The Curious Case of Mencius Moldbug

A software engineer’s odious political writing got him booted from a tech conference. It shouldn’t have.

Speaker banned from a tech conference for his political views.

Should someone’s unorthodox political views affect whether he’s fit to address a tech conference?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

What does a bizarre project to reinvent software from the ground up have in common with 19th-century reactionary political philosophy? That question has become the unlikely heart of a computing controversy involving this September’s Strange Loop programming conference in St. Louis, Missouri. Founded in 2009, Strange Loop is a yearly three-day conference with talks and workshops on new computer science technologies. The conference had accepted an apolitical presentation on a fairly obscure project by a software engineer named Curtis Yarvin, only to reject it last week after it received complaints about political views Yarvin espoused on his blog.

Yarvin’s canceled presentation centered on Urbit, an idiosyncratic software platform he created, and an associated virtual machine called Nock. I’ve read the specifications, and Yarvin’s project is an intriguing attempt to create an entirely new, universal computation framework based around a virtual machine that is truly distributed from the ground up, so that even tiny amounts of computation can be apportioned across multiple machines. It may, as I suspect, be utterly impractical, but it’s undoubtedly different and a worthy experiment. I would attend a talk on it. But I wouldn’t be able to at Strange Loop now, thanks to a strange figure named Mencius Moldbug.

That’s the nom de Web under which Yarvin writes mind-numbing political tracts. Yarvin/Moldbug is a self-proclaimed “neoreactionary,” an unabashed elitist and inegalitarian in the tradition of Thomas Carlyle, one of his heroes. (He fits neatly into the “Natural-Order Conservative” category of a conservative taxonomy.) His worldview: Democracy sucks, the strong should rule the weak, and we could use a good old-fashioned dictator to clean up this mess. That, and he believes that “human biodiversity”—as in the “science” of racial differences, à la The Bell Curve—is real, valid, and very important. Neoreactionary thinking is far more complicated and far more verbose than this—which is in part a deliberate attempt to keep the great unwashed from paying too much attention to such Important Thought. If you’re curious, the tireless Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex has written extensive rebuttals of neoreactionary theory, which go to prove Brandolini’s Law: “The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” The neoreactionaries make up a small and mostly ignorable corner of the Internet, but because they include a number of techies and wonks, they have drawn attention and criticism from outlets like the Baffler and the Daily Beast, all of which served to raise the neoreactionary profile far higher than it ever would have made it on its own. If you want serious reactionary activity, look to Congress.

Normally I would have no cause to write about neoreactionary politics—it is eminently inconsequential—except that Yarvin was tossed out of Strange Loop because of his writings. Strange Loop creator and organizer Alex Miller made this public statement regarding his decision to rescind Yarvin’s invitation:

A large number of current and former speakers and attendees contacted me to say that they found Curtis’s writings objectionable. I have not personally read them. … If Curtis was part of the program, his mere inclusion and/or presence would overshadow the content of his talk and become the focus.

The decision to toss Yarvin is foolish but not because it’s censorship. By making the issue about Yarvin being a “distraction,” Miller has created a perverse incentive. By that logic, anyone could get tossed from the conference if enough people object for any reason at all. Miller admits as much when he says he hasn’t even read Yarvin’s political writing. (I can’t blame him.) Ergo, make enough noise, and you can get your target kicked out of Strange Loop. This is the mentality of “no platforming,” as it’s known in the U.K., a tactic that was once used to exclude (sensibly, in my opinion) National Front members from public life but has now become so widespread that even the hard-left New Statesman is objecting to the practice. If the problem is, as Miller wrote to Yarvin, that people’s “reactions are overshadowing the talk and acting as a distraction,” then all objectors need to do is create a distraction to get a presenter thrown out.

Let us extend this principle. In 1978, members of the International Committee Against Racism entered a talk being given by sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, threw water on him, and chanted, “Racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” By Miller’s logic, the possibility of this sort of distraction, however ungrounded, would still be grounds for tossing out Wilson. Moreover, Miller’s logic directly encourages this sort of troublemaking. Hacker and technologist Meredith L. Patterson suggested a better strategy last week: “If [Yarvin] gets up on stage and makes with the casual racism, by all means, end the talk early and boot him … [P]re-acting to something that hasn’t happened yet is nonsense.”

Strange Loop’s rationale is cowardly and irresponsible, but what gets me more is the disingenuousness of people who say that Yarvin’s speech should be censored. Angel investor Alex Payne wrote last Thursday that Yarvin’s political opinions weren’t the problem but that Yarvin’s “support of racism and slavery” crossed the line into unprotected “hate” speech. Payne gave no examples of such hate speech, but others pointed to Yarvin’s 2009 celebration of Carlyle’s abstract celebration of slavery. This and other Yarvin pieces certainly reveal him to be a bigot at the very least, but it’s a major reach to call them hate speech, since they’re about as intimidating as skim milk. Calling it such insults those who suffer under the very real and violent hate speech of actual hate groups.

If Yarvin’s speech crosses the line, then there are many other celebrated thinkers who go much further. Since the content of Yarvin’s talk was not the problem but other beliefs the thinker held, then anyone who holds problematic beliefs is now up for removal. The influential economist Vilfredo Pareto was quite the elitist and fascist. Philosopher Martin Heidegger’s unpublished writings just seem to get worse and worse, with one recently published notebook declaring that the Holocaust is actually world Judaism “self-destructing [Selbstvernichtung],” yet people bafflingly still cite “The Question Concerning Technology” as some sort of incisive leftist counterpoint to the scientific approach. James Watson changed science forever by co-discovering the structure of DNA, but he’s also undoubtedly a “peevish bigot” who makes Yarvin look like Stephen Jay Gould.* One fact does not invalidate the other. If Watson is still capable of giving a substantive scientific presentation (which, I admit, is unlikely), he should not be barred from doing so. And I assure you, for every Yarvin who is enough of a blowhard to express his unpalatable views, there are a hundred people with such views who keep them quiet.

When it comes to gatherings like Strange Loop and scholarly venues in general, we should draw the lines for acceptable speech as widely as is feasible, because people have a terrible habit of being wrong. I doubt there will ever be a time when Yarvin’s political views are proven right, but that doesn’t mean we should trust the anonymous mob of people who complained to Alex Miller, even if we ostensibly agree with them. There is a recent strain of leftist thinking that suggests that double standards and vigilantism are acceptable as long as the target is “powerful.” The problem is determining who the “powerful” are and applying that standard consistently. For example, Anil Dash, a millionaire tech CEO with 500,000 Twitter followers, advocates that we “[d]oxx the powerful,” seemingly unaware that he belongs to that very category. According to the New York Times, Dash believes that “online mobs can sometimes serve a public good, as in cases when the powerless are given a voice to hold the ruling class accountable.” That rings false given Dash’s friendship with and endorsement of Chris “moot” Poole, owner of 4chan, the site that flooded Jezebel with “gifs of rape porn and violence” and incubated the dreaded Gamergate. (Poole no longer operates the site, having turned head moderation duties over to the pseudonymous “RapeApe.”) When 4chan happens to pick a powerful target, would Dash say they are serving a public good?

This sort of opportunistic hypocrisy becomes unctuous when it wears the clothes of moral superiority. Sometimes, as in the case of Payne’s pseudo-logic, it attempts to mask its partiality in the guise of unjustified redefinitions of legal terms like hate speech and ruling class, hoping to lower the weight of societal disapproval onto the head of the chosen target. These tactics are not “political correctness” or “social justice.” They are acts of illiberal bullying. Liberalism demands rigorous consistency and disinterest: One should not dox Anil Dash or Alex Payne or moot or Curtis Yarvin.

Yet the political hypocrisy here remains secondary to the need for science to reject ideological litmus tests. Plenty of repellent people have contributed to science (Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, and onward), and one strength of science is its ability to accept substantive contributions from people whose nonscientific views are worthless and even offensive and to foster productive discourse between people who would hate each other discussing any other subject. Strange Loop is ostensibly a conference of science, not social thought, and that’s why the exclusion of Yarvin’s apolitical talk is more bothersome than someone getting fired for inappropriate jokes. Companies do whatever they think will get them the best P.R. and the most money; science should be better than that. Miller is running a diverse conference committed to progressive causes and the promotion of marginalized groups in technology; he should have the confidence that Yarvin’s presence would not overshadow those efforts. Moreover, he should be consistent. By acting as he has, Miller has come to overshadow the Strange Loop conference. (Look at what Slate is saying about him!) He should either reinvite Yarvin or resign over the distraction he’s become.

*Correction, June 12, 2015: This article originally misstated that James Watson co-discovered DNA. He co-discovered its structure. (Return.)

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State UniversityNew America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.