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We All Knew

We All Knew

All of a sudden, professional sexual harassment in Silicon Valley is being laid bare in the open, and most would argue it’s a good thing. Big-name CEOs and VCs are being brought down by, in some cases, major corroborated allegations of sexual harassment of employees, entrepreneurs, and coworkers. It’s a developing story, because people will continue to come forward and heads will continue to roll.

What’s most interesting to me is, this isn’t a surprise to anyone in the industry, especially women. But not just women.

We all knew this was happening.

We’ve all had friends, coworkers, and significant others harassed by coworkers, managers, CEOs and VCs.

Off the top of my head I can name a handful of (hitherto unreported) VCs and C-level executives who have harassed women I know.

I’ve even been personally harassed on behalf of women I know.

I have long waited for these people to be reported by someone. I can only imagine how victims feel. The waiting must be infuriating.

And therein lies the problem. Everyone was just waiting. This story was trying to ‘break’ for years–because everyone knew and was just waiting. It seems to me that cultural progress happens piecemeal and slowly, until it doesn’t, and the floodgates open. In this case, the culture was dammed up. Victims had to come forward to change the culture, and the culture needed to become more accepting of victims coming forward, so everyone just waited patiently.

Finally, this week, a cultural earthquake hit, and I think we should all be forced to think about why it didn’t happen sooner.

Though my experience is mostly secondhand and I certainly can’t tell victims’ stories for them, I don’t know if I would come forward if I were a victim myself. Professional repercussions from smearing the character of a powerful person would be one reason. But most of all, I would just be afraid to be believed. The private space in which social interactions occur between colleagues is a fuzzy area. “He said she said” dynamics abound. After all, often the harassment is verbal, not on the record. And even on the record, much actual, mutual flirting and sexual dynamics do take place in the very youthful, single world of tech. So although in each individual situation of harassment may be obvious to the victims involved, it has almost never been clear cut enough for the public.

In order for victims to come forward, culture needs to change. It needs to become more accepting (and believing) of women’s stories. The public needs to be willing and able to hear those stories and respond to them. A lot of people are crediting this latest wave of cultural tectonics to Susan Fowler’s blog post detailing her treatment at Uber, and before that, Ellen Pao’s lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins. Despite the criticism and attacks these and other women have faced (which may have discouraged more from coming forward) it’s clear that these stories build on each other to form a narrative, and when the narrative becomes undeniable, it helps to corroborate the experiences of victims going through the same thing.

And thus ultimately, in order for culture to change, we rely on the victims, the people who know better than anyone else, to tell us what’s happening, and to protect other potential victims out there. In all of these stories, there are lots of people who know before everyone else. Axios reported that Justin Caldbeck’s behavior “seemed to be an open secret among a subset of Silicon Valley’s small (but tight) network of women VCs and founders.” But as Lazaro Gamio wrote in that article, “The unfortunate truth is that I simply could not write this until Albergotti published, as I didn’t have anyone on the record, which is virtually essential from a journalistic perspective.”

That’s the great service that brave women who have put their names out there have done to shine a light on this behavior. And I’m glad that journalists are able to protect the victims who don’t want to go on the record from public exposure. It makes it likely that more people will come forward.

Even so, it’s incredible that it took so long–almost a decade–for this particular story to go public. And once it did, the repercussions were immediate and brutal. The question I have is, would the same consequences have arisen if the victims had come forward years ago?

Regardless, the obvious conclusion to draw here is that growth requires sunlight.

Which is why now, more than ever, we must realize the importance of journalists and bloggers, as the guardians and perpetrators of our culture, even when they get it wrong. Perhaps, if nothing else, because of these public revelations the threat of bad PR, lost business opportunity and reputation will force a change in behavior.

Because the thing I realized a long time ago is, there are bad apples out there who spoil the whole bunch. One bad CEO can destroy the culture of an entire company. One bad VC can torch opportunities for good entrepreneurs with the wrong chromosomes. It doesn’t require a ‘culture of sexism,’ or even ‘systemic’ sexism. It just requires a handful of individuals who ruin it for everyone else.

And I say everyone else, because good companies can’t get built that deprive themselves of the full talent and potential of half of the population. We all lose out on market making opportunities. We lose out on the benefit of having more mentors and colleagues to innovate and create with, to disrupt industries, to ‘kill it,’ in Valley parlance.

Unfortunately, so much of the damage has already been done. As we all know, this has been going on for years. For decades. For centuries. And in our own industry, in our own century, we’ve lost good people who may never come back.

July 2, 2017Comments are DisabledRead More
Museum of Broken Relationships

Museum of Broken Relationships

The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb is just what it sounds like: a museum that documents the story of broken relationships and lost loves. It is a small exhibition, with only 5 or 6 rooms, but its size is reflective of its intimacy, as guests come from all over the world–it’s a traveling exhibition as well–to gaze on the fragmented pieces of private romances.

On the informational cards accompanying each piece in the exhibition are not the contributor’s name, as in many museums, but the place and timespan of the relationship. Belgrade, 1993 – 1997. Singapore, 2000 – 2001. Rome, 1975 – 1985. Some of these relationships whose stories we pour over had lasted for one month; other, 30 or more years, but they all have something in common: a deep and intimate romantic connection broken forever. The skeletal remains of these lost loves are what are on display here: ordinary objects of life marked forever: a house key, a doll, a pair of boots, a dress, a bag of olive pits. These objects carry no meaning on their own, but are infused with emotional power due to the turmoil they have inflicted. Some of them are objects of devotion. Others, objects of betrayal. They all share their stories.

One card next to a faded silver watch:

The first time my ex told me he loved me, he took off my watch and pulled the pin out to mark the time he said it. After that I could never bring myself to push it back in or wear it again. But if I had known then that he was really only ever going to steal my time, I would have pushed it back in and walked away instead of waiting too many years for my life to start again.

September 2002 – May 2005
Bloomington, Indiana.

The stories are shared of hope, of pain, of joy and of suffering. There is a red coat given by a man to his girlfriend before she left him and returned it. There is a love letter that was never sent, and upon the breakup was glued to a glass mirror and then shattered. There is a broken window from a fight. A pair of fuzzy handcuffs. A head massager. A love note from an Italian to an American with a map of Italy drawn freehand with places to visit together.

Some of the stories are long, other short. Some are personal to the point of embarrassment, others abstract and vague. Some are bitter. A frisbee is labeled “Darling, should you ever get a ridiculous idea to walk into a cultural institution like a museum for the first time in your life, you will remember me. At least have a good laugh (the only thing you could do on your own).” One exhibition is a filmed testimony of a very old Croatian woman recounting her 1942 love affair with a Serbian soldier during the war. Afterwards, he got married and she emigrated to America, but she turned a gold coin he gave her as a present into her wedding ring. I wonder if her husband ever knew. The exhibit mentioned he had died 20 years ago. One exhibit reads, “This key to your apartment was one of the many small, spontaneous gifts you gave me. I never knew why you never wanted to sleep with me, until you died of AIDS.”

It is appropriate that few visitors to this museum are in couples. The individual women and men scanning the exhibits do so silently and alone. Perhaps nothing brings the power of the museum into greater relief than the contrast between the shattered fragments of relationships past and the people who absorb them, criticize them, cry over them, and pick up and move on. The shattered mirrors and formerly embraced gifts are symbols of every relationship, and thus touch every witness to their former pain or glory. They tell a specific story but a universal one, and might relieve the victims of recently dissolved romances that they are not alone.

I have been to many a culture museum in my travels, in virtually every capital. A museum of Welsh culture. Of Mongolian culture. Of Chinese culture. Of Peruvian culture. I am not a fan of culture museums. Far from emphasizing the unique, the culture museum plays on romanticist and cliché notions of the society: the “typical” dress, the “traditional” songs. By compartmentalizing the “unique” aspects of a culture, the culture museum specifically excludes the inherent diversity in all cultures, the pull of the past against the future, the mixing of old and new, and the inevitable mingling of peoples and ethnicities that does not lend itself to clean cut notions of “tradition.” Culture museums bring out the worst in identity politics. Instead from extolling the virtues of a society, they often betray its limitations, for the story of a culture cannot possibly be complete without the convergence of arbitrarily defined cultures from others, and yet the museum attempts to make the cultural narrative a circumscribed ethnography, a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end. Real culture is not frozen in time; real culture is in the now. The immigrants selling water bottles at the entrance to the culture museum say more about the culture of the society than the museum itself.

What makes the Museum of Broken Relationships precisely the opposite of a culture museum is that it seeks to tell a real story, a story unbounded by arbitrary or historically accidental divisions. The story is shared by most, if not all, cultures. Thus, the Museum of Broken Relationships might be the best cultural museum in Zagreb, if not the world, because it tells a story of culture that transcends the traditional bounds of culture. This “super-culture” is more important than the individual ethnographic vignettes that pose as tradition in culture museums around the world. Says the museum, “Our societies oblige us with our marriages, funerals, and even graduation farewells, but deny us any formal recognition of the demise of a relationship, despite its strong emotional effect.” The museum is a testament to our shared human emotional roller coaster, the moments where all seems lost and sometimes the smallest slights provoke the strongest feelings of resentment or, sometimes, reminiscent fondness. And it is unlike any other museum in that the story it tells is not a story of the past, not a segmented or forgotten moment in time. The story it tells is a story of the present, and a story of the future.

July 16, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Saying “Hello” in Limpopo

Saying “Hello” in Limpopo

I was reading my friend Luca’s blog post today about language and memories of our home stay in HaMakuya, Limpopo way back in 2009.  It was an awesome experience, and I have many fond memories of our host family and the various escapades of the children, who shall forever remember me as the white dude with the beard who couldn’t get the drum rhythms quite right.  But speaking of language, in Venda, the word for hello is different for men and women.  The women say Aa, which means “hello,” but the men declare Nda!, which literally means “I am a lion.”

This his how it usually happens:

Man:  I am a lion!
Woman:  And a good day to you too, Sir.

In my time in HaMakuya, I witnessed the interplay between Nda! and Aa several dozen times.  Sometimes the interaction was between two men, sometimes between a man and one or several woman, but interestingly enough, never from one woman to another–the household where we were staying was made up of mostly women of several generations, and they did not exchange Aa‘s as far as I could tell.  But as soon a man entered the conversation with the declarative “Nda!,” the women would always respond with “Aa,” accompanying it with a floor-level bow.

It is a challenge to modern notions of gender justice when you witness an old woman cowtowing to a young boy in casual conversation.  It is also difficult, as a foreigner, to let this situation play out without any judging the society based on moral incongruity.  One situation I saw that was particularly memorable was a boy who was just hitting puberty–maybe thirteen years old–walk into the household full of women, and without breaking his stride declare “Nda!”  The women, in response, all hit the floor with “Aa.”  What was striking about it was the level of bravado in his greeting: chest puffed out, chin lifted, with his voice intoned with confidence.  It was surprising to see this level of arrogance, especially in light of his smallish frame.  But for men and boys, the experience of Nda! must be imbued with an extreme level of self-righteousness, as it is always an opportunity to assert one’s dominance at the beginning of every conversation.  I suppose you have to give the men some credit; Whereas most men around the world must assert their masculinity in more subtle ways, the men of Limpopo can directly and forcefully declare their lion-hood to all company present without social awkwardness or shame.

The women, of course, are not ignorant to the peculiarity of this custom, and thus when a man walks into a room and declares “I am a lion,” it is not unusual hear the voices of the women dripping with irony as they assume their bows, often elongating their greeting with a sarcastic “Aaaaaahhhhh.”  At one interaction, I could have sworn I heard a woman say “Uh huh,” and she might as well have.  The tradition of Aa is clearly not taken very seriously by the women of HaMakuya.

So while a man hears:

Man:  I am a lion!
Woman:  And a good day to you too, Sir.

A woman hears:

Man:  I am a lion!
Woman:  Sure you are, big guy.

That this very basic greeting, probably the cornerstone of conversation, can be used wildly differently depending on the gender of the speaker, speaks volumes about the role of language in society.  Words are the building blocks of ideas.  So when an entire Venda-speaking population communicates everyday greetings with this type of built-in sexism, one has to euthyphroically ask:  is the culture sexist because people say hello in this manner, or do people say hello in this manner because they are sexist?

When girls are taught at a young age to bow and submit to their male peers–when they see their grandmothers doing the same to their little brothers–they learn to assume the position of inferiority in a quite literal manner.  There is no ambiguity in the deep bow, no question of whose authority is present in a room when the first speaker declares he is a lion.  And as far as I can find, Aa has no correlative meaning (such as “I am a dove”).  It just means Aa.  The persistence of this tradition in the face of modern gender liberation is fascinating–especially since the women of Limpopo are no strangers to gender liberation.

For in HaMakuya, the women attend school and take night classes in business (we talked to a group of them coming home from school once).  The women run the households and educate their children.  The women do all the farming and cooking.  The men, as far as I can tell, have very few responsibilities.  They have political power in the community, they handle the cattle and fetch firewood, and in the rare case where employment is available, they work, usually in the nearby city.  When it comes to household finances, women make purchases for house and home and education, whereas the men, far as I can tell, spend their money on beer.  It was very apparent in our household who was in charge and who wasn’t.

Yet when the men arrive late at night from the bar and declare “I am a lion,” they are greeted customarily by all the women of the household, who put down their cooking spoons and brooms and scythes and kindling.  “Aaaahh,” the women say, falling to their weary knees, bowing to the freshly swept floor, “We salute you, Lion.  Now we need to get back to work.”

June 20, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Morning in Vienna

Morning in Vienna

Sunday mornings are silent in Vienna, punctuated only by the dull hum of a tram or the chirping of birds in the hundreds of parks in the city.  The wind coming out of the Danube valley rushes down the wide boulevards, amplifying their desolateness.  I am in Burgengarten, looking at the backside of the Hofburg palace with HIS • AEDIBUS • ADHAERET • CONCORS • POPULORUM • AMOR emblazoned in Latin across the frieze.  As far as European palaces go, Hofburg is pretty disappointing.  Tour groups wander in and out of the grounds, following their herders with disconnected interest.  One group removed itself even more from human contact by donning headphones which were all connected to the tour guide’s microphone.  This group can’t even interact with each other in person, let alone the drone at the front of the pack leading them through a sanitized history lesson with practiced monotony.  In Michaelerplatz, horse-drawn carriages shuttle tourists around the roundabout.  Students are dragged by invisible leashes through the grounds as their eyes remain fixated on their phones.

I got in yesterday evening, after deciding on a whim to visit this city I once visited ten years ago.  There hasn’t been much change, and my feelings about it remain the same.  It is sprawling, scrubbed down, impersonal, and boring.  Classical German romantic façades make carbon copies of each other on street after street, with the occasional rusted dome popping up above the fray.  When I got in, I took the metro right to Landßrase where I thought, mistakenly, there would be something to see or do.  Instead I was among residential complexes, so I decided to walk to the Danube, not anticipating my journey across less than 10% of the city would take two hours.

On the way there, I saw a park that would be a convenient shortcut to the water.  The door was labeled “Hundezone,” and I saw a couple dogs inside with their owners, but thought nothing of it.  I walked into the park, and almost immediately the dogs, who were calm and playful before, started barking angrily and going for me.  I made it halfway up the hill before I had one dog right on me, with another dog, that came up to my chest, sniffing at me aggressively.  The owner was yelling in German, and I couldn’t tell if he was yelling at the dogs or at me.  I didn’t feel very safe, and he wasn’t doing much to dispel my fears, as he just stood there and let his dogs threaten violence on me.  I’m glad I don’t understand German because I don’t want to know what he was saying.  Was he egging them on?  His family was picnicking 30 feet away, and they were watching the spectacle but didn’t seem to pay it much mind.  Meanwhile, I’m about to have my limbs torn off by at least five dogs, none of whom were nicer than your average French waiter.  I quickly turned tail and got out of the dog zone, which I thought might have led to a misunderstanding.  Maybe it was specifically for ill trained dogs?  But I couldn’t find anything out about it online later.  By the time I reached the Danube, the sun was just about to start going down and I realized, against all intuition, the Danube is an urban wasteland in Vienna.  There is an office park across the way, one high span bridge every two miles, and nothing but bike paths along the shore.  It took an hour to walk back to the nearest metro stop.

One thing I did notice on my walk through the back streets of Vienna was the abundance of graffiti.  I feel you can tell a lot about a society through its rogue artwork, and it is not surprising that a land where certain thoughts of an Aryan nature are not permitted by law, the Nazification of the urban landscape would be close at hand.  Vienna does not disappoint.  It is one of those cruel ironies of free speech that the less free the speech, the more in bursts to the surface, and in this case, it is clear how the fringe (at least I hope the fringe) of Austrian society finds its outlet, how the stormy, angry undercurrent shows through cracks in the stony, impersonal, buttoned-up façade of the city.

After checking into my hostel (itself far on the outskirts of the city with a gorgeous view of the valley), I took the bus back into town and checked out a couple of the popular metro stops.  I once met a girl in Moscow in 2010 who told me her philosophy on travel was to “go where the party was at,” so I hopped onto the subway and got off at where the most people got off, in this case Stefansplatz.  This was a charming area, with a cathedral, several open squares in close succession, with music, restaurants and fountains sharing one crowded space on the cobblestones.  I ended up in a bar talking with high schoolers from an American school in Vienna, and at one point shots of lemon vodka got passed around.

I hopped on the metro again and went to Schwedenplatz, where I was told there would be “an assortment of good and bad places.”  I don’t know what good places there were to be had.  It was worse that Wrigleyville in Chicago for its drunkenness and worse than Las Vegas for grittiness.  I was glad to hop back on the train and go to Thaliaßrase where I was told there would be a series of arcades under the train tracks with bars and clubs.  There were, with Viennese and foreigners mixing in an orgy of popular music, booze and lights.  The party capital of Austria is no different from the party capital of Anywhere…in the cities of the world, all humans party the same.

After getting back to my hostel, I met a couple from Mexico City doing a tour in Europe on their way to Budapest, and a couple from Arizona doing a tour in the other direction.  Hostels are one of those rare places where you are always destined to meet people with interesting stories, shared experiences, and there is always an element of fate.  Every day the crowd changes, and thus every day new possibilities about who you can meet anywhere in the world.  In one night’s stay at a hostel I made new “friends” in Canada, Mexico, and Arizona.  My new “friends” from Canada were interesting. They were a couple from Vancouver Island who lived on an organic dairy farm.  I asked them if they ate organic in Europe, and they said that ignorance was bliss.  The guy, Jeremy, said there were two kinds of non-organic contaminants: crop-specific, which are added by farmers deliberately to their crops (and can be chosen out by conscientious consumers) and environmental, which affect all crops in the form of air, soil and water contaminants, which he was more concerned about.  I found the distinction interesting because it’s basically a choice between free choice and neighborhood effects, always an interesting problem in economics.

Which brings me back to Burgengarten.  The “free” wifi is spotty at 1 KB/s max, clearly a tragedy of the commons.  Every family in the park has 2 kids, one boy and one girl.  No one raises their voice above a whisper.  Every dog is football sized and on a leash.  The grass is immaculate.  The park is square and the fountain in the pond makes perfect ripples which radiate outwards rhythmically.  It is the same feeling you get throughout this city.  The subways and trams and busses arrive the second they are supposed to and are cleaned by hand so they glisten, even in the underworld.  Viennese pedestrians wait for red lights at empty intersections.  Every cobblestone in this city is in perfect place with its perfect purpose, although that purpose remains, as so many things in this city, beneath the surface.  I’m fairly certain that no one here poops.

Yet even with the concerted effort for utopian sameness, there are signs of decay in the republic.  Scratched paint at the bus stops. Public garbage bags stretched open. Puddles left undrained in the road.  The air is stale, the food has been bland and the people have been mildly entertaining at best.  It has copied the cultural milieu of Germany with none of its work ethic, proud history and heritage, or national heroes.  There is an undercurrent of national arrogance, reminding me of that old joke about Austria:  “The Austrians have only accomplished two things: to convince the world that Hitler was German and Beethoven was Viennese.”  In short, I remain, as before, underwhelmed with what Vienna has to offer.

I will be glad to get back to Budapest tonight.

June 17, 20122 commentsRead More
Richard Wagner and the Condemnation of Art

Richard Wagner and the Condemnation of Art

I was reading recently about a peculiar custom in Israel of not performing Richard Wagner. Although the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that enforcement of this custom isn’t legal, it still continues to be an ongoing, rampant phenomenon in a country that has an established tradition of free speech. In recent years, Israeli musicians planning to travel abroad to perform Wagner have been lambasted and widely condemned.

The reason? Both Wagner’s documented antisemitism and his great admirers, the Nazi Party of Germany and its leader Adolf Hitler.

Truth be told, art has been used too often as a weapon by the evil and powerful, and not often enough as a line of defense against them. Artists like Richard Wagner and the film director Leni Riefenstahl were instrumental to the propaganda of the Nazi movement. Wagner’s works were performed extensively throughout the Third Reich and Riefenstahls’ cinematic masterpiece, Triumph of the Will, was as efficacious to the Nazi media campaign as the Blitzkrieg was to the war campaign.

At the same time, artists are often the first to be targeted by regimes: they are those on whom the hardest tests for free speech and a free society are conducted, upon whom an understanding of a national culture and way of life are based, and with whom a true cultural life would not be possible. It is the artists who are the first to criticize accepted beliefs and the first who pay for it. The history of banning artists is as long as the history of regimes. The Romans had a long history of censoring Etruscan and Carthaginian authors and artisans, not to mention early Christian art from both Romans and non-Romans. More recently the Beatles were banned in the USSR as if they were poison to the regime: nothing more than words and music in a language understood by less than 10% of the population, and yet somehow they posed as much a threat to the country as an invading army. (The “British invasion” carried much more weight in this context.) Today, artists such as Ai Weiwei in China languish in prison for their critical art.

In almost all cases, the source of the ban is a belief that the ideas presented in art are somehow dangerous. If enough people believe those ideas, the fabric of society itself will be torn apart. As a particular columnist writes, “That Israel’s Wagner ban serves as a still-useful reminder that ideas have consequences — and that those who spread evil ideas should be held responsible for their evil consequences. Even geniuses.” After all, how many regimes have been shattered or created by the power of ideas? The ideas of Jefferson, of Marx, of Mao, of Herzl, and today, the ideas of millions across the Arab world.

But it’s a universally accepted belief among scholars–even those who don’t follow their own advice–that free and open expression is a necessary condition for a free society. So I won’t continue to preach to the choir.

What is outrageous about the Israeli practice is the fact that Wagner’s art is not banned in Israel for its ideas–after all, music is an abstraction that is fully interpretive–but it is banned for its admirers and its composer. It has been tried and convicted by guilt by association: It is banned because its composer held antisemitic beliefs, and its admirers went on to perpetrate the greatest mass murder in world history. But Richard Wagner, though known to have been an antisemite in his lifetime, was not known for his published works or his writings on Jews, no more so than Hitler was known for his art. And yet the politics of Richard Wagner are under as much scrutiny today as his music, if not more so.

But what I find the most ironic is that Wagner’s opinion on art, that he presented in his masterpiece opera Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, is the finest repudiation of Israel’s practice that unfortunately can never be heard there:

Honour your German Masters,
then you will conjure up good spirits!
And if you favour their endeavours,
even if the Holy Roman Empire
should dissolve in mist,
for us there would yet remain
holy German Art!

The idea that art is transcendent of regime, is bigger and more grand than any individual or government, is precisely why Israel needs to hear Wagner. The people of Israel would benefit from the presence of transcendent, abstract art which calls for the lifting of souls and the perseverance of culture.

Would an Israeli know a Wagner if he heard it? If not, would he not be as moved to emotional exuberance as any other listener. Would his heart not vibrate? The time has come for free regimes to put aside the ghosts of the past and embrace the music that can set them free.

April 16, 2011Comments are DisabledRead More