Who’s Afraid of Peter Thiel? By Mark Seal, Invincible Books, 324 pages
When PayPal’s Peter Thiel made his controversial and incredibly high-profile donation to help elect Donald Trump in 2016, he sparked an intense debate among many conservatives and even some liberals. Some saw the donation as the ultimate example of political conscience. Some said it would make it impossible for political moderates to vote Republican. Others saw it as a foolish and baseless attempt to grab headlines.
After much hand-wringing and reflection, few held back in making their opinions clear on who deserved more sympathy: Peter Thiel or Donald Trump. On paper, this is not an entirely fair reading of a fundraising dinner attended by Trump himself, or even a recounting of America’s past presidential elections. Is it fair to emphasize human nature rather than the workings of political systems? After all, this is a fascinating, insightful book about Peter Thiel’s ideas and his methods of scientific inquiry, about one of Silicon Valley’s most prolific and controversial entrepreneurs.
Thiel’s curious startup concepts have, on occasion, been incubated with outside funding. He famously provided the initial seed capital for WhatsApp, the now-defunct messaging app. While Thiel is outspoken about his opinions and practices, he is an important part of the “tech economy” — we should pay attention to him and consider his peculiarities.
By depicting Thiel as a sympathetic figure, this book comes dangerously close to regurgitating the most severe American stereotypes of the begrudging Russian Jew and misguided visionary. It would seem as though it would be less of a flattering portrayal of Thiel were it not so much a throwback to the early days of the Cold War and, especially, the 1950s, when anti-Communist propaganda was the norm for most Americans.
An accomplished chess player with a Swiss-German mother and Polish-Russian father, Peter Thiel is an unrepentant capitalist and the founder of several hugely successful tech companies, including PayPal, Palantir, and Clarium Capital, a $6 billion hedge fund. He now supports a wide range of more widely public-spirited causes: investing in high-tech science research, giving “informed consent” to the government on impending drone strikes, opposing the causes of war and collective punishment, fighting against conditions such as child prostitution.
But this is a book that seems to prioritize some of Thiel’s previous business practices — often more sensationally profitable, more brutal in some respects — above everything else. After all, it includes an interview with Robert Farago, an academic who claims that Thiel “refuses to accept the legitimacy of the Democratic Party,” and makes a number of dubious claims about Thiel’s wealth, including the fact that he’s about $10 billion richer than many others might have expected him to be. Elsewhere, he concludes that Thiel is a “de facto libertarian.”
This criticism of Thiel is in some ways justified. If Peter Thiel is to be examined, then readers have to be given a fair look at his accomplishments and his passions. It’s certainly important to explore what works when it comes to understanding the forces he affects — but far more striking and inspiring is the way in which he consistently disagrees and deviates from the orthodoxy of capitalist logic.
Thiel is surely one of the most important people in today’s technology industry. He is also one of the most controversial. And yet we should perhaps not be so surprised by his proclivities. The people who make the majority of influential news headlines are often part of an elite. They are extremely close to the decision makers. They are used to being shown a path by politicians and the press. They have a chip on their shoulder, whether it’s about government intervention, their gender, their race, or the criticism of their work. They have been encouraged to see their own opinions as the majority opinion and often are susceptible to right-wing appeals.
Their lives are not, naturally, normally catered to people like us. To discuss someone like Thiel on a personal level is to remind us all that we are not really subject to the same or even similar conditions, rules and standards as the people who are shaping our lives. We may not always see them as heroes or, even, as victims, but we must expect that they will be vulnerable to the same guilt complexes and outbursts of prejudice that we all experience. If this book did nothing else, it would help to understand how — even in the unlikely event that they did choose to collaborate with one another on future projects — the key founders of today’s technology companies might react if faced with a similar challenge. If only for that reason alone, it should be required reading.