Magical Blodgeting

Turns out there’s at least one stupid question.

sleight of hand

Image courtesy of Crossett Library

I recently wrote an article for my day job at Pando about “Magical thinking in Silicon Valley.” Something that got left on the editing room floor for that article and one of the most revealing examples of magical thinking is Henry Blodget’s infamous article, “Why Do People Hate the Jews?”

Upon release, the article was called ridiculous by some, racist by others, and tone-deaf by all. Whatever it is, Blodget’s article, and the ensuing corrections and notes, also serve as a perfect documentation of a walk-back from the magical thinking surrounding technology today.

The most forgiving interpretation of this post would be a journalist flippantly addressing a deadly serious dilemma by asking “the crowd” to solve a deeply divisive problem that has plagued the world. Not to drudge up ancient history — the post was published six months ago, a lifetime in internet years — because Blodget has apologized profusely for his mistake. But he posed this query, difficult in the best of circumstances, like one might ask his Twitter followers for a good guacamole recipe.

The key to how this article fits in with Silicon Valley’s culture of magical thinking is the headline. The distinction between Blodget’s original “Why do people hate Jews?” and the headline the article eventually arrived on, “What are the historical causes of anti-Semitism?” could be called a mere difference of syntax. And yet historically, the difference between the two terms could not be greater.

An explanation of the difference between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism can be found in Jean-Denis Bredin’s excellent book about the Dreyfus Affair:

It was toward the year 1880 in France that traditional anti-Judaism began to evolve into an anti-Semitism whose tide would continue to rise throughout the remainder of the century. “The hostility against the Jews,” wrote Bernard Lazare, publishing in 1894 in his “Anti-Semitism, Its History and Its Causes,” “which was formerly rooted in sentiment, now became philosophical…the new anti-Jews wanted to explain their hatred – i.e., to adorn it. Anti-Judaism had become anti-Semitism.”

As many have stated already, the question Blodget initially posed has no answer. It doesn’t make any sense to ask why some people show an irrational hatred because it’s irrational. It doesn’t have a reason. But to ask about the historical causes concerning why this irrational hated was mobilized in such a terrifying way in the 20th century is a matter historians have studied quite a lot. Blodget meant to ask about the historical causes behind anti-Semitism (or anti-Semitic canards), not “why people hate Jews.”

And yet the simplicity of the language does not reflect racism so much as a child-like curiosity, a profound naiveté believing that one of the great blights of the modern world could be decoded quickly and cleanly via a blog post. Blodget is obviously not a stupid man, nor one presumes, an overly superstitious one. And yet on some level it seems as if he really believed he could type the sentence “Why do people hate Jews?” onto his laptop and the Internet or the cloud or the crowd or some indeterminate force powered by innovation would pop out a clean, acceptable answer.

This is magical thinking.

Nathan Pensky is a writer and editor living in rural Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter.