We’re not going to do this again, are we? Two years ago, Mozilla (creator of the Firefox browser) forced out its co-founder and new CEO, Brendan Eich, after it was revealed that he once gave $1,000 to an advocacy group that opposed gay marriage.
Now, for some reason The Daily Beast decided it was major news that Palmer Luckey—founder of Oculus, the maker of virtual reality headsets Facebook recently bought out for $2 billion—donated $10,000 to an independent pro-Trump group dedicated to putting up anti-Hillary Clinton billboards. So we have to sound the klaxons again. Warning: a man in Silicon Valley holds unapproved political views. He must be terminated immediately.
No, really, several game developers are vowing to end their development of virtual reality games for Oculus unless Facebook accedes to their demands and fires Luckey.
In one respect, this is petty grandstanding. A couple of game developers refusing to support Oculus is more likely to hurt them than it is to hurt Facebook. It’s certainly not going to do much harm to Luckey, who has already cashed in on nearly a billion dollars of Facebook money. This is like the right-leaning commenter who read one of my articles on Elon Musk’s love for government subsidies and vowed never to use PayPal again. But Elon Musk moved on from PayPal long ago and will never notice your one-man boycott.
What’s really disturbing is the spirit of the thing, the assumption that Silicon Valley and the technology industry ought to be a place where everyone’s political opinions are monitored to ensure that they all think the same—or else.
Let’s be clear about what Luckey actually did. Some of the reporting on this tries to muddy the waters by saying that a pro-Trump Reddit forum Luckey participated in has distributed memes created by Trump’s white nationalist fanboys. Well, yes, that’s an unfortunate feature of any forum where Trump supporters show up. But nobody has produced any evidence that Luckey is a white nationalist or approves of racism. Does merely being on the same Reddit subgroup as bad people make you guilty by association? Because that’s not a standard I would recommend anyone in Silicon Valley to adopt.
I have been very critical of the Trump campaign for their carelessness in repeating material from white nationalist supporters—a negligence so great that it indicates deliberate indifference. Letting the racist “alt-right” work its way into mainstream political debate is the worst thing about the Trump candidacy. But it would be absurd and unjust to claim that all Trump supporters must therefore be racists. That’s what Luckey is really being targeted for: the mere fact of supporting Donald Trump.
In this country, we subject very few issues to what you might call a moral quarantine, where someone who commits certain acts or holds certain views is cast out of polite company. There is basically child molesting and racism. Yet those issues are by necessity rare exceptions. Every society has to have some basic standards of civilized behavior and some things that are considered beyond the pale. But the zeal to expand these cultural taboos reveals a troubling totalitarian impulse.
Let’s put it this way. The spirit of a free society is that the normal rule of discussion is free-wheeling and anything goes, and there are very few ideas that get you shunned from polite society. The spirit of a totalitarian society is that the normal rule is conformity to approved political opinions, with a few tenuous carve-outs where a mild expression of dissent is tolerated. Guess which model the Palmer Luckey witch hunt is trying to emulate?
I find particularly interesting how these activists are trying to use big corporations as their mechanisms for enforcing political uniformity. The logical conclusion, when you think about it, is that every company should have a Chief Political Officer in charge of monitoring the ideological deviations of its employees.
Which is to say that some people want Silicon Valley to emulate the enormously successful creative culture of the Soviet Union. Hold the right political views—even in private!—or we pull your work permit.
Yes, to my millennial readers, that’s sarcasm. To fill you in on a little history that happened before you were born, the Soviet Union did not have a creative culture. Its controls on political speech and private opinion were so utterly stultifying they doomed the Soviets to forever struggle to catch up with their innovative Western rivals.
What really buried the Soviets, actually, was the revolution in electronics and computer technology in the 1970s and 80s, a product of the untamed creative culture of Silicon Valley. We might want to think about preserving some of that free-wheeling attitude before we turn it into Soviet Valley.
Follow Robert on Twitter.