Enthralled with Thiel?


by James Killough

There are so many challenges looming before the Modern Ghey: actually asking a guy’s name before you have sex with him, maybe even going on a few dates before it happens; whether to enlist your mother’s help in planning the wedding, even though you will never fit into her dress (not like you did as a child, anyway); what to do about the Christian conservatives in our midst, the pariahs of a subculture that has been a pariah itself for so long.

Either 44-year-old Peter Thiel is already taking advantage of anti-aging technologies, or the retouchers at Condé Nast are just doing their job.

I am not talking about one of my favorite soft targets, my evil twin, Andrew Sullivan.  As my Republican brother once said in disgust, “He’s not even right wing!”  Indeed, as smart as he is, Sullivan’s politics seem to vacillate throughout the day, so much so his profile on the online hookup site Bareback City lists him as “versatile,” when we all know he’s a big ol’ bottom.  While Sullivan describes himself on The Daily Beast as being of no particular political party, I think he has simply mastered the art of being controversial in order to drive up page views.  And in that he has been very successful.

The subject of today’s scrutiny is a far more fascinating Christian conservative Ghey, Peter Thiel, someone with whom I could actually see myself becoming friends, rather than just being irritated by.  This is not because we share ideologies, but because he’s such a brilliant kook, a complete anomaly in our culture, and for a constant outsider like me that in itself is admirable.

The first couple of three articles I read about Thiel in the past month made me think he was just a gifted geek from Silicon Valley via Stanford with a tremendous amount of luck, who just so happened to have a taste for male strippers rather than female.  But last week’s New Yorker profile by George Packer painted a better-rounded picture, as that magazine is wont to do with its articles.

For those unfamiliar with Thiel, after founding PayPal and cashing in for fifty-five million when it went public, he then invested half a million in Mark Zuckerberg’s little enterprise, which he converted to a seven-percent ownership — if Facebook were to go public today, his share would be worth at least one and a half billion.  He then co-founded Palantir Technologies, which is now worth two and a half billion.  He is probably the world’s most successful technology investor, and that buys you a lot of strippers.

Even more than Sullivan, Thiel is a contrarian, without Sullivan’s professionally controversialist, glib  showmanship, presumably because Thiel doesn’t need to make waves every morning after coffee to keep his site stats up.  Indeed, Thiel doesn’t seem to think the Internet is worth much in general; he is sorely disappointed by how far we haven’t come with technology.  The world hasn’t lived up to what the sci-fi books of his youth promised him, in itself the battiest reason for disappointment imaginable, but one that might be expected from the kind of billionaire geek who pushes society forward with innovation.  His disillusionment with the state of technology today is summed up by the credo of his venture-capital firm: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

First of all, as anyone who has ever driven through Koreatown in LA knows, it’s difficult as it is trying to control land-bound cars, much less flying ones.  The notion of Asian chicks who don’t seem to know red from green, or the accelerator pedal from the brake, zooming around helter-skelter midair like the Jetsons is enough to make you agoraphobic and never leave the house again.

This is not libertarian utopia. It's a cartoon.

Aside from being gay, there are a few similarities between Thiel and me.  We both read Lord of the Rings over and over during a certain point in our youth.  He is a strict libertarian of some variety that I can’t quite pinpoint from the articles I read, whereas I appear to be of the socialist variety, a Chomsky-ite, if I am any variety at all.  In other words, he thinks Ayn Rand rocks, whereas I think she’s a screeching whack-job with a few good ideas in sore need of a ruthless copy editor and a good dentist.

Most remarkable is our differences.  His intelligence is scientific and academic, mine is almost entirely cognitive and autodidactic, attributes in which he seems to be deficient given he only learned how to text message last year and I took to it like a fish to water when it first came out, to name one of many examples.  In other words, he knows how to take an algorithm and turn it into a billion-dollar enterprise, whereas I know how to take an experience and break it down into a script or a blog post, and still be seat-of-my-pants broke.

While his scientific mind has made him a leading tech investor, his lack of accurate intuition hasn’t stood him well with his hedge fund, Clarium.  Thiel seems to bet on the markets with one position—contrarian—which is sort of admirable in an idiotic, swashbuckling way, but it has also caused Clarium to drop from seven billion in assets in 2008 to two hundred and fifty million dollars today, two-thirds of which is Thiel’s own money.  Relatively speaking, Clarium has gone bust, and Thiel should consider his talents better served elsewhere than the financial markets.

What the first two articles I read about him focused on was the more sensational, loonier project Thiel has invested in, the Seasteading Institute, which aims to create floating island city-states in international waters free from any government control.  It’s Ayn Rand’s wet dream meets Waterworld, or complete hogwash fiction bubbleheadedness that makes Scientology seem rational.

A rendering of a Seasteading city-state. Likewise a cartoon.

A less harebrained venture, believe it or not, is Thiel’s quest for the Fountain of Youth, with his investments in The Methuselah Foundation and Halcyon Molecular.  With upcoming innovations in anti-aging technology, he expects to live to one hundred and twenty, again an achievement which disappoints him.  His quest is in the tradition of another conservative Ghey, albeit an avowed pagan, Alexander the Great; Islamic myth would have it that the purpose behind Alexander’s conquest of much of the world was to find that magical fountain.

Dear God, just shoot me.  What does Thiel expect to look like at one hundred and twenty?  A creature out of David Lynch’s Dune, I expect.  I can barely get through this lifespan without losing patience with existence once and for all, which is interesting because both Thiel and I can distinctly remember the moment in our childhoods when we became aware of mortality in all living things, and that moment was one of our more traumatic.  Whereas I seek acceptance of the inevitable and hope to embrace it with open arms, he pushes against it with much of his formidable energy and brainpower.  I have a funny feeling one of us is going to be more successful, and it’s not him.

According to The New Yorker, a longtime friend of Thiel’s says, “He’s very cerebral, and I’m not sure how much value he puts on human emotions.  I’ve never seen him express them.”  This would make him either a sociopath or some form of autistic, and as regular followers of this blog well know, there a few things I appreciate more than a crunchy, tasty personality disorder.

In the tank, what you look like after a few centuries anti-aging technology: a once-human guild navigator in "Dune."

If I had a choice of having to sit next to Andrew Sullivan or Peter Thiel on a long flight to Asia, I would probably prefer Thiel, even though I imagine Sullivan and I would have a great time after six pints in a pub in Brighton on a rainy winter’s evening, provided he hasn’t read any of my earlier posts and doesn’t want to punch me in the face.  It’s not Thiel’s success I’m interested in, nor his quest for longevity, much less his extreme libertarianism.  It’s because I’ve never met an unemotional homo before.  That’s so radical it’s almost chic.  As the plane banks into Delhi Airport, I imagine by then Thiel would have confirmed what I’ve always suspected: that the characters in Ayn Rand’s books, both male and female, are closet cases with Aspergers, and that true liberty is to be made within the confines of society, not in elitist hideaway bubbles.

Comments: 3

  • oldancestor December 1, 201110:46 am

    As someone who has driven a fair amount in Korea, I can say these folks should never be allowed near a flying car. Then again, given the lack of guard rails, adherence to speed limits, and willingness to stop at red lights, they’re the closest thing we’ve got to people with experience.

  • oldancestor December 1, 20113:30 pm

    That was a bit of a non sequitur, but a pleasant one for me.

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