California needs a great villain

Joe Mathews

Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)


It’s hard to find a villain who can bring Californians together.

That’s why Charlie Manson’s death produced so many media remembrances. Manson represented the time, a half-century ago, when Californians shared more experiences—even fear of the Manson Family.

Today, we’re too polarized to agree on who is the bad guy. Academically, we prefer to blame wrongdoing on systems, not individuals. Culturally, we’re so diverse that we don’t share the same references—never mind the same enemies.

Which is too bad. Villains can be galvanizing, energizing societies to protect the innocent, defend democracy, or address wrongdoing. Villains also allow us to recognize the evil within ourselves. “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. “When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

Traditional sources of villainy aren’t producing the distinctive characters they once did. Mass murder, for example, is now so routine that we’ve become desensitized to it. Is it just me, or do you find it hard to keep all the mass shootings and truck rampages straight?

The oversupply of villains cn be paralyzing. The mortgage mess and the never-ending fraud at Wells Fargo both involve so many thousands of low-level scammers and so many hundreds of higher-ups that it’s hard to figure out who the biggest villain is, much less whom to prosecute.

California’s power brokers of the past—from the lobbyist Artie Samish to Assembly speaker Willie Brown—once played the villain with panache. But governance here has become so complicated that it’s impossible to assign responsibility when things go bad.

And just when it appeared that Hollywood finally had given us a singular uber-villain with the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s predations, dozens of actresses came forward to tell us that such villains are as common as casting calls.

Now, I hear 70-plus percent of Californians yelling at me: Haven’t you forgotten Trump? I have not. Yes, he’s waging war against California and its people. But he is an unsatisfying villain, for reasons both personal (his lies are simply too obvious ) and geopolitical (we are rooting for him not to start a nuclear war).

So if we’re going to find a villain ambitious enough to fit California, we should look in Silicon Valley, where the object of the game is not merely to dominate the world but to disrupt the lives of others in the process. When I asked Bay Area people to nominate a true villain from among their number, one name kept coming up:

Peter Thiel.

The billionaire Silicon Valley investor in start-ups co-founded PayPal and was famously Facebook’s first outside investor. These California companies made him rich and famous. And how has he thanked us?

By attacking our institutions.

Thiel is a graduate of San Mateo High and Stanford who rails against government-backed schools and encouraged people not to go to college. He’s an immigrant who supported Trump and the anti-immigrant provocateur Ann Coulter. While backing nationalist politicians, he bought himself citizenship in New Zealand.

Worse still, he has railed against democracy and called women’s suffrage a mistake, writing that people can’t govern themselves: “The broader education of the body politic has become a fool’s errand.”

This is monumentally villainous. A man who helps create technology to reach deeply into our personal lives betrays utter contempt for us. Like so many villains, he’s a false prophet, claiming to liberate people with technology while promoting authoritarianism that would enslave us.

Thiel also writes that he “stands against … the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual.” The notion of eternal life for a favored few is tyrannical, but also useful. When it’s so hard to find a durable villain, aren’t we lucky to have one who intends to live forever?

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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