The Next Battle of Bull Run


Our industry’s lofty principles just met Charlottesville. It’s time for American CEOs to make a statement, just as Merck has done.


In the early days of the Civil War, when it seemed the rebellion was an immature prank soon to be put down, emboldened Washingtonian spectators converged on nearby Manassas, eager to watch the Union Army prevail over a rag tag army of southern rebels.

The Union army, it turns out, was summarily routed.

This first battle of the Bull Run became a signal event in the Civil War, the point at which America realized this was not an easily quelled, minor rebellion (there had been many in the young nation’s history), but rather, the start of the most divisive, bloody, and, it turns out, the most enduring war of our nation’s history.

This weekend we were forced to once again acknowledge: it’s not yet over.

It was within this sweep of history, poorly related at the time, that I wrote my f-bomb-laden column late last week. I realize now it’s probably a good idea to take a few breaths and consider whether my initial point of view was colored by passion, as opposed to reason.

That’s not to say that reason should necessarily prevail over passion, but let’s be honest, it’s been a weekend for the history books. Passion without reason is essentially what happened Saturday in Charlottesville. Yes, three deaths, 500 white supremacists, and an equal or larger group of counter protestors does not a Manassas make (about 1,000 died there, a very light toll compared to what was to come). But war is different now. War is no longer watched by throngs of Washingtonians a few miles from the action. War is now conducted across the platforms of the tech oligarchy, and everyone, everyone, everyone is watching.

So last week I swore a lot. And many of you took it as me swearing at you. I wasn’t. For many, I was swearing with you. For others, I was swearing in public and it was inappropriate. And for a few of you (most of whom have already unsubscribed, so…), it was fundamentally offensive.

To those of you I offended, I’m sorry. I was intemperate. But things are far worse now than when I wrote those words late Thursday night.

Charlottesville was a test for Donald Trump. Donald Trump flunked.

Let’s name the institutions in our society that have convening power. The institutions that, if they rang the community alarm bell, would be able to bring their people to the meeting house, and rally them to action.

What are they today? Are they the church? Certainly, many churches have that power, but “church” doesn’t mean what it used to in our society. As Harris, Harari, and many others have pointed out, we are drifting from, not toward, theism as our binding narrative. So what else? Schools and universities? Well, universities in particular have certainly created a class of erudite and disgruntled liberals, but the institutions themselves? They are not built to lead, and as far as I can tell, they never will. When was the last time the leader of a major university inspired us? Can you even name one?

What about government? After all, isn’t that the ultimate convener of community? Government is the expression of the will of the people, right? Well, we know on the Federal level a large percentage of the country would attest that Donald Trump “is not their president.” And on the local level? As with churches and educational institutions, there is extraordinarily important work being done there. But can any government call us to act, convince us to commit? While this was once the government’s most sacred role, I believe in the current climate, the answer is no.

Which leaves us what? Well, my answer is business.

And that’s a very long way of explaining why I was so upset last Thursday when the terrorist trolls managed to get Google to cancel its historic all hands meeting. We are starving for leadership in the United States. We are literally dying from a lack of shared narrative. And when I survey the landscape, trying to find where leadership might emerge, my greatest hope is in the companies of the new enlightenment*. If only they could find their voice, and start paying off the debt of their founding principles. If only they could help us build true bicycles of the mind. If only they would help us understand and call out evil, implore us to not be that evil. If only they could connect us all, bring us all together.

If only.

On its path to 2.5 billion dedicated “users,” the technology industry has learned that getting the “product” right is not enough. If you are going to be the primary provider of information, connection, and yes, meaning in the world, then you have to puzzle through a few things that, heretofore, religions, educational institutions, and governments have yet to solve.

And that was what Google was beginning to do last week: Puzzle through some deeply difficult questions. But then the social terrorists — I will no longer call them the “alt right” — these terrorists shut down that dialog.

Much of the negative response to my post posed a central question: Who are you talking about? Who threatened those Googlers? Who stopped them from convening? I found that objection odd, as it had already been reported that Google employees’ names, photos and later addresses were posted to hate sites by people who declared they’d like to “stomp” on anyone who disagrees with them.

But if you want proof of who these social terrorists are? After Saturday, I don’t think we need to debate that anymore. They are here, they are emboldened, and we have a president who refuses to repudiate them, much to their delight.

That’s who.

Now all of us have to ask what we are going to do about it. This is no longer a fight the leaders at Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft, or any of us, can afford to watch from the hilltops overlooking Manassas. It’s time to end this war.

Update: The CEO of Merck just resigned from a Trump advisory council over Trump’s inability to stand against hate. Bravo! Now let’s see the leaders of Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook, all of whom are on Trump’s tech council, do the same. In fact, all CEOs should resign from presidential advisory councils — that includes the CEOs of Walmart, GM, Pepsi, and many more. It’s time to isolate this cancer.

  • Far more to be said here, but shorthand for the potential represented by recent advances in technology plus the enlightenment’s great gift to modernity: the scientific method.

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