Opinion

Is Peter Thiel trolling the media?

A recent interview makes him sound like a mad man. But maybe the joke's on us.

One of the first things I thought about when I read this article in The New York Times by Maureen Dowd recounting her "four-hour dinner of duck and chocolate dessert" with Peter Thiel was that perhaps he should have demanded the interview be recorded and the full transcript be posted. Why? Because as this interview is presented now, Thiel sounds incredibly strange.

Thiel is the notorious Silicon Valley billionaire known for funding countless startups, but also Donald Trump's presidential campaign and the lawsuit that destroyed Gawker. He manages his reputation in the press very carefully. In fact, he rarely speaks to the media, and when he does, he rarely deviates from his usual talking points. This is an astute strategy. But it does raise the question: Why did he agree to a quasi-profile in the Fashion & Style section of The New York Times with Maureen Dowd, a columnist known for reflexive, robotic progressivism and muddled thinking?

Thiel is certainly a bit of a contrarian. He has a precocious kid's instinct for contradiction, but he usually uses it in the service of genuinely independent thinking. In this interview, however, it sounds like he is going the opposite route of everyone else just for the heck of it, like he wants to be contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. (At one point he says, "Maybe I do always have this background program running where I'm trying to think of, 'Okay, what's the opposite of what you're saying?' and then I'll try that.")

When the interview went live, the internet lit up with facile mockery of plucked-out-of-context quotes from the piece. For example, Thiel professed, "There's a point where no corruption can be a bad thing. It can mean that things are too boring." That sounds like a contrarian bridge too far. Then again, Dowd provides very little context for the quote, so it's hard to say.

But it's worth mentioning that many philosophers write with the intent to relay as much, if not more, through the subtext of their work than through the surface of the text. And in many cases, the writer will drop an innocuous-seeming remark that will, for the concerning reader, illuminate the subtext beneath the surface of the text. Is that what Thiel is doing here?

At one point, we discover that Thiel learned some wrestling terms from Hulk Hogan:

Using two wrestling terms he learned, Mr. Thiel says that many people assumed Mr. Trump was "kayfabe" — a move that looks real but is fake. But then his campaign turned into a "shoot" — the word for an unscripted move that suddenly becomes real.

"People thought the whole Trump thing was fake, that it wasn't going to go anywhere, that it was the most ridiculous thing imaginable, and then somehow he won, like Hogan did," Mr. Thiel says. "And what I wonder is, whether maybe pro wrestling is one of the most real things we have in our society and what's really disturbing is that the other stuff is much more fake. [The New York Times]

What "other stuff" are we talking about here? Maybe that's a subtle dig at the press. The interview did come out after a long campaign season where the media saw its credibility fall to all-time lows. Surely, Thiel can't be the only one to think of pro-wrestling when he watches members of a CNN panel bloodlessly tear each other to bits.

Maybe Thiel has decided, like a pro wrestler who fakes punches, to just troll the media with fanciful answers to questions just for the heck of it. Or maybe Dowd just plucked the strangest-sounding things from what Thiel said over four hours, without context, to make a more interesting piece. But I like to think that maybe, just maybe, he's just trolling us all.

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