By now millions of people have heard that Silicon Valley billionaire Tom Perkins compared progressive political speech to Kristallnacht, the night of religious violence that led to the death of 91 Jews and paved the way politically for the Nazi Reich and the Holocaust. Here's what you probably don't know: Perkins' rage appears to have been fueled, at least in part, by a dispute over gardening.
That's right: Gardening.
Perkins' now-infamous screed for The Wall Street Journal is filled with bilious commentary about "the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its 'one percent,' namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the 'rich.'" Bad as it is, Perkins is not the first billionaire to do that kind of thing. Hedge funder Stephen Schwarzman notoriously compared to a tax increase for people like him to Hitler's invasion of Poland.
Perkins continues to double down on his offensive comments. That proves that he is serious about these ugly opinions, and will lead many people to conclude that he is an unredeemable jerk. (See update below.) Kleiner Perkins, the investment firm Perkins help create, has already distanced itself from Perkins with an outraged tweet pointing out that he has long since left the organization. (The tweet might be interpreted thusly: Shut up, Tom.)
It's important to understand, or at least attempt to understand, the mental state that produces such plutocratic rage. After all, our political and economic system gives billionaires an extraordinary influence over the lives of every individual in the country. It pays to investigate their emotional makeup, if only for our societal well-being.
Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times provided context to what he rightly described as Perkins' "ghastly outburst," pointing to his past offenses (which include writing a vanity romance-novel project called "Sex and the Single Zillionaire"). Paul Krugman responded to the Perkins controversy by pointing to the "paranoia of the plutocrats," and that's undoubtedly a large part of the problem. But that still leaves an unanswered question: Paranoia about what, exactly?
There were several curious things about the Perkins editorial (besides, that is, the delusional comparison of political speech with the mass murder of innocent people solely on the basis of religion). The first was the special effort Perkins took to attack the San Francisco Chronicle, which, while a fine newspaper, is hardly the People's World. The second was the mention of romance author Danielle Steel, who Perkins describes as "our number-one celebrity." Perkins says that Steel was subject to "libelous and cruel attacks" in the Chronicle -- presumably on orders received from the Occupy movement's high command.
It doesn't take a lot of research to discover the Danielle Steel is Tom Perkins' ex-wife, or that the couple has maintained a close and friendly relationship after their divorce. Good for them -- and we mean that. I suppose it's gallant of Perkins, at least in some way, to rush to his ex-wife's defense.
But over what? What sort of "leftist" attacks were made on the romance author in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle? Here's what we discovered: It criticized a hedge. Specifically, it criticized this hedge, in an entirely nonpolitical one-paragraph item in the paper's "Cityscape" feature. That piece describes Steel's landscaping flourish as "comically off-putting" and bemoans its harmful effect on the ideal of "friendly streets."
Not only is the item entirely nonpolitical, but "Cityscape" writer John King doesn't seem entirely certain that Steel is the present owner. He opts instead for the vaguer language that the mansion was "later inhabited by best-selling novelist Danielle Steel." King's point seems clear, and anything but personal: Houses and their gardens shouldn't intrude on public sidewalks, and this one does.
Afterwards a Chronicle reporter asked Steel about the controversy. Steel said that her "security people" had recommended the hedge for privacy, then added: "Sometimes, I think San Francisco hates successful people. No matter what I do, people say nasty stuff. I mean the world is falling apart and people complain about my hedge. It's a mystery."
Steel went on to complain about city residents' sense of style, saying "There's no style, nobody dresses up -- you can't be chic there. It's all shorts and hiking boots and Tevas -- it's as if everyone is dressed to go on a camping trip."
That drew a pithy response from Chronicle blogger C.W. Nevius, who called her a "snob" and argued that she shouldn't live in a conspicuously public home if she wants privacy. Steel wrote a letter objecting to that characterization and pointing to her own charitable work as proof of her good character.
Let's be clear on one point: We take her at her word on that. There's no need to tear down Steel's character. (It should also be noted that Steel never frames this as an issue of the "left," but rather addresses matters of tone.) Nor do we have any desire to be drawn into the hedge controversy. We cover the worlds of politics, economics, and big business -- scant preparation for the really contentious fields of gardening and home improvement. We will make only this simple observation: Nobody in the Chronicle criticized Steel's wealth. There is nothing even vaguely leftist about disliking someone's landscaping, or even in calling them a "snob."
So why does Perkins target the left? He should be going after the Better Homes and Gardens crowd instead.
Oddly, Perkins also says that his screed was written in response to a Wall Street Journal editorial about "censors on campus." That editorial argued that schools who suppressed bigoted speech were violating basic constitutional rights. But Perkins isn't agreeing with them. He's creating his own list of censored speech, with criticism of his own crowd at the top of the list.
What's ironic about that is that the apparently unpleasant Perkins (he boasts about his ego frequently) has been the subject of almost relentlessly flattering press attention. That includes a puff piece about his yachting adventures from 60 Minutes, a news organization that has long since transformed itself from a hard-hitting journalistic operation to a puff-piece factory for the billionaire set.
There's a pattern here. Billionaires like Tom Perkins are accustomed to being flattered, no matter how silly or nasty they sound. They view every form of criticism of the social peers -- even of gardening choices -- as a vicious personal attack, no matter how mildly it's framed. They appear to have lost all real empathy for people who must live with the consequences of their actions, whether it's an unsightly and intrusive hedge (make up your own joke about "hedge funders"; we're tired) or the tax breaks and other favorable policies they promote for themselves with their wealth and influence.
Perkins does allude to at least one serious matter: the recent outbreaks of violence against Google employees in San Francisco. But it's possible to both reject that violence and understand the social forces which give rise to it.
Perkins either mischaracterizes or fails to understand the outrage at play there: People don't object to Google's buses, which it uses to transport its employees between San Francisco and its Peninsula headquarters. They object to those buses' illegal use of taxpayer-funded bus stops, which is symbolic of the way noblesse oblige further discomfits a dying middle class. And the "rising real-estate prices which ... 'techno geeks' can pay" are ruining lives, while robbing a city of diversity, livability, and character.
Even as global financial leaders fret over inequality at Davos, Tom Perkins is using extremist rhetoric to shut down such talk among his social inferiors. After an ugly screed, inspired in part by a gardening dispute, one hesitates to imagine what Perkins has in mind for more progressive-minded one-percenters like those at Davos and Kleiner Perkins -- a Night of the Long Pruning Shears, perhaps?
Perkins may not like to hear it, but rising wealth inequality is shattering our society, as San Francisco's plight so amply demonstrates. There is no room left for middle-class life in a society dominated by excessive wealth. Perkins may choose to become outraged over trivial as well as serious offenses, but he's in the process of losing the one treasure which money can't guarantee yet: the respect of others.
(UPDATE: After defending his comments, as of this writing Perkins is speaking on Bloomberg TV. He is expressing "regret" only for the use of the word Kristallnacht, and is continuing to adamantly defend his premise. He is describing a world in which the "creative one percent" is being persecuted. His solution? "Let the rich do what the rich do." In other words, he remains steadfast in his hatred of progressives and his belief in the "job creator" myth. Perkins also confirmed that the hedge incident was the original inspiration for his commentary.)