Thiel, the Contrarian

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Burning of the Capital, 1812.

As I write this, I think we’re losing it. I am looking through my window of my fourth-floor apartment and see a spread of low buildings below me — low enough that you can see the wavering American flag on every government building in town. It is 21 degrees Celsius today (70 degrees Fahrenheit) in Washington, D.C., and all of a sudden, I got drunk off that fragrant smell that only comes with the spring, when the soil starts breathing again after a long, cold winter. That is how someone can feel after six years of living in New York, where “Mother Nature” has been suppressed. Moving to Washington, D.C. — especially on a day like this — it feels like moving to the past that I am not able to locate yet. But it does not matter since I am well-aligned with the spirit of the time.

So why do I think we lost it? In a week, with Donald Trump’s arrival in D.C., America will start a new experience. It will become America again. An exceptional country. I am only half joking. These are weird times, and we need to change the way we think — become more flexible. We should at least try to understand what is happening.

While in the company of Stephen Bannon, the American president-elect gained some popularity with white supremacy fanatics. In Bannon, we find a thinker who helps us to understand better what is happening in this country and what might be a new social model that the people in power seem to be playing with.

Moreover, in the “Fashion & Style” section of this week’s Times Magazine, there is an incredible profile of Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal who is now a billionaire, thanks to a prescient investment in Facebook, and who also has investments in SpaceX and the data analysis firm Palantir. Thiel revealed himself as the mastermind behind the litigious assassination of Gawker; as a fellow supporter of the right-libertarian White Nationalist Party; and a prominent supporter of President-elect Donald J. Trump.

Thiel likes to call himself a contrarian — a trait that he demonstrated when he told the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd why he endorses Trump and even helps him with money and ideas:

How could a gay man back someone who will probably nominate Supreme Court justices inclined to limit rights for gays and women? How could a futurist support a cave man who champions fossil fuels, puts profits over environmental protection and insists that we can turn back the clock on the effects of globalization on American workers?

“There are reduced expectations for the younger generation, and this is the first time this has happened in American history,” Mr. Thiel says. “Even if there are aspects of Trump that are retro and that seem to be going back to the past, I think a lot of people want to go back to a past that was futuristic — ‘The Jetsons,’ ‘Star Trek.’ They’re dated but futuristic.”

It is a theme he has struck before, that Silicon Valley has not fulfilled the old dreams for bigger things. “Cellphones distract us from the fact that the subways are 100 years old,” he says.

These words come from a person who made all his money on companies in Silicon Valley, but who — long before Trump’s dive into politics — did not think that producing cell phones was a serious thing, as he told George Packer in an interview six years ago:

When Thiel questions the Internet’s significance, it’s not out of an indifference to technology. He’s enraptured with it. Indeed, his main lament is that America—the country that invented the modern assembly line, the skyscraper, the airplane, and the personal computer—has lost its belief in the future. Thiel thinks that Americans who are beguiled by mere gadgetry have forgotten how expansive technological change can be. He looks back to the fifties and sixties, the heyday of popularized science and technology in this country, as a time when visions of a radically different future were commonplace. A key book for Thiel is “The American Challenge,” by the French writer J. J. Servan-Schreiber, which was published in 1967 and became a global best-seller. Servan-Schreiber argued that the dynamic forces of technology and education in the U.S. were leaving the rest of the world behind, and foresaw, by 2000, a post-industrial utopia in America. Time and space would no longer be barriers to communication, income inequality would shrink, and computers would set people free: “There will be only four work days a week of seven hours per day. The year will be comprised of 39 work weeks and 13 weeks of vacation. . . . All this within a single generation.”

Of course, this did not happen, and in Thiel’s contrarian mind, he is convinced that humanity — or perhaps just America — should go back to the future and revise its way of thinking. Trump is good in looking back, but in a different, more earthy way, which makes me wonder whether these two gentlemen are really on the same page. But they’re both facing the same direction, at least, as both Thiel and the president-elect have been looking to the past.

Thiel is a volcano. He thinks fast, and he is excellent at math. He is critical about wealthy Silicon Valley kids who amassed a lot of money and are now only thinking of immortality. “At the same time, I worry there’s a part of Silicon Valley that is hyper-politically correct about sex. One of my friends has a theory that the rest of the country tolerates Silicon Valley because people there just don’t have that much sex. They’re not having that much fun,” Thiel says in the New York Times interview.

But whether or not he has enough sex, even Thiel seems to be spending some time focusing on ways to prolong life — a privilege of the wealthy, while the rest of the country is just focused on how to survive economically. And this is where I think we’ve all lost it. Just as the socialist experiment of the Soviet Union and China and my own country of Yugoslavia was a failure, so was the libertarian model in the West, according to Thiel. It might be painful, but this is what the impoverished dreamers wanted when they voted for the man with an iron fist — the man surrounded by the nation’s richest and most uniformed. A week from now, we will be here to watch the new president be sworn in, and believe me, I will be the first to report it if there is any smoke coming from the downtown Washington. Yes, I am thinking of Nero.

In the meantime, if you have no patience and want to kill some time with the false conspiracy theories that are coming from the left, you can read people like A.M. Gittlitz, who are a lot of fun, but of course, do not resolve any real problems.

“Elites around the world have been obsessed with blood for thousands of years,” Alex Jones said in an Infowars video that discussed Thiel last summer. He goes on to argue that elites throughout history — including the British royal family — have undergone similar parabiotic treatments for decades.

“But where the story gets weird,” Jones opined, “is that Prince Charles came out in the last decade and said ‘I am a direct descendent of Vlad the Impaler.’ … The people running things aren’t physical, immortal vampires, but they have the spirit of what you describe as a vampire, and they believe their god, Lucifer, if they establish a world government, is going to give them eternal life. And now they’re mainlining the idea of baby parts and blood from the young to make the rich live longer.”

This world is now more than ever in the hands of people like Thiel, who — as Packer describes him — “seems uneasy with the world of grownup feelings as if he were still a precocious youth. Someone who has known him for more than a decade said, ‘He’s very cerebral, and I’m not sure how much value he places on the more intimate human emotions. I’ve never seen him express them. It’s certainly not the most developed aspect of his personality.’”


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