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A profile of a Christian through the eyes of the world
Bambi Francisco Roizen interviews Max Chafkin author of The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley's Pursuit of Power.
The book has received applause from media outlets, and Max clearly reveres Peter, but most reviews on Amazon are critical, claiming Max was bias in his reporting and oftentimes inaccurate. In this interview, Bambi tries to explore Max's intentions and lessons learned after writing the book, and to understand why Max didn't dig deeper into Rene Girard or Christianity -- two of the biggest influences that shaped Peter's worldview. After all, if you want to write about a Christian's contrarian worldview, you can't be talking to the Romans.
Here are some takeaways:
-- One of the reasons Max wrote the book was to debunk the myths about Peter. According to Max, the Left myth is that Peter is evil, vampiric and siphoning FB data to support Donald Trump while the Right myth is that Peter is a superhero, Ayn Randian builder and the greatest mind of his generation. Now that Max explored these myths, which is most accurate? Max says they’re “equally flawed.” But he does find Peter to be a conundrum and Peter's story is a great way to tell the culture of the Silicon Valley culture since Peter has such an impact on it, if not the biggest impact.
-- The book received a number of critiques of bias and inaccuracy, including a story about the traffic ticket, which was sensationalized and didn’t happen in the way Max portrayed the incident. Max stands by the traffic ticket story, suggesting it was innocuous but illustrative. Max also said he didn’t have many assumptions beyond Peter being one of the most powerful people in tech and hence the world, and that Peter’s support for Donald Trump seems contradictory because Max believes Donald Trump is hostile to the gay community and is anti-immigration, and that he’s trying to bring the country back to the 1950s.
-- Max says he would have loved to talk to Peter more, given that he did send Peter’s team fact-checking items. He would have also liked to spar with him it seems because he admits he doesn’t agree with Peter. [This dislike comes out in the book and could be why Peter didn’t want to engage.] Max said Peter tends to talk to people who agree with his beliefs and since Peter is a public intellectual, he wishes Peter could engage more about these topics. For instance, one question he’d love to ask Peter is “How does power work?”
-- Max thinks Peter probably believes that power works through ideas. Peter’s influence is his willingness to put forward ambitious and radical ideas and articulate them in such a compelling way that young people get very excited about them. It’s not direct power, like Elon Musk’s micromanaging style, but it’s a soft power. The most important influence and power people have is not only their ideas, but their ability to galvanize a following -- this is what Peter possesses.
-- In his book, Max asked “What exactly, I wondered, did Thiel actually believe? And how deeply embedded were those beliefs in Silicon Valley itself?” His conclusion on what he thought Peter believes after interviewing 150 people (colleagues, schoolmates, friends) is that it’s not clear if Peter has a defined ideology or whether he’s driven by profits. Max believes that Peter is hostile to the idea of democracy. He points to Peter’s essay in 2009, titled: The Education of a Libertarian, in which Peter says, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” [In this essay, Peter isn’t against democracy as much as he’s against increasing government encroachment on freedoms]
-- Max also points to Peter’s support of Curtis Yarvin, a controversial critic of America’s democratic structure as being run as an entrenched oligarchy of unelected experts inside non-accountable institutions, such as universities, and mainstream media.
-- Bambi asked Max why he spent little ink on Girard and Christianity, when the former was a great influence on Peter and the latter is Peter’s North Star. If Max’s goal was to understand Peter’s belief, this really was an area that should have been explored. Max said he would have wanted to learn more about Peter’s faith but public information exposes little of Peter’s faith. “He never talked in a deep way about the specifics of his way,” said Max. “If he wanted to open up about his faith, that’s something only he could do.”
-- When asked whether Max believes man is inherently good or inherently broken, Max said “inherently good.” [This simple yet profound understanding of human nature is one reason Peter seems so contrarian and enigmatic to Max. Peter believes man is inherently broken.]
-- Max believes Peter was the conservative voice on the board of Facebook and his influence runs deep. Not only did Peter help Zuckerberg maintain power over shareholders and investors, this ideological founder structure at Facebook is a structure Peter formalized across Silicon Valley, Max believes. Max also wonders if society should be afraid of this same founder, top-down mentality applied to politics. It does seem to fly in the face of democracy.
-- On politics, Peter was also instrumental in encouraging Zuckerberg to allow more conservative news outlets on the Facebook feed. Many conservatives argued that news sites, like NY Times and CNN, were dominating. Max believes those sites are balanced though many conservatives would argue they are left of center. The NY Times hasn’t endorsed a Republican candidate since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.
-- Max supports capitalism and understands the monopoly and breaking-rules mindset startups should have in order to grow and succeed. But it becomes a problem when that ideology persists as the companies get too powerful and occupy nine of the top 10 biggest companies in the US. While Max realizes that big government also breaks the rules, it doesn’t excuse other bad actors.
-- Max says Peter’s comments seem to “flirt” with “white supremacy” especially if you read Peter’s book The Diversity Myth and consider he’s comfortable with people who’ve expressed racist sentiments. [Bambi tries to explain that the critique is of political correctness gone too far. And Peter’s view is that inclusivity brought to its logical conclusion breaks down. As a Christian, Peter believes society is far too occupied with their identity and we’d be better off if we weren't all so consumed with ourselves].
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