"I am so sick of politics. Politics are suddenly everywhere. I cannot avoid them." Another 5,300 words follow these declarations, written by Soylent co-founder, former CEO, and current chairman Rob Rhinehart in a blog to explain why he is voting for Kanye West in the 2020 general election.
The blog, which starts somewhat normal and becomes increasingly bizarre, is rife with conspiracy theories. At one point, he seemingly invents a conspiracy theory about former Vice President Joe Biden, who he professes at one point to have “never heard of until very recently.”
“Did you know Biden threw innocent Guatemalans in jail because they did not give a government contract to his company Hunter Medical Devices?” he asks, with no hyperlinks or evidence. A Google search for “Hunter Medical Devices” turns up just three pages of results with no relevant hits aside from Rhinehart’s own blog.
In the blog, Rhinehart describes both candidates as “serpentine robots feeding the evil octopus of the New York Times," and says Nancy Pelosi’s son is addicted to drugs. That claim about Paul Pelosi Jr., which would not be shameful even if it were true, is a debunked conspiracy theory, according to Politifact.
Some commentators, like the New York Times, took Rhinehart's comments seriously enough to portray them as constituting one pole of "a start-up culture war" over "how much politics should be part of the workplace,” putting it in conversation with Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong’s recent ban on discussing social issues or politics at work. This gives Rhinehart's rant too much credit. In reality, this manifesto has nothing to do with a “culture war” over politics in the workplace and makes almost no mention of it. If there is something resembling a theme in this rant, it’s impossible to find. All in all, it highlights yet again how out of touch Silicon Valley elites are, how their opinions are unduly elevated, and how their riches have insulated them from understanding that Joe Biden is currently the only person who can currently prevent Trump from having a second term.
When Rhinehart writes about the Democratic Party, for example, he frequently admits in one way or another that "This is all so confusing." He says Nancy Pelosi is “the only Democrat I’ve ever heard of” and seems to doubt the very existence of Joe Biden:
Who is this man? I had never heard of him until very recently. Nobody I know has ever met him. According to his Wikipedia page he is a senator from Delaware, which I only know as the state where corporations like to file lawsuits. It looks like he has done pretty much nothing his whole life except be in politics. It also appears that he has been trying to run for president for a very long time. Why now, at a very important time in history is he suddenly the white knight from the Democratic party?
Rhinehart can personally attest to the Delaware bit, since Soylent was incorporated in Delaware (many large corporations are incorporated there because of its tax laws). Biden, he concludes, was chosen “because he would be the best puppet,” while expressing deep ignorance about the Democratic National Committee or the candidate selection process, which played out in public. He is seemingly unaware that Google and Wikipedia exist to answer any outstanding questions he might have:
But what is stranger still is that there is a mysterious “committee” that decided for us who will run against Donald Trump as the Democrat. We have no insight into this process. Who are these people? What on earth is a “superdelegate”, a “caucus”, and a “super PAC”?
The rest more or less follows these beats. He expresses confusion over fundraising numbers, and he refers to the New York Times more than once as an “evil octopus” that controls things behind the scenes:
It has always been this way, red against blue, you have to vote for one of them. Tsk tsk. Never mind they are both serpentine robots feeding the evil octopus of the New York Times. Just vote. You must register. You must vote. Do not try to look behind the curtain. Do not think any differently. You will always be oppressed. Get used to it.
Later in the blog, he adds that the “deceived” readers of the Times are “followers of the evil octopus.” Not content to leave it at that, later that day Rhinehart published another few thousand words in a blog explaining why we “are all being controlled and oppressed and enslaved by the evil octopus of the New York Times." In it, he seems to conflate normal journalistic work such as sourcing with controlling events:
It controls books, food, technology, policy, you name it. You do not see it. But it is there. It is everywhere. Every time a new media technology or company shows up, it quickly becomes infected. Look at Clubhouse. It was a matter of days. They thrust a new tentacle right in to the middle of it. And Clubhouse was practically designed to stay safe from it. Nice try.
(Clubhouse is a reference to the Clubhouse app, an invite-only audio app used by celebrities and rich venture capitalists to, among other things, talk shit about the media and harass women.)
Returning to Rhinehart’s blog that got him a mention in the Times, he also claims that Nancy Pelosi “controls” San Francisco:
First, she has stood by and watched while the city and county of San Francisco she controls has turned from a gorgeous mecca of culture and innovation into a literal hole of shit. I saw it. I was there. If anything, she hastened its destruction.
In reality it is Silicon Valley that ruined the Bay Area—not unlike previous periods of history, where the frontiers of technology and financial capital conspired to lay waste to the region as they extracted its mineral wealth. Decades ago, when Silicon Valley’s manufacturing was contained to the area, it made the land and waters of East Palo Alto (a predominantly non-white area) one of the most toxic in the country. The story of how that region has been poisoned by and its wealth eclipsed (and extracted) by Menlo Park and Silicon Valley is the real story of who ruined the Bay Area.
All this falls away when he begins to talk about Kanye West. Here is "the only candidate" who cares about agriculture, an issue of utmost importance to Rhinehart. He's drawn to Kanye because "believes in protecting life and the environment" as well as "bringing prayer back to schools." After saying he believes in the power of prayer, Rhinehart declares in a direct missive to Kanye West that he's "now my political leader" and as such "I will follow your leadership, and your example."
Soylent did not immediately respond to a request for comment. When reached by the New York Times, Soylent CEO Demir Vangelov said that Rhinehart’s views don’t represent the company.
When reached for comment, Rhinehart called Motherboard “censors” and wrote in an email, “You are a bad person for attacking an innocent beverage company. You are like a terrorist attacking an innocent family.”
“My personal blog is about innovation,” he wrote. “And I think Kanye is a very innovative politician. I think people should be able to think and write what they want without being attacked. If you want to debate that's fine. But clearly you only want to attack.”
(On the Biden conspiracy in his blog, he wrote that “there is more truth in the world than what you can immediately Google” and suggested we talk to Wall Street Journal columnist Mary O’Grady, who has written critically on Biden’s Guatemala policies in the past. Still, there is no company called “Hunter Medical Devices” that has a web presence, or any mention online at all, except for in Rhinehart’s blog.)
Rhinehart’s post may seem particularly removed from reality (and it is) but it also tracks with what we’ve seen recently from tech executives in the Valley even as they’ve spent decades convincing the public that tech is a liberal bastion.
A Bay Area worldview that paints the New York Times as the “evil octopus”—as opposed to the monopolistic tech titans in telecommunications, transportation, communication, healthcare, and nearly every other sphere of life—is a bit rich, but entirely predictable. Silicon Valley is well-versed in painting its billionaires, their economic fiefs, and their host of well-paid white collar employees as the real victims. Some executives profit from a racist administration’s deportation machine and paint themselves as victims even as they embrace reactionary philosophies or white nationalists, for example. The tech elite has also recently ramped up their anti-media messaging, and it fits neatly in with the atmosphere of Trumpism.
As author Adrian Daub, put it in his new book, What Tech Calls Thinking: "The compulsion toward thought leadership—it's part of self positioning and marketing for aspiring unicorn wranglers—basically encourages a readiness to charge out of the gate with dumb opinions and then make a big to-do about it when those opinions get predictably slapped down."
These elites and their supplicants sit at the top of vast complex machinery that actually does harm and oppress people: non-white employees, contract workers, child laborers overseas, the list is an endless one. And yet, Daub points out that they've somehow managed to create safe spaces of their own for a "performance of self-victimizing counterintuitiveness" that obscures who holds power in this society, the material and ideological reasons for why they hold power, and the effect that has on the rest of our lives.
It’s important to remember that this situation does not arise accidentally. The more seriously we take tech executives and their self-serving world views, the more likely we are to adopt those views ourselves and fall for sleights of hand like political rants that claim to be against politics.
Update: A week after this article was published, Rhinehart reached out to correct himself. He meant to reference U.S. company Baxter International, he said, not "Hunter Medical Devices." His characterization of that scandal is off base, however. What really happened is that the Guatemalan government fraudulently gave a contract for kidney dialysis services to a company that could not provide them, whereas previously Baxter held the contract. As a result of that corrupt action, dozens of people died. For that and other instances of rampant corruption, in 2015 officials including former Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina were arrested by state prosecutors and UN investigators and jailed. In 2017, Molina, who is still in custody, claimed that he was pressured by Joe Biden to give the contract to Baxter.