It’s a Larry Summers moment for Silicon Valley. Google has fired software engineer James Damore. His sin? “Advancing harmful gender stereotypes.”
When Larry Summers voiced the scientifically incontestable observation that biological differences between men and women contribute to the imbalance of the sexes in math-dominated fields, his enemies at Harvard used his political blunder to force him out as the university’s president. He resigned in 2006.
Damore’s circumstances are different. He was a mid-level employee who wrote a long, thoughtful memo—not a blustering Ivy League president speaking off the cuff. But the cultural logic is the same. Our ruling class relies on “diversity” and “inclusion” to legitimate its supereminence. This makes the attendant ideology sacrosanct. Any public dissent becomes explosive, because it threatens the legitimacy of our current social system, which is characterized by an increasing concentration of wealth and power among just a few at the tippy-top.
It was inevitable, therefore, that Google CEO Sundar Pichai would take action. Google is one of the richest companies in the world. But its success comes from a quasi-monopoly on web searches—which makes it vulnerable. The record $2.7 billion fine leveled this summer by the EU shows as much. In these circumstances, Google must maintain its claim to be a benevolent behemoth—a very profitable company, yes, but more important, a company committed to making the world a better place.
The need to burnish its moral prestige concerns more than Google’s corporate interests. CEO Pichai, the Google founders and board members, and the rest of top management are very rich people. Meritocratic ideology helps them justify their wealth, but only up to a point. Merit alone can’t explain why a smart, hard-working person deserves a net worth measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
This is where do-goodism kicks in. Super-rich Americans of the earlier Gilded Era sanitized their vast wealth through philanthropy. The innovation of the present generation of economic winners has been to fuse the enterprise of money-making with making the world a better place. It has become a truism in Silicon Valley that to get rich in a morally pure way is itself an act of philanthropy!
From its outset, Google has portrayed itself in this way, as do most tech companies. Founders Larry Page and Sergey Bin spoke of making information universally accessible, promoting access, and other benevolent endeavors. This philanthro-capitalist image is sustained and promoted by tech commentators who champion the money-making machine of Silicon Valley as “transformative” and “innovative.” When it’s not promoting democracy and providing a platform for social change, Facebook “connects people” and “builds community.”
The tech industry has been blessed by an adulatory press and worshipful politicians. Wall Street and other more established centers of wealth and power, not so much. They have had to adopt a more painstaking approach to securing ideological justification for, and political protection of, their supereminence: the diversity-and-inclusion project. It is this approach that now plays an important role in justifying the extraordinary concentration of endowment assets and cultural prestige in just a few schools at the top of our university system. In recent years, as technology companies have matured and become pillars of establishment power, they have had to adopt this strategy. This is why the James Damore affair at Google unfolded according to the same script as had the Larry Summers affair at Harvard more than a decade earlier.
Every society has overlapping strategies for legitimating hierarchies of wealth, power, and status. In the absence of aristocratic traditions, a meritocratic ideology has always played a role in the United States. But it has never been enough. A century ago, with America’s entry into World War I, three of Theodore Roosevelt’s sons volunteered to serve. One was killed. This way of legitimating WASP ascendancy—a willingness to share in the sufferings and sacrifices of our society, not just to benefit from it—continued through World War II.
Today’s elite Americans are no longer interested in suffering and sacrifice of that sort. I doubt that any children of the one hundred richest Americans served in Iraq or Afghanistan. I’m willing to wager that not a single child of the richest 10,000 Americans did so. For more than a generation, the Ivy League was cleansed of the unpleasant presence of ROTC. Today, the people at the top serve us by benevolently administering the diversity-and-inclusion project. Google’s leadership is willing to set profits aside in order to “do the right thing.” That’s their sacrifice.
When sacrifice is undertaken as a calculation rather than a duty, its legitimating power diminishes. This is happening with the diversity-and-inclusion project. It’s obvious to most of us that Google was not doing “the right thing” when it fired James Damore. The company’s leadership had decided to do “the necessary thing.” They have a fiduciary duty to protect Google’s corporate brand as a “good” company. For a gigantic company in the gun sights of regulators, this brand is an extraordinarily valuable asset, one that will help Google to continue to enrich its shareholders.
Legitimation strategies break down when they become overtly self-serving. The fact that Google’s calculation is so transparent to us suggests we may finally be reaching the end of the diversity-and-inclusion trade.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.