The Oxford Union opened its bicentenary year on Monday with an address by Peter Thiel, the entrepreneur and investor who co-founded Paypal and Palantir. He spoke primarily on the culture war in the West, arguing for what he called “anti-anti-anti-anti-classical liberalism”.
Thiel began by asking the audience, “What is the antonym of diversity?” Someone shouted in reply, “University!” For the rest of the event, he delved into politically charged topics, declaring that “stagnation” is the greatest crisis of our time and to blame are universities, environmentalism, and the establishment.
Thiel characterised the study of humanities as “flaky” and pointless, while he described climate change as “one of the controversial subjects of the sciences.” He also described the modern environmentalist movement as “Greta and the autistic children’s crusade”. Later, he encountered pushback on his comments during the Q&A period, with one student staying, “I’ve met Greta and she’s actually quite lovely,” resulting in cheers.
Thiel is currently the Chairman of Palantir and presumed to be its largest shareholder. The company has been contracted by NHS England to provide data services; it is also the current front-runner to win an additional £360 million contract, despite pressure from a coalition of civil liberties groups concerned about privacy, data security, and Palantir’s track record as a “key enabler” of mass surveillance and Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies. When questioned on how he would fix the NHS given his lack of faith in government, Thiel quipped, “The NHS makes people sick,” and said, “The first step is to get out of the Stockholm syndrome.”
In brief, Thiel described the current world as “stalled” and “deranged” due to the overwhelming influence of the “centre-left zombie straightjacket” has replaced bygone values of “classical liberalism.” “It is all stalled out beyond belief,” he emphasised. Part of the solution, he said, is shifting public opinion, which is why these talks are important to him.
A Union spokesperson acknowledged in a statement to Cherwell that some of its guest speakers may “hold views which are regarded as unacceptable”. However, the Union believes that it is central to their function as a debating society “to facilitate open and respectful discourse on controversial views and topics.” Thiel echoed this sentiment. He believes it is important to discuss contemporary issues in a public forum, arguing that many modern woes, including stagnation, can be partially solved by shifting public opinion.
Thiel also expanded on his contrarian views in a 2009 essay, saying, “I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual. … Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”
A prominent donor to Donald Trump’s electoral campaign in 2016, one member asked him once the floor was opened to questions, why he backed Trump. Thiel responded that it was based on a “very deep conviction that things were too far off track, too locked down, too stagnant.” As a member of the executive committee of Trump’s transition team, Thiel proposed that a top climate change skeptic be appointed to White House science advisor and that a bitcoin entrepreneur lead the Food and Drug Administration. The former US president has praised Thiel, saying once at a meeting after his 2016 victory, that the entrepreneur was “a very special guy.” Thiel continues to donate to conservative politicians in the US.
Union President Charlie Mackintosh told Cherwell: “I am incredibly proud that, two-hundred years on, the Oxford Union remains true to its founding principles of free speech and debate. By hosting people with differing views, the Union presents its members with unique opportunities to challenge viewpoints they disagree with and engage in open discussions.”