How tech's culture war feeds the art of the outrageous

If the clash between Silicon Valley and the nontech community is indeed "class warfare," as some have suggested, then there's an arms race for shock value.

Tom Perkins, co-founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Getty Images

For reasons clear only to him, Tom Perkins, the outspoken co-founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, willingly offered more fodder this week to critics who agree with Marc Andreessen's portrayal of him as the leading, well, expletive in California.

That was a harsh judgment, but Perkins has already put his foot in his mouth with comments comparing criticism of America's rich to crimes against the Jews of 1930s Germany. His remarks underscore the deep divide between the haves and have-nots in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. And he still hasn't retreated from controversy.

Consider these gems from a sold-out interview the legendary venture capitalist gave this week at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club. What started as a question about his inflammatory Holocaust remarks ended inexplicably and voluntarily with a comment about gun control and, presumably, vigilantism. "If Germany had American gun laws, there would have never been Hitler," Perkins said.

Then there was this take on democracy: "The Tom Perkins system is, you don't get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes," he said. "You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes."

Critics say Perkins' comments paint him as tone deaf, if not out of touch with contemporary society. But give the man his due. Educated at MIT and Harvard, where he earned an MBA, he helped create one of Silicon Valley's most iconic venture capital firms. (And you must be doing something right to have created 20 or 30 billionaires in your career, as Perkins boasted at the event).

But whether he consciously sought the spotlight, Perkins may be more emblematic of tensions in the Bay Area than anyone else. Not because of his incendiary views, but because of his chosen method of delivery. "I was trying to be outrageous," he later said of his voting idea. "And I was." So that's the real Tom Perkins system: Spout a sincere, if unpopular, message coated in the heavy sheen of over-the-top-ness.

Perkins' re-emergence as a public presence -- he retired from Kleiner Perkins years ago -- takes place amid an increasingly testy environment in the Bay Area , where rising rents and evictions have led to protests by community activists against the tech industry. A favorite target has been the commuter shuttles that ferry tech workers to and from San Francisco and Oakland to corporate campuses down the Peninsula.

People on both sides of the divide have used militaristic terms to describe the situation. One protestor at a Google bus public hearing with the city called it "class warfare." The official title of yesterday's Perkins event was, "The War on the 1 Percent."

If it is a war, then each side is entrenched in an arms race for shock value.

The press has helped fan the flames by writing about such things (obviously myself included). But in a technology industry where image is so tightly controlled by public relations reps, it's unusual -- and let's face it, newsworthy -- to see someone, especially of Perkins' stature, let fly.

Perkins knows that, at least at this point. In a conversation with the press after his onstage interview, he reflected on the viral impact of The Wall Street Journal letter where he made his remarks about the Nazis. Perkins linked the sharp reaction to his use of the word "Kristallnacht," which he now deems "forbidden." If he had used a less contentious parallel, he said, like comparing the situation to the French ruling class being led to the guillotine, the letter would not have triggered comparable outrage. (He says the comparison came to him after reading about a window being shattered on a Google bus . "Kristallnacht" literally means "Night of Broken Glass.")

Perkins has repeatedly denounced his Nazi comparison, but he stands by the message. He said the intent was to warn against the danger that's present whenever a majority targets a minority. That may be a sufficiently uncontroversial and universal message, but it's not the stuff of banner headlines. And that's where the deployment of a completely offensive, devastating historical analogy makes his point stand out from the cacophony.

So far, other Silicon Valley venture capitalists have kept their distance from the controversy. In fact, after Perkins' Kristallnacht letter, his former company put up a tweet signalling its displeasure. "Tom Perkins has not been involved in KPCB in years. We were shocked by his views expressed today in the WSJ and do not agree," said the Kleiner Perkins tweet.

In recent months, income inequality in the US has become more of a national political issue. Earlier this week, President Obama made good on his promise in the State of the Union speech to use his executive power to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from $7.25 an hour for federal contract workers starting in 2015. The move displeased critics of the White House's public statements and actions on the topic of fairness.

The debate is likely to get even more amped up as the November off-year elections approach. In the meantime, the rhetoric isn't the private purview of the 1 percenters. Indeed, the nontech protestors are not without their own political theater. Take, for example, the man at the shuttle bus protest in December who posed as a Google employee during one demonstration, immediately capturing the attention of news cameras. There's also the activist group that personally protested at the house of famed Google X engineer Anthony Levandowski.

The threshold of outrageousness will rise as long as there are people who don't mind shouldering the attention. Perkins is perhaps so comfortable in that position because he has less to lose. He just turned 82 years old, has already made his millions, and seems perfectly content to play the divorced from reality, Crazy Old Perkins role he's fallen into.

Who knows the next jaw-dropping thing someone will say? For now, at least, Perkins is leaving the public debate to others. "This will be my last one," he said, while explaining why he keeps putting himself in these situations with the press. "I think I needed to make a point. It had to be made. So I made it."

So we're done here. Until the next point has to be made.

 

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