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News + PoliticsDon't be a Stanford asshole

Don’t be a Stanford asshole


David Talbot talks about different world visions for young educated workers from The Farm.

From Ken Kesey to class warfare: A strange trip between SF and Palo Alto
From Ken Kesey to class warfare: A strange trip between SF and Palo Alto

JANUARY 26, 2015 — Editor’s note: Early Sunday morning, I made my way down to the second block of Townsend Street to join in a 24-hour event put on by Pando Daily called “don’t be awful.” The webcast was set up in the Braintree office, a classic wood-and-stone Soma tech nest with open spaces, a big kitchen, lots of takeout food, and a keg of beer.

I talked about community, about what it means for a bunch of better-paid people to move into a place where low-income people already live – and why it’s not okay for the newcomers to force out the longtime residents.

And then I laid out some of my rules for Not Being Awful, starting with: Don’t ever move into an apartment, TIC, condo, or house that has been cleared by an eviction. Don’t assume that because you have more money that you have to right to take someone else’s home away. Don’t treat an existing community like your personal playground.

Afterward, one of the event organizers thanked me for coming, even though, she said, “I disagree with almost everything you said.” Seriously? So it’s okay to evict poor people to make room for new rich people? Is that what the SF Chron talked about today with a story called “psychology studies suggest rising wealth means more jerks in SF?

Then I got an email from David Talbot, the founder of Salon, the author of Season of the Witch, a longtime SF writer and activist, with a copy of a speech he just delivered at Stanford. It sums thing up pretty nicely. I’ve posted the entire thing below (Tim Redmond)

By David Talbot

I would like to come here today with wondrous tales of San Francisco’s future. I would like to tell you that the liberation battles of the 1960s and ‘70s that made San Francisco the soaring capital of the human spirit were not only won – as I wrote about in “Season of the Witch” – but continue to triumph. But, instead, I come not to praise this heroic past, but to bury it. And to bring you grim tidings of the future from the City of Love.

This is not simply a San Francisco story, of course, because the Bay Area is one urban/suburban organism. For good or ill, Stanford and San Francisco have always been closely entwined. There’s “The City” – for that’s what we still call San Francisco around these parts, because it’s the only metropolis in northern California deserving of such a grand title. And there’s “The Farm” – that bucolic sanctuary of higher learning started by Leland Stanford, one of the Golden State’s legendary robber barons. A big pipeline of intellectual and financial capital flows up and down the Peninsula between City and Farm.

For many years, Stanford was the country-club university where millionaires of the West sent their children – the bright and the not-so-bright offspring of privilege. But in the 1930s and ‘40s. things began to change around here. Stanford grads William Hewlett and David Packard began tinkering in their legendary garage. And, after World War II, William Shockley moved west to work on his transistors. Pumped full of Pentagon money, this sun-dappled campus and the green fields and orchards surrounding it suddenly blossomed into Silicon Valley. Engineers and entrepreneurs were the new gods – not farm owners and railroad barons.

Much of the wealth in this new boom was blood money. The shiny new instruments of technology that bloomed here sprang from the Defense Department’s need to identify the enemy, track the enemy and destroy as many of them as possible. Even vaporize entire civilian populations if necessary. It was the Cold War. We were told that we were locked in a fight to the finish with a ruthless foe. There was little moral reflection in the research labs of Silicon Valley or Stanford in those days. As Dylan sang, “We learned to accept it, accept it with pride – for you don’t count the dead, when God’s on your side.”

Back then, you didn’t want to examine too closely the political views of these new gods — these masters of innovation and progress. Highlighting the symbiotic connection between Silicon Valley and the war machine, David Packard would become Secretary of Defense for President Nixon, helping to manage the genocidal war in Vietnam. And Shockley would feel free to vent his master-race views on eugenics and call for the voluntary sterilization of inferior peoples.

From Shockley’s fascist eccentricity to the selfish libertarianism of today’s baby tech moguls, the lords of Silicon Valley have long felt it was their right and duty to impose their views on the rest of us, no matter how noxious they are. And although their greed-based politics don’t usually play well with the voting public – since their ideas are born in the tech bubbles that only they inhabit – these supremely self-confident men and women keep running for high office. Considering the untold wealth at its disposal, sooner of later Silicon Valley will elect one of its own to the executive mansions in Sacramento and to Washington. And resistance will be futile.

When this day comes, it will mark the complete triumph of techno-capitalism – the machine mentality that all social problems can be engineered away. And if your problems don’t fit into this equation, tough luck. You don’t compute. You have no option but to disappear. It’s the law of Darwin. It’s the law of Schumpeter. There is no progress without creative destruction – and, poof! you’re about to be extinct.

For those of us who live in San Francisco, and have called it home for many years and have raised our families there, this is not simply a dystopian nightmare of the future. It’s our daily reality. To paraphrase David Byrne, every day we look around our city, we think, “This is not our beautiful home, this is not our beautiful life.” Every day brings new evictions – the carpenters, shoe repairmen, truck drivers, bookstore owners, grocers, nurses, teachers, firefighters, social workers, chefs and waiters, writers, artists. All the people who make up a living, breathing, multidimensional city – all gone or going. Replaced by the new class — those lucky code-crunchers and marketers who just exercised their stock options and can afford to pay cash and pay above the asking price for a home once lived in by a school librarian and her taxi-driving, poetry-writing husband who was just Ubered out of his job. The irony, of course, is that the young techies now flooding into San Francisco were attracted by the very urban qualities – the colorful social mix, the creative vibe, the city’s progressive and compassionate soul – that are now being rapidly driven out by the rule of money.

Money buys everything in San Francisco these days. It buys entire downtown city blocks, where armies of Oracle workers and other corporate empires are allowed to occupy the streets and throw parties to themselves. These 1% Occupiers are not beaten and teargassed by the police. They are coddled and protected by the city. While the rest of us can only wail to heaven about the massive traffic jams and the blocked routes to work, these corporate occupiers of San Francisco gate off public streets for their own private festivals — listening to world-famous bands and gorging on the cuisine of four-star chefs imported for their exclusive pleasure.

Meanwhile, blocks away in the Mission – the district that is being rapidly depopulated of its Latino and working-class families – kids who show up for soccer practice at their neighborhood park, like they have done their whole lives, suddenly find that the playground has been rented by smugly entitled employees of Dropbox and Airbnb – one of the companies driving the wave of evictions in the city. Sorry kids — in San Francisco these days, it’s pay or don’t play.

Tech money has even bought City Hall. Mayor Ed Lee could have been the leader San Francisco needed. Lee’s father was an overworked short-order cook in a Chinese restaurant. Lee himself was once a crusading housing activist, fighting greedy landlords in Chinatown. He makes all the right noises and gestures about saving San Francisco’s gloriously unique identity. But that’s all they really are – gestures.

In truth, Lee is owned by avatars of the tech future like start-up investor Ron Conway. And most depressing of all, nobody with a more inspiring vision of San Francisco has emerged to challenge Lee for mayor this year. With each passing day, his disastrous, tech-sponsored reign seems like it will go unchallenged for another four years. All the one-dimensional banality of the current digital era is written all over Lee’s bland, bureaucratic administration. He’s a mustache in search of a man.

Here’s the cold reality today. There is a raging war in San Francisco between long-time residents of the city and the new elites. A younger Ed Lee, when he was a Chinatown activist, would have called this a “Class War” – because that’s what it is. A war between the 1% and the 99% over the future of San Francisco’s precious turf.

My own neighborhood – Bernal Heights — has become a frontline in this class war. Not long ago, Bernal Heights was a funky mix of blue-collar workers, lesbian starter-families, counterculture artists, community organizers and Latina grandmothers. But Bernal Heights had the misfortune of being blessed with affordable housing, verdant backyards and parks – and being conveniently located next to the hipster-infused Mission, and even worse, to Highway 101 – the Google bus route to Silicon Valley. Suddenly, this unusually mixed San Francisco neighborhood was transformed into what one real estate web site recently crowned the hottest zip code in the country.  Now, if you stand at the corner of Precita and Alabama – the main checkpoint for the neighborhood — instead of seeing battered Subaru Outbacks and Hondas, you see a steady stream of new-model Teslas, BMWs and Uber limousines. A rapid, seamless flow of gleaming, luxurious metal that never slows down – not even for the children and dogs who come spilling into the street from the nearby park. These Silicon Valley movers and shakers can’t afford to slow down – time is money.

In the old days, the neighborhood’s celebrities were people like Terry Zwigoff — the independent filmmaker who made “Ghost World” and ”Bad Santa” — and underground cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Spain Rodriguez, creators of the most cutting-edge comics in America. These luminaries often retouched the neighborhood in their own inimitable style, building new turrets on their odd castles or painting murals of busty action heroes on their walls. But they didn’t tear down the whole place and start over. The new hot-shots are different, however. They’re knocking down the neighborhood’s ramshackle houses right and left  — and replacing them with cold, futuristic mega-mansions. With every new slate-gray exterior that pops up, there goes the warm and oddball neighborhood.

Last year, a young, Latino man named Alex Nieto was shot 14 times and killed by police near my house, on top of Bernal Hill, a scenic area where people like to stroll and walk their dogs. Someone had reported that Nieto, a 28-year-old security guard who grew up in the neighborhood, didn’t look right. These days, fewer and fewer of us long- time residents look right, look like we still belong in our own homes. Sooner or later, if we’re not removed by force, we’ll be moved by the invisible hand of the market.

The strange thing about the new digital rich is that they don’t want to live among their own tax bracket – in traditional enclaves of wealth like Pacific Heights or  Hillsborough. No, they want to live among the people — the ones they’re displacing — in Noe Valley, the Castro and the Mission. Take Mark Zuckerberg, please. For the past two years, the Facebook zillionaire and his wife have upended a once-quiet, middle-class neighborhood overlooking Dolores Park, as Pharaoh-like construction teams erect a massive $10-million, six-bedroom palace to house the royal couple. Zuckerberg is dying to live in the heart of the city, even though he apparently despises its San Francisco values. His corporate lobby, fwd.us, has championed a laundry list of conservative issues – from anti-labor legislation to the Keystone pipeline – that would make Harvey Milk and George Moscone spin in their graves.

So…where does Stanford fit into this tale of bitter urban struggle? As a breeding ground for the new elite, the Farm is seen by many in San Francisco as the enemy camp, as part of the problem.

My sons — who are 19,  20 and 24 and who grew up in San Francisco – have a name for the new wave of people moving in. The ones who proudly wear their Ivy League hoodies as they jog and hydrate around Precita Park or line up for artisanal chocolate tastings on Valencia Street, forking over enough cash to feed an entire family in the Mission for two or three days.  “Stanford dicks.” That’s what my sons call them. Or Stanford douchebags, or Stanford tools. The term “Stanford assholes” has even made it into “Looking,” the HBO show set in gay San Francisco – and it’s not meant to be flattering.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Stanford has not always been synonymous with douchiness. After all, Stanford gave San Francisco Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters – and all the creative visionaries who hung out with them in the hills above Palo Alto, like the great novelist Robert Stone (who recently died) and Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand, who was one of the main links between the countercultural ‘60s and the digital revolution.

“It was just incredible to come here from New York to the Peninsula, the Stanford area, the way it was in 1962,” Stone once recalled in an interview with The Chronicle. “It was like a Garden of Eden with no snakes. It was the most beautiful, most mellow — all those kind of dopey California words come true. You could get some little bungalow up a canyon for 60 bucks a month next to a creek and live oaks. It was easy living. Getting the fellowship, meeting the people I met, it was just such an extremely lucky thing for me.”

It was in Palo Alto where Phil Lesh hooked up with Jerry Garcia and started the band that would become the Grateful Dead – the house band for San Francisco’s cultural revolution. In 1965, Lesh saw Garcia playing banjo at Kepler’s bookstore – that essential oasis of the open mind in Palo Alto – and the rest is history. There is no way to imagine the long, strange trip that San Francisco took in the 1960s and ‘70s – soon followed by the rest of the country and the world – without the musical accompaniment of the Dead. They were more than just a band, they were an ongoing cultural and social experiment, one that involved the latest drugs and the latest technologies. The Grateful Dead were living proof that human ingenuity and human liberation could walk hand in hand through Golden Gate Park, after dropping acid together.

Steve Jobs was a creation of this psychedelic world, long before he became a capitalist cover boy. “Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life,” Jobs once said. “It reinforced my sense of what was important – creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and human consciousness as much as I could.”

In 1984, Jobs declared war on the oppressive mentality behind the top-down information system with his iconic TV ad for the first MacIntosh computer. If ever a TV commercial could stir dreams of personal liberation, that one did – with its sexy, athletic rebel leader hurling her heavy hammer at Big Brother’s looming video image and shattering it forever.

Many people did in fact use Apple tools to launch their assaults on the old order – including alternative journalists, filmmakers, artists, educators and activists. I’ll always remember the sea of candy-colored Macs in the newsroom at Salon, the pioneering web publication I started back in the 1990s. In fact, I felt a strong bond between the San Francisco-style progressive journalism that we were practicing at Salon – defying the East Coast media’s corporate group-think – and the risk-taking spirit of Silicon Valley. The creative young engineers at Salon were always coming up with new ways for us to build our audience and to engage more deeply with them. Forging these digital, two-way bonds with our readers was the only way Salon managed to survive, when we antagonized powerful political enemies and became the target of advertising boycotts, media industry scorn and even bomb threats. So believe me when I say that I’m no neo-Luddite. As a journalist and media entrepreneur, I’ve benefited enormously from the wonders of the digital revolution.

But revolutions can grow old and corrupt. Before he died, Steve Jobs became his own kind of big brother, running sweatshops in China and hiding his loot in overseas shelters to avoid paying his fair share of taxes. It seems that most of the young inventors and entrepreneurs who are so eager to follow in Jobs’s footsteps care less about transforming human consciousness than about making mountains of tax-sheltered wealth.

Every new social wave to roll through San Francisco during its brief history has brought major disruption. Chinese immigrants were the targets of savage riots and official persecution. The hippies and gays of the 1960s and ‘70s sparked police crackdowns, street murders and assassinations. As I write in “Season of the Witch,” what we now call San Francisco values were not born with flowers in their hair, but howling, in blood and strife. But these new waves of human energy that poured into the city in the past not only triumphed, they made the city a more enchanted place. They breathed new life into a city whose foggy mystery and shimmering light demands such everyday magic. They made the food better, the nightlife more fabulous, the music more ecstatic, and the politics more epic. In the end, what will we be able to say about the tech invaders after they’ve had their way with San Francisco?

San Francisco’s new tech masters feel no need to justify themselves. They are absolutely certain that everything they touch turns to gold. They are, by definition, the future. But machines are not destiny, they’re just machines. Some bring social benefits, along with sky-high IPOs – and some don’t. As Leon Wieseltier recently wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire…The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.”

And yet the spirit of engineering is ascendant, and no place more so than Stanford and its urban outpost, San Francisco. On campuses like this one, the humanities departments are increasingly diminished by the reign of engineering and computer science. In a world such as this, rife with technologies and ideas “that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject,” Wieseltier observed, “the humanist is the dissenter.”

The humanities – the study and critical appreciation of the human enterprise – do not require a dose of the hard sciences to become more relevant, as the prophets of techno supremacy like to preach. It’s the other way around. Technology needs to be humanized. It’s not enough to create a cool app – you have to ask what it’s for, and whose needs it serves.

Are you going to create a software tool that lays off an entire industry, and replaces human interaction with bots? Or are you going to find ways to save the planet? And help liberate the human spirit?

Are you going to join America’s perpetual war machine and go to work for the CIA or NSA and spy on your fellow citizens? Or sign up with a Silicon Valley company that feeds private information to the government? Or — in the brave spirit of Edward Snowden — are you going to challenge that Orwellian system of thought control? You know, Snowden is the real-life version of Steve Job’s brave, young rebel – the one who threw that hammer through the Big Brother video screen.

This is what it comes down to…Are you interested in going public, or in serving the public – that’s the fundamental question a Stanford student has to ask these days. When I was in college, we had a saying – “You’re either part of the problem or you’re part of the solution.” Which one are you? A Stanford dick? Or are you different?

True change, the most fundamental change, is always made by freaks and outcasts. These are the people who put San Francisco on the map in the 1960s and ‘70s. For a brief and shining moment, they turned the most beautiful city in the world into a wonderland of human imagination — or as Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane put it:  “49 square miles surrounded by reality.” These seekers of glory, as Allen Ginsberg called them, blew the city’s mind – and then they did the same for the world. Sexual freedom, gay marriage, green cities, livable wage, universal health care, local organic food, medical marijuana, free music in the parks – all of these ideas blossomed first in San Francisco before their seeds spread on the wind.

But that was then. Now we face challenges even more daunting: planetary survival, the growing gap between rich and poor, the steady destruction of democracy by war and oligarchy. You can be part of the next wave of change. You can make history, if you make brave choices.

Back in the days of the Merry Pranksters, they rode a bus to the future. The bus in which Kesey and his merry band rode — setting off from La Honda in 1964 on their magical journey — was christened “Further.” It was a dilapidated, old school bus, spray-painted in electric kool-aid colors, and it was driven — in a NOT particularly professional manner — by a speed-rapping, hot-wired Neal Cassady. It was NOT a sleek, air-conditioned, WiFi-equipped Google bus. But it did indeed go FURTHER than any Google bus ever will.

You’re either on the bus, or off the bus – that’s what the freaks used to say back then.

Make sure that YOU get on the right one…Thank you.


48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


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