Opinion

The strange and wicked life of John McAfee

The controversial tech entrepreneur lived a life of excess and destructive indifference

When it was reported on Wednesday afternoon that John McAfee, the antivirus software engineer, had died at the age of 75, apparently having taken his own life, many no doubt responded with indifference to this unedifying end to an equally wide-wasting existence.

While the manner in which he lived was mostly regrettable, I cannot help admitting that a part of me always admired McAfee. Not because I agreed with him about anything, least of all his ludicrous political views, but because he was so refreshingly old-fashioned in his wickedness: an anti-exemplar not of the banal evil of his fellow tech millionaires, but a grandiose excess for which our own exhausted age lacks the vitality and the imagination.

McAfee was born in Gloucestershire in 1945, the son of an American serviceman and an Englishwoman, but spent much of his early life in Virginia. When he was 15 years old, his father killed himself. After earning a degree in mathematics from Roanoke College in 1967, he was hired by NASA and then a series of computing and consulting firms. In 1987 he founded the antivirus software company with which he was to become synonymous despite the fact that he sold his shares in 1994, two years after its initial public offering, and had no further involvement in the company. Later he would claim that despite being a favorite target of hackers he never used the software himself. (In 2013 his hatred of what he referred to as that "annoying" program was the subject of a bizarre YouTube video that cannot be shared on a family website.)

The large fortune McAfee appears to have accumulated in the years following the sale of his company — estimated at more than $100 million — largely dissipated following the crash of 2007-08. After that he had what would politely be described as adventures in Central America and found himself in the somewhat unusual position of being deported from rather than to Guatemala. Immediately upon his return to the United States, he was approached by a prostitute, whom he would fall in love with and soon marry, a strange but oddly charming event worthy of one of the happier incidents in the lives of Defoe's heroines.

Apart from his namesake software and his foreign escapades, McAfee is probably best known for his ill-fated forays into politics. Even by the standards of the Libertarian Party, he was not a candidate likely to attract a wide following (his most prominent supporter appears to have been the author of several Star Wars novels depicting the offscreen adventures of Lando Calrissian). Unlike modern politically correct libertarians who dress up their arguments with graphs and attempt to appeal to the sensibilities of the metropolitan liberal establishment, McAfee insisted that taxes were simply "illegal" and refused to pay them.

For all that, it is hard not to think that he would have been a more appealing character, at least aesthetically speaking, if he had lived 200 years earlier. In the 19th century McAfee might have composed "The Revolt of Islam" or a biography of William Tell in between keeping a pet bear in his Oxford rooms or fighting for Greek independence. Instead he both consumed and sold an enormous amount of drugs, wrote computer software, and ran unsuccessfully for the presidential nomination of a minor political party.

The thing I liked best about McAfee was his anarchic humor. Probably no single event during the course of last year's lockdowns filled me with more joy than reports of his arrest in Norway for wearing women's underwear over his face in lieu of a mask. A few days later he announced that the whole thing had been a joke. It was typical, he said, of the English-speaking media establishment that no one noticed the German word "Polizei" in the background of the alleged arrest photos: "The MSM fact checks stories? Nope."

I had the pleasure of meeting McAfee once. This was five years ago in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he was taking part in a Libertarian Party debate. I have no idea what persons seeking the nominations of other political parties do during their TV breaks, but McAfee left the debate stage to smoke on the casino floor, where he chatted with fans and some of his fellow candidates. Needless to say, he had hard words for the casino security staff who scolded his admirers for taking pictures, citing a nonexistent anti-photography statute.

That evening's debate was memorable not least of all for McAfee's candor. In response to a question about what works of political philosophy had inspired the candidates, he flatly declared: "I come to you untutored in the great thinkers of libertarianism. The first book I ever read cover to cover was Darwin's Origin of Species at the age of 30. I read that book because I was dealing drugs in Mexico at the time and it was the only English-language book I could find."

Bill Belichick once attributed Lawrence Taylor's success to "his total disregard for his body." It was a similar indifference to his mind that made John McAfee's career possible. Whether it is worthy of celebration is a different question.

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