The Ballad of the Canceled Cretin
In the last 24 hours, we have seen a classic case of the following tweet:
Antonio García Martinez (henceforth referred to as AGM), a deeply unpleasant guy, former Facebook product manager and author of a book about his life and tech or something or rather, was ousted from Apple after a few weeks after thousands of people signed a petition to complain about him being hired [Note: I previously incorrectly stated that he didn’t last a day - apologies]. Why? Because of his awfully-written, misogynistic, racist book that was a New York Times bestseller that somehow didn’t get him in trouble before. From what I’ve read, it’s a truly weird book, one that’s not particularly well-written, pumped with self-conscious prose that’s worded to evoke Hunter S Thompson with none of the life experience and talent that he had. It’s also laced with horny and/or racist anecdotes.
Naturally, this means that Silicon Valley’s finest thought that Antonio needed defending:
One of these geniuses is Robert Scoble, a guy who has been working in Silicon Valley for decades without anyone knowing what he actually does for a living, adding the kind of anecdote that only a guy who got famous for showering with Google Glass could possibly post:
Robert Scoble also may have specific reasons why he doesn’t like guys not getting jobs because of stuff they did in the past - his history of sexual harassment.
The funny part of this story is the way in which the situation is being framed by AGM’s defenders: that he’s a huge prick, one that wrote a book that is full of horrible shit, perpetuating the attitudes and beliefs that suppress people’s ability to work and live in society, but he’d never deprive someone of their livelihood. This is the kind of thing that caused the Basecamp debacle - the failure to understand that by using your platform to be derisive and cruel toward a certain race or gender, especially in an industry already plagued by racism and sexism, you are doing the work that deprives people of their ability to survive and thrive. By saying that - and I quote - “most women in the Bay are soft and weak,” AGM spreads the rhetoric that deprives women of opportunities - getting a job, getting a promotion, being able to raise capital, and so on - and then justifies it by saying he’s doing “gonzo journalism.”
The dirty secret of all of this is that the press lauded his book. The New York Times called it a “must read.” The Wall Street Journal gave it an effusive puff-piece. I can’t seem to find one review that actually highlighted the grotesque nature of many of his statements - not even from the FT - and it’s disappointing that this book got so much press without eviscerating him for his putrid takes. This was only five years ago, too - roughly a year before the groundbreaking New York Times story around Harvey Weinstein suddenly gave people a conscience. This isn’t to say they’re wrong for having a conscience, just that I cannot believe that so few people noticed this shit when they read the book. It’s been there a while! Ellen Huet at Bloomberg did, though, as did CNN’s Hope King, who dunked it through to the core of the earth by saying the book “reads like four year's worth of Medium posts from a scorned man.”
Interesting fact: the most dissenting reviews were by women of color, and the puff pieces by men, which should surprise nobody.
I think this is why you’re seeing a lot of these well-to-do white guys get extremely defensive over people getting in trouble for things they’ve said and done. It isn’t just about accountability - it’s also about the fact that they had convinced themselves not only that they got away with something, but felt that the lack of consequences for their actions meant that they were justified in them. AGM likely thought, due to the success of his book and a lack of professional or personal problems despite baring his rotten little soul, that he was not simply untouchable but also famous for these things. People seemed to like his book and his acerbic, cruel nature, so why would he stop?
I mean, nobody at Vanity Fair stopped him from describing Mark Zuckerberg as a genius, but not in the “Asperger’s, autistic way.” Why would he believe he’d have to change?
And that’s why they’re all having extreme mental distress over “cancel culture.” On some level they knew that these views were wrong, or at least that they would hurt people, but they had convinced themselves that the general rules didn’t apply to them because they were successful. The sad truth is that they may have been correct - I refuse to believe that so many of these guys thought this way and acted this way without people seeing and hearing it at length and saying nothing. It’s not that they didn’t break the societal rules, it’s that society (as society does!) enhanced and changed and created new moral rules. The brain malfunctions of guys getting mad about cancel culture are likely guys who may, deep down, have truly held these sexist, racist, classist and bigoted ideals close to their heart, and believed that the future would continue adhering to them, and when the future did not, they have started to cry and whine, perhaps crying the very tears that they mock liberals for weeping.
The reason that so many of these guys keep getting in trouble is that they are acting the same way they’ve always acted. These people have always been this way. They do not seek to learn or grow, despite the startup mantra about “always learning.” They do not see personal growth as anything other than buffing out the edges on their own sculpture - they do not want to get better in any way that does not optimize their own personal wealth. You can become a different person in a year, or five years - I truly believe that - but this isn’t the case here, and oftentimes isn’t the case at all.
The question they’re indirectly asking is “why is this a problem now?” - a seemingly fair but hypocritical stance to have. These are the same people that espouse the view that things must be disrupted and things must change, and that society should change with them. Why won’t they accept when social norms are “disrupted” by people who see a better future too?
There is also a societal issue where we have lionized assholes. Outside of the regular “strong man good” patriarchy, we’ve equated trailblazing with burning bridges, with “getting past” the personalities of “brilliant” people because we “believe in their vision.” And, societally (especially in the tech space) we are going to have to reconcile with how much we’ve pumped up the profiles of huge, raging assholes like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and by extension the people that have funded them and learned from them.
Scoble whines about the “new Apple” that wouldn’t hire him, claiming that Cupertino “used to be all white men” when he was growing up. It’s hard to find a kind reading here - there is no celebration of diversity, no context to calling Silicon Valley “like the United Nations,” and little way to read this other than as a complaint. It’s at worst a conservative trope - the idea that white guys now have it hard because of diversity, that “reverse racism” exists despite the data saying otherwise. The anxiety that men like Scoble feel isn’t so much that white guys are going to not get hired anymore, but that society may be leaving them behind - that being a selfish asshole in the right place at the right time isn’t enough anymore, and that being a white male might not automatically grant you seniority in the tech community forever.