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Friday, November 4, 2022

Is Peter Thiel a babbling lunatic?

This is the keynote speech that Peter Thiel gave today at the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference  or as I like to call it, Peter Thiel's CPAC for racists, and I defy you to listen to the full twenty-nine minutes and then tell me how the experience differs from one in which a lunatic in a psychotic fugue state accosts you in a public park, grabs you by the arm and forces you to listen to his theory of Armageddon versus the Antichrist. 

I only have audio, no video, just the still image. The speech begins at minute 3:03, after he's introduced by Russell Berman of Stanford. FYI - you can occasionally hear noises in the background from me, like the microwave oven beeping, etc.

Thiel may be the patron saint - or just patron - of the racist right and the anti-woke crybabies and the Republican Party, but I doubt anybody would ever listen to him for any reason save one: because he has so much money.

At the beginning of this year I called Thiel scary. He's even scarier now. And so are the people who have made him their Mad King Peter.

Here is the transcript, below. He starts out fairly coherent, but once he has vanquished Nobel Peace Prize winner, Guatamalan activist Rigoberta Menchú he starts to go off the rails. 

I found his hatred for Rigoberta Menchu interesting, because he didn't come to hate her after it was discovered that she misrepresented parts of her autobiography. He hated her and thought of her as the embodiment of evil because she had suffered so much. He didn't believe it, or didn't want to believe it and so calls her suffering "the perfect pastiche." The Nobel Prize committee said they based the prize on her actions, not on her testimonial. But Peter Thiel is still going to start off his Academic Freedom keynote speech by taking a victory lap against Rigoberta Menchu.

I also had to laugh at his claim that he doesn't like the Clinton administration's lies, when Thiel funded Trump, who virtually can not say anything without lying.

Thiel starts off making a claim about wanting to "steel-man" his opponents arguments, and when he finally gets around to a point, after many minutes of babble, and presents the issue of the environmental movement of the 1970s, he suggests that the impulse for the movement was the same as the impulse that drove Charles Manson. How's that for steel-manning? I mean, if you're a lunatic, I guess that works.

Also, what the hell does this keynote address have to do with Academic Freedom? Thiel finishes his speech by presenting a match-up between Armageddon and the Antichrist. He even introduced the match-up by citing a Bible verse and clearly he believes his opponents represent the Antichrist. But apparently he believes his side represents Armageddon? Is that supposed to be a reasonable choice?

Wow. And this quasi-religious weirdo is hugely influential, because of all that money.

Although I have added paragraph formatting, there were almost no pauses in this speech, just a constant stream of words at a very rapid clip.

Russell, thank thank you so much. It's always hard to, it's hard to live up to such a flattering introduction. I'm going to try to cover a lot of different, somewhat disjointed ideas today and then try to make it interactive and make it as much of a conversation as possible. But maybe, maybe you know, a question I always like to start and frame is what is the antonym of diversity? 

And the placeholder answer I would give for an antonym for diversity, the antonym of diversity is university (audience chuckles) and um and we should um and you know and in some ways what I what I gather we're trying to come to terms with are all these ways that the university as a place where we search for truth, where there's a certain amount of freedom, civility, uh you know, a certain canon is uh, is, is being threatened by the sort of amorphous thing that somehow the anti university, that is, uh the postmodern Multiversity, that is, maybe you know somehow in some parts nihilistic and some parts relativistic, in some parts totalitarian, and probably would take, you know a more time than I have to unpack all of those paradoxes. But and then of course it's it's the, it's the, it's the problem of the university, in the larger context of the questions of classical liberalism, which you know seems to have be failing and and then in trouble and a lot of different ways and and that one should also think about. 

You know I've I've been involved in these in these campus wars, cultural wars debates for something like 35 years. We started the Stanford Review. And I'll just recount one story from 35 or so years ago by the time we started the Stanford Revue in 1987 the live issue was the debate about Western culture, the freshman core curriculum program, and it was going to be sort of phased out. The 88-89 school year was the first year where um the first of the new experimental culture, ideas and values, the first the program to replace Western culture framed as multicultural and I thought we should do an exposé on on this sort of the first class. And and it was sort of you know a tendentious Marxist professor, was not really about non Western cultures was also these various anti-Western writers one sort or another. And so I went to the Stanford Bookstore and just started reading through the books and of course I was sort of man with the hammer tries to find a nail everywhere and was just trying to find the most tendentious things that were you know, and they all were on on different dimensions.  

Then I finally stumbled on one book that was just the perfect book that encapsulated everything that was preposterous about it is Rigoberta Menchu. And it was a set of interviews with this sort of Guatemalan peasant Indian woman who had been oppressed in every vector of oppression. It was like a, it was like a perfect pastiche, it was, you know, she was oppressed, as poor and as and there's a racial war and there's a war and she was an orphan and um and on and on down the line and and it was, and you know, there could be sort of chapters, you know, Rigoberto renounces marriage and motherhood, Rigoberta makes plans for the Mayday Parade, so it has sort of had a somewhat you know, communist undercurrent. And um and as so many of these debates, these you know the Western culture debate with some very important was on one level about about this freshman course at this at one, you know elite university, Stanford. But then in some sense it was a a debate about our whole culture and so there's sort of kicked up all these bigger things and you know as a sort of 20 year old senior I managed to convinced the editors of Wall Street Journal to to reprint some of these excerpts and did a long long long excerpt on this Europe and the Americas class. When when Dinesh D'Souza wrote his book on a "Illiberal Education" in 1991, the the Stanford chapter was entitled "Travels with Rigoberta." so it got this iconic framing. And then and then fast forward to the fall of 1992. I'm, I'm clerking for a judge in Atlanta, driving to the office in the morning, have the radio on and and it's well, you know, there's, there's a new, someone's been selected for the Nobel Peace Prize. No one's ever heard of this woman. It's Rigoberto Menchu. 

And there's always this legal concept of the difference between proximate causation, which is like I punch you or something versus but-for causation. I was not the proximate cause of her getting the Nobel Peace Prize, but I I was about a but-cause. But for me, she would not have gotten the Nobel Peace Prize. And sort of the scales fell off my eyes at that point, I realized I was, you know, I thought that I was, you know, fighting in some sort of cosmic struggle. And you know the forces of good and evil and actually I I was just like what I really have been doing was I was some two-bit actor in a left wing psychodrama where I completed her victimization. The one group she had not been victimized by were, you know white Republican conservatives in the United States. I completed her victimization and I guaranteed her her Nobel Peace Prize. 

There's a whole postmortem to the story where it's apparently much of the book was too good to be true and was sort of semi-fictionalized uh there was an attempt to get the Nobel Prize rescinded but you know they can never sort of revisit these things and and so it's still uh it's still quite disputed. 

But you know I think so many of these debates have this kind of quality there's there's a way that um you know, you can sort of ,it's like shooting fish in a barrel the arguments are are super powerful on our side, um it is like screaming into hurricane it, it often does not matter, you know we have um we have um and there's sort of is always this worry that we are somehow you know those of us who are conservative libertarian, classical liberals are just somehow fighting the long defeat and uh and uh and that that is that's that's sort of the vibe of what's going on and and and the challenge with, you know classical liberalism broadly.

 And so I wanna so it's rather than sort of go through a whole set of these sort of semi-pornographic stories which I could entertain you with, the whole morning long, I wanted to try a somewhat different approach and and I think it's always important not to sort of straw man our opponents, not to take the most ridiculous um version of it and make fun of it. We should always try to steel man people to try to understand the arguments as as best as they are possible. I wanted to, I wanted to a little bit complicated, but I want to do is I want to give you the best argument, against the best argument, against the best argument, against the best argument against classical liberalism, against um the the classical universities, and uh, so , four steel man arguments. And if you counted, there are four. So if you do, you know a double negative is a positive. A quadruple negative is still a positive. So  uh the four best arguments add up to sort of an argument for classical liberalism. But we're going to let me let me and this is sort of the way I've come to think of, um you know, what what the real nerve of of so many of these debates is and how we should how we should think about it.

Um the, you know, let me, let me start by saying if you um if you talked in the during the Western culture debates in the 1980s, Stanford, if you talked to the university President Donald Kennedy, or, you know, the senior leadership at Stanford, you know, alumni went to complain. Um you know, there there's definitely always some radical crazy people who said crazy things. But the standard answer was something that sort of technocratic. You know, Shakespeare doesn't matter. The humanities aren't that important. We have the sciences. We're making enormous progress in the sciences. We're building a, you know, particle accelerator, slack, etcetera, etcetera. We have, you know, you have all this sort of cutting edge scientific research and that that's sort of fundamentally is what the university is about. That's what shows it's on track. That shows what what it is valuable and and there is sort of some way that we have to always ask this question about you know the the sciences and the technologies how they are, how they are doing. 

And the the version of the question that I have come to ask over the last 15 years um about you know um is the universal question, is about the progress of all these things. How fast are science and technology as a whole progressing? Is the sort of propaganda, the STEM propaganda accurate, that uh we have just sort of exponentiating progress, runaway progress things are getting sort of, you know it's just dizzying how fast things are improving. Or is it Is it perhaps quite the opposite and and so and and so if if one could show that the science and technology areas are actually pretty weak, that the so-called crown jewels of STEM are not actually delivering the goods. This strikes me as a decisive, crushing uh blow. It's it's like a yeah, humanities we all know, are ridiculous. Uh STEM, but if if STEM is ridiculous you know there is just nothing, nothing left at all and, and this is the idea that I've explored, in a variety of formats over the last 15, 15 years. There's, there's sort of a um it's it's very, let me say it is very hard to evaluate this stuff in general, because one of the other problems of the postmodern university is that it's extremely compartmentalized, it's extremely specialized, and you're supposed to only be able to comment on these things after half a lifetime of study. And so we have ever-narrower sets of guardians guarding themselves, to use the sort of corrupt Platonic metaphor. 

So you you have the string theory people telling us how wonderful string theory people are and how everybody else just has bad math genes and can't talk about it. We have the uh the cancer researchers promising us they will cure cancer in five years which they've been doing for the last 50. We have um and on and on in all these sort of hyper hyper specialized areas and um and then the question is, you know how much how much progress is actually happening? 

The um, these sort of indirect intuitions I have on where it seems very very slowed, are things like,  umm, if you if you if you look at things like um, the the economy, the the standards of living among younger people. The younger generation doesn't seem to be doing better than their parents. This this is sort of very odd. In a sort of context of of massive generalized progress, there is, there's sort of a question, how big are the breakthroughs that are really, really happening? Because the definition of technology, say technology is the thing that is changing, and then let's say the 1960s technology meant computers, but also rockets and supersonic aviation and the green revolution agriculture. And underwater cities and new medicines. And it was like a lot of things. And we use technology today. It just means information technology. I think that's kind of a tell, that we have a narrow cone of progress around the world of bits, you know, computers, Internet, mobile Internet. It's generated some great companies, but it's not quite been enough to take our civilization to the next level, you know, the tagline on my my venture capital site. You know, "they promised us flying cars and all we got was 140 characters." Not an anti Twitter argument, not an argument against Twitter as a company can. It can work, as a company it can work. You know, 8000 people I think is going to be about half after Elon's done today. But even even those 4000 people can just, still, just go to the office and smoke pot all day and earn decent paychecks so it works on that level. It doesn't quite work on the level of taking our civilization to the next level. 

When I was, I think that these things were not that obvious in in, in, in in the past when I was at Stanford in 89. In in retrospect, the only subject matter you were supposed to study was computer science. That's what really worked. It wasn't even an engineering field. It was sort of a you know, I always think whenever people say science, I'm in favor of science, but not science in quotes. And when when people use science, it's it's a tell that something isn't a science, like political science or climate science. Computer science is sort of like that. It's for the people who are not very good at electrical engineering and sort of flunked out into computer science. Even that turned out to be the one thing that worked. All the engineering fields did not work. I think electrical engineering sort of worked maybe another decade after this class of 89, certainly mechanical engineering, chemical engineering like my dad did, all these were terrible things. We live in the world. There was nothing you could do in the world of atoms. By the 80s it was already clear you should not go into nuclear engineering, aero-astro engineering, and we are just not allowed to do stuff. And in the world of atoms. It's it is it is massively massively slowed. And I think this is sort of the this is sort of the this is sort of one kind of a a framing I would give. Yeah, but we've had this incredible stagnation for the last 50 years and then we have unbelievable amounts of propaganda. This is not true and that, um I'll do one one other sort of thought experiment on you know why the question of technological progress however, however hard it might be, um can't be avoided, because um and let's, I'll just do one more as a thought experiment. If you, if you want to sort of solve our macroeconomic problems, in the United States, you could solve every problem in our society if you got to 4% GDP growth. You grow, grow your way out of the deficits, um you have enough growth for everybody to do better. 

And how do you get to 4% GDP growth? Well, you could do um you could do something like, um, um one version would be you could change, get rid of all the environmental rules, all the immigration rules. You you could get rid of all these rules where you would never get elected and you probably have too much cancerous growth. But you know there's certain ways you could do it politically completely infeasible. And the other way also do this as a thought experiment would be. Umm, you appoint a Commission on accelerating technological change and it would it would try to measure how fast the technological change has been happening. Um and um you know, you have some, you know, some crazy techno utopian person probably from Silicon Valley. You put them on the Commission and they would come back with the result that, yeah, it looked like we had 2% growth and 2% inflation, but really we have 4% growth and 0% inflation because the qualitative technological improvements are greater than they look. And if you could just lie about technological progress, you could save trillions and trillions of dollars. Uh, I won't go into all the details. This is basically what happened under the Clinton administration in the 1990s with the Bostrom Commission. Un they sort of lied about all these thonic(?) adjustments, and that was a key thing to balancing the budget. As a libertarian I I'm actually quite sympathetic to this because I want the welfare state to be dialed back. And so if you exaggerate technological progress, um this is the way to do it. As an intellectual, I I don't like, I don't like lying. And I think we should try to figure out, we should try to figure out the the truth of these things and, and probably you know, if we say that uh, you know, the flatness of the new iPhone is such a large hedonic adjustment that grandma should be happy to eat cat food. (audience laughs) 

There's probably something about that that's wrong. And I'm and and these sorts of questions cannot be avoided. So the question of generalized technological progress cannot be avoided. I'd go into a lot more detail but ah but it has for a whole set of reasons slowed down. So that's sort of the basic counter argument is, don't look at the humanities, look at the sciences. They're great. The counter-counter argument, um there are, there are, they're maybe as defective or more so than the humanities. Humanities, we can sort of evaluate. You can evaluate Rigoberto Menchu. You can't evaluate string theory and so it's sort of, I dunno, government analogies. It's like you know, do you think the DMV or the CIA are better run, and it's obviously the DMV is better run since people can see what they're doing. (audience laughs)

Um and that's probably the political intuition we should have about the sciences versus uh versus the humanities. The, the, the, the polemical version of it that I, I had once was that you know I I think um I think that uh it's better for undergraduates to meh meh to major in the humanities rather than the sciences. Set computer sciences, aside, as the one thing that sort of works, but everything else. Because um in the humanities you at least know you're not going to get a job, you'll be unemployable, whereas in the sciences you have people who are so deluded as to believe that we'll be taken care of by the natural goodness of the universe. And it's just it is just a Malthusian competition. Nature red in tooth and claw. You know, 10 grad students in chemistry lab fighting each other for Bunsen burners and beakers. And you know, one person says one wrong word, they get thrown off the overcrowded bus and it's a relief and and it's sort of cycle and repeat. 

Now the question people always ask me is why, you know, why did this stagnation, why did the shift happen in in the 70s? I I normally try to avoid the question say I don't like answering why questions they're they're over-determined and you know there's sort of a lot of different kinds of things one can one can point to. Um you know everything from, you know, extra government regulation to um, you know, some of some of the low-hanging fruit is picked. It's gotten harder to find new things, that's sort of the Tyler Cowen argument. Um you know, sort of strange ways the culture has changed. You know the younger people have anxiety attacks and don't want to do anything anymore and they're sort of hiding in their basements. Which is probably, maybe not you know not that compatible with rapid technological progress. But but if I had if I had to sort of give a single again steelman idea. The best argument for why, why this has been so slow for the last 50 years and I think we have to somehow engage with and take take more seriously. Is that there is something about science and technology that has taken you know very dystopian very destructive turn in the um, in the in the 20th century and there are you know it, it is, it is not we're not in the 18th century 19th century you know rationalist enlightenment age, where it seems to be simply making everything better in every way, all the time. You know, already the two world wars, certainly, certainly the nuclear weapons. You know, on some level suggested that the sort of, I don't know the the the sort of rhetoric of Rousseau or Voltaire about the natural goodness of man was starting to run you know a little bit then by by by the 50s and 60s. And the the the kind of um the kind of history I would tell it's not perfect, but of of the last 70-75 years is this gradually seeped into society. It sort of manifested in different ways, you know um you know, you have a crazy person like Charles Manson, you know, what did he see when he was overdosing, you know, on LSD? He saw that there was going to be a thermonuclear war, and then he decided to become some sort of, you know, anti-hero from Dostoyevski and start killing people because everything was permitted in this world that was headed towards the apocalypse. And there was something like this that seeped in, and this was what gave the environmental movement so much force in the 70s. It's like we have to just slow this down. We have to put some brakes on. Uh and it is it is just the way in which so many of these technologies have this, have this dual use component. I always like to argue rhetorically in favor of more nuclear power plants. I feel that's like it's like arguing for the gold standard so far outside the Overton window. Uh and I think that the history is that it's hard to avoid the dual use nature of these technologies, you know and the the, the, the, the turning point with nuclear power was not Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. It was 1975 when India got the bomb. We had transferred the nuclear uh technology to India. We believed that it was not dual usable. There is a certain way could be used for only peaceful nuclear power. It easily got weaponized. They got a nuclear bomb. We can't give nuclear power plants to everybody in the world because everybody will have nuclear bombs and that's sort of profoundly unstable and will will blow up the world. And something like this, this dual, you know, this dual nature of technology runs through uh so much of this stuff. It'ss obviously, you know, there's obviously an environmental version on the left that that I would say is, you know, on some level more powerful than people on the right often like to admit. There is, there is, um you know, even even the kinds of breakthroughs that we, we had in recent years, the MRNA vaccines. And again, the sort of the polemical version was why can't we have a ticker tape parade for the scientist who invented the MRNA vaccine. And well you know we don't celebrate individuals,  that's too dangerous in the 21st century so we no longer have ticker tape parades for individuals. But I think the deeper reason is people are really uncomfortable with the MRNA vaccine because it is, you know, it's very adjacent. Um it's one toggle switch away from this thing that was going on at the Wuhan lab called (?) function research which we suspect is sort of an Orwellian word for a bioweapons program. And and then this is and so it's again there are you know there are these things that you know could potentially be big breakthroughs. So many of them are adjacent to something that is that is quite dystopian. I used to love science fiction. It is, um and I think we sort of an interesting survey course that one could do on on, you know, trying to understand why this all so drably dystopian at this point. I mean, there's still, you know, maybe you can do the retro Star Trek stuff from the 60s, but anything's been published in the last 40 years, it just sort of shows this futuristic world where nothing works. And the question you have to ask is, is this a deep law of nature, is a deep truth that if there is more progress, things will just break down. Or is it somehow a reflection of of this, of this very dystopian culture we're in, where we just can't imagine anything, anything getting better?  

Now I think, Umm, I think that I think that this sort of dystopian um limit of of science and technology, where you know it's lost energy because you're just sort of building the machines that will destroy the world, um has even at this point seeped into the, has even seeped into the into the, into the computer uh world where the you know, the futuristic technology on the computer side is AI, AGI, artificial general intelligence. It's it's always I always hate the word because sort of a catch-all word that can mean everything and therefore nothing. But, but I, you know, I was involved peripherally with some of these sort of East Bay rationalist futuristic groups. There's one called the Singularity Institute in the 2000s, and sort of the self understanding was, you know, building an AGI, it's going to be the most important technology in the history of the world, we better make sure it's friendly to human beings. And we're going to work on making sure that it's friendly and you know, the vibe sort of got a little bit stranger. And I think it was around 2015 that I sort of realized that uh that they weren't really, they they didn't seem to be working that hard on the AGI anymore. And they seem to be more pessimistic about where it was going to go. And it was kind of a, it's sort of devolved into sort of a Burning Man um Burning Man camp that was sort of had gone from sort of trans-humanist to Luddite um in 15 years. And um some something has sort of gone wrong my and it was finally confirmed to me by by a post from Miri Machine Intelligence Research Institute, the successor organization in April of this year. And and this again these are the people who are and this is sort of the cutting edge thought leaders of the of the people who are pushing AGI for the last 20 years and, and you know, it was fairly important in the whole Silicon Valley ecosystem. 

Title: "Miri announces New Death with Dignity strategy." And then the summary: "It's obvious at this point that humanity isn't going to solve the alignment problem, i. e. how is AI aligned with humans? Or even try very hard, or even go out with much of a fight. Since survival is unattainable, we should shift the focus of our efforts to helping humanity die with slightly more dignity." 

And then anyway, it goes on to talk about why it's only slightly more dignity, because people are so pathetic and they've been so lame at dealing with this. And of course you can, you know, there's probably a lot you can say that, you know, this was there somehow, this, this was somehow deeply in the logic of the whole AI program for for decades. That it was, was potentially going to be very dangerous. If you believe in Darwinism or Machiavellianism, there are no purely self-interested actors. And then, you know if you get a superhuman AGI you will never know that it's aligned. So there was something, you know, there was a very deep problem, people had avoided it for 20 years or so. At some point, one day they wake up and the best thing we can do is, is, is just a hand out some Kool-aid, a la People's Temple to everybody or something like this. And um and if we um and then I think uh unless we just dismiss this sort of thing as as just as just the kind of thing that happens in a um in a in a post COVID mental breakdown world... I've I found another article from Nick Bostrom who's sort of Oxford academic and. You know, most of these people are sort of, they're somehow they're interesting because they have nothing to say they're interesting. They're just mouthpieces. There's like a mouth of Sauron. It's it's just sort of complete sort of cogs in the machine. But they are they're useful because they tell us exactly where the zeitgeist is, in some ways and um and and this was from 2019 pre-COVID. The vulnerable world hypothesis and that goes through, you know, whole litany of these different ways where you know, science and technology are creating all these dangers for the world and what do we do about them and this the precautionary principle, whatever that means. But then um you know, he has a four part program for achieving stabilization and I will just read off the four things you need to do, to make our world less vulnerable and achieve stabilization in this sort of, you know, we have this exponentiating technology where maybe some uprising actually, but still progressing quickly enough. There are a lot of dangerous corner cases. 

And when you do these four things to to stabilize the world: Number one, restrict technological development. Number two, ensure that there does not exist a large population of actors representing a wide and recognizably human distribution of motives. So that's a that sounds like a somewhat incompatible with DEI, at least in the in the ideas form of diversity. Number 3, establish extremely effective preventive policing. And Number 4, established effective global governance. Since you can't let you know even if there's like one little island somewhere where this doesn't apply, it's no good. And and so it is basic and this is, you know, this is the zeitgeist on the other side, it is a it is the precautionary principle. It is, you know, we're not going to make it for another century on this planet. And therefore, you know, we need to have, you know, we need to embrace a one-world totalitarian state right now. And and so yeah. So third and 4th counter arguments. The third just to repeat. The first argument, first counter argument is science is great. It's calling you don't even pay attention to the humanities counter argument. No it's not. Third main counter argument. Well, science is too dangerous, we have to slow it down. So it's it's good that it's not so great. We're slowing it down. We slow it down even more and then the the counter-counter argument and and this is where I would return to classical liberalism is that however dangerous however dangerous science and technology. Start it seems, it seems to me that totalitarianism is far more dangerous and uh and that and uh that, you know, whatever the dangers are in the future, we need to never underestimate the danger of, you know, one world, totalitarian state. Once you get that, hard hard to see what it ends. But, you know, there's always. You know, I there's always sort of the, the frame where. First Thessalonians five, chapter 3. The the political slogan of the Antichrist is peace and safety. And and I think you know what I what I want to suggest is that and and you get it when you have sort of a homogenized one world totalitarian state and and what I want to suggest in closing is perhaps we would uh do well to be a little bit more scared of the Antichrist and a little bit less scared of Armageddon, thank you very much.

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