ple only have one or two of. So, what­ever it is that you’re do­ing to in­te­grate these things as an in­vestor and to di­rect re­search and di­rect work is re­ally some­thing that I’ve watched first­hand for six years. The prob­lem that I have is, we are go­ing to have to take care of the me­dian in­di­vi­d­ual. And I less think that the me­dian in­di­vi­d­ual is go­ing to be reach­able by the mar­ket over time, as some of these things that are work­ing in Sili­con in terms of ma­chine learn­ing-

Peter Thiel: Yeah, but then you’re be­ing more op­ti­mistic on progress in tech than is… Be­cause look, I think, yes, if we have run­away au­toma­tion, and if we’re build­ing robots that are smarter than hu­mans and can do ev­ery­thing hu­mans can do, then we prob­a­bly have to have a se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tion about a uni­ver­sal ba­sic in­come or some­thing like that, and you’re go­ing to end up with a very, very weird so­ciety. I don’t see the au­toma­tion hap­pen­ing at all, and I think the ques­tion of au­toma­tion in my mind is iden­ti­cal to this ques­tion of pro­duc­tivity growth. We’ve been au­tomat­ing for 200, 250 years, since In­dus­trial Revolu­tion, agri­cul­ture and man­u­fac­tur­ing, and the sort of so­ciety we have in the early 21st cen­tury is one in which most jobs are non-trad­able ser­vice sec­tor jobs that are not eas­ily au­tomat­able.

Peter Thiel: So, it’s like a waiter in a restau­rant. It’s a yoga in­struc­tor. It’s a nurse. It’s a kinder­garten teacher. That’s what most jobs in our so­ciety are, and be­cause they’ve been so re­sis­tant to au­toma­tion, that this may be one of the rea­sons why the pro­duc­tivity num­bers are slow­ing down, even if we’re still in­no­vat­ing as fast in man­u­fac­tur­ing, and even if we’re still agri­cul­ture, they’re a smaller and smaller part of the econ­omy. So, even 5% a year pro­duc­tivity growth in man­u­fac­tur­ing, that means a lot more if man­u­fac­tur­ing is 60% of the econ­omy, than it does when it’s, say, 20% of the econ­omy. So, that’s roughly what I think would hap­pen, and if you just look at the cur­rent dy­namic in the US as we have un­em­ploy­ment, like 3.6%, 3.7%. It’s su­per low, and still, there doesn’t seem to be that much wage pres­sure. There doesn’t seem to be that much growth. The pro­duc­tivity num­bers still aren’t great. You’d think there’d be enor­mous in­cen­tives to in­crease pro­duc­tivity.

Eric We­in­stein: It’s quite con­fus­ing to me. Yeah.

Peter Thiel: But I think, again, my read on it is just the au­toma­tion story has been over­sold.

Eric We­in­stein: I agree that the au­toma­tion story has been over­sold.

Peter Thiel: It’s pos­si­ble it’s go­ing to hap­pen. It’s pos­si­ble it’s just around the cor­ner, and it’s about to hap­pen. That’s what we’ve been told in a lot of these ar­eas over the last 40, 50 years.

Eric We­in­stein: So, I have a cou­ple ques­tions about this. One is sort of, if I think about how com­mon re­tail oc­cu­pa­tions are, is there some­thing about re­tail that is re­sis­tant to Ama­zonifi­ca­tion, if you will, where peo­ple ac­tu­ally want to go shop in a phys­i­cal place and are will­ing to pay a pre­mium that we have just to have hu­man con­tact? Maybe there’s some in­for­ma­tion ex­change. Maybe there’s a recre­ational as­pect that’s bun­dled. That’s one of my two ques­tions, and the other one sur­rounds the idea that we’ve always fo­cused on when is AGI com­ing, and the robots that will do ev­ery­thing? Part of the les­son for me about ma­chine learn­ing is how many things hu­mans were do­ing that don’t re­quire any­thing like ar­tifi­cial gen­eral in­tel­li­gence. Just some spe­cial­ized neu­ral net seems to be good enough to do the job. So, those would be two ques­tions in my mind as to how-

Peter Thiel: Yes, but I think all these things you have to con­cretize, and yes, I think re­tail is a sec­tor that’s un­der quite a bit of pres­sure, and is go­ing to stay un­der quite a bit of pres­sure. That’s the top one I would come up with is-

Eric We­in­stein: Well, it’s looks vuln­er­a­ble to me.

Peter Thiel: Ama­zon is the most threat­en­ing of the big tech com­pa­nies in that it’s threat­en­ing a lot of other com­pa­nies el­se­where in the in­dus­try and dis­rupt­ing them and mak­ing things more effi­cient, but prob­a­bly with a lot of sheer forces at work in that pro­cess. So, I agree that that’s a can­di­date for au­toma­tion or pro­duc­tivity im­prove­ments or things like that. I’m still not con­vinced that it’s in the ag­gre­gate shift­ing things that much, and then you can go through all sorts of in­di­vi­d­ual job de­scrip­tions where peo­ple used to have sec­re­taries be­cause typ­ing was a skill, and with a word pro­ces­sor you don’t quite need this. You can do short emails. You don’t quite need a sec­re­tary. Peo­ple still have ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tants that sort of some­how do slightly differ­ent set of re­spon­si­bil­ities, but it’s not clear we have fewer ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tants than we used to have sec­re­taries.

Peter Thiel: So, when one ac­tu­ally con­cretizes it, it’s not quite clear how dis­rup­tive the au­toma­tion that’s hap­pen­ing re­ally is. Again, it’s a ver­sion of the tech stag­na­tion thing. It’s always the last 40, 50 years, things have been slow. We’re always told it’s about to ac­cel­er­ate like crazy. That may be true. In some ways, I hope that’s true, but if one was sim­ply ex­trap­o­lat­ing from the last 40 to 50 years, per­haps the de­fault is that we should be more wor­ried about the lack of au­toma­tion than ex­cess au­toma­tion.

Eric We­in­stein: Oh, that’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing.

Peter Thiel: Yeah. Again, I think if we had this sort of run­away au­toma­tion, you could get to 3%, 4% GDP growth, and at 3% to 4% GDP growth, we can solve these prob­lems so­cially.

Eric We­in­stein: You would be will­ing to have… This thing that I’ve been talk­ing to An­drew Yang about has been the idea of hy­per-cap­i­tal­ism, which is a dereg­u­lated hy­per-cap­i­tal­ism where you can do more ex­per­i­ment­ing, more play­ing, cou­pled to some kind of hy­per-so­cial­ism where you rec­og­nize that the me­dian in­di­vi­d­ual might not be able in the fu­ture to eas­ily defend a po­si­tion needed for fam­ily for­ma­tion.

Peter Thiel: Well, let me rephrase this a lit­tle bit. You’re not go­ing to get a con­ver­sion ex­pe­rience on your first pod­cast here, Eric.

Eric We­in­stein: You’re go­ing to make me wait for the next?

Peter Thiel: Maybe, or maybe even a lit­tle longer than that too. But I would say if we can get the GDP growth back to 3% a year on a sus­tain­able ba­sis-

Eric We­in­stein: Without fudg­ing.

Peter Thiel: … with­out fudg­ing, with­out ly­ing about pro­duc­tivity num­bers, et cetera, then there will be a lot more room for var­i­ous so­cial pro­grams. I wouldn’t want them to be mis­di­rected in all sorts of ways, but there would be a lot of things that we could do. And I would be very un­com­fortable start­ing with the so­cial pro­grams with­out the growth. That’s the sort of con­ver­sa­tion that I of­ten see hap­pen­ing in Sili­con Valley, where we start with UBI, be­cause we’re ly­ing about au­toma­tion. If au­toma­tion’s hap­pen­ing, then we’ll see in the pro­duc­tivity num­bers, and then even­tu­ally, maybe we need some­thing like UBI. If au­toma­tion is not hap­pen­ing and you do UBI, then you just blow up the econ­omy.

Eric We­in­stein: Right. I should say, and you’ve come some­what to­wards-

Peter Thiel: Do­ing them in par­allel, I’m okay with that. I’m not not okay with start­ing with the so­cial­ism. Even a Marx­ist wouldn’t be­lieve this. Even a Marx­ist thinks you have to first get the cap­i­tal­ists to do things be­fore you can re­dis­tribute stuff.

Eric We­in­stein: Right. I know.

Peter Thiel: You can’t start with the re­dis­tri­bu­tion be­fore we’ve done the au­toma­tion.

Redistribution

Eric We­in­stein: I’m not even a Marx­ist, Peter, but the thing that I was go­ing to say is that as you talk about the fact that we can solve some of these prob­lems so­cially, I want to talk about from the pro­gres­sive side, I’m not in­ter­ested in us­ing so­cial pro­grams where mar­kets con­tinue to func­tion. I mean, the idea of mak­ing peo­ple per­son­ally ac­countable for their own hap­piness and their own suc­cess and path through the world is in­cred­ibly liber­at­ing, and I view mar­kets as pro­vid­ing most of the progress that we now en­joy. So, there is some­thing that’s very weird and puni­tive about the de­sire for re­dis­tri­bu­tion. I mean, there’s al­most a de­sire to tag the wealthy that has noth­ing to do with tak­ing care of the un­for­tu­nate, and what I re­ally am talk­ing about here is how do we get a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween left and right, which isn’t cryp­tic, which isn’t-

Peter Thiel: Yeah. Of course, I have a much more cyn­i­cal view of this where I think the re­dis­tri­bu­tion rhetoric, it’s mainly not even tar­geted at the wealthy.

Eric We­in­stein: Oh, it’s tar­geted at the sub-wealthy.

Peter Thiel: It’s tar­geted at the lower-mid­dle class, at the de­plorables, or what­ever you want to call them, and it’s a way to tell them that they will never get ahead, noth­ing will hap­pen in their life and, and that’s ac­tu­ally why a lot of peo­ple who are lower-mid­dle class or mid­dle class are viscer­ally quite strongly op­posed to welfare, be­cause it’s always an in­sult to them. It’s always heard as an in­sult. I’m not sure they’re wrong to feel that.

Eric We­in­stein: Well, and I feel that a lot of the talk about re­dis­tri­bu­tion is ac­tu­ally fam­i­lies of high eight through eleven figures try­ing to figure out how to tar­get fam­i­lies of six-figure through low eight-figure wealth as the tar­gets of the re­dis­tri­bu­tion, that the very wealthy will be able to shelter as­sets and pro­tect them­selves or maybe even switch na­tions, whereas peo­ple who are den­tists and or­thodon­tists and ac­coun­tants are go­ing to be the ones viewed as the rich, who are go­ing to be in­ca­pable of get­ting them­selves out of the way.

Eric We­in­stein: So, I think that par­tially, what good faith con­ver­sa­tion be­tween left and right opens up is that we have a shared in­ter­est in un­cov­er­ing all of the schemes of the peo­ple who en­joy push­ing around pieces of pa­per and giv­ing speeches in or­der to en­g­ineer so­ciety for their own rea­sons.

Peter Thiel: Yeah. So, one way I would restate what you just said would be that re­dis­tri­bu­tion from the pow­er­ful to the pow­er­less, from the rich to the poor, is like from the pow­er­ful to the pow­er­less, and so us­ing power to go af­ter those with power, and that’s al­most oxy­moronic.

Eric We­in­stein: It’s al­most oxy­moronic.

Peter Thiel: It’s al­most self-con­tra­dic­tory. So, there may be some way to do that. I think most of the time you end up with with some fake re­dis­tri­bu­tion, some sort of com­pli­cated shell game of one sort or an­other. I know the cau­sa­tion of the stuff is much, much trick­ier, but if we look at so­cieties that are some­how fur­ther to the left on some scale, the in­equal­ity, you have to go re­ally far to the left, and maybe just de­stroy the whole so­ciety, be­fore you re­ally start solv­ing the in­equal­ity prob­lem.

Peter Thiel: Cal­ifor­nia, when I first moved here as a kid in 1977, would have been sort of a cen­trist state in the US poli­ti­cally, and was broadly mid­dle class. To­day, Cal­ifor­nia’s the sec­ond most demo­cratic state. It’s a D plus 30 state. It’s a su­per un­equal, and at least on a cor­re­lated ba­sis, not cau­sa­tion, but at least on a cor­re­lated ba­sis, the fur­ther to the left it’s gone, the more un­equal it’s be­come, and there is some­thing pretty weird about that.

Eric We­in­stein: There is.

Poli­ti­cal Violence

Eric We­in­stein: Some­thing that sort of fits in here is that, in part I’ve learned from you, and you can tell me whether you rec­og­nize this for­mu­la­tion or not, is start with any ap­peal­ing so­cial idea. That’s step one. Step two, ask what is the ab­solute min­i­mal level of vi­o­lence and co­er­cion that would be nec­es­sary to ac­com­plish that idea. Now add that to the origi­nal idea. Do you still find your origi­nal idea at­trac­tive? This flips many of these propo­si­tions into ter­ri­tory where I sud­denly re­al­ized that some­thing that peo­ple see as be­ing very at­trac­tive ac­tu­ally can only be ac­com­plished with so much mis­ery, even if it’s done max­i­mally effi­ciently, that it’s no longer a good idea. This has been very in­fluen­tial in my think­ing, and what I’ve-

Peter Thiel: Yeah, look. The visceral prob­lem with com­mu­nism is not its re­dis­tributed ten­den­cies. It’s the ex­treme vi­o­lence. It’s that you have to kill tons of peo­ple. One of the pro­fes­sors I stud­ied un­der at Stan­ford, René Girard, was a sort of of great philo­soph­i­cal, so­ciolog­i­cal, an­thro­polog­i­cal thinker, and he had this ob­ser­va­tion that he thought com­mu­nism among Western in­tel­lec­tu­als be­came un­fash­ion­able. You could date it to the year 1953, the year Stalin died, and the rea­son was they were not com­mu­nist in spite of the mil­lions of peo­ple be­ing kil­led. They were com­mu­nist be­cause of the mil­lions of peo­ple who were be­ing kil­led. As long as you were will­ing to kill mil­lions of peo­ple, that was a tell, a sign that you were build­ing the utopia, you were build­ing a great new so­ciety, and when you stopped, it was just go­ing to be like the lethargy of the Brezh­nev era or some­thing like that, and that that was not in­spiring. I mean, peo­ple shifted from Stalin to Mao or Cas­tro, but the vi­o­lence was charis­matic, very charis­matic, but then also, if you think about it, it’s very un­de­sir­able.

Eric We­in­stein: It’s so fas­ci­nat­ing that we ac­tu­ally fi­nally get to some­thing like this. I think that that is a cor­rect de­scrip­tion of part of the com­mu­nist move­ment, but not all of the com­mu­nist move­ment. There were a lot of peo­ple, I think, and just my own fam­ily was cer­tainly in­volved in far-left poli­tics, and some of it prob­a­bly dipped into com­mu­nism. What my sense of it was is that there was a pe­riod in the ’30s where peo­ple re­al­ized that there had to be co­or­di­nated so­cial ac­tion, and that there were peo­ple who were too vuln­er­a­ble, and that that some­how got wrapped up in all of the things that Stalin was talk­ing about that sounded pos­i­tive if you didn’t know the re­al­ity.

Eric We­in­stein: So, for ex­am­ple, Paul Robe­son, a hero of the left, was ex­tol­ling Stalin’s virtues openly. My guess is that he didn’t fully un­der­stand what had hap­pened, that he had got­ten in­volved in an ear­lier era, and that as things be­came known and pro­gressed, there was a point at which many peo­ple sud­denly opened their eyes and said, “I’ve been mak­ing ex­cuses for the Soviet Union,” be­cause at least it had the hope… I mean, there were Amer­i­can blacks, for ex­am­ple, who moved to Moscow be­cause of the hope that it was go­ing to be a racially more equal so­ciety. My own fam­ily, I would say, was talk­ing about in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage and open sup­port of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, fe­male ac­cess to birth con­trol. Those things were as­so­ci­ated with the com­mu­nist party, and a lot of those ideas are now com­mon­place, but we for­get that once upon a time only the com­mu­nists were will­ing to dance with these things.

Peter Thiel: Yes. I don’t want to make this too ad hominem, but I want to say that peo­ple like your fam­ily, were likely very in­tel­li­gent peo­ple, were some­how still always the use­ful idiots, and there was no coun­try where the com­mu­nists ac­tu­ally came to power where peo­ple like those your fam­ily ac­tu­ally got to make the de­ci­sions.

Peter Thiel: Some­how, maybe there were in­di­rect ways that it was helpful or benefi­cial in coun­tries that did not be­come com­mu­nist, but in coun­tries that ac­tu­ally be­came com­mu­nist, it didn’t ac­tu­ally ever seem to work out for those peo­ple.

Eric We­in­stein: I definitely think that there was some sense that they were fooled and duped in this situ­a­tion, but by the same to­ken, not want­ing to make this too ad hominem, as a gay man, I think that a lot of your rights would have been seen much ear­lier by the com­mu­nists who were ear­lier to that party. I think that to an ex­tent, some of the things that we just take for granted as part of liv­ing in a tol­er­ant so­ciety were re­ally not found out­side, and so if you were try­ing to dine in a la carte, maybe you could take some­thing from the com­mie buf­fet, you could take some­thing from the an­ti­com­mu­nist buf­fet, and you could steal a lit­tle from reg­u­lar party poli­tics. Of course, the Dix­ie­crats were not ex­actly the most racially pro­gres­sive group in the world. Things were very differ­ent, and there was no clear place to turn.

Peter Thiel: Yeah, it’s always easy for us to judge peo­ple in the past too harshly, so I think that’s a good gen­er­al­iza­tion. I would say that there’s some­thing about the ex­treme rev­olu­tion­ary move­ments that always seem to be… From my point of view, the vi­o­lence was always too much, and it’s a pack­age. It’s a pack­age deal, but I don’t like the vi­o­lence part of the pack­age, and that’s the part that, at the end of the day, makes me think the pack­age would not have been worth it.

Eric We­in­stein: So, what I would like to do is to take a quick break, and I would like to come back on ex­actly this point, be­cause it’s the point where I feel that per­haps you are least un­der­stood by the out­side world in terms of what we’ve been talk­ing about, both growth and progress on the one hand, and vi­o­lence on the other. So, when we come back, we’ll pick it up with Peter Thiel. Thank you.

Peter Thiel: Thanks.

[break]

Growth vs Violence

Eric We­in­stein: Wel­come back to The Por­tal. I’m here with my friend and em­ployer, Peter Thiel, for this, our inau­gu­ral in­ter­view epi­sode, and we’ve just got­ten to a point which I hope peo­ple who’ve been track­ing your ca­reer, your books, your thought pro­cess are go­ing to find in­ter­est­ing, be­cause I think it’s the thing that if I had to guess, would be the thing that peo­ple least un­der­stand about you, or maybe they have wrong the most. Ever since I’ve known you, your fo­cus has weirdly been re­duc­tion of vi­o­lence across a great num­ber of differ­ent top­ics at a level that I don’t think has leaked out into the pub­lic’s un­der­stand­ing of you and what causes you to make the choices you make. How do you see growth as at­tached to re­duc­tion of vi­o­lence?

Peter Thiel: Well, I think that it’s very hard to see how any­thing like the kinds of so­cieties we have in Western Europe, the United States, could func­tion with­out growth. I think the way sort of a par­li­a­men­tary re­pub­li­can democ­racy works is you have a group of peo­ple sit­ting around the table, they craft com­pli­cated leg­is­la­tion, and there’s a lot of horse trad­ing, and as long as the pie’s grow­ing, you can give some­thing to ev­ery­body. When the pie stops grow­ing, it be­comes a zero sum dy­namic, and the leg­is­la­tive pro­cess does not work. So, the sort of demo­cratic types of par­li­a­men­tary sys­tems we’ve had for the last 200, 250 years have mapped on to this pe­riod of rapid growth. We had sort of a very bad ex­per­i­ment in the 1930s where the growth stopped, at least from the eco­nomic sense, and the sys­tems be­came fas­cist or com­mu­nist. It doesn’t ac­tu­ally work.

Peter Thiel: So, I sus­pect that if we’re in for a pe­riod of long growth [Ben: I think Peter here means “a pe­riod where growth is a long way away”], I don’t think our kind of gov­ern­ment can work. I think there is a prospect of all sorts of forms of vi­o­lence, more vi­o­lence by the state against its cit­i­zens. There may be more zero sum wars globally, or there may be other ways things are su­per de­formed to pacify peo­ple. So, maybe ev­ery­one just smokes mar­ijuana all day, but that’s also kind of de­formed. But I think a world with­out growth is ei­ther go­ing to be a much more vi­o­lent or a much more de­formed world. And again, it’s not the case that growth sim­ply solves all prob­lems. So, you can have very rapid growth, and you can still have the prob­lem of vi­o­lence. You can still have bad things that can hap­pen, but that’s our only chance. Without growth, I think it’s very hard to see how you have a good fu­ture.

Eric We­in­stein: You have to know that there is a ver­sion of you that ex­ists in the minds of pun­dits and the com­men­tariat that just loves to paint you as if you were a car­toon villain, and I always think that for those peo­ple who are ac­tu­ally con­fused about you, as op­posed to those who wish to be con­fused about you, it says, if you’re look­ing through a win­dow and they’re look­ing at the re­flec­tion in the win­dow, not un­der­stand­ing what it is that you’re fo­cused on, why do you think it is that al­most no­body sees your pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with vi­o­lence re­duc­tion?

Peter Thiel: It’s hard for me to come up with a good an­swer to these sort of so­ciolog­i­cal ques­tions. I think peo­ple gen­er­ally don’t think of the prob­lem of vi­o­lence as quite as cen­tral as I think it is. I think it’s a very deep prob­lem on a hu­man level. If you think of sort of this mimetic el­e­ment to hu­man na­ture where we copy one an­other, we want the things other peo­ple want, and there’s a lot of room for con­flict, and that if it’s not chan­neled very care­fully, a vi­o­lent con­flict in hu­man re­la­tion­ships, in hu­man so­cieties, be­tween hu­man so­cieties, and this is sort of, I think, a very deep prob­lem. It’s sort of Chris­tian an­thro­pol­ogy, but you also have the same in Machi­avelli or… There are sort of a lot of differ­ent tra­di­tions where hu­man be­ings are, if not evil, they’re at least dan­ger­ous. I think the sort of soft or an­thro­polog­i­cal bi­ases that a lot of peo­ple have in sort of late moder­nity or in the en­light­en­ment world are that hu­mans are by na­ture good, they’re by na­ture peace­ful, but that’s not the norm. So, that might be sort of a gen­eral bias peo­ple have, is that peo­ple can’t be this vi­o­lent. It’s not this deep a prob­lem. It’s a prob­lem other peo­ple have. There’s some bad peo­ple who are vi­o­lent, but it’s not a gen­eral prob­lem.

Jewish Cul­ture in Germany

Eric We­in­stein: I didn’t know you when I was young, and this feels like a lifelong friend­ship that got started way late in my life. One of the things that that kind of was sur­pris­ing to me is that my com­ing from a Jewish back­ground, your com­ing from a Ger­man back­ground, I think both of us were sen­si­tized by the hor­rors of World War II, which ob­vi­ously, the prob­lem for the Jews is very clear, but the fact that Ger­many never re­ally re­cov­ered its proud in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tions that had got­ten bound up in a level of mech­a­nized and planned vi­o­lence is a dec­i­ma­tion of a great in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tion.

Eric We­in­stein: One of the things we’ve talked about in the past is whether the twilight of liv­ing mem­ory of the Holo­caust should be used for some more profound Ger­man/​Jewish rec­on­cili­a­tion, that these are two com­mu­ni­ties that have held some­what similar thought pro­cesses from the per­spec­tive of mimetic com­pe­ti­tion. Maybe there was a prob­lem, that they were doomed to run into each other, but that in some sense, there are two wounds that need to be healed now that all of the origi­nal par­ti­ci­pants are ei­ther quite el­derly or gone. Do you think that that is in­form­ing our con­ver­sa­tion?

Peter Thiel: Well, I think there’s cer­tainly an el­e­ment of that be­tween the two of us. I think that there’s prob­a­bly a de­gree to which the his­tory was so trau­matic that that peo­ple still un­der­state this as­pect. There was some­thing about late 19th cen­tury, early 20th cen­tury Ger­many where the Ju­daism was bet­ter in­te­grated into the so­ciety than in many other places, and there was some­thing very syn­er­gis­tic, very gen­er­a­tive about that, and then get­ting at all these ways that it was lost are very, very hard to do.

Peter Thiel: It’s the sort of so­cial demo­cratic re­sponse to the Hitler era and the Holo­caust was sort of rad­i­cally egal­i­tar­ian. It’s ev­ery­body’s equal, you shouldn’t kill peo­ple, ev­ery­body’s equally valuable, and yet, in some ways, Hitler kil­led the best peo­ple. So, there’s a way in which the so­cial demo­cratic re­sponse to what hap­pened doesn’t even come up to the ter­rible thing that hap­pened. So, in an egal­i­tar­ian so­ciety, well, we don’t have quite as many peo­ple. We’re all equal. Noth­ing’s re­ally changed, but, well, maybe you have no Jewish peo­ple left in Ger­many, and there’s a lot less dy­namism in the so­ciety as a re­sult, and that’s some­thing that peo­ple still can’t say in Ger­many be­cause that’s-

Eric We­in­stein: Is that right? You feel like it’s...

Peter Thiel: You know, if I say it, peo­ple won’t con­tra­dict it or any­thing, but it’s sort of profoundly un­com­fortable. So, I think there is a sense that there’s sort of all these strange ways that Ger­many is still un­der the shadow of Hitler. Even the ways that peo­ple are try­ing to ex­er­cise Hitler, in some ways, have de­formed the so­ciety where you can’t go back to the things that worked in­cred­ibly well in pre-World War I Ger­many. There was prob­a­bly a lot that was un­healthy and wrong with it, too, but yeah, there’s a sense that some­thing very big has been lost, and there prob­a­bly are a Jewish ver­sion of this that one could ar­tic­u­late as well, but yeah, I think there’s some­thing about the syn­ergy that’s very pow­er­ful and that’s quite miss­ing.

Eric We­in­stein: So, from my side of the fence, I was just listen­ing on NPR to a de­scrip­tion of Fid­dler on the Roof be­ing put on by Joel Grey in Yid­dish, and the sound of Jewish Mid­dle High Ger­man, there’s some­thing about it that is shock­ing in to­day’s era. So, there’s been a Jewish loss. I felt this a cou­ple of times. I avoided, to be hon­est, go­ing to Ger­many be­cause I didn’t want to run into old peo­ple and won­der where they had been, but even­tu­ally, at Soros’ in­vi­ta­tion, found my­self at a con­fer­ence in Ber­lin, and when I checked in to the ho­tel, I heard my last name pro­nounced in im­pec­ca­ble Ger­man, and it was both a hor­rible feel­ing and a won­der­ful feel­ing, like some­how, weirdly, some­thing was home. I went to a restau­rant near Check­point Char­lie with my wife, and I was miss­ing a fork, and the per­son spoke no English, and I re­mem­bered from some old story of my father, and I asked for a gopl, which I guess is the Yid­dish for fork, and it was close enough, and some­body brought me a fork. By ut­ter­ing a word that I-

Peter Thiel: Ga­bel.

Eric We­in­stein: Ga­bel? Okay.

Peter Thiel: Yes.

Eric We­in­stein: By go­ing through that ex­er­cise, I found that when this fork was brought to me, I re­al­ized that there was some part of my ex­pe­rience, in fact, that was miss­ing, that this un­com­fortable re­la­tion­ship, which my grand­father, when we went through Is­rael, driv­ing north to south, was singing Lei­der. I mean, Ger­man was the lan­guage of the cul­ture. It was the lan­guage of the in­tel­lec­tual, and that never left him. So, I think that weirdly, this is the first time, be­cause I think it’ll be too late if we wait for 20 more years, be­cause there will be no one to re­mem­ber, but that there is some op­por­tu­nity to rec­og­nize a dual wound.

Peter Thiel: Yeah. No. Yeah. I think the challenge on the Ger­many side is that it’s sort of… I had some­what of a idiosyn­cratic back­ground here where I was born in Ger­many, but we em­i­grated when I was about a year old, and we spoke Ger­man at home and lived in Africa, in Namibia were I went to a Ger­man-speak­ing school, but it was very differ­ent, I think, from the gen­eral post-World War II Ger­man ex­pe­rience, and so there are all these things that I can see from the out­side look­ing into Ger­many that I think are… I still have a con­nec­tion to it in sort of all of these ways, vis­ited it as a child many times, and it’s some­thing that I con­nect with, and then it’s ob­vi­ously su­per differ­ent, and the con­trast of Ger­many and Cal­ifor­nia I always like to give is that Cal­ifor­nia is op­ti­mistic, but des­per­ate, and Ger­many is pes­simistic, but com­fortable. But from a Cal­ifor­nian per­spec­tive, the in­cred­ibly deep pes­simism is re­ally, re­ally strik­ing, and even on that one di­men­sion, I think Jewish cul­ture is su­per differ­ent.

Eric We­in­stein: And I feel like Jewish cul­ture is, in part, start­ing to at­ten­u­ate that we don’t feel… I mean, this is crazy talk, but we never thought that there was any­thing pos­i­tive about an­ti­semitism, and ob­vi­ously it’s not a pos­i­tive thing, but there were pos­i­tive ex­ter­nal­ities in that it al­lowed us to push our­selves very, very hard be­cause we always knew that we weren’t go­ing to get a fair shake and that at any mo­ment you might need to flee to some­place that was less dan­ger­ous, and I feel that as we’ve be­come com­fortable, we’ve lost some of the dy­namism, which is a hard thing to ad­mit, but I do think that that is in part true, and I see this in Ger­many. Ger­many’s in­tel­lec­tual con­tri­bu­tion was so profound that noth­ing post-World War II seems to sug­gest the same na­tion. I think that that loss is a profound loss, not to Ger­many, but to the en­tire world.

Peter Thiel: Yes, and of course, one of the challenges is we can sort of de­scribe these things, we can spec­u­late on some of the causal things. I think it’s some­how, we don’t want to go back. We can’t go back-

Eric We­in­stein: Can’t, and don’t want to. I agree.

Peter Thiel: So, yeah, there is a his­tory, and I think some­thing’s been lost in both Ger­many and in Jewish cul­ture, and how one re­con­sti­tutes this is… Even if we can con­vince peo­ple of the causes and the losses, what you ac­tu­ally do about it is, is su­per hard to say and that’s, that’s sort of always the strange dy­namic of this.

Eric We­in­stein: Some­thing I’d be open to us work­ing on at some fu­ture point if we can find the time, but let me switch gears slightly and come back a lit­tle bit to the vi­o­lence point.

Prefer­ence Falsification

Eric We­in­stein: But one of the things that I think has be­come kind of in­ter­est­ing in our re­la­tion­ship is that a cer­tain class of the­o­ries that are not pop­u­lar in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion are traded back and forth be­tween us, par­tially around the idea of how do we restart growth, how do we avoid vi­o­lence?

Eric We­in­stein: And I wanted to sort of alert peo­ple who are in­ter­ested in the por­tal con­cept to this idea of or­phaned or un­pop­u­lar the­o­ries that are traded among a few but maybe not are among the many. So if we could go through a few of these, one of them has to do with how you and I both, we’re much more, I think we be­lieve that Trump was much more likely to get elected, than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion did.

Eric We­in­stein: And this has to do with the the­ory of prefer­ence falsifi­ca­tion, that peo­ple will broadly lie about what their true prefer­ences are, so they’ll keep one set of pub­lic prefer­ences, but a hid­den set of pri­vate prefer­ences. And then in our cul­ture it gets re­vealed ev­ery four years where you kind of have a Schrod­inger’s cat ex­per­i­ment, you find out where the coun­try ac­tu­ally is.

Peter Thiel: Yes, I felt this was a dy­namic that was go­ing on in all these strange ways in 2016 there was a din­ner I had in San Fran­cisco about a week be­fore the elec­tion with a group of cen­ter right peo­ple. One of them was a very promi­nent an­gel in­vestor in Sili­con Valley, and he said, you know, I’m vot­ing for Trump in a week, but be­cause I’m in Sili­con Valley, I have to lie. And so he was un­usu­ally hon­est about ly­ing. And the way I lie is that I tell peo­ple I’m vot­ing for Gary John­son.

Peter Thiel: So he couldn’t say that he was go­ing to vote for Hillary Clin­ton. Like the fa­cial mus­cles wouldn’t work or some­thing would go wrong. But Gary John­son was sort of the lie that you could tell. And then if you ac­tu­ally look at what hap­pened in the month be­fore the elec­tion, the Gary John­son sup­port, you know, col­lapsed from I don’t know some­thing like six to two per­cent or what­ever.

Peter Thiel: And as far as I can tell, all of that went to Trump. And the ques­tion one has to ask is were these peo­ple, you know, ly­ing all along? Were they ly­ing to them­selves? Did they sincerely change their mind in the last month? Or some com­bi­na­tion of that. But yeah, one sort of ve­hi­cle for this prefer­ence falsifi­ca­tion was that you had a third party can­di­date who was sort of a gate­way to the tran­si­tion, this is what hap­pened with Ross Perot, where the peo­ple went, you know, even­tu­ally went to Clin­ton in ’92 or John An­der­son in 1980. So that’s been a sort of re­peated and that’s, I think that was one el­e­ment of what was go­ing on.

Peter Thiel: But then I think there were also all these as­pects of, of the Trump can­di­dacy, that peo­ple were su­per un­com­fortable about po­lite so­ciety. And so one would, you know, that the prefer­ence falsifi­ca­tion was some­how per­haps much greater than in many other past con­texts. And so, you know, even the day of the elec­tion, the exit polls sug­gested that Trump was go­ing to lose. And so there were still a two to three per­cent effect like this, liter­ally the day of the vot­ing.

Eric We­in­stein: I voted for Bernie in the pri­maries and I felt that both you and I had re­al­ized that the Clin­ton ne­oliberal story was a slow-mo­tion, one-way ticket to dis­aster if it kept go­ing on elec­tion af­ter elec­tion. So that both of us rec­og­nized that we had to get off the trig­ger.

Peter Thiel: Of course, one of the com­pli­cated ques­tions in all this is, you know, did peo­ple ac­tu­ally already sense this? And were they ly­ing about this? So, like ev­ery­body was say­ing all the way through­out 2016, most of the peo­ple were say­ing, well, there’s no chance that you know, Trump’s go­ing to win. This is ab­solutely im­pos­si­ble.

Peter Thiel: And I didn’t re­ally con­nect this be­fore the elec­tion, but with 2020 hind­sight, I won­der was the fact that ev­ery­one was click­ing on the Nate Silver 538 statis­ti­cal pol­ling model site a few times a day, to re­as­sure them­selves that Hillary Clin­ton was still ahead, was go­ing to win. Was that some sort of ac­knowl­edge­ment that on some, maybe sub­con­scious or barely con­scious level, peo­ple sensed that it wasn’t re­ally as done a deal as they were con­stantly say­ing.

Peter Thiel: So, there’s even a ver­sion of that ques­tion that I won­der about. You know, be­cause there was some­thing about the pol­ling that took on this un­usu­ally iconic role in 2016, it was so im­por­tant and there was no truth out­side the polls. I re­mem­ber there’s, you know, one of the Demo­crat talk­ing heads say­ing some­thing like, you know, Repub­li­cans don’t be­lieve in cli­mate change. They also don’t be­lieve in polls. That’s why they’re go­ing to lose. And gen­er­ally polls are right, but there was some­thing about how all-im­por­tant they were in 2016 that might’ve, been a tell that some­thing was a lit­tle bit amiss.

Eric We­in­stein: Well, I think peo­ple knew, to my way of think­ing. I think peo­ple knew that there was some­thing very bizarre about this elec­tion. I think that the Bernie scare, that if the Demo­cratic party hadn’t … been so skil­lful, in sidelin­ing Bernie and where the party reg­u­lars were, you know, clearly back­ing Clin­ton, my sense is that it could well have been Bernie ver­sus Trump and that would have been enough to say the ne­oliberal story is over.

Eric We­in­stein: So I think there was that fear that this was com­ing to an end. My sense of it was that the ma­jor re­ac­tion to Trump was sort of a class re­ac­tion. That it was you’re re­ject­ing the en­tire con­cept of an ed­u­cated group that knows the right things to say. And you know, you’re clearly sort of not the kind of per­son who should be in the Oval Office, much more than the is­sue of whether or not Trump was go­ing to be a war­mon­ger or turn the U S into a po­lice state, which of course doesn’t seem to have hap­pened as of this mo­ment in 2019.

Eric We­in­stein: But I guess what my sense of it was is that peo­ple re­ally were shocked. I was, be­cause I live in a left-of-cen­ter uni­verse, the day af­ter-

Peter Thiel: They cer­tainly pre­tended to be shocked.

Eric We­in­stein: No, there’s no-

Peter Thiel: Look, I’ll con­cede your point. They were pretty shocked.

Eric We­in­stein: They were pretty shocked.

Peter Thiel: But you know, if, but I still have my ques­tion, why were they click­ing on the Nate Silver site just a few times a day?

Eric We­in­stein: One ver­sion of it was, let’s say even if Hillary trounced Trump, but it wasn’t enough. That would be a scary thing, given what Trump had been built up to, which is a, you know, or­ange Hitler. You know, if you imag­ine that your coun­try is sup­port­ing some­body who thinks all Mex­i­cans are rapists and is go­ing to take the coun­try back to, you know, to the Mid­dle Ages, it would be very dis­con­cert­ing if such a per­son could get 20 per­cent of the vote.

Eric We­in­stein: So I think that the poll had its own sig­nifi­cance. How­ever, you know, I think that one of the things about prefer­ence falsifi­ca­tion is that when you start to be­lieve that this is a ro­bust phe­nomenon, that all of the eco­nomic mod­els that as­sume that your pri­vate prefer­ences and pub­lic prefer­ences are the same, you start to see the world very differ­ently. And so this is one of the por­tals into an al­ter­nate way of see­ing the uni­verse so as not to get sur­prised by rev­olu­tions.

Peter Thiel: Well, it’s always this ques­tion, in my mind, this ques­tion of prefer­ence falsifi­ca­tion, the Ti­mur Ku­ran the­ory is tightly cou­pled to this ques­tion of, you know, how in­tense is the prob­lem of poli­ti­cal cor­rect­ness, where, you know, how much pres­sure is there on peo­ple to say things they don’t ac­tu­ally be­lieve?

Peter Thiel: And I always come back to think­ing that the prob­lem of poli­ti­cal cor­rect­ness in some sense is our biggest poli­ti­cal prob­lem. That, you know, we live in a world where peo­ple are su­per un­com­fortable say­ing what they think, that it’s sort of dan­ger­ous. And to use the Sili­con Valley con­text, it’s a prob­lem that Sili­con Valley has be­come a one party state. But there are two differ­ent senses in which you can be a one party state. One sense is that ev­ery­body just hap­pens to be­lieve this one thing, which you know … is one thing.

Peter Thiel: And then the other one is in which 85 per­cent of peo­ple be­lieve one thing and the other 15 per­cent pre­tend to. And you know, sort of like, it’s a dy­namic with su­per ma­jori­ties where you know, in a democ­racy, we think 51 per­cent of peo­ple be­lieve some­thing, they’re prob­a­bly right if 70 to 80 per­cent be­lieve some­thing, it’s al­most more cer­tainly right. But if you have 99.99 per­cent of the peo­ple be­lieve some­thing, at some point you shifted from a demo­cratic truth to North Korean in­san­ity.

Peter Thiel: And so there is, you know, there’s a sub­tle tip­ping point where the wis­dom of crowds shifts into some­thing that’s sort of softly to­tal­i­tar­ian or some­thing like that. So in my mind, it maps very much onto this ques­tion of, you know, the prob­lem of poli­ti­cal cor­rect­ness. It’s always hard to mea­sure how big it is, you know, in a poli­ti­cally cor­rect so­ciety. Of course, you know, we’re just say­ing what we think. We all love Stalin, we all love Chair­man Mao and, and maybe, you know, we’re just singing these songs be­cause we’re all en­thu­si­as­tic about it.

Peter Thiel: And I think, my read on it is that prob­lem has got­ten more acute in a lot of parts of our so­ciety over the last few decades.

Eric We­in­stein: Yeah. I think that’s got­ten, well, as you know, I started this whole in­tel­lec­tual dark web con­cept in part to cre­ate kind of a broad based and bi­par­ti­san coal­i­tion of peo­ple who are will­ing to speak out in pub­lic and take some risk. Speak­ing for a large num­ber of peo­ple, I would never have un­der­stood how many peo­ple feel ter­rified to speak out if I hadn’t done that. Be­cause peo­ple come up to me all the time and say thank you for say­ing what I can’t say at work. And then when I asked them, well, what is it that you can’t say at work? It’s ab­solutely shock­ing. Com­pletely com­mon­place things, things that are not at all dan­ger­ous, not scary or fright­en­ing.

Dis­trac­tion Theories

Eric We­in­stein: One of the things I be­lieve, and I don’t know whether you’re go­ing to agree with this, is that, you start to un­der­stand that a lot of the peo­ple who are en­forc­ing the poli­ti­cal cor­rect­ness sus­pect that they are cov­er­ing up dan­ger­ous truths. So for ex­am­ple, if you be­lieve that IQ equals in­tel­li­gence, which I do not, I mean, let’s just be hon­est about it. You’re go­ing to fear any­thing that shows vari­a­tion in IQ be­tween groups. If you don’t be­lieve IQ equals in­tel­li­gence, if you be­lieve that in­tel­li­gence is a much richer story and that no group is that far out of the run­ning, you’re not ter­ribly fright­ened of the data be­cause you have lots of differ­ent ways of un­der­stand­ing what’s hap­pen­ing. And also you gen­er­ally find that the truth is the best way of lift­ing peo­ple out of their situ­a­tion.

Eric We­in­stein: So I se­cretly sus­pect to be blunt about it, and this is kind of hor­rible, that a lot of Sili­con Valley is ex­tremely bi­goted and mi­sog­y­nis­tic and it can’t ac­tu­ally make eye con­tact with the fact that it’s se­cretly thinks women aren’t as good pro­gram­mers. Where I hap­pen to think, you know, fish­e­rian equiv­alence sug­gests that males and fe­males one pro­tein apart, SRY pro­tein, are not likely to be. I mean they might have differ­ent forms of in­tel­li­gence and differ­ent forms of cog­ni­tive strengths, but if you don’t ac­tu­ally worry too much about an in­tel­lec­tual differ­ence, you’d be will­ing to have an in­tel­lec­tual con­ver­sa­tion that was quite open about it. So maybe I can turn that around.

Peter Thiel: Yeah, let me see. There’s sort of a lot of differ­ent things I want to re­act to there. Yeah, I sus­pect that it’s a dis­trac­tion of sorts. You know, I think, I mean on this very su­perfi­cial layer, we want to have de­bates, want to have de­bates on a lot of ar­eas, a lot of, you know, hard ques­tions and ques­tions in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy and philos­o­phy and re­li­gion, there’re all these ques­tions that I think it would be healthy to de­bate.

Peter Thiel: And there’s a way in which poli­ti­cal de­bates are sort of a low form of these ques­tions. And there’s one sense in which I think of these poli­ti­cal ques­tions as less im­por­tant or less ele­vated than some of these oth­ers, but there’s also a sense in which these ques­tions about poli­tics are ones that ev­ery­one can have ac­cess to. And so if you can’t even have a de­bate about poli­tics, you can’t say you know, I like the man with the strange or­ange hairdo or I like the mean grand­mother. If you can’t even say that, then we’ve sort of frozen out dis­cus­sion on a lot of other ar­eas. And that’s always one of the rea­sons I think that poli­ti­cal cor­rect­ness starts with cor­rect­ness about poli­tics. That when you aren’t al­lowed to talk about that area, you’ve im­plic­itly frozen out a lot of oth­ers that are maybe more im­por­tant and you know, and where we’re cer­tainly not go­ing to have a de­bate about string the­ory if we can’t even have a com­mon sense de­bate about poli­tics or some­thing like that.

Peter Thiel: I’m very sym­pa­thetic to this sort of dis­trac­tion the­ory that, you know, that what’s go­ing on our so­ciety is like a psy­choso­cial, magic, hyp­notic magic trick where, you know, we’re be­ing dis­tracted from some­thing very im­por­tant and poli­ti­cal cor­rect­ness, iden­tity poli­tics and maybe Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism, these var­i­ous ide­olog­i­cal sys­tems, are dis­tract­ing us from things. The thing I keep think­ing of, the main thing it’s dis­tract­ing us from, is the stag­na­tion and it’s that there are these prob­lems that we don’t want to talk about in our so­ciety. It’s pos­si­ble it’s also a way to dis­tract us from bad thoughts that we have about peo­ple with the sort, you said.

Peter Thiel: But the one I would, I would go back to first is just that it’s dis­tract­ing us from deal­ing with prob­lems. You know, the rea­son we have a newspeak, this sort of Or­wellian newspeak in poli­tics with these zom­bie poli­ti­ci­ans, you know Hillary Clin­ton or Jeb Bush or who­ever it might be, is that we’re not sup­posed to talk about the real is­sues and maybe they have a bad con­science and they think they’re bad peo­ple, but it’s just, I think the pri­mary thing is just too dan­ger­ous to talk about what’s ac­tu­ally go­ing on. They don’t know what to do about it and bet­ter not talk about that.

Eric We­in­stein: Yeah. I think there’s an­other take on it, which you know, if I’m hon­est about it prob­a­bly origi­nates from my side of the aisle, which is that I have a sense that if you be­lieve that pro­duc­tivity and growth is over, you don’t want to em­pha­size is­sues of merit be­cause you don’t re­ally think that the merit is go­ing to trans­late.

Eric We­in­stein: And so there­fore all you can fo­cus on, like you know, a board of a com­pany, is just a bunch of slots at a trough. And so you have to make sure that ev­ery group has its slots at the trough, be­cause it doesn’t ac­tu­ally mat­ter. The board isn’t do­ing any­thing to be­gin with. And so it’s only a ques­tion of re­ceiv­ing the wealth that is already there. And so I worry that that is, you know, I guess where I break with a lot of pro­gres­sives is that I be­lieve that most progress comes from progress, which is tech­nolog­i­cally led and in­for­ma­tion­ally led, that the more we know and the more we can do, the more we can take care of peo­ple.

Peter Thiel: Yeah. So, I mean, again, this is always maybe naive hope on my part or some­thing like this. But I always think that when we can’t talk about things, we can’t solve them-

Eric We­in­stein: Ex­actly.

Peter Thiel: … and that this is so, you know, maybe these are the calcu­la­tions you make and this is, you know, this is the way we pat peo­ple on the head, even though they’re never go­ing to get ahead or some­thing like that. But you know, it’s never go­ing to work. It’s-

Eric We­in­stein: Well at least let’s go down swing­ing.

Peter Thiel: … and even­tu­ally, and peo­ple aren’t that stupid and they will even­tu­ally figure it out. And so that’s sort of why I’m un­der­mo­ti­vated to play that game.

Eric We­in­stein: Yeah, and I have to say that one of the things that I’ve learned from you is that it’s one thing to have a con­trar­ian po­si­tion. It’s an­other thing to hold it when the whole world starts hat­ing on you.

Eric We­in­stein: For ex­am­ple, I watched the world go from view­ing re­mov­ing Gawker as re­mov­ing a nui­sance, or worse that was threat­en­ing peo­ple se­lec­tively, to a con­cern, you know, about like First Amend­ment rights and silenc­ing, you know, free speech. And you know, I do have the strong sense that peo­ple are willfully mis­in­ter­pret­ing these ac­tions that are nec­es­sary to sort of self cor­rect in our so­ciety and are not be­ing ter­ribly hon­est. There’s a lot of bad faith act­ing in our sys­tem at the mo­ment.

Peter Thiel: But, I’m always like this, where I’m always quite hope­ful that peo­ple re­al­ize there’s a lot of bad faith act­ing and they dis­count this ac­cord­ingly.

Eric We­in­stein: They grow out of it.

Peter Thiel: I don’t know how many of the peo­ple dis­agree with me on the sup­port for Trump will be more open to it in five years or 10 years, and we’ll see. On the Gawker mat­ter, you know, I’m go­ing to win that one. I think peo­ple un­der­stand that, when it gets crit­i­cized by peo­ple in the me­dia who them­selves are up against su­per challenged busi­ness mod­els where they have to act in so­cio­pathic ways to get clicks by their read­ers, that this is just the game they have to play. There’s more of an un­der­stand­ing of this than you think, and there­fore, you know, it’s not quite what it looks.

Peter Thiel: I was ex­tremely dis­turbed by Gawker a decade, decade and a half ago be­cause I think it was a re­ally pow­er­ful thing at the time where it worked be­cause peo­ple didn’t un­der­stand how it worked. It was this hate fac­tory, the scape­goat­ing ma­chine, but peo­ple didn’t see it as such. And be­cause of that it was su­per pow­er­ful. Once you see how it works, once you un­der­stand it, it is less pow­er­ful. So, you know, even had I not suc­ceeded in the liti­ga­tion against Gawker, I think it would be a weaker ver­sion of that to­day. There are of course equally nasty things on the in­ter­net, but they’re not as pow­er­ful be­cause-

Eric We­in­stein: Or as well or­ga­nized.

Peter Thiel: …there’s more trans­parency into the bad mo­tives and peo­ple get it, and the hate fac­tory only works when it’s not per­ceived as such.

Eric We­in­stein: Well, I think that there is a way in which some of this stuff is slow­ing down be­cause peo­ple are get­ting tired of the con­stant state of be­head­ing, figu­ra­tively, of peo­ple via their rep­u­ta­tion, that we’ve moved from hon­est phys­i­cal vi­o­lence into rep­u­ta­tional and eco­nomic vi­o­lence against peo­ple that are con­sid­ered un­de­sir­able.

Eric We­in­stein: But I think that like there’s a story with both Gawker and Trump, which the rest of the world will never see. And I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t been work­ing with you. In the case of Gawker, I don’t think any­body even knows the story about how much you sweated the ethics in­ter­nally of: How do I do this right? How do I make sure that I don’t hurt any­body that I shouldn’t be hurt­ing? How do I make sure that this rep­re­sents some­thing nar­row and not some­thing broad? Which is a story so far as I know that hasn’t been told.

Eric We­in­stein: And then there’s the story with Trump where, I don’t know if you re­mem­ber this, when Trump won, you had a gath­er­ing at your house and you did not in­vite me, and I was so pissed at you that even though I was tooth and nail against Trump, and I re­main re­ally pretty close to a never Trumper. I knew why you did what you did. I knew that you felt that it was a re­duc­tion in vi­o­lence and I think that you had the­o­ries that no­body be­lieved at the time.

Eric We­in­stein: If I look out at this world, out through these win­dows, Trump has not changed mostly day to day life ex­cept for the phe­nom­ena of Trump, but it’s not, there isn’t you know a po­lice­man on ev­ery street cor­ner with an au­to­matic rifle. We’re not in some sort of siege from the White House. And you said, I think much less is go­ing to hap­pen than peo­ple imag­ined and I think we’re go­ing to be in a much less in­ter­ven­tion­ist mode than we were pre­vi­ously. And whether or not you were right or you’re wrong. So far, I think you’ve been borne out to be right on both of those points. I knew that you had an idea that we had to shake things up or we were go­ing to be in some very dan­ger­ous situ­a­tion.

Peter Thiel: I had two speeches in 2016, one was at the Repub­li­can con­ven­tion, one was at the Wash­ing­ton Press Club about a month be­fore the elec­tion. And in both speeches, I un­der­scored the ways in which I think Trump would rep­re­sent a break from the in­ter­ven­tion­ist, neo­con­ser­va­tive, ne­oliberal for­eign poli­cies, that Bush 43, that Obama still con­tinued and that Hillary was likely to, would have been likely to con­tinue. And I still think that that’s roughly what’s hap­pened. It’s not been, you know, it’s not been … as far away from in­ter­ven­tion­ism as I would like. But it’s di­rec­tion­ally, di­rec­tion­ally that’s hap­pened.

Peter Thiel: And I think that, you know, I do think we’re not go­ing to go back to that on the Repub­li­can side, which is like a very im­por­tant thing. We’re not go­ing to go back to the Bush for­eign policy ever. That was an im­por­tant thing. In the pri­maries, when, the re­pub­li­can pri­maries, when Trump spoke out against the Iraq war. That was, you know, that was a very im­por­tant mo­ment from my point of view. And I think, you know, we always think of the, I think one way to think of the Pres­i­dent of the United States is that you’re sort of the mayor of this coun­try, but you’re the dic­ta­tor of the world be­cause in the US your power is very limited. Out­side the US you can do, you know, a great num­ber of things. And that’s why I think these for­eign policy ques­tions are ac­tu­ally, are very im­por­tant ones in as­sess­ing the pres­i­dent.

Eric We­in­stein: Well I guess my take on the great dan­ger of Trump was that there were cer­tain sorts of stan­dards and agreed upon cul­tural as­pects, which I’ve likened to the Oral To­rah of the United States where the Con­sti­tu­tion is our Writ­ten To­rah. And my con­cern is that Trump has had an effect on de­grad­ing cer­tain ex­pec­ta­tions where it does mat­ter how one com­ports one­self as a pres­i­dent, maybe not as much as some of my friends would like to think.

Eric We­in­stein: And I do think that we needed some dy­namism, but my con­cern is that it’s go­ing to be very difficult to re­cover from the kind of dam­age to our sense of what can and can­not be said and done. I did think that we needed to break out of our Over­ton win­dow, if you will, on many top­ics. I would just, the way that Trump touched those was not com­fortable for me.

Peter Thiel: Yeah, I agree. There are cer­tain ways in which pres­i­dent Trump does not act pres­i­den­tial in the way in which the pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents-

Eric We­in­stein: I agree that he’s breached things that needed to be said.

Peter Thiel: … but then maybe there’s some point where it was too much act­ing and the act­ing was coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. I think there is some­thing ex­traor­di­nary about how it was pos­si­ble for some­one like Don­ald Trump to get elected. And prob­a­bly a use­ful ques­tion for peo­ple on both the left and the right would be to try to think about, you know, what the un­der­ly­ing prob­lems were, what some of the solu­tions to that are. And you know, it’s, I think the left or the Democrats, you know, they could, they can win. They can win in 2020 but they have to have more of an agenda than just tel­ling the Repub­li­cans to hurry up and die, it has to be more than that, you know?

Eric We­in­stein: This is the thing that con­vinced me that I didn’t get the Trump thing, which was, I was con­vinced that Trump was go­ing to be such a wake up call that the Demo­cratic party was go­ing to, you know, go be­hind a closed door and say we can­not let this hap­pen again. We have to look hon­estly at how he got beat, what this rep­re­sents, what it means and what we’re go­ing to do next time.

Eric We­in­stein: And the idea that we were go­ing to dou­ble or triple down on some of the stuff that didn’t work never even oc­curred to me. I had no idea that that party was so far gone that it couldn’t ac­tu­ally, you know, if you imag­ine that he’s or­ange Hitler, you would think or­ange Hitler would be the oc­ca­sion to think deeply and ques­tion hy­pothe­ses. And I re­ally have been shocked at the ex­tent to which that didn’t hap­pen. So maybe I got my own party wrong on that front. I didn’t know that we were this far gone, but.

Peter Thiel: I think there’s still a lot of time to do that. And I keep think­ing that, you know, we are at some point where the dis­trac­tions aren’t go­ing to work as well. You know, I think the big dis­trac­tion on the left over the last 40, 50 years have been forms of iden­tity poli­tics where, you know, we don’t look at the coun­try as a whole. We look at parts of it and it’s sort of been a way of, you know, I think ob­scur­ing these ques­tions of stag­na­tion.

Eric We­in­stein: Fair enough. And on the right?

Peter Thiel: I would say the right, the right wing dis­trac­tion tech­nique has been, I would say some­thing like Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism-

Eric We­in­stein: That’s in­ter­est­ing.

Peter Thiel: -which is this doc­trine that the US is this sin­gu­lar ex­cep­tional coun­try. It’s so, so ter­rific, so won­der­ful. It does ev­ery­thing so in­cred­ibly well that you shouldn’t ask any difficult ques­tions, any ques­tions at all. I think it, in the­olog­i­cal or episte­molog­i­cal terms, you can com­pare it to the rad­i­cal monothe­ism of the God of the Old Tes­ta­ment where it means that God is so rad­i­cally unique that you can’t know any­thing about him. You can’t talk about God’s at­tributes, you can’t say any­thing about him what­so­ever.

Peter Thiel: And if the United States is rad­i­cally ex­cep­tional, then in a similar way you can say noth­ing about it what­so­ever. And there may be all these things on the ground that seem crazy, where, you know, we have peo­ple who are ex­cep­tion­ally over­weight. We have sub­way sys­tems that are ex­cep­tion­ally ex­pen­sive to build. We have uni­ver­si­ties that are ex­cep­tion­ally so­cio­pathic. I mean, you don’t have the stu­dent debt prob­lem in any other coun­try. You know, we have trade regime that’s ex­cep­tion­ally bad for our coun­try, like no other coun­try-

Eric We­in­stein: Firearms.

Peter Thiel: … is as self de­struc­tive as this. There are all these things that we some­how don’t ask. So I think ex­cep­tion­al­ism some­how led to this coun­try that was ex­cep­tion­ally un-self aware. And-

Eric We­in­stein: That’s very in­ter­est­ing.

Peter Thiel: … that’s and so, you know, there’s great­ness is ad­ja­cent to ex­cep­tion­al­ism, but it’s ac­tu­ally still quite differ­ent be­cause many coun­tries can be great and great is more, it’s more a scale. And there’s some­thing you mea­sure it against-

Eric We­in­stein: It’s multi-vari­ate.

Peter Thiel: … whereas ex­cep­tional, it’s just com­pletely in­com­men­su­rate with any­thing else. And I think that’s got­ten us into a very, very bad cul de sac.

Peter Thiel: And I think that there’s a way in which that sort of ex­cep­tion­al­ism has ended on the right. And there’s been, we’ve moved be­yond that. And I’m hope­ful that in a similar way, the left will move be­yond iden­tity poli­tics even though, right now it feels like the mon­ster is flop­ping about more vi­o­lently than ever, even though I think it might be its death throes, but maybe not.

Eric We­in­stein: Yeah. And it could be that it’s got­ten very strong or it could be on its last legs and it might as well go for broke.


Next and fi­nal post on Sun­day will be Sto­ries of Progress.