I do not like Jeff Skoll. I do not like any interviews I read featuring him and I do not like the syrupy way the media talks about him. I do not like the idea of a messiah, much less one who made it big in Silicon Valley and who throws around money when not giving TED talks. Nobody seems to have a single negative thing to say about Jeff Skoll, so I guess it is up to me. Let me be absolutely clear: this is a smear piece but also one with references. This is a bit long-winded, but hopefully it comes full circle by the end, but first some context.
My first introduction to the world of Skoll-duggery came in the form of a precious little news outlet called “TakePart”. In my daily perusing of news stories I would come across these gems which just made me shake my head. Titles such as: “This Year’s Wildfires May Change Western Forests Forever—and Not for the Good”. I cannot help but point out the stunningly simple point that every change in the world changes everything forever. Realizing that is essentially experiencing life 101. Here is another pearl showing a stunning lack of hindsight for the eugenicist social Darwinism in regards to Africa’s population: “Defuse Africa’s Population Bomb to Save Its Elephants, Lions, and Rhinos”. There is no regard for the empirical cruelty exercised on the African population in the 1930’s by the European progressive cutting edge, which sadly is not just a metaphorical term. It is just offensively ignorant. Last but not least, the articles even stray sometimes into complete cultural blindness: “What Do Horses and Beavers Have in Common? They May Both Be in Your Burger”. Beaver was a staple in Canada and the frontier for years, and horse is eaten in many countries around the world. If it is good enough for them, then it is certainly good enough for us. The article even absurdly goes on to make allusions to Upton Sinclair’s well written but ultimately thick propagandistic pamphlet “The Jungle.” Apparently now a few scraps of horse meat in your burger is akin to losing your toes to a pickling vat.
Needless to say, the headlines wore on me, and finally I decided to do a little looking and find out who was responsible for constantly invading my newsfeeds with spastic gyrations over every slight change in climate and social micro-aggression. That is when I learned about Jeff Skoll. I am sure most people are more public-figure-literate than I and have seen more TED talks, but I went into it cold. He is a rich SOB, the founder of Ebay who retired with multi-billions at 36. This still did not explain why he was polluting my reading material (a choice of words which would no doubt throw him into conniptions). With wealth beyond bounds and a midlife crisis approaching, Skoll decided it was time to go about saving the world. One way he approached this was in creating TakePart, a news outlet that is structurally designed for activism. Each article comes with a petition included or some other way to take “action”. Interestingly, TakePart is only a fragment of a much larger media conglomerate founded by Skoll: Participant Media.
The main method that Skoll uses for saving the world is disseminating his message through mass media. After exiting Ebay he founded Participant Media which funds films and television documentaries. To give a few examples: “An Inconvenient Truth”, “99% The Occupy Wall street Collaborative Film”, “Darfur Now”, “Food Inc.”, and “Merchants of Doubt.” Sound familiar? They should. All these movies were accompanied by viral online movements and even real-world activism. Skoll knows this because he creates it via his media outlets. He calls them “Action Campaigns”. There is no doubt that he actually cares about these issues. I am not trying to claim that he is an overly insidious individual, but there are two sides to this particular approach. To one extent, yes, he is increasing awareness about issues, but at the same time these “Action Campaigns” certainly don’t hurt the bottom line of these films once they are released. I don’t want to cry “vertical integration”, but when you own news outlets and produce films under the same umbrella, then things get a little, Shall we say, incestuous. The incest only begins here though, and the really interesting information comes in the form of his world saving and oddly insidious sounding “Skoll Global Threats Fund.”
Chairman of The Board
Skoll’s Global threats group touts the typical list of world issues: Climate Change, Pandemics, Water Security, Nuclear Proliferation, and Middle East Conflict. Arguably water security could go under climate change but that is just a quibble; the more threats the better, right? They state their approach as: “We work proactively to find, initiate, or co-create breakthrough ideas and/or activities that we believe will have large-scale impact, either directly or indirectly.” At least they are honest in admitting that these are the issues that they merely “believe” to have the most need for immediate action. The whole approach is very Silicon Valley with emphasis on connectivity: “Enable access to and promote transparency in data, processes, and financial flows around global threats to facilitate informed decision making,” and “Create new coalitions and facilitate better coordination of actors of all kinds across multiple sectors. . .” They even have their site set up so that every time I copy-paste, it leaves a delightful little message pushing people to get more info. Here’s an example: “Promote better understanding of uncertainty and risk at every level of discourse.” – See more at: http://www.skollglobalthreats.org/about-us/mission-and-approach/#sthash.vAqNLG51.dpuf Wow! Thanks Skoll! Now all you productive social media drones can check out all the additional information and tweet like crazy. How nice of him.
Skoll has obviously come to the conclusion that people are seeking to destroy themselves through ignorance, and only if enough of his brand of information is out there can we save the world. First he releases films predicting apocalyptic demise and the uses social media to get people on board, making his brand of the future a cultural mainstay. Then he reaches out his hand to lead us into his perfect future. I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how revivalist preachers get all those sinners baptized, by shouting about their sins, their lying and cheating, their carbon footprint and nationalism that will lead to a fiery end (just look at the California drought!). But no poor sinners, that does not have to be your end. Believe in Skoll and your burdens will be light. Kind of uncanny when you take things to their logical conclusions. So now we’ve seen the messiah in a more honest light, and I believe it’s time to look at his disciples: the board of directors of The Skoll Global Threats Fund.
Larry Brilliant, The Healer
Larry seems like a decent sort of guy, and I have no doubt that he is. His nonprofits combat smallpox and curable blindness, and he has worked for the WHO and Google. The last combination is likely why he was the founding chair of the National Bio-Surveillance Advisory Subcommittee which in no way sounds creepy in the least bit. How can we know what they want though? Well, luckily their reports to the CDC fall under public domain, so not much digging is required.
In their final report, dated April 2011, they make a number of interesting advisements to the CDC. The first of which is: “Establish a robust mechanism for federal policy oversight and coordination, through the Executive Office of the President with the National Security Staff as the lead entity for USG domestic and international (global) biosurveillance programs and activities.” Ah, lovely, so they recommended that the NSA be responsible for biosurveillance. I find it interesting that Skoll’s boy Larry would want that, since the grassroots Occupy and “social justice” movements to which they play generous uncle are so anti-NSA. I’m sensing some cognitive dissonance. Here’s another gem: “Incentivizing Innovation: Many innovative efforts in data/information mining originate in the private sector. Incentives and funding will be critical to focusing these efforts on biosurveillance.” The richness of this is almost too much for me. An advisory committee headed up by a Silicon Valley multi-millionaire is suggesting that the government incentivize (pay) Silicon Valley to give them information that people give freely online. That’s the equivalent of hiring someone to tell you that you need to pay them. Hilarious. They go on and on recommending needs for new algorithms and networking. Who do they think will be contracted by the government to provide this infrastructure? Well, Silicon Valley of course.
Larry Brilliant is also responsible for founding an internet group called The Well, and it has a very high opinion of itself. The website touts bold and sometimes disturbing claims such as: “The WELL is a cherished destination for conversation and discussion”, “it’s been described as ‘the world’s most influential online community,’” and, “[it] almost invisibly influences modern culture.” If this is not enough, they go on to say that they are, “one of the most noted ‘walled gardens’ in the world.” I wanted to sign up for The Well because I was curious and I don’t hear enough pompous sanctimonious arrogance already in my life, but sadly they charge a flat rate of $100 a year to sign up. Although there are trial offers, that fact kind of took the wind out of my sails. I find it very interesting that these ‘save the world’ types who tout the liberation of free information have their own “walled garden” that can’t be entered without a fee. Of course it makes sense, since Skoll is the savior of the world, and god traditionally is a fan of walled gardens. I guess a spade is a spade.
Annie Maxwell, The Politician
Annie Maxwell is probably the least interesting of the disciples because she has spent so much time in government. This means that I need not say much more, aside from the fact that she was part of a special envoy for tsunami recovery headed by bill Clinton and worked in the office of Joe Biden. She focused her time in the VP’s office working on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which led to the mortgage credit boom and then resulted in the recession which we still haven’t recovered from. Economics aside, the mortgage credit boom did little good for individual communities. An enlightening Vox article from 2012 by economist Amine Ouazad points out that the act actually contributed to racial segregation in the US. He writes:
“There is also a general equilibrium effect. Richer households can also borrow more, meaning they have more financial means to outbid poorer household in desirable neighbourhood[s]. The corresponding price increase can have the consequence of pricing minorities out of many neighbourhoods despite their better access to credit.”
He also goes on to point out:
“Hispanic families have used the easier access to credit to buy houses in predominantly Hispanic neighbourhoods with the consequence of enrolling their children in schools with fewer black peers, and more Hispanic and white peers. We estimate that, because of the credit boom, black students in 2006 had 2% fewer Hispanic peers; that is about 18 fewer Hispanic students.”
I can feel the love, can you? Why don’t we join a perfectly racially represented choir and offer to buy the world a coke. Sometimes, however, facts can be a little too inconvenient for the utopian pipe-dream.
Sally Osberg, The Builder
Next is Sally Osberg, the president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation. She spends her time “Identifying and supporting innovators pioneering scalable solutions to global challenges”. One of those pioneers comes in the form of “Partners for Sustainable Development”, a Palestinian NGO which prepares youth for a life in global society and encourages grass roots activism. On the face of it, it is innocent enough, but things are never that simple. The chairman, Nazef Housseini, is the chief technology and communications officer for Consolidated Contractors Company, the largest construction firm in the Middle East. If we recall recent and current Middle East events, there is a fair amount of revolution and overall destruction of infrastructure in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the list goes on. Once things next begin to stabilize, the largest construction company in the region is set to make a killing, even if there is more destruction, one might imagine especially if there is more destruction. When you’re in bed with that company, then suddenly being very concerned with the Middle East becomes less of a sacrifice and more of a benefit. Just remember, these Skoll types were all on board with the Arab Spring, which has led to the most infrastructure destruction in the Middle East in recent memory.
It gets even more interesting. In an interview of the Area Manager of Consolidated Contractor’s Company Bassam Daher, the man in charge of Egypt, Sudan, and Libya, he reveals that they had just finished a headquarters for HSBC earlier this month. For those not familiar, HSBC is a massive multinational financial services company based out of London UK. If anyone recalls, back in 2012 HSBC was investigated for turning a blind eye to and even assisting in money laundering for Mexican drug cartels and terrorist groups. A 2012 Reuters article features a compliance officer named Everett Stern who alerted the company to transactions linked to Hamas and Hezbollah, but ultimately his concerns were dismissed. I guess sally Osberg should be a little more careful which “innovaters” she decides to support.
James G.B. DeMartini III, The Kingmaker
The last disciple of the world’s savior’s poverty stricken and self-sacrificing lot is James DeMartini, a man who I imagine wants for nothing. He is the managing partner of Seiler LLP, a Silicon Valley accounting firm which is deeply concerned about the environment, and I imagine deeply concerned about the healthy subsidies passed on to them by the current administration. It certainly helps one do the right thing when it pays oh-so-well. DeMartini served on the board of directors of Mid-Peninsula Bank from 1999 to 2004. It is a member of the Greater Bay Bancorp Group, which merged with Wells Fargo in 2007. This was right around the time Wells Fargo became designated “too big to fail”. That alone should give some insight into DeMartini’s past business environment and show, to some extent, how ironic it is that he is on a board of a group that is out to save the world.
That may be thin to some, but Demartini has a little more under his hat, which I imagine is probably a fedora with a feather in it which he doffs while swinging his gold watch on a chain. In a 2012 New York Times article about the secrecy and suspicious dealings surrounding Super Pacs in the last election, Nicholas Confessore and Michael Lou wrote:
“Even donors who chose not to give via nonprofit affiliates can find ways to guard their identities by giving through a limited liability corporation or other entity that is hard to trace. For example, Restore Our Future received a $250,000 contribution last August from “Glenbrook L.L.C.,” which listed an address on Lagoon Drive in Redwood City, Calif. The suite number provided on Federal Election Commission records matches one occupied by a certified public accounting firm, Seiler L.L.P. But an official with the firm told a reporter who went to the address that it could not discuss its clients.”
As someone who sees campaign finance reform as something much needed in this country, this makes Demartini no better than the money launderers at HSBC.
The Bones of Skoll
The thing about writing a hit piece on Jeff Skoll is that it’s akin to shadow boxing. Like all wealthy philanthropists, his carefully designed cult of personality will always be his face in the media. Every interview reads quite similarly: he is very concerned about the whole world, he wants to combine social improvement with viable business models, he loves social activism. So the best I can do really on the man himself is try to get inside his head, the head of the person behind the enterprise that is Jeff Skoll the idea.
Perhaps the best place to start is an interview he gave with Arianna Huffington in 2012. Her delight at speaking to him is obvious. Her questions are all trying to draw out his seemingly all-encompassing empathy for the entire globe. To call her questions softball would be an insult to the sport. As a Silicon Valley guy, he is very much into the view that humanity can become transcendent through complete amalgamation and this is very clear in one of his answers: “I think for the older generation, they tend to focus more on traditional things, like putting up a wing in a hospital or doing health research or helping fund new kinds of schools. All those things are great, but for the younger generation I think there’s more of an inclination to look more globally.” No surprise there, but he goes on to make his stance even clearer: “When I think of the major threats in the world, long term, we do have the time and the ability to solve them — even the most intractable threats.” I believe this statement puts him firmly in the camp of solutionists, the very millennial camp which believes all problems no matter how small can eventually be addressed through information sharing and technology. I take issue with this view because it is so blind to the practicality of everyday life. Saying that Skoll, in transcending local issues, has also cheated himself out of having any clear view of the average perspective would not be an unfair claim. He is so very concerned with the long term, but, as John Maynard Keynes said: “In the long run we are all dead.” Solutionism also falls prey to its own vision of the future, much like the futurists. Their Imagined vision of the future were innovative and fascinating but for the most part wrong. Truly there is no future, merely the disproven vision which becomes the present.
This sort of world-altering-futurism sense of morality becomes more obvious in some of Skoll’s individual interventions around the world. Earlier this year the One Voice group which strove to throw a wrench in Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election campaign was strongly funded by Skoll. Now, I am no fan of Israel’s prime minister, but Skoll’s funding of the group looks an awful lot like America’s many misguided attempts at regime change all across the world. For a man who says of politics: “Maybe the next frontier is figuring out how to have a political environment that isn’t so corrosive and toxic.” He seems to play by similar rules. He also isn’t above blatant propaganda. In a piece by Inside Philanthropy, Michael Gentilucci reveals: “Skoll is institutionalizing the link between his media work and his philanthropy with a $10 million donation to the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television to create the Skoll Center for Social Impact Entertainment.” He later quotes Skoll himself who said of the program: “This new center at UCLA TFT is an extension of [my] vision, with the goal of empowering a new generation and elevating storytelling as a tool to create impact and empower people to connect to the social issues which can have a profound impact on our world.” If I need to make this clear: Jeff Scoll is buying educational stock with money in order to turn art (theater) into propaganda for his own causes. If the Kock brothers did something like this so publicly and flaunted it, then the media would be up in arms and rightfully so. UCLA is heavily subsidized like any state university, yet it is allowing a private sector ideologue buy intellectual stock in how their students are educated. This is not a new concept, but that does not make it any less disturbing. It is also very megalomaniacal. Skoll is so convinced of his own inherent rightness that he is investing in re-educating future people along the lines of his moral superiority.
Things get even stranger when Skoll reveals his philosophical inspiration for many of his aims and beliefs in a 2010 graduation speech at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. At one point he says: “When I was growing up, I admired writers whose stories made the world seem a very small and interconnected place, writers like Ayn Rand, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. My dream was to tell stories that would change the world.” This is where Skoll begins to come in a little clearer. Notice how he says nothing of the satire and dystopian natures of Huxley and Orwell’s works. He simply points to the setting and the interconnectedness as a good thing. I find that rather chilling, since both authors’ penned works showing the danger of the devaluation of individual worth in favor of collective technocratic assimilation. From that statement he seems to be implying that he can bring about an empathetic version of a Brave New World. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like a conceit, something with which Skoll is entirely unfamiliar.
To bring this around and offer a bit of an ironical conclusion, I would like to offer a quotation from Aldous Huxley himself, something said in a speech at none other than UCLA Berkely in 1962 in a presentation called “The Ultimate Revolution”. Here it is:
“I think that insofar as dictators become more and more scientific, more and more concerned with the technically perfect, perfectly running society, they will be more and more interested in the kind of techniques which I imagined and described from existing realities in BNW. So that, it seems to me then, that this ultimate revolution is not really very far away, that we, already a number of techniques for bringing about this kind of control are here, and it remains to be seen when and where and by whom they will first be applied in any large scale.”
He goes on to say later:
“This is, I say, in this field of pure persuasion, I think we do know much more than we did in the past, and obviously we now have mechanisms for multiplying the demagogues voice and image in a quite hallucinatory way, I mean, the TV and radio . . . The ancient demagogue could only appeal to as many people as his voice could reach by yelling at his utmost, but the modern demagogue could touch literally millions at a time, and of course by the multiplication of his image he can produce this kind of hallucinatory effect which is of enormous hypnotic and suggestive importance.”
In the context of the presentation Huxley is presenting these ideas and methods as ultimately very dangerous, yet Skoll must see this quote as a hopeful dream, which means that he really does not know Huxley at all, that he does not understand social satire, or perhaps that he does not share the author’s healthy concern about absolute control. How can he be so assured of his rightness and chances of success when even his own inspirations are set against his methods, his stacking of news cinema and propagandistic education?
I made allusions earlier to Skoll being a sort of messianic religious figure and I firmly believe that he is. In that way I guess this smear piece has failed. Aside from the questionable involvements of his Board of directors and his own questionable methods of propagating his moral agenda there is no smoking gun. History has yet to reveal the ends of Skoll’s means, so now I can only take issue with the latter. You either believe in him or you do not, and he causes me enough discomfort that I cannot keep the faith. I cannot believe in a messiah that preaches empathy without sacrifice, one that bemoans power structures yet, according to Gentilucci: “for all the giving he’s done so far, Jeff Skoll is actually richer now than he was a few years ago, with a fortune estimated at $3.9 billion.” Though I suppose that’s where the Ayn Rand comes into play.
A Church In Ruins
None of this information I dug up directly ties objectively negatively back to Jeff Skoll, but I think it says a great deal about the company he keeps. When you look into the machinations of the board of directors of The Skoll Global Threats Fund, it makes absolute sense that they can live so comfortably while saving the world. In a way, writing this has been cathartic. Whenever I see TakePart’s headlines in my list of news articles I will still shake my head. But now I think I’ll smile too. Those who read it eat of what he offers, and they live out the ecstasy of his ritual, they camp out in rallies and rage against that great immense force which seeks to tear the world apart. In the meanwhile, the Board of directors will continue to jet around the world and give so much while somehow losing nothing. Skoll fed them their religion. Through his documentaries and NGOs he said: “This is the world, and I will show you how to save it.” And they try, they really do, and like liturgy they repeat his words. I am unsure if they will ever understand Skoll’s fundamental conceit, the ignorance of an ancient bit of wisdom, that he and his and our society has been made of wealth and conflict, and everything that is evolved is involved and nothing can rise higher than its source.
Consolidated Contractors and HSBC: