Silicon Valley vs Civilization
Late in September, Mark Zuckerberg was pictured hugging India prime minister Narendra Modi at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters.
About the same time, on the other side of the world in Modi’s India, a Hindu lynch mob broke into a local Muslim family’s home and bludgeoned to death 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq by smashing in his skull, and then dragged him through the streets of Bisara, a village just 30 miles north of the capital New Delhi. The mob also bashed in his 22-year-old son’s head, leaving him in a coma with severe brain damage, and sexually assaulted the dead man’s daughter.
It was just the latest in a series of increasingly gruesome attacks by Hindu extremists, reportedly inspired and encouraged by Modi’s far-right political party, and affiliated grassroots organizations like the notorious RSS, a paramilitary group established in the 1920s explicitly modeled after Mussolini’s and Hitler’s paramilitaries, through the ranks of which Modi rose to power. For weeks, Modi kept menacingly quiet about the lynching, one of several this year, while his ministers and party officials fanned the flames.
Modi’s culture minister dismissed the lynching as an “accident” in which no one was at fault — even though a local Hindu temple priest admitted he organized the mob at his temple through announcements over the loudspeaker falsely accusing the only Muslim family in the village of killing a cow. Modi’s culture minister then claimed that the father had died of “shock” after being wrongly told that his son had been killed. This is the father whose head was crushed by bricks in front of his family, and whose body was dragged through the streets of the village.
Other members of Modi’s party threatened riots and worse if any of the lynch mob murderers were prosecuted. Another BJP party official called for the prosecution of the Muslim family’s survivors for allegedly killing the cow.
After two weeks, Modi finally issued a statement so vague and tepid that it worked more like gasoline than cold water. Which was exactly the point. As many have explained already, it was Modi himself who began exploiting cow-slaughtering and beef-eating as a way to whip up hatred and rearrange the political divisions along communal religious lines rather than along class and caste lines.
(For an excellent rundown of how Modi has spent years cultivating and whipping up communal violence with speeches about minorities slaughtering cows and political rivals waging a “pink revolution” [i.e. raw meat] read this Quartz article, “How Narendra Modi spread anti-beef hysteria in India”.)
While Silicon Valley swoons over Modi’s talk of Digital India and SmartCities and bullet trains and the rest, back at home Modi has talked up a very different and very violent, far-right game. And it seems just about everyone in the world who isn’t a far-right Hindu chauvinist understands just how bad and how dangerous Modi is.
Everyone, that is, apart from Silicon Valley’s “smartest guys in the room.”
The New York Times editorial board has been sounding the alarm over Modi’s dangerous lean towards violent sectarianism, authoritarianism and censorship for the past half year (see here, here, here, here, and here). Meanwhile, India under Modi now leads the world in Facebook censorship, and well surpassed Putin in shutting down progressive western NGOs and foundations (excluding Omidyar Network, which has played a hugely supportive role in helping Modi to power). Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen was forced out as chancellor of Nalanda University, set up by a consortium of Asian governments on the site of what was one of the oldest universities in the world, as Modi’s allies have cracked down on academics and intellectuals across the country who don’t adhere to the ruling party’s line. In an unprecedented protest for India, dozens of leading writers have been returning the most prestigious literary award from India’s National Academy of Letters, citing intolerance and violence against intellectuals and minorities.
Salman Rushdie spoke about what writers are facing in India under Modi:
“There are attacks on ordinary liberties, the ordinary right to assembly, the ordinary right to organize an event in which people can talk about books and ideas freely and without hostility.”
Last month, Rushdie tweeted,
“Alarming times for free expression in India.”
And it isn’t just intellectuals and minorities who have been complaining. The head of India’s central bank, Raghuram Rajan—long a respected favorite of the global neoliberal elites, and a quiet supporter of Modi’s election victory—made a rare and unusual public criticism of Modi’s intolerance. And Moodys, the ratings agency, issued a warning to Modi that his ruling party’s violent intolerance could jeopardize business and investments.
None of this, however, seems to have put even the slightest damper on Silicon Valley’s love affair with their favorite world leader.
It’s not hard to imagine how Zuckerberg’s photo gleefully bro-hugging the far-right Indian leader — or Pierre Omidyar’s top India partner in Omidyar Network becoming Modi’s Minister for Finance after spending years helping to elect Modi using his Omidyar perch — will come back to haunt them.
Zuckerberg especially should be worried. There are those rare photos in history that can capture something dark and contrary that can never be erased from a public figure’s image: Donald Rumsfeld shaking Saddam’s hand a few years before the Iraqi dictator gassed Kurdish villages; Milton Friedman advising Gen. Pinochet even as his concentration camps were torturing tens of thousands of Chilean students, intellectuals and labor union activists.
Ignorance is no defense; particularly when you pride yourself in being boy-geniuses, with the best information of anyone in the world. Silicon Valley’s Modi problem is apparent to everyone in the world but Silicon Valley’s billionaires. Now, even Modi’s own citizens in India are revolting against him. In the recent election in the state of Bihar, Modi’s party suffered a shocking, crushing defeat to a socialist-led rival. In the campaign before the election, Modi and his top party officials tried inciting communal violence for electoral gain, but locals overwhelmingly rejected it. Now Modi’s own party is openly criticizing him.
It’s not like Pando hasn’t been warning about the Modi danger since he was first elected in May 2014. Modi crossed our radar precisely because he was such a favorite of so many big-name Silicon Valley leaders — Pierre Omidyar, Zuckerberg, Eric Schmidt, Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Cook. . . .
And yet, what we’re seeing is that one of the most divisive, intolerant and dangerous leaders in the world has charmed the socks off of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest, against all information and opinion and evidence out there. Our tech leaders are literally the last people in the world to get it.