An Open Letter to Sergey Brin About Socialism
You don’t know me. Or maybe you do. In some ways, we’re basically the same person.
I’m two years older than you. We were both saved from the Soviet monstrosity by our amazingly brave, erudite parents, yearning to not be abused for their Jewish heritage. We were both brought to America in the same year, 1979 by hook and by crook, via a largely unknown but absurdly fascinating process involving invitations from fake relatives in Israel and our stateless, nomad families shepherded by various Jewish organizations and the Italian mob, hounded by Palestinian terrorists, crossing the Alps without documents, living on pennies and the goodwill of our merciful American benefactors and on and on and on.
All this happened when I was 7 and you were 5, so we were young.
But also not so young.
I’m sure, like me, you have vivid memories of the abuse you suffered at the hands of Soviet anti-Semites. I’m sure you know the stories of our elders describing all the ways in which they were tormented by every class and method of the codebase. It was all baked into the kernel of the OS. For us, even in kindergarten, there was no refuge. As Lev Golinkin describes so accurately in his book, we were going to take our beatings and our parents were going to suffer the nightmare of knowing that their children were being abused and there was nothing they could do about it.
Ultimately, it was precisely these abuses that drove them to undertake the perilous journey away from their friends and families and to a foreign land where everything, from the language to the cuisine to the customs was alien and where it would take them years to find a footing.
It’s hard for us to understand how precarious this exodus must have felt to our parents—who at the time were actually a little younger than you and I are now. And just how dreadful things had to have been for them to subject themselves and their children to such an arduous and risky flight.
This experience now serves as a keel of relative positivity™ (it’s my term, you can’t have it). It keeps us upright when others, who lack this ballast, are capsized by life’s complexities.
We notice when Americans get outraged and we say to ourselves, “You have absolutely no idea just how magical your lives are and just how bad it can get.”
But then again, we get it —because they generally don’t have our frame of reference and the outrage is generally justified, even if it’s hyperbolic. America is very far from perfect and if one doesn’t know how deep the barrel is, it’s easy to think you’re near the bottom even when it’s still quite a ways further down. It’s entirely reasonable to get indignant about all the imperfections.
Americans still have plenty of real problems and not everyone needs to be force fed their own vomit in front of the class by an abusive preschool teacher while being called a “filthy kike” (true story!) to know what strife is.
I’m fond of saying that when you hit rock bottom, it’s good to remember to be grateful that at least you’re not at smooth-jazz bottom, or worse, <shivers>musical theater bottom! </shivers>
Anyway — what else do we have in common?
Well, we’re both software professionals. You’re about $50 billion more “professional” than me but I’m guessing that this wealth has changed very little about who you see in the mirror every morning.
I’m also guessing you haven’t gilded any of your toilets and you’re probably not spending most of your time paying hush money to porn stars (no judgement if you are — I’m just thinking about how I’ll spend my billions when I get them).
All of this is windup to explain why I’m writing to you today: Because for several years now I’ve been noticing a very peculiar trend in American politics. Namely, the move by some left-leaning folks and factions to embrace “socialism.”
Cathy Young, who is also a member of our nomadic clan, has a really fantastic piece on the subject. I strongly recommend you read it.
I’m heartened by the way her analysis ends — namely, that perhaps this is much ado about nothing and maybe (probably?) this is a passing phase where people who don’t know any better pick a term that they associate with egalitarianism and start using it, naively, unaware of what it actually means.
However, I’m not willing to bet the house on the optimistic view. (Deep down, I am still Russian.)
You and I know what socialism truly is. It’s not about free education or free medical care or feminism. It’s about oppression and abuse and gulags and death.
Real, live actual socialism has failed and wrought havoc in every single instance that it has been attempted, with its cap’s feather being Stalin’s murder of somewhere between 25 and 65 million of his own citizens. And as Kristian Niemietz eloquently observes even if you somehow magically managed to finally realize Marx and Engels’ dream without the secret police and the imprisoning of dissidents and the genocide (and so far no one has), you’d still be left with a really anaemic economy that fails to fix any of the economic problems that were the reason for going down this road to begin with.
People love to point to Scandinavia as examples of “socialism’s” success. But of course, those nations aren’t at all socialist. They are capitalist democracies that simply tax and regulate their corporations and individuals slightly more than America does and allocate more of those funds for various public projects and safety nets. If you want to call that “socialism” then words mean nothing and the Atlantic ocean is just a giant margarita because, you know . . . salt.
As a founding member of Google—arguably the most influential and consequential technology company that humanity has ever witnessed—and as someone who, like me, has had first-hand experience with the realities of socialism and its aftermath, I’m curious as to what you think about all of this.
You have a platform like no one else except, maybe, Zuck and Bezos. And while I genuinely appreciate your desire not to wade into politics — it’s a truly thankless job and no one will ever be satisfied, no matter what you do— I feel like we’re at a potentially cataclysmic point in our history and it is not hyperbole to observe that the arrival of “socialism” as a legitimate platform on the American political scene should trigger Defcon 1 for you.
It certainly does for me and as we’ve already established, you and I are more or less the same person.
As I’m sure you recall, in spite of the fact that the Carter administration played an instrumental role in our ability to flee Soviet Russia, most of the people of our parents’ age who came here in the ’70s and ’80s became staunch (almost fanatical) Republicans. This always struck me as incredibly ungrateful, but when you asked them why it was generally a one-word answer.
Obviously, Reagan had them at hello (which he pronounced “my fellow Americans”) but they saw in the GOP an unwavering rejection of anything and everything even vaguely related to communism. It was a very simple formula. Communism == Socialism == oppression == death. (Yes, I’m using the comparative operator because I’m a nerd and I know who I’m talking to.) In their eyes, the Democrats weren’t as committed to capitalism as the Republicans were and that was the end of the conversation.
As a child, I followed their lead but then as I developed my own sense of the world I realized that they were being reactionary. American Democrats of the ’80s and ’90s were no more likely to be genuinely anti-capitalist or pro-totalitarian than their Republican colleagues. This was just a caricature bandied by their political opposition. There were, to be sure, genuine disagreements on the prescriptions to how to solve problems. But at least the problems themselves were all (generally) agreed upon. The delta between what the Right and Left believed were the correct solutions was pretty small.
You could, for example (as I did and continue to) become a supporter of liberal policies on immigration and education and criminal justice and equality of opportunity and be an atheist without ever playing footsie with state-controlled industry and gulags!
One thing was for sure, though: Both parties were adamantly defensive of free expression and the rule of law. And in my worldview, so long as that remained true, the arguments around how to tax and spend the public’s wealth and whether or not to regulate airlines and pollutants were worthwhile and interesting but not existentially critical to the future of the nation.
But over the last 30 years, the income disparity increased and the American Dream, with its promise that hard work and perseverance would be reliably rewarded with a home and a picket fence and college for your 2.5 kids, started looking less and less like a promise and more and more like a random distribution of luck.
Or not-so-random. If celebrities and the wealthy feel like the only way to guarantee their children’s success is through payola and graft then what must average Jane Wisconsin think about her kids’ prospects?!
Naturally, as moderate solutions to this problem looked increasingly useless, the two political parties started proposing more extreme alternatives.
The Right predictably turned to nationalism and the promise to shove everyone into a time machine and take them back to 1959.
And the Left—well, they’ve decided that they will finally figure out how to do “socialism” without the oppression and abuse and gulags and death. Which—if we’re being honest here—is about as realistic as the conservative time machine fantasy.
As recently as 3 years ago I was confident in my underlying theory that the adults were still mostly in charge and when you separated the signal from the noise you had an America that was not much different from the one you and I fled to in ’79. There were real problems to be solved but the stuff I was hearing from the likes of Ben Sasse and Elizabeth Warren left me with the impression that serious people were debating workable policy and I could rest easy.
Then Bernie came along calling himself a “Democratic Socialist.”
If anyone can explain to me what this actually means, I’d be grateful . Because as far as I can tell, Bernie hasn’t proposed anything even vaguely socialist. And if “Democratic Socialists” are just people pushing for a little more government oversight of the capitalist markets then we can all rest easy.
But words have meanings and as far as I can tell socialism has just the one definition and I don’t mean to keep laboring the point, but it’s the one involving oppression and abuse and gulags and death.
If you don’t understand, just substitute the “socialist” in “Democratic Socialist” with “fascist” or “Hitlerist” or “Satanist” and see how they make you feel. Notice how “Democratic” doesn’t quite soften the blow as much as you seem to think it should? To those of us who suffered through actual socialism, this looks like a distinction without a difference and it’s really scary.
And honestly, I just don’t get it . . . why that word?! WHY? It seems to be a lose/lose because either you MEAN it (and that’s terrifying) or you DON’T mean it, and then I’m just confused cause’ you’re gonna get trounced on election day in the name of misunderstood semantics. And in the words of the self-appraised greatest orator of our time, that would be “SAD!”
My Canadian wife insists that “everyone understands” that “socialism” in 2019 isn’t what the Soviets were doing. She’s all: “They were Communists!”.
But I can’t help but remember what the second “S” in U.S.S.R stood for. And also, what’s up with the everyones in Venezuela? Are they in on the new definition? Because they don’t seem to be helping the rebranding effort.
Sorry, Sergey, I’m digressing.
A few years ago I’d be more sanguine about this because I would just vote for the least nutty Republican in 2020 and let the Dems take their lumps and learn a lesson about poor linguistic choices. Except that we don’t have that luxury because the Republicans elected Trump and he declared journalists the enemy of the people whom he’d like to throw in prison for not saying nice things about him. Oh, and after he’s done tongue-bathing his KGB sugar daddy, can he please have his military parade and perhaps it can include some of the “very fine people” who like to march with torches in the name of a return to the good ole’ days of the Klan, while dragging cages full of migrant kids across the border back to Mexico?
Record scratch. Because that’s the current alternative to socialism.
I don’t understand how this happened. I want to believe that it didn’t happen — that this is all a lot of noise and that the signal is still the America that gave you and me safe harbour from the (undemocratic) socialists of Eastern Europe.
But I’m not so sure anymore. And I think you’re probably not so sure either. And I’m going to guess that you and your family are having the same conversation that I and all our ex-Soviet tribesmates are currently having.
However I don’t know what you think because you’re famously guarded and private but I’m going to say that the time is rapidly approaching when those of us who have a platform and know first-hand what it means to live in a nation where you can’t say what’s on your mind and there isn’t enough food to feed your kids and everything is run by corruption and graft and the strong oppress the weak and there is no truth or reason or fairness or justice or law , there is just The State—well, when we’ll need to use our platforms to try to convince our well-intentioned but misguided co-citizens that they’re barking up some very dangerous trees.
Maybe I’m worried about nothing. Maybe democratic socialists just want to raise the top marginal tax rate and make community college free. And if so, that’s great news. Though I would suggest that their branding is terrible and they ought to call their platform “Vegan Barbarism” or something else that’s genuinely meaningless.
Hi, I’m Bernie Sanders, Vegan Barbarian and I’d like to be your next president.
It has a catchy ring to it, no?
I’m sorry to bug you, Sergey, and I know you’re really busy, but this is important so I hope you reply with your perspective before things take a turn for the (much much) worse.
Your alternate multiverse self,