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News + PoliticsMediaThe New York Times lauds Garry Tan—and it's really pathetic

The New York Times lauds Garry Tan—and it’s really pathetic

A front-page profile turns San Francisco into a parody and so badly misses the point that it's an embarrassment.

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It’s bad enough that Heather Knight did a laudatory New York Times profile of Garry Tan, whose tweets inspired death threats against several sitting supervisors.

Who cares about a few death threats; he’s trying to take the city away from the nonexistent Maoists. Wikimedia images

I mean, yeah, he said people he has political disagreements with should “die slow” (very badly attempting to quote Tupac) but he said he’s sorry, and in the end, he’s just a normal guy:

Mr. Tan is raising two boys, ages 4 and 8, with his wife, Stephanie Lim, who co-founded the publishing house Third State Books, in the city’s pricey Noe Valley neighborhood and looks like any other San Francisco tech dad. He’s a short, chatty, enthusiastic guy usually wearing thick glasses, jeans, a hoodie and colorful sneakers.

Gee.

But Knight, in a story that ran on the front page of the Sunday business section, turned San Francisco into a bad parody of itself, feeding a false and dangerous narrative about her hometown—and the piece is seriously, embarrassingly, wrong.

Let’s start at the beginning:

For a man evangelizing for change in San Francisco, owning a condo that used to be part of a church comes in handy. Last year, he scooped up the $3.95 million space near the city’s palm-tree-studded Dolores Park to hold events like this one — events he hopes will shift San Francisco from its idealistic progressivism toward nuts-and-bolts centrism.

Unpack that for a second.

San Francisco (unfortunately, but in reality) is not run by progressives. It’s run by a fairly conservative mayor.

And wait: Why are the progressives “idealists” (and what’s wrong with that) when the conservatives are “nuts-and-bolts” folks who get things done?

Mayor London Breed fits Knight’s description of centrists. Has she solved the city’s “nuts-and-bolts” problems? Have progressives not saved thousands of lives during the pandemic by housing people in hotels, over the mayor’s objection? Have progressives not passed measures to tax the rich to fund housing for the unhoused (which the mayor refuses to spend)?

I could go on—but is neoliberalism not an “ideology?” Of course it is, and it’s been an abject failure for more than 40 years.

Knight says that Tan has  “created a bombastic online persona,” which she later describes as “bravado,” a term Merriam-Webster defines thus:

Displays of bravado may be show-offish, daring, reckless, and inconsistent with good sense—take, for example, the spectacular feats of stuntpeople—but when successful they are still likely to be met with shouts of “bravo!”

Here we go:

Despite his online bravado, Mr. Tan, who says he is a moderate Democrat, wants three not-exactly-radical changes to San Francisco: a beefed-up police force with more power to combat the city’s property crime epidemic and anti-Asian violence, a thriving public school district that pushes students academically, and more housing for people of all income levels in a city struggling with tent encampments and a disappearing middle class.

In many parts of the country, that platform would hardly be controversial. But few issues are so simple in San Francisco, where Mr. Tan and his allies are often labeled right-wing know-it-alls. After all, a sizable chunk of politicians and their constituents in the liberal city wants to defund police, end merit-based admissions to the city’s top public high school and build housing only for the very poor.

Oh, “those wacky folks in San Francisco.” That “crazy left-wing city where nothing works.”

Reality: I know of very few politicians (certainly not a “sizable chunk”) who today are calling for defunding the police. (Breed called for that a few years ago, but who remembers 2021?) There are some on the Board of Supes who say that the police budget is bloated and management is inefficient, and that the Police Department should not be exempt from the cuts that are coming to every other city agency. But I haven ‘t heard the words “defund the police” from anyone at City Hall in several years.

I know of not a single politician or established affordable housing group that is calling on the city to “build housing only for the very poor.” Not one.

The affordable housing groups in this city are pushing for workforce housing, that is, housing for the government workers, teachers, hotel workers, health-care workers, and others who keep the city running. Yes, many groups are also calling for housing for the very-low-income folks and the unhoused—but nobody I know is saying that housing should be “only for the very poor.”

And do we really want to go into the Lowell admissions issue? All over the country, academic leaders are trying to figure out ways to promote diversity in elite high schools and colleges. The data is clear that standardized tests have created a high school where Black and Latino students are unrepresented.

That’s a bad one to take on, Heather.

Here’s my absolute favorite:

“Things are shifting, but they’re not shifting conservative,” said Lee Edwards, a venture capitalist who lives in the city and is a friend of Mr. Tan’s. “It’s shifting from Mao socialist to Biden Democrat.”

I realize this is a juicy quote. But honest journalists who use juicy quotes that are radically wrong tend to point that out.

Folks. I have been involved in the San Francisco left for more than 40 years. I can tell you: With all due respect to the late chairman, there are very, very few Maoists in local politics today.

Back in the 1980s, we had the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Maoist group. There weren’t that many members, but they had access to a printing press and a newspaper called The Revolutionary Worker, and they showed up at a lot of demonstrations. I haven’t heard from them in decades. The Black Panther Party used to make money in the 1960s selling copies of Mao’s Little Red Book to white radicals at UC Berkeley. That was half a century ago. There were, no doubt, active Maoists in some important social movements and organizing in the 1960s and 1970s.

But there is absolutely no “Maoist socialism” in the government of San Francisco today. (Mao wasn’t a socialist anyway, he was a Communist. There is a difference, Heather.) That’s a joke, a really stupid joke that makes the whole story look silly.

Oh, and President Biden is talking openly, and loudly, about the need to raise taxes on the rich. I don’t believe Garry Tan or any of his tech colleagues have ever said that the solution to our social problems is economic equality that would involve any of them giving up any of their great wealth.

So even that statement is wrong.

I sent Knight an email. In her days at the Chron, she never once responded to me, but in fairness, here’s what I asked:


Can you point to one significant housing organization or political leader at City Hall who says SF should only build housing for the very poor?

Can you point to any prominent activist, organization, or elected official who identifies as a “Maoist?” I know that’s a quote, but we both know that when you quote something wildly inaccurate (there are hardly any Maoists in SF today) you need to point that out.

Can you explain why progressives are “ideologues” (meaning they don’t get things done) and “centrists” are “nuts and bolts pragmatists?”

Who today — today — in local politics is calling for defunding the police? You know London Breed did that a few years back. 

Can you provide any evidence that “ideological” progressives have been running the city, when the mayor, who has far more power than the board or anyone else, is a standard neoliberal capitalist?

I await her response.

On Knight’s New York Times page, she says this:

I believe strongly in the old journalism adage of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. I strive to accurately depict San Francisco and the Bay Area and the people who live here.

Garry Tan is the comfortable. I don’t think she is afflicting him.

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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