Hi, this is Can. Guess what we are talking about!
The Muslim Ban
A couple of years ago, when I first heard about the “Muslim Ban,” I burst out into tears. It was not that I’d be affected by the ban, nor was it a selfless, empathy-filled cry. It was frustration. It didn’t compute. It didn’t make sense. My mind just stopped functioning. If you could, in one swipe, close your borders to an arbitrary set of countries, what could you not do? Why wasn’t everyone screaming? Did we not realize that things have gone haywire?
That was just a few years ago, but it now feels like centuries. Yesterday, watching Trump fumble his way through the European travel ban, I could feel the same sense of frustration bubbling up. It didn’t help that the garbled, barely comprehensible, factually incorrect address represented the state of America’s response to what is going to be an avalanche upon our communities in a few weeks. There, I am watching, the supposed leader of the free world essentially utter a series of meaningless words after another while we are just joking away the impending doom.
I am sorry if this feels morbid. I didn’t mean it to be. My initial plan with Ranjan was that this week I’d write about how venture capital, in its essence, is a call option and how that explains the odd ways startups sometimes behave. I’d write about, in my most financially-ambitious piece, how the maniacal focus on the upside is why companies build their technologies as generally throw-away, how people constantly change jobs after 2-3 years, and other such things.
It will still get written, don’t worry. But I wanted to get something off my chest.
No More Air
I do not have much national pride, but I do recognize that I am still Turkish first and sort-of-American second. I have been mainlining American culture deep into my veins for more than 15 years, from Didion to The Bachelor, and can (sometimes) fool people into thinking I’m a native speaker. I think Fahrenheit sucks, but I’ve come to appreciate the weird sport you guys call football. Still, my Turkish sensibilities are too deeply ingrained ever to go away fully.
Watching the American government’s continued bungled response to the coronavirus, I can’t help but feel betrayed. The anger and the frustration have faded away because I’ve come to live with the hell that is our reality. And sure, as a well-paid techie who has made some lucky career choices, I probably have little moral ground to speak from.
But one of the reasons I had moved to the U.S. more than 15 years ago was to buy myself a sense of sanity. A place to not just live, but breathe. A country where things work, so you don’t have to worry about things working. A system that you can trust. A mental space that’s not always occupied with politics and news and what new hell will be unleashed that day.
See, in Turkey, especially since Erdogan’s party came into power, for many people, what we now in the U.S. experience has been a daily occurrence. Obviously, half the country still likes him, and that is fine. But for a big chunk of the other half, life is now a series of short-breaks between crises. You are in constant free fall, and you keep screaming at the top of your lungs, both in fear but also in the hope that it’ll end one day. But it never does. It keeps getting faster, the ground keeps getting closer, but you never hit it. You keep falling and screaming and falling and screaming.
If you have lived in a war-ridden, or a politically unstable country, you know what I am talking about. Previously, I found it hard to convey to my American or European friends on how consuming a world that is. You can talk about all the way a stable country is more productive thanks to its rule of law and its banks and its business-friendly regulatory climate. Still, it’s hard to capture and convey how simply relaxing it is to come to work without worrying about the news. Social media turned everything up to 11, sure, but even before Twitter and Facebook, we were insane in Turkey, and you were not. Regardless of our political views, we were all glued to the T.V. Not a single outing with friends would be dull, because there'd always be things to discuss, politics to argue over. It's nice, but it is also tiring. It is hell, but you get used to it.
This is what America now feels like.
And now, enter coronavirus
Except, with the virus scare, we are gaining even more speed, and the ground keeps coming closer, faster. I don’t think this will be The End, by any means. This too will pass, as it always does. As I am writing these words, countries like Taiwan and Singapore are already over the worst parts of it. Yet, it feels like we could have avoided so much of this earlier here in the U.S. too.
I feel betrayed because somehow, the tech industry where a big chunk of personality is wrapped around, is one of the big reasons why we are here now. This is not just because Facebook or Twitter helped elect Trump. No one, not even the Facebook executives, doubts that anymore. It’s also not just because one of the still most respected people in the Valley is an avid Trump supporter and his acolytes are still multiplying in numbers. If you tried to, you could maybe draw a line from gig-work to Trump too, so maybe, even I am partially responsible. Yet, my sense of betrayal goes deeper and is much stronger than that of guilt.
A Moment of Reflection
It is because we still haven’t reflected on what havoc we have brought upon our planet, our country, and our communities. We write memos, promise to do better and then do really a whole lot of nothing. We pat ourselves on the back for the good we’ve done while looking the other way, or worse, shrugging, for the bad we caused as if one cancels out the other. “Removing trust is good”, someone says, and others nod in agreement with no proof. “Private companies will fill in the gaps left by incompetent administrations” tweets a pundit, and others clap clap clap as if that is a good thing. It occurs to no one to question the underlying assumptions of such self-serving statements. We like and tweet and share away while the shining city upon a hill is soon to ravaged by nothing but a protein molecule wrapped in a lipid layer.
Again, I do not want to be morbid, but here’s the damn truth: the damage we inflicted on our institutions will last for a long time. You won’t be able to bring back years lost in funding in science, undoing of social protections, the whatever goodwill and soft-power America had over other countries with a single tweet. We parrot out shallow talking points about a fifth estate as we dance the graves of the fourth but the steady undoing of the mainstream and local media will have ripple effects on our societies for years to come, and won’t be worth the shots of dopamine we get from a push notification.
Those things are not comparable, and that is the point. We looked the other way as bad things were happening. In other words, we fucked up. Some things will take a lot of time to get fixed, and some things will never be the same.
Indeed, people will die because of this administration’s lack of professionalism and mindblowing incompetency. The number of deaths may be in hundreds of thousands. Likely, someone you know will slowly drown in their bodily fluids. Maybe, one of you will give their last breath in a hospital bed, because, The United States of America, governed by a manchild and surrounded by spineless surrogates, failed to act. There’s no knowing whether any other administration could have done much better, but I don’t think they could do worse.
Some of us in tech fucked up more than others. The tech industry kept falling on its face way before the election, when it was most critical. When it was over, it felt like things got worse. Instead of taking that criticism head-on, it decided to double down and fight back. It straight up adopted the Trump playbook on demonizing all of its critics. It played the victim while being more powerful than god. The best I could do was cringe, but often, it was a feeling of shame and betrayal.
I am not saying all the criticism was in good faith, nor helpful. But the reflection surely was neither for a long time. The only silver lining I see is that it feels like we are somewhat better prepared for the 2020 Election now than we were for 2016.
And I am sure this too will pass. And I apologize to everyone who was expecting an another rambling on the business of technology, or the technology or business, or whatever tagline Ranjan and I came up with at a random bar in New York a couple of years ago. It just didn’t seem right. I don’t know where the line between holding people accountable and holding a grudge is, personally at times. I know when Trump and this administration is voted out, they will continue as if nothing happened. They will be fine. However, if we don’t reflect on what damages we’ve caused, we are doomed to making the same mistakes again.
Maybe it’s because I’ve spent most of my birthday at home, watching the reality collapse on itself as the U.S. government first said one thing, and then the opposite. The markets had crashed, and my friends in Europe had started freaking out. By the time I saw the Sarah Palin video, I had long snapped.
Luckily, my friends brought back me to life later as we got together for some sushi. For a couple of hours, I felt fine.
I can only hope now that none of us are sick.
PS: I finished editing this piece while listening to first Donald Trump parade a bunch of CEOs for their work, and then Pence talk about how Trump has put American lives first, and not his numbers. Welcome to hell.
PPS: I just realized that I have a friend who is at a one-month silent retreat since March 1. That’s going to be an interesting time to come back.
I’m glad Can wrote this piece. As someone who grew up with Indian immigrant parents, and who would go back to India regularly, I had some sense of what he’s saying. Especially, as I entered my working life, and I had more cousins come over from India to settle in the U.S., they would explain to me their modern American dream. And it wasn’t the “two dollars in my pocket and a dream” that my parents went through. It was different. They had opportunity and some comfort in India. I grasped bits and pieces of what this new dream was, but couldn’t quite nail it. Can’s line: “A place to not just live, but breathe” finally got it for me. And I have to say, the past few years have felt suffocating.