Every morning when I sit down at my computer, I’m confronted with headlines from the various news sources to which I subscribe: The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post…and through the day, a mind-numbing number of others. I don’t know anyone with the time and/or inclination to carefully read all the available news and opinion, and I certainly don’t–like most consumers of media, I scan the headlines and click on those that promise some measure of enlightenment or moderately important/relevant information.
But occasionally, a headline is so weird, I have to read the article. That’s what lured me to a report in The Week titled (no kidding) “Did Theranos Lose Afghanistan?”
Theranos, as you probably know, was the much-hyped startup company founded by Elizabeth Holmes–young, very good-looking and evidently one really smooth talker. She claimed the company had invented a new kind of blood testing technology that was going to save both time and money. Lots of people invested in it.
The most generous interpretation of what came next was a discovery that the technology didn’t work; a less-generous interpretation is that Holmes intentionally perpetrated a fraud. A jury is currently hearing evidence on the latter interpretation.
So what–if anything–does this audacious scam (if that is, indeed, what it turns out to be) have to do with Afghanistan? Well, the article does point out that General Mattis, late of the Trump Administration and the Afghan war, was on the board of Theranos and a major cheerleader for the company.
But the real connection was a cultural one.
Like the Afghanistan debacle, Theranos is a horror story of wishful thinking, credulous media, and celebrity impunity. Whether or not intentional deception was involved, both episodes display the dishonesty and incompetence of interlocking tech, finance, media, and military elites.
Mattis’ role in both sorry spectacles–the war and Theranos–illustrates the moral rot that infects far too many of the figures lionized by a media chasing eyeballs and clicks rather than the information required by a democratic citizenry.
Mattis denies any wrongdoing, claiming he was taken in, too. Even if that’s true, his role is discreditable. Mattis’ association with the company began in 2011, when he met Holmes at a Marine Memorial event in San Francisco. According to author John Carreyrou and other journalists, he immediately began campaigning for military adoption of Theranos’ ostensibly innovative bloodtesting technology. Mattis was not deterred by the lack of FDA approval and mounting doubts about whether the technology actually worked. After his retirement in 2013, Mattis also ignored legal advice that it would be improper to join the board while the company was seeking procurement of its products for use in Afghanistan.
It would be a mistake to single out a few “bad actors,” however. The problem is systemic–a widespread, “baked-in” disinclination to either provide or accept evidence that is contrary to what one wants to believe.
The article focuses on the impunity enjoyed by what it calls the American ruling class “until their conduct becomes literally criminal,” and it points out that the same people who make decisions in Washington sit on boards in Silicon Valley and appear on the same few cable channels. When the projects they promote go south, they continue to be celebrated and compensated as authors, management consultants, and respected pundits.
There’s a word for this governing hierarchy: kakistocracy, governance by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens.
Which gets us back to culture.
In today’s America, celebrity is more valued than competence. A loud voice commands far more attention than an expert opinion. Purveyors of ridiculous conspiracy theories overwhelm the conclusions and cautions of reputable scientists. This is the culture that in 2016 gave us an embarrassing, mentally-ill buffoon for President, the culture that elects equally embarrassing crazies like Marjorie Taylor Greene. It’s the culture that leads thousands of people to ingest a horse de-wormer and reject the expertise of epidemiologists and medical professionals.
It’s a culture that threatens to overwhelm those of us who want to live in the reality-based community.