Libertarian Tech Billionaire Peter Thiel Had Set His Sights on ACORN

 Getty Images for New York Time

Getty Images for New York Time

New Orleans  This is a bit unusual for the Chief Organizer’s Report, but a piece by Steven Thrasher in The Guardian, published in the United Kingdom, gives progressives a better understanding of what is at stake in the billionaires’ war against free speech, the poor, and really all of us. Hang with me, because this is where the knife hits the bone.

Peter Thiel’s Gawker war not his first brush with a high-priced vendetta.

Billionaire’s investment in conservative James O’Keefe’s ‘sting’ video may have had a long term – and negative – impact on progressive causes

By Steven W. Thrasher in The Guardian

Watching Peter Thiel, the libertarian billionaire, waging war on Gawker Media has reminded me that there was a time when Thiel himself backed another controversial media figure famed for causing outrage in his pursuit of the “truth” – conservative “film-maker” James O’Keefe.

Thiel, who has been in the news … for underwriting the legal fees of Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, has sparked a heated debate about the free speech implications of a billionaire using his cash to muzzle media organizations.

But he has also used his money to fund people who set out to greatly harm progressive causes including public media, housing for poor people, and rational perceptions about immigrants and voting.

In 2009 Thiel invested in O’Keefe, a conservative agitator whose undercover videos (some dishonestly edited to present things that never happened or just plain wrong) were used to undermine liberal causes.

Before admitting to backing Gawker’s biggest lawsuit, Thiel was best known – as much as the billionaire was known at all outside Silicon Valley – as an early investor in companies such as PayPal and Facebook.

He also has been a longtime champion of conservative causes, backing GoProud, a now defunct lobbying body for gay Republicans sick of the “centrist” Log Cabin Republicans.

But his early investment in O’Keefe (who has since pleaded guilty to breaking into a US senator’s office and paid $100,000 to a victim of his smears) may have had the most long-term – and negative – impact.

Shortly after I began working as a writer at the Village Voice in 2009, O’Keefe was in the news for making his first breakout “sting” video, which seemed to show him dressed as a pimp and conservative blogger Hannah Giles dressed as a prostitute. They appeared to approach various offices of Acorn (the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now, one of the most powerful grassroots organizations for poor brown and black people which did important work with voter registration and housing access) to ask for their assistance in avoiding taxes, which they seem to get.

Eventually, the videos were debunked – but not until they had done tremendous damage. As I wrote in 2010:

O’Keefe had carefully edited his tapes and left out, for example, that he was decked out in college preppie clothes, not pimp-wear. At least one Acorn office threw him out, and at least two knowingly played along with his ruse. (The San Diego office called the cops after he left, and the Philadelphia office filed a police report.) The upshot was that after his edited tapes became public, Congress quickly voted to strip ACORN of all federal funds. The organization effectively went out of business before the bill could take effect or be thrown out in court.”

O’Keefe later made outrageous, selectively edited videos that would lead to significant outcomes, like the ousting of NPR’s CEO, even though that video was thoroughly debunked when the raw video was seen. But going back to 2009, I got a tip that O’Keefe was not “absolutely independent”, as he claimed, but that he had received funding from one Peter Thiel for a video he’d made earlier in the year called “Taxpayers Clearing House”.

The opening of Taxpayers Clearing House is pretty racially offensive. As Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie plays, O’Keefe rides around in a van that looks like the Publisher’s Clearing House Prize Patrol, a well-known American sweepstakes that surprises entrants with a $1m prize. He approaches unsuspecting black and brown people in their homes, duped into thinking they are going to win money when he rings their bell. Instead, he presents them with a bill for $28,000 – the portion of their bill, he says, for the 2008 bailout of Wall Street banks. The whole thing is framed to make minorities look stupid, dumb and greedy.

Asked about Thiel’s involvement, his spokesman James O’Neill, told me that the billionaire had provided O’Keefe with “about $10,000” to make the video through a “small-government group”. He also denied Thiel had involvement with the Acorn videos, adding that he’d only “watched them on YouTube” and “he shares the view that taxpayer money should not promote human trafficking”. (No taxpayer money was ever used to promote human trafficking.)
This incident reveals a few things about Thiel’s reach, the scale of his attacks on liberal politics, and the effectiveness of both outside the domains of traditional press and presidential politics.

While Thiel did not directly fund the Acorn videos, he funded the film-maker who did shortly before they were made; those videos not only managed to destroy Acorn, but they helped Republicans keep voting to defund it for years after it was dead and to convince half of Republican voters in 2012 that Acorn had stolen the election for Obama in 2008.

Would O’Keefe have been able to get that video made, as widely seen, and effectively considered but for Thiel’s startup funding? It’s a counterfactual. But if we are to take seriously the idea that Thiel’s initial half-million-dollar investment in Facebook entitles him to a portion of the value of the company that dominates so much everyday life today, we must also seriously consider that his startup investment in O’Keefe has had a handsome return on investment, too.

Fast forwarding to the Gawker case, Thiel ominously told the New York Times that he “refused to divulge exactly what other [media lawsuit] cases he has funded but said, ‘It’s safe to say this is not the only one.’” So there are an unknown number of media lawsuits he has going on. In 2009, the already billionaire mogul was willing to give a paltry $10,000 to an unknown video troublemaker, who has done a great deal of damage to progressive politics. How many things is he involved with? Only Thiel knows, and we can only wait to find out.

It’s fitting that Thiel funded the crude Taxpayers Clearing House video in 2009. Shortly after O’ Keefe’s video came out, Thiel wrote an essay for the libertarian Cato institute complaining that: “Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women – two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians – have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.” With that in mind it makes ideological sense that he should align himself with O’Keefe, both early warriors in the backlash against the Voting Rights Act that grew during the Obama years.

Thiel is a Trump delegate. Trump too has warned he’ll crack down on the press if elected. But the power of a billionaire like Thiel doesn’t just expose problems with the freedom of the press in general or Gawker specifically. It is easy to argue that Gawker’s woes are of its own making – outing Thiel and others, (said by some to have triggered his initial rage), and publishing sex tapes without permission isn’t exactly going to win a lot of public sympathy (disclosure – I’ve written for them a couple of times years ago and have friends who work there).

What Thiel has exposed is that the problem with American politics (and America in general) is capitalism. Unfettered capitalism lets the Thiels of the world do what they want, largely when they want, and largely legally. If a plutocrat wants to build a private island free from government influence, they probably can. If they want to circumvent even America’s toothless gun restrictions by supporting a 3D printer for guns, they can do that, too. We are almost powerless to stop anything we have learned about Peter Thiel; he has the money and power to legally stave off financial competitors, fund foot soldiers to strike down community organizers, and (almost as an afterthought) deeply influence the media and presidential politics.

This is what American capitalism creates.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Where is The Line Between Good Advice and Crass Marketing?

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 11.15.46 AM

Advise and photo from The Guardian

New Orleans    Recently, I read that the well-known progressive newspaper based in the United Kingdom, The Guardian, has established a special section on its website called “protest.” Wow, I thought, now we’re talking! And, truth to tell, I’ve started making it a point to regularly check it out every couple of days. I’m not saying this new feature is going to end up on everyone’s weekly “to do” list, but what can I say…it’s on mine.

If I remember correctly I had gotten the heads-up from some columnist who saw this Guardian feature as a “sign of the times” kind of thing indicating that protests were becoming constant and ubiquitous. Oh, how I wish! A regular reading indicates the opposite. Sometimes it’s pretty thin gruel as The Guardian tries to keep hope alive in this section to tell the truth.

And, sometimes it’s just plain troubling.

I read a piece by Tess Riley identified as a Guardian journalist and a former student campaigner entitled Three Steps to Building a Successful Student Campaign. Not surprisingly the section on communication given her career choice was stronger than some of the other “steps.” For the most part it was all pretty standard, cookbook style recommendations: wear comfortable shoes to a march, use “strong visuals” in protests, and the like. Community organizing made her list, but was obviously a bit outside her experience and just sort of taken off the shelf as she wrote:

This grassroots approach seeks to find out what people want or need by listening to their stories. By finding common themes, organisers can mobilise neighbours through shared concerns to bring about change.

Obviously this is not my cup of tea since it continues to propagandize a spin on the work that is somehow separate from building an organization, seeing people simply as a base to be mobilized, and trying to dilute the power of issues and anger in some milquetoast whitewash called “their stories.” But, that’s just me.

More disturbing was finding by the end of Riley’s piece the real point seemed less about The Guardian giving students a shot at making change, but more about The Guardian doing self-promotion of something they were calling Guardian Students, which seems like a scam to sell students on the need to read The Guardian. Fair enough, they have to pay their bills too, but equating social change and sales felt sketchy to me. It made me question whether or not the “protest” section was really about the news and getting the word out about important actions people are taking than just pandering to eyeballs like mine to drive traffic to their website and the ads running along the side of articles. Was I a supporter or a sucker?

I should have known. I had read a book several months ago that warned me, and any others that might care, about the role of the Gates Foundation is playing in slanting the spin on development through their sponsorship of the Global Development section of The Guardian.

We need the news and regular and reliable news on things like protest, poverty, and development is hard to find, but where is the line drawn between good advice and crass marketing, their drive to survive at any cost, and our interest in fair and objective information. Where is the section that will explain to us whether we are players or being played?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Blowing the Students’ Keg: California, Quebec, and Chile

Student Strike in Montreal March 2012

New Orleans   This fall will undoubtedly see a huge number of students mobilized by the November election, but I’m starting to believe that the student army that is going to be activated this fall is going to be marching to a different tune for a change:  their own self-interest.  The evidence may be isolated, but once one begins looking, it is not hard to see signs of stirring that could interject student issues around education, opportunity, jobs, costs, and debt into the middle of political debate.

This is not merely a question of the tactical maneuvering between American political parties and Congress around student loans and debt, because the outcome being debated largely postpones the problem rather than looking at the core issues.  In student strikes in Northridge, California, Quebec, and Chile triggered by rising costs we are starting to see the core issues confronted, and students are not stepping down or wearing out.

A piece written by Martin Luckas in The Guardian on the “Maple Spring” in the streets of Montreal expresses the issues at stake eloquently as a fundamental challenge to the increasingly entrenched policies of neo-liberalism:

The fault-lines of the struggle over education – dividing those who preach it must be a commodity purchased by “consumers” for self-advancement, and those who would protect it as a right funded by the state for the collective good – has thus sparked a fundamental debate about the entire society’s future.

Luckas’ point is well taken.  The students in California engaging in a hunger strike now are partially incensed that administration is getting raises, including a 25% hike to $400,000 per year for the new Northbridge president, even while classes are being cut, fees increased, and teachers ghettoized as adjuncts without benefits.   How is this fight different than reading about the complaints of shareholders to a $15 million package for the head of Citibank, when everything about the bank is on life support?  One of the major themes of neo-liberalism is essentially “corporatizing” all debate about all public policy.

Student self-interest where debt is competing with ambition and opportunity and jobs are still in scant supply could be the match that lights a much better fire!

Students for Quality Education in California Strike against Fee Hikes

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Mirror Sites, Domain Hosts, and Wikileaks Cyber War

wikiprotestmain-420x0 New Orleans I’ve got to admit that the more there is a bully boy, gang up on Wikileaks by governments, businesses and cowards, the more I’m sympathetic to their situation and the need for all of us to step up some way or another.

My hero of the day is Toronto-based EasyDNS, a domain registration outfit with 55,000 customers, that was misidentified of Twitter and then in various newspapers as hosting Wikileaks’ website.  As most know, the real hosts turned tail and ran for specious reasons, so when the Wikipeople realized that EasyDNS had a set, they asked them to host, and sure enough, Mark Jeftovic, head of EasyDNS, said it was time “to put up or shut up.”  So, they strapped it on for the fight and took Wikileaks on as a customer.  I’m definitely going to give them some of my little business!

In response to rouge individual and government efforts to knock Wikileaks off the web, a couple of hundred people at last report had downloaded and were hosting “mirror” sites.  Ok, techno-peasants, what is a “mirror site?”  According to SearchStorage.Com:

“A mirror site is an exact replica of the original site and is usually updated frequently to ensure that it reflects the content of the original site. Mirror sites are used to make access faster when the original site may be geographically distant (for example, a much-used Web site in Germany may arrange to have a mirror site in the United States). In some cases, the original site (for example, on a small university server) may not have a high-speed connection to the Internet and may arrange for a mirror site at a larger site with higher-speed connection and perhaps closer proximity to a large audience.”

I think we ought to help these mirror sites multiply so that these botnet strategies of pushing unpopular sites off the internet are stopped.  Like it or not, there is very valuable information coming forward from these news reports based on the cables released thus far.  We’re finding out more than we might have wanted about how diplomacy is in service to corporate globalism, and particularly in places like Africa and Latin America we’re gaining valuable policy insights without risk of potential harm.

As for “cyber war,” what a hoot!  It’s like a huge hoax that made the front page, lead story on the New York Times. These are folks watching too many grade B movies on HBO about computers that talk and bombs bursting in air.  We’ve learned even more about cyber-censorship at the state level from reading the news reports, but this cyber war hype is little more than electronic picket signs on some corporate sites by a far flung band of “hacktavists” and other wannabes.  I realize it’s on the edgy side of the law perhaps, but darned if I didn’t wish Anonymous would decide to jump in to support one of ACORN International’s campaigns around Remittance Justice for example.

The Times very respected media columnist, David Carr, had a piece today looking at the issues.  Steve Coll, who now heads the New America Foundation, but while working in the trade did great work that has taught me a lot, was a bit snarky on the whole “Wikileaks is journalism” frontier.  He correctly observes that “established interests and the rule of law tend to come down pretty hard on incipient movements” and then rather than standing up to defend such movements compares apples to oranges by injecting Napster into the conversation as a red herring, since Napster became an avowedly commercial enterprise competing with the music industry it was balkanizing.  He wants an office, an address, and a way to call for an interview without understanding that “incipient movements” have to protect themselves and their survival, before they cater to the 9 to 5 requirements of the press.

Disappointing!  Especially since Julian Assange and Wikileaks clearly went “establishment” in the release of these cables in creating a partnership with major news organizations around the world.  My bet is that they did so in the most “old school” way by connecting with (or hiring) someone who knew how to deal with those very organizations.  I don’t know, but my bet is that Mark Stephens, the oft quoted lawyer from the United Kingdom, who represents Wilileaks and Assange in that country carried some of the weight especially with The Guardian and the connection to the New York Times for the collaborative release.  One article mentioned that Stephens is also the lawyer for the Associated Press.  This is not some legal aid newbie to the bar, but someone who obviously has stature with news outfits and could “represent.”  This is not a lift that Julian made himself, even if he and his comrades orchestrated and approved it.  Who needs an office when you have a high powered lawyer?

We need more deep breaths.  This is good stuff and we need to all do our small bit to crawl up from under the mushrooms where we have been fed dung, and grow a little taller and stronger in some sunlight.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail