A conclave of heretics in the capital of capital
On getting COVID with all your Twitter mutuals in a fancy Miami hotel
I reviewed Hereticon shenanigans with Liz Wolfe of Reason on the Pull Request Callin show here (now available on Web and soon on Android!).
A virtuous Heretick shall be saved before a wicked Christian.
-Ben Franklin, ‘A Dialogue Between Two Presbyterians’
Flying into Omicron City, AKA Miami, feels vaguely suicidal, or at least imprudent. I project my anxiety into the Twitter ether, and a reply guy tells me he’s sitting on the plane behind me. Then someone—while on a plane in flight—tries to airdrop photos onto my Mac as a troll. I turn around and reality turns into a reverie where suddenly random people you know are all around you: Michael Shellenberger, author and well-known SF activist, is literally right behind me. Kmele Foster of the ‘Fifth Column Podcast’ is across the aisle, and Cyan Bannister, noted VC, is a few rows down.
More Twitter reply-guys announce their presence on the flight, and Twitter and IRL merge in some odd metaversian way. After two years of COVID, the Internet no longer reflects reality, reality is an expression of the Internet. Put another way, the Internet isn’t this weird digital detour to reality, reality is an analog luxury add-on to the Internet, and I’m headed to big powwow of just that: Founders Fund’s Hereticon, a festival for malcontents.
This circus is the brainchild of Mike Solana, noted venture billionaire1 and (hopefully) future mayor of San Francisco. Though good luck uprooting the guy from Miami where he and a good chunk of the Founders Fund nomenklatura have set up shop as ferocious boosters of my hometown, a bizarre historical detour I would have never imagined as a youngster desperate to get out.
The next portent that this Hereticon business was going to be an absolutely fab confab was the venue: the Hotel Faena, this spectacular temple to Miami Beach’s 40s heyday on Collins Avenue and 32nd Street. Redone completely by the same duo that remade the Puerto Madera docklands in Buenos Aires, the Faena is a flamboyant neo-Art Deco temple of gold-leafed columns, vibrant, Mucha-esque murals, and splashy, plush furniture. There’s an immense gold-plated mammoth by Damien Hirst on the way to the beach, and the theater reminds one of cabaret photos from such louche hangouts as Weimar or pre-revolutionary Cuba (there would be an entirely fitting burlesque show on evening two).
As a stark counterpoint, the Faena Forum across the street is by Rem Koolhass and looks like something out of either Starfleet Academy or the Elysium spaceship in a Bloemkamp film. I had been there before at a conference where I was the paid entertainment, and the crowd was the significantly less interesting one of hedge-fund honchos and novelty-seeking wealthy looking for a sunnier TED experience. With room rates starting well into the four digits, this is the sort of experience best had with Other People’s Money, and one must thank Founders Fund for sparing no expense in throwing such a spectacular intellectual bacchanal.
Either through studied suspense, or simply improvisation, the schedule for Hereticon wasn’t released until days before the event itself. I had no idea what the convention was even about, other than the fact Solana had been secretly plotting this things for years. Getting lectured by both girlfriend and baby mama about the COVID risk, and both vowing to quarantine me like a leper when I got back, only served to increase the FOMO and my desire to go. Like a salmon returning to his spawning ground, the little Cuban boy had to go represent as the provincial beachhead of his youth became another stop on the Globalist Grand Tour.
A (further) rumination on Miami
On the flat coastal swamps of South Florida, where the palmettos once blew over the detritus of a dozen failed booms and the hotels were boarded up six months a year, there has evolved a settlement of considerable interest.
Not exactly an American city as American cities have until recently been understood but a tropical capital: long on rumor, short on memory, overbuilt on the chimera of runaway money and referring not to New York or Boston or Los Angeles or Atlanta but to Caracas and Mexico, to Havana and to Bogotá and to Paris and Madrid.
Joan Didion, Miami
I’m often asked: so is this Miami tech thing for real, or is this just a few self-interested people trying to meme something into existence?
Yes, it’s meme-ification….but that’s also the entire history of Florida.
As every Miami school kid knows, the development of South Florida was itself meme’ed into existence by one Julia Tuttle, local pioneer who reputedly sent a bouquet of orange flowers to Henry Flagler, former Rockefeller man turned Florida developer, to show the mildness of the South Florida climate. Flagler duly extended his gigantic hotel and railroad project all the way through Miami to Key West; Tuttle herself donated large tracts of land to make it possible, and became one of the founders of the city of Miami.
A local hustler sweet-talking an outside tycoon to come down to Miami, and doing whatever necessary to accommodate them: sound a bit like the Suarez/Delian Twitter pas à deux that kicked off this recent tech hegira to Miami?
Of course, that Flagler railroad was blown to hell in the great hurricane of 1935, but the main east-west road in Miami is still named after him, and the causeway that goes from Miami to Miami Beach carries Tuttle’s name. Travelers on the way down to Key West (a gorgeous and much-recommended drive) can see the ruins of Flagler’s railroad on the right hand side.
But no matter….look at South Florida now: a GDP greater than Singapore’s and no sign of slowing down. Walk around SF’s SoMa, and you feel like Will Smith in ‘I Am Legend’ navigating a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Walk around Miami’s Wynwood and matters are, to use the Cuban expression, a paso de conga: foofy third-wave coffee, craft breweries, co-working spaces, vibrant art scene, hipsters, strutting models (that’s novel), construction everywhere (also novel), music blaring. Florida is the real estate grift that worked out, in the past and still now.
While getting over COVID—me and everyone else seemed to catch it within a day of the conference ending—I hung around Miami waiting for a negative test, and it was like Greek legends about heroes emerging from the underworld into the light of living day and reflecting on their quest. The former working-class ‘hood and industrial area of Wynwood, the sort of place nobody would have gone to for either love or money in the 90s, is now a tropical SoMa reboot and tremenda pachanga. Even in my zonked out COVID state, the energy was intoxicating: Miamians are warm, chatty, upbeat, evincing a vital sprezzatura everywhere they go. Life restarted here full-throttle a while ago, and the hysterical, dysfunctional shitshow that is California feels like a world away and a drab bore by comparison.
Like it or not, Miami and Florida are the future: California had the highest outflow of any state last year, and Florida the highest inflow. People are voting with their feet, and choosing a future with open schools, law and order, and governments that build enough housing that everyone can afford a home. They’re also not choosing a world of high taxes for poor services, sclerotic institutions that only perform social experiments on the public dime, and rampant crime and homelessness. God bless American federalism and fifty experiments in democracy.
Back to the Faena…
Sex workers, UFOs, ghost guns, and the banality of eugenics
Both my limited patience and the Chatham-House rules of the conference make it hard to report on each and every session (never mind my unfortunate tendency to forget the schedule in favor of whatever champagne-fueled convo was happening right in front of me). But I’ll do my best.
As the first session of the conference kicked off—’How to Pay for Sex,’ by noted OnlyFans star and sex worker Aella—I commiserated about the COVID risk with podcaster and economist Tyler Cowen (known for his uber-rational and inquisitorial interviews on Conversations with Tyler).
“Probably something like 10 to 15% of the people around us right now have COVID,” Cowen mused, while we looked at a theatre full of maskless people. He seemed utterly unflappable.
“Getting it now, after two years of lockdowns and what’s possibly the last wave, feels like getting shot on the last day of the war,” I replied worriedly.
”Better than getting shot the first day of the war!” he shot back, in his usual dry style. (Cowen himself would later test negative for COVID multiple times. I would not.)
Cowen’s logic was unassailable, and there was more than a bit of blue-state paranoia in the face of the red-state indifference at work. As anyone who’s been on the red-state side of the COVID divide, while the case and death rates have taken off with each new variant wave, COVID has functionally been over as a for-real public health concern in much of the Union. Alea jacta est and ‘cast your cares on the Lord’; I wouldn’t wear a mask all week.
Aella’s talk about selling sex, both online and IRL, was so interesting I had to clumsily DM her while semi-hammered at 4AM later that night to cadge an interview, which devolved into a rather unexpected negotiation. The full interview is here: ‘Wherein I pay Aella for sex and we just chat instead’.
After Aella and lunch, the first talk of the afternoon was by psychologist Diana Fleischman on the utterly anodyne topic of eugenics. Starting with the safe example of an incestuous brother-sister couple that had so many kids the German state eventually imprisoned them, she then rattled off a list of policies that, though packaged euphemistically, amount to eugenics: Jews filtering wedding matches based on congenital illness risk, Denmark ‘eradicating’ Down’s Syndrome via selective abortion, or sperm buyers using all manner of aesthetic fancies to choose donors. By the end of it, you realized humans breed themselves more ruthlessly than any deranged dog-owner in Best of Show, and the current taboo around using the word ‘eugenics’ in all but vicious condemnation is prudish and deluded. In short, eugenics is extant and widely-practiced, but impossible to talk about; in a word, it’s heresy, and Hereticon got off on exactly the right foot.
We might mock Orthodox Jews for refusing to use G-d’s name, thinking it possesses transcendent power. But in the secular world, we similarly abhor the use of certain magic words thought to wreak evil by their mere mention, which we only obliquely refer to via a first letter if at all. The talismanic nature of good and evil, with the accompanying social taboos around speech and thought, never goes away; it’s just rewritten into a different script.
Fleischman’s talk is an excellent trigger for a broader discussion the nature of heresy. The term itself stems from early Christian usage for any of the gaggle of weird cults that pullulated around the time of that strangest cult of all, Christianity itself. It implies both revolt, budding Wrongthink, and doctrinaire inquisitors with a burning pyre never far away. Heresy shouldn’t be possible in a world of free inquiry and basic law-and-order where nobody actually really gets hurt for anything anyone says. We might mock Orthodox Jews for refusing to use G-d’s name, thinking it possesses transcendent power. But in the secular world, we similarly abhor the use of certain magic words thought to wreak evil by their mere mention, which we only obliquely refer to via a first letter, if at all. The talismanic nature of good and evil, with the accompanying social taboos around speech and thought, never goes away; it’s just rewritten into a different script.
Take for example Timur Kuran’s Private Truths, Public Lies and preference falsification, where we overtly endorse ideas we covertly think to be false out of a sense of propriety or self-preservation. This is Havel’s greengrocer in The Power of the Powerless, who hangs a sign supporting the communist regime on his storefront merely so he can continue in his small business, unharassed by authorities. The greengrocer doesn’t mind repeating the untruth so long as the overhead is small. After all, he won’t change anything about the autocratic government he lives under by resisting.