25 May Brotopia: Bloomsbury Revisited
As you may recall, just over a week ago, we wrote a piece about the tragic death of tech entrepreneur Bob Lee and the unseemly circumstances that led to his death – a brutal stabbing murder at the hands of the brother of the married woman with whom Lee was having an affair. As we read about Lee and his “lifestyle,” we couldn’t help thinking that it all sounded familiar, that we’d heard the story – or something similar – before. As it turns out, we were right. Indeed, we were righter than we could have imagined.
Our memory on this issue was jogged by a piece published last weekend by The New York Post, which cited a book, published six years ago, written by Emily Chang and titled Brotopia: Breaking up the Boys Club of Silicon Valley. As it turns out, we quoted heavily from the Vanity Fair article adapted from that book back in January 2018. To wit:
About once a month, on a Friday or Saturday night, the Silicon Valley Technorati gather for a drug-heavy, sex-heavy party. Sometimes the venue is an epic mansion in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights; sometimes it’s a lavish home in the foothills of Atherton or Hillsborough. On special occasions, the guests will travel north to someone’s château in Napa Valley or to a private beachfront property in Malibu or to a boat off the coast of Ibiza, and the bacchanal will last an entire weekend. The places change, but many of the players and the purpose remain the same.
The stories I’ve been told by nearly two dozen people who have attended these events or have intimate knowledge of them are remarkable in a number of ways. Many participants don’t seem the least bit embarrassed, much less ashamed. On the contrary, they speak proudly about how they’re overturning traditions and paradigms in their private lives, just as they do in the technology world they rule. Like Julian Assange denouncing the nation-state, industry hotshots speak of these activities in a tone that is at once self-congratulatory and dismissive of criticism. Their behavior at these high-end parties is an extension of the progressiveness and open-mindedness — the audacity, if you will — that make founders think they can change the world. And they believe that their entitlement to disrupt doesn’t stop at technology; it extends to society as well. Few participants, however, have been willing to describe these scenes to me without a guarantee of anonymity.
If this were just confined to personal lives it would be one thing. But what happens at these sex parties — and in open relationships — unfortunately, doesn’t stay there. The freewheeling sex lives pursued by men in tech — from the elite down to the rank and file — have consequences for how business gets done in Silicon Valley.
From reports of those who have attended these parties, guests and hosts include powerful first-round investors, well-known entrepreneurs, and top executives. Some of them are the titans of the Valley, household names. The female guests have different qualifications. If you are attractive, willing, and (usually) young, you needn’t worry about your résumé or bank account. Some of the women work in tech in the Bay Area, but others come from Los Angeles and beyond, and are employed in symbiotic industries such as real estate, personal training, and public relations. In some scenarios, the ratio of women to wealthy men is roughly two to one, so the men have more than enough women to choose from. “You know when it’s that kind of party,” one male tech investor told me. “At normal tech parties, there are hardly any women. At these kinds of party, there are tons of them.”…
To be clear, there is a wide range of parties for experimental sexual behavior. Some, devoted entirely to sex, may be drug-and alcohol-free (to encourage safety and performance) and demand a balanced gender ratio. Others are very heavy on drugs and women and usually end in group “cuddle puddles,” a gateway to ever-so-slightly more discreet sexual encounters….
These sex parties happen so often among the premier V.C. and founder crowd that this isn’t a scandal or even really a secret, I’ve been told; it’s a lifestyle choice. This isn’t Prohibition or the McCarthy era, people remind me; it’s Silicon Valley in the 21st century….
They don’t necessarily see themselves as predatory. When they look in the mirror, they see individuals setting a new paradigm of behavior by pushing the boundaries of social mores and values. “What’s making this possible is the same progressiveness and open-mindedness that allows us to be creative and disruptive about ideas,” Founder X told me….
For Ms. Chang this is all evidence of ongoing sexism in the American workplace and the perpetuation of male privilege. Needless to say, we see things a little differently.
For us, this story combines many of the themes we have emphasized over the last 25 years – and over the last week-and-a-half. In part, this “lifestyle” stuff is a story about arrogance, the story we told last week about Bob Lee. The rules are the rules for a reason, and our elites today don’t care. They think that they’re above the rules, that their flaunting of the rules is somehow important and life-affirming because, after all, they’re special (and, by extension, you’re not). The rules are for little people, you see, not paradigm-shifting important folks.
This story is also, in part, the story of ignorance, the story we told in these pages yesterday about Bud Light and Target. These dumba**es think they’re special, unique, unmatched in the history of mankind. Of course, they only think that because they are woefully ignorant of history.
If you are familiar with the history of Western utopian movements – dating back at least to the Brethren of the Free Spirit – then you will all but certainly recognize that these progressive and creative “titans” of Silicon Valley are not exactly unique in Western history. In fact, they are mind-numbingly common.
Sexual perversion and liberation were key themes of the French Revolution, which, of course, “outlawed” the Catholic Church and its sexual “repression.” Sexual liberation and libertinism were also themes of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, as man was, once again, “totally transformed” and made more enlightened. The French Utopian Socialist Charles Fourier likewise dreamed of remaking man and believed that sex was one of the principal means to do so. Many of the British Fabians – most notably “sexologist” Havelock Ellis – were obsessed with the notion that sex was transformative. But perhaps the most relevant antecedent for our Silicon Valley brotopians was an offshoot of the Fabian Society, a collection of 20th century “creative progressives” known as the “Bloomsbury Group.”
This was a collection of left-wing intellectuals, most of whom were either members of the Fabian Society or friends of Fabians, who began to meet to discuss literature, art, philosophy, and politics around 1905 and reached the height of their notoriety between the world wars.
While each of the individual Bloomsburies eventually became known for his or her social and professional positions, the group itself became famous for its public celebration of unconventional sexual behavior. Of course, one can be quite certain that they did nothing to or with one another that had not been done to or with others since the beginning of time. What these folks brought to the party was the apparent belief that their unconventional sexual antics and their accompanying dismissal of prevailing morals, mores, and religious teachings were not only deserving of much public airing but also meritorious as a means of bringing ridicule on the Victorian virtues that they regarded as outdated and lacking the benefit of “reason.”
The late, great British philosopher Roger Scruton described their antics thusly in an article in the October 2009 American Spectator entitled “A Dark Horse.”
[This “new upper class”] adopted the habit of flaunting its effete sexuality. Lytton Strachey, whose Eminent Victorians, debunking the icons of the old moral order, appeared in 1918, advocated what he called “the higher sodomy,” in which the promiscuity of the public-school dormitory was combined with high romantic attachments designed to shock the few remaining advocates of marriage. The works of Freud, which were being translated by Lytton’s brother James, seemed to authorize all breaches of the old sexual customs, and — in the wake of the First World War — the culture of inversion acquired a sudden glamour. Homosexuality had been a hot topic ever since the pseudo-scientific explorations of [the extremely eccentric British physician and psychologist] Havelock Ellis and the trial of Oscar Wilde. But it enjoyed a kind of endorsement from the new elite that made it into a badge of membership, and a sign of moral distinction . . . Many of its leading figures were Communist sympathizers, many more were romantic socialists of the H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw variety. Among French intellectuals, leftist ideology, anti-patriotism, and prancing homosexuality were as frequent as they were in England — witness Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, André Gide. But in France the cultural and the political elite were distinct. Politics was conducted on the rive droite, culture on the rive gauche of the city, and they were divided from each other by the vast and unfrequented monument of Nôtre Dame. In England the very people who were dominating the arts were shaping politics. They could join the political discussion through the hereditary House of Lords, and the public school system meant that the intoxicating Hellenism imbibed by those who joined the bohemian circles of Soho and Bloomsbury was imbibed also by those who went into Parliament, and by those — a surprisingly large number — who inhabited both milieus: J. M. Keynes, for instance, Bertrand Russell, Leonard Woolf.
There was no formal membership involved in the Bloomsbury Group, so reports vary as to who was and who was not a regular at these meetings. Among the best-known participants were Virginia Spencer Woolf and her husband Leonard; Vanessa Spencer Bell and her husband Clive; E. M. Forster, the novelist; Lytton Strachey, the essayist and critic; John Maynard Keynes, the economist and one-time lover of Strachey; Duncan Grant, the painter and one-time lover of both Strachey and Keynes; Roger Fry, the noted Art Critic and lover of Vanessa Bell; Vita Sackville-West, author, poet, wife of Harold George Nicolson, and promiscuous lesbian lover of seemingly dozens of notable ladies of the day, including Virginia Woolf; and Harold George Nicolson, diplomat, author, Vita’s husband, and bi-sexual bon vivant.
Finally, there was the philosopher G. E. Moore, whose 1903 book Principia Ethica formed the basis of the group’s secular “religion” and who personally became so central to the group’s early discussions that his biographer Paul Levy describes him as the “father of Bloomsbury.”
Moore was one of the founders of something called the “analytic tradition” in philosophy. He is also known for something called “common sense concepts.” For our purposes today, however – which is to explain the connection of the Bloomsburies to the hyper-sexualized, hyper-political, and palpably bifurcating social discourse of contemporary America – Moore was also one of the chief developers and promoters of moral worldview called “emotivism.” As we have noted in these pages repeatedly, the great moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre defined emotivism as the belief that “all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling.” Other philosophers are more closely associated with emotivism, but MacIntyre credits Moore with having moved the idea from the realm of philosophy to the drawing rooms of the radicals, where it became a foundational principle of the Left, which it remains today.
Keynes, whose economic theories were the inspiration for Roosevelt’s big-government economic program, recalled the overwhelming influence of Moore on the Bloomsbury crowd in an essay entitled “My Early Beliefs,” which he wrote in 1938.
I went up to Cambridge at Michaelmas 1902, and Moore’s Principia Ethica came out at the end of my first year . . . of course, its effect on us, and the talk which preceded and followed it, dominated, and perhaps still dominates everything else . . . Indeed, in our opinion, one of the greatest advantages of his religion, was that it made morals unnecessary – meaning by “religion” one’s attitude towards oneself and the ultimate, and by “morals” one’s attitude towards the outside world and the intermediate . . . In short, we repudiated all versions of the doctrine of original sin, of there being insane and irrational springs of wickedness in most men.
So what’s the point of this seemingly prudish attack on good people who are just trying to have a good time? Is it not their business what they wish with their genitals? To which, we say, “Of course.” Our concern, rather, is that this kind of behavior in politically and economically powerful people is a cause for concern, for it is a clear sign of disdain for all moral principles, which, in the powerful, can represent a threat to social order.
The Bloomsburies thought of themselves as enlightened, progressive, creative wunderkinds. But in truth, they were perfectly boring wannabe-rebels whose sole contribution to Western Civilization was to sow the intellectual seeds of a philosophical abomination that has turned our political culture into a contemptible competition over whose feelings matter most.
When Emily Chang heard about the powerful men in Silicon Valley who hold or attend wild, drug-fueled sex parties, she thought that too little had changed in the battle of the sexes. By contrast, when we heard about the parties, we thought: what a bunch of dumba**es. These dolts are too dumb to know what they don’t know, which is to say that they aren’t creative portents of a brave new world, but rather sad, arro-gnorant men who don’t know that they’re retread egomaniacs embracing a retread notion of their own importance.
Additionally and more to the point, history has shown that the abandonment of moral principles inevitably leads to the adoption of either collectivism or nihilism (or both), along with a lack of respect for human life. For example, the Bloomsburies and the Fabians became Joseph Stalin’s most powerful support groups in the West during the post-World War I period, at the very same time that he was committing murder on a scale never before witnessed in human history. The two groups were also fanatical supporters of exterminating the “feeble minded” and other objectionable human beings. Havelock Ellis put it this way: “Eventually, it seems evident, a general system, whether private or public, whereby all personal facts, biological and mental, normal and morbid, are duly and systematically registered, must become inevitable if we are to have a real guide as to those persons who are most fit, or most unfit to carry on the race.”
We can only hope that these techy sybarites are as harmless as the barnyard animals they imitate. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the damage that have done and will do, given their enormous wealth and their belief in a politics that reflects their narcissism. The political ideal embraced by Silicon Valley as a whole is much like the sexual ideals embraced by the faction of it identified by Emily Chang, which is to say trite, tiresome, and destructive.
We – as a society – have been here before, and we’ll be here again, as the “great” men of every era repeat the mistakes of their predecessors, leading, time and again, to massive corruption, massive loss of wealth, and societal decay.