YCombinator, Thiel, & the Alt-Right

The first I heard of the Y Combinator/Thiel issue was from Scott Aaronson’s blog. Yes, I’m behind the curve because I don’t follow intra-valley drama. I like to think that’s why I’m not a millionaire. 8^) That allows me to continue denying my own character flaws.

But it follows right along with the thoughts I’ve been having since the Little Woody Beer Festival back in early September. Our hosts brought up the relatively new news stories about the Alt-Right. I was happy to see it being talked about in the news because I’d been following the Neoreactionaries for awhile. I started following such people after I began to realize how the moniker “libertarian” was being hijacked by right wingers. I also try to follow as many of our local racist groups as I can.

The contrast between libertarianism as I understood it when I was younger is to my current understanding of it just as the contrast of my younger understanding of the Confederate battle flag is to my current understanding of it. As a kid, the battle flag meant rebellion, individualism, and an ever present tendency toward a kind of berserker violence. It was a statement that one cannot trust in civility and genteel facades. I only learned that it was (actually) used as a symbol of racism when I went to college. And I only learned how it (truly) makes black people feel when I broached the subject to one of my very close friends, as an adult. [sigh] I feel the same embarrassment about that as I did (still do) when a college friend told me he was afraid to tell me, back then, that he was gay because of the way I might react. In any case, when I finally learned that “libertarian” is/was (starting to?) be used as a trojan horse for hard-right opinions, including racism and misogyny, I felt that same feeling. I’d been too naive, yet again.

Now, Thiel, Altman, Aaronson, Annissimov, etc. are all way smarter than I am. But I can’t help but feel like there’s a bit of wisdom they’re missing. The articles from Pao and Watters, as well as many other treatments (addressed seemingly pejoratively by people like Aaronson as “social justice activists”) of issues like this, have helped me tap into that feeling of embarrassment that was previously sparked by the battle flag, homophobia, and the hijacking of “libertarian”. The tone deafness seems to come from a kind of hyper-focus … the ability/tendency to concentrate on a small scope to the detriment of the synoptic.

I used to call this “linear thinking”. It’s tremendously useful when working in the particular, i.e. a specific domain, a given problem, when engineering a solution. Such ability to concentrate is valuable and, I think, plays a causal role in the success of these men. But it fails, utterly, when applied to plaited, complex problems and domains. But it’s not really linear thinking. It’s (as Aaronson implies while talking about Thiel’s strengths) essentialist thinking, the ability to hone in on, separate out, the essential kernel of the object/system under consideration. Such a kernel can easily be complex and the isolation of a salient, complex kernel from its less or ir- relevant surroundings is a critical skill.

But too much success in using any particular tool, including and perhaps especially analysis/reduction, can lead one to think that it is always the right tool. This is my tentative diagnosis of the (embarrassing) bubble occupied by Thiel, Aaronson, Annissimov, Harris and many of the other well-meaning but essentially (often cryptically) prejudiced savants.