Saturday, October 30, 2010

The taint of trade

The consistently execrable Jacob Weisberg recently had an article at Slate excoriating Peter Thiel for his recently announced plan, the Thiel Fellowship, that will give promising young people money to pursue their technological and entrepreneurial ideas instead of going to college. Weisberg, appalled by what he considers to be a display of "an ugly side of Silicon Valley's politics," responds with an article, "Turn on, Start Up, Drop Out Hyper-libertarian Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel's appalling plan to pay students to quit college," that seems almost intentionally designed to push as many of my buttons as possible. After some generic anti-libertarian boilerplate (Gordon Gekko! Unapologetic selfishness! Economic Darwinism! GLENN BECK!), a bit of pearl-clutching horror at Thiel's impious remarks about American democracy, and some middle school-level sneering about "computer nerds" and Thiel's interest in technology, Weisberg gets to the meat of his criticism:

Where to start with this nasty idea? A basic feature of the venture capitalist's worldview is its narcissism, and with that comes the desire to clone oneself—perhaps literally in Thiel's case. Thus Thiel fellows will have the opportunity to emulate their sponsor by halting their intellectual development around the onset of adulthood, maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible, and thereby avoid the siren lure of helping others or contributing to the advances in basic science that have made the great tech fortunes possible. Thiel's program is premised on the idea that America suffers from a deficiency of entrepreneurship. In fact, we may be on the verge of the opposite, a world in which too many weak ideas find funding and every kid dreams of being the next Mark Zuckerberg. This threatens to turn the risk-taking startup model into a white boy's version of the NBA, diverting a generation of young people from the love of knowledge for its own sake and respect for middle-class values.
Where to start, indeed? Various things that this article brought to mind:

The "basic feature of the venture capitalist's worldview" remark would be an asinine statement in any context, but the subject at hand lifts it from being just another example of the mainstream's Left's aristocratic contempt for commerce to something more interesting. Weisberg, a college-educated employee of a large media conglomerate, has dedicated a whole article to condemning Thiel for narcissistically trying trying to "clone" himself by encouraging young people to become entrepreneurs, because this will stop them from doing what Weisberg thinks a right-thinking young person ought to do- go to college and then get a job working for somebody else.

The fact that Weisberg equates young people not going to college with “halting their intellectual development around the onset of adulthood” says so much about Weisberg's view of the world. Intellectual development is something that only occurs through public gatherings with strangers presided over by officially sanctioned authority figures at large government-controlled or government-supported institutions. He simply takes this as given. If he saw me back when I was a kid, putting enough effort into school to make people leave me alone and then reading about history or science or politics on my own in my free time because I thought they were interesting, he'd probably be terribly confused.

Weisberg offers no reason to accept his assumption that Thiel's program somehow entails "maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible" or avoiding "the siren call of helping others" that allegedly exists in college, aside from Weisberg's smug sense of superiority and sneering aristocratic prejudice against people interested in business. It also says something that when Weisberg talks about the negative results he thinks Thiel's program might cause, his Chilling Vision of Things to Come is a world where “every kid dreams of being the next Mark Zuckerberg”- that is, a man who became wealthy by creating something millions of people enjoy.

It's remarkable how much contempt oozes from Weisberg's article. Contempt for entrepreneurs and businessmen, of course, but also for anyone without formal educational credentials like Weisberg's. This doesn't surprise me- I've long thought that most of liberalism/progressivism as we know it today is basically aristocratic conservatism in Enlightenment drag, with the landed gentleman's disgust and disdain for the bourgeoisie and the vulgar world of commerce, contemptuous paternalism towards the peasantry, and unthinking presumption of his own superiority. The idea that businessmen are soulless money machines was a reactionary prejudice before it was a "progressive" one.

Without college, your "intellectual development" inescapably stops forever at 18. College is also apparently a prerequisite for having an interest in "helping others," since avoiding college is apparently a sufficient condition to avoid exposure to the idea. If you went directly into the workforce or started learning a skilled trade after high school, you're a profoundly stunted human being.

(I doubt that was the thought running through Weisberg's brain when he wrote this, but that doesn't mean he didn't say it. One of the common symptoms of an ingrained belief in one's own superior value is a tendency to insult people without realizing it.)

This doesn't surprise me, either- if my knowledge of the world came entirely from what media figures and intellectuals on the American moderate Left said and wrote, I'd probably be under the impression that most poor and working class Americans, and a good chunk of the middle class too, were part of some sort of bestial race of subhuman ape-men that H. sapiens had domesticated out of pity.
It's not usually this explicit, though.

I don't know how Weisberg has divined that we are on the brink of having too many entrepreneurs and not enough salarymen, or why he thinks wanting to go into business for yourself instead is a "white boy" thing. (Or how this article managed to get past however many pairs of eyes saw it before it was published without the "Maybe implying that only white boys would be interested in working for a chance to gain greater autonomy, be productive, and achieve their dreams isn't such a great idea" issue being brought up at some point.)

The chief problem with staking one's future on the slim hope of being a professional athlete, which Weisberg compares Thiel's idea to, is that the skills don't transfer to other things. If you're not a professional athlete, being really good at basketball has few money-making applications. The sort of skills a kid who wanted to grow up to be an entrepreneur would cultivate do, though that's probably hard to understand if you think that people who run start their own businesses spend all their time fondling big sacks of money, carefully avoiding any stimuli that might spur intellectual development or a desire to help others, and cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West. Besides, unless the Fellowship involves some sort of blood oath promising to never go to college, it's not as if this permanently closes off that option.

What does Weisberg mean here by "middle-class values?" The idea that going to college is going to teach things like industry, thrift, prudence, or restraint more effectively than trying to start and operate a new enterprise would- or do much to inculcate them at all, in most cases- is ridiculous. On the other hand, there's another sort of "middle-class value" that Thiel's plan does threaten. I'm from a middle-class, white-collar background. When I was growing up, there was perhaps no greater taboo among my people than not going to college. (Or "the unspeakable vice of the technical schools," as it is more politely called when ladies and children are present.) And that was back in the 90s, before the current "absolutely every child must go to college" mania had established itself, and among mundane white-collar professionals rather than people in the media or other "intellectual" fields, so I can only imagine what it's like in the sort of circles Weisberg moves in in the present day. For someone of Weisberg's socioeconomic class in modern America, foregoing college is Just Not Done. It's one of the things separating him from Those People.

Weisberg’s horror makes sense, given the elitism, credentialism, and often-venomous snobbery so common among liberal/progressive intellectuals and partisans. And if you fancy yourself part of an intellectual and moral elite, the sort of person lesser breeds need for their own salvation, someone who publicly challenges the value of one of the traits required to be part of that elite is a social menace and, for lack of a better word, impious.

For someone of Weisberg's expressed attitudes, the fact that this is coming from a lowly businessman championing things as base, dirty, and ungentlemanly as commerce and entrepreneurship would make it especially appalling. And if you place as much emphasis on social, cultural, and class markers as Weisberg’s ideological ilk frequently seem to, and despise people with the wrong such markers as much as Weisberg clearly and vehemently does, I suppose Thiel must seem like a secular Devil leading souls to damnation.

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Anonymous said...

Also...if Peter Theil were to "clone" himself, wouldn't that include college?

John Markley said...

Yep. And law school, too.

Kevin Carson said...

Joe Bageant got the whole "everyone must go to college" thing dead to rights. He said the Empire only needs about a quarter of its population in administrative and technical slots, so the only thing accomplished by sending more people to college is to increase the educational requirements for competing for fast food jobs.

I don't think Weisberg would be confused by the thought that you viewed public school as something that interfered with self-directed learning. He'd be horrified. If you look at the comment threads at Matt Yglesias any time he suggests a loosening of the licensing regime for barbers or somesuch thing, about fifty people make some snide remark about "amateur brain surgeons." Weisberg would probably start raving about people "performing brain surgery on themselves."

A letter to the local newspaper once called for legislation requiring home schoolers to use the same textbooks and lesson plans as the public schools. I asked, in response, if parents would be allowed to (say) supplement the officially sanctioned version of American history with stuff from Gabriel Kolko and Howard Zinn, or if there would just be an Index of Forbidden Books. Never got a response, oddly enough.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifying what was so squicky about "white boy's NBA."