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Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley; Belarus Weaponizing Immigration?; The Next Pandemic; Interview With European Commission Vice Chair Margaritis Schinas; Interview with "The Contrarian" Author Max Chafkin; Interview with "Sex Education" Creator Laurie Nunn. Aired 1-2p ET
Aired September 30, 2021 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Hello, everyone, and welcome to AMANPOUR.
Here's what's coming up.
GOLODRYGA (voice-over): Is Belarus using migrants as weapons in its spat with the E.U.? Reaction from a top European official.
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know me. I'm a born optimist. I think things are going to go well.
GOLODRYGA: The U.S. COVID caseload is dropping, but is the world already barreling toward the next pandemic? "The Atlantic"'s Ed Yong certainly
I asked him how governments can prepare.
MAX CHAFKIN, AUTHOR, "THE CONTRARIAN: PETER THIEL AND SILICON VALLEY'S PURSUIT OF POWER": I mean, following Thiel is sort of this alternative
path through the history of Silicon Valley.
GOLODRYGA: The looming influence of Silicon Valley superpower Peter Thiel.
Bloomberg's Max Chafkin digs into the man and his motives.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: I just want to be the old me again.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: You may never be the old you, but that's OK.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: We can make things better.
GOLODRYGA: Class is in session for a little "Sex Education." As the hit show returns. I'm joined by its creator, Laurie Nunn.
GOLODRYGA: Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Bianna Golodryga in New York sitting, in for Christiane Amanpour, who will be back next week.
Well, some of the world's most vulnerable people are paying the price in a bust-up between the E.U. and neighboring Belarus, migrants reportedly being
weaponized by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to get back at the bloc after it imposed sanctions back in May.
It's led to a sharp rise in migrant crossings into Poland, Latvia and Lithuania over the summer. So far, at least five people have died at the
Polish-Belarusian border and dozens have been stuck for several weeks in appalling conditions, like human footballs.
Last year, there were 122 migrants caught at the border. So far this year, it's more than 4,000. Amnesty International is now accusing Poland of
illegally pushing migrants back and the E.U. plans to suspend visas for Belarus officials, in an attempt to deter them.
This latest gambit by Lukashenko comes as he's accused of multiple human rights abuses.
Correspondent Matthew Chance just sat down with him for an exclusive interview and asked about this. Here's a first look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Would you take this opportunity now to apologize to the people of Belarus for the human
rights abuses that they have suffered at your hands?
ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO, PRESIDENT OF BELARUS (through translator): No, I would not like to take this opportunity. If ever I would, I would do that
through the Belarusian media. They're quite good here. What would be the point of doing it on CNN?
I don't think this is a relevant question. And, in principle, I have nothing to apologize for.
CHANCE: Well, you say you have got nothing to apologize for. But Human Rights Watch says multiple detainees have reported broken bones, broken
teeth, brain injuries, skin wounds, electrical burns.
Amnesty International speaks of detention centers being -- becoming torture chambers, where protesters were forced to lie in the dirt, stripped naked,
while police kicked and beat them with truncheons. You don't think that is worth apologizing for?
LUKASHENKO (through translator): we don't have a single detention center, as you say, like Guantanamo or those bases that the United States and your
country created in Eastern Europe.
As regards our own detention centers, where we keep those accused or those under investigation, they are no worse than in Britain or the United
States. I can guarantee you that.
I would suggest that you discuss concrete facts and not the views or statements of some ephemeral human rights organizations.
CHANCE: Well, I don't think Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are dubious. They're internationally recognized standards in human rights
And they have all got testimony of former detainees in your prison camps, in your prison detention centers, both men and women, who have spoken of
sexual violence against them, including rape and threats of rape. Are you saying that is just made up, that it's fake?
LUKASHENKO (through translator): Everything you have just said is fake and fantasy. I guarantee you it's fake and fantasy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: Listening to that and joining me now is European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas.
Thank you so much for joining us. And welcome to the program. I know that you just listened to that interview. And while we are used to these attacks
and the whataboutisms that are classic from Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, the deflecting to what's going on in other countries like
Britain and the United States, he says he has nothing to apologize for.
What is your reaction to that?
MARGARITIS SCHINAS, VICE PRESIDENT, EUROPEAN COMMISSION: My reaction to that is that we live in Europe in democracy, and the only thing that
reminds us of how Europe used to be before democracy reigns is these sort of statements by Europe's last dictator.
I think I will not dignify these comments with a comment. We're very proud in the European Union for years now to keep working for peace, prosperity
and understanding amongst the people.
GOLODRYGA: So then what is being done with this particular crisis at hand? We know that there have been several migrants who have died, many suffering
from hypothermia, dehydration, exhaustion.
And they are caught in the middle here. And there are reports that Belarus is actually actively bringing some of these migrants into the country to
impose them upon their neighboring countries. So I know that you say you stand for democracy. What are you doing to combat what you have called the
last dictator in Europe?
SCHINAS: Yes, now, let me first tell you that these are not reports. These are facts.
I was myself in the Lithuania-Belarusian border at the beginning of September, and I saw it with my own eyes. This is a systematic
instrumentalization, weaponization of human suffering by someone who brings people in the E.U. border, and, with the help of police and special forces,
actually pushes them into the European Union.
European Union will not tolerate the use of people as tools for political purposes. Yesterday, we suspended the visa facility for Belarusian
officials. And we are now working very closely with our member states to make sure that these tactics cannot prosper. No one can intimidate the
GOLODRYGA: Well, the Lithuanian foreign minister calls this hybrid warfare and something that we have seen in the past from Belarus' benefactor,
Vladimir Putin, as well.
But this just goes back to the question of deterrence. And revoking visas may not deter him. You see him unfazed in this interview with Matthew
Chance. There were sanctions that were imposed following the hijacking of that Ryanair flight back in May, and yet he continues to act so
aggressively and egregiously.
What more can be done? I know Belarusian -- and I'm sure you're aware Belarusian activists say that more does need to be done, and perhaps he
shouldn't be recognized at all.
SCHINAS: First of all, I think it is now -- by now clear that the sanctions against the Belarusian regime remain intact.
We are reinforcing this with visa measures we announced yesterday. And we are stepping up pressure at the U.N. and with our allies to make sure that
the situation is addressed effectively.
Parallel to that, we're helping our front-line member states, namely, Lithuania, that has suffered the biggest part of the pressure, with 35-6
million euros of support, with more than 200 E.U. border guards that are in place with help from our other member states. And we are dispatching also
teams in Poland to make sure that they can get European support.
We are obliged by this extraordinary situation to activate all resources at our disposal to help our member states with -- who are suffering under
GOLODRYGA: And what is your response to what Poland is doing in sending these migrants back into Belarus, something that I know that you and your
other member states do not endorse?
SCHINAS: First of all, one has to acknowledge that our Polish partners are dealing with an extraordinary situation, just as the Lithuanian friends did
We have to acknowledge that. And, in doing this, of course, it goes without saying that we are the European Union. So, the principles of our values and
the fact that anyone can file for asylum in Europe are under -- are non- negotiable.
But this is not the same thing for these sort of rights to be exercised under normal situation and these massive, instrumentalized, orchestrated
movements of thousands of desperate people by a regime that wants to attack the European Union.
So we are working with our Polish friends and Polish authorities to make sure that they can address these issues effectively with -- the
commissioner for home affairs is in Warsaw as we speak and will try to establish a better knowledge of the situation, because the information
around these facts are not yet fully -- is not yet fully clear here in Brussels.
GOLODRYGA: This week, Poland's interior minister said that it has found material related to Islamic extremism on the phones of some of the people
that have crossed into that border.
What more do you know about that? And have you or your colleagues been able to confirm these claims?
SCHINAS: No, I cannot confirm these claims.
We do not have access to this information. I -- we saw the reports being reported in the Polish press, as you know, that there is an exceptional
situation now that has been created in the border. So there is actually lack of information on the ground.
That is precisely why our home affairs commissioner is traveling to Warsaw herself, as we speak, to determine, to establish the facts. And parallel to
that, we're asking the Polish government to allow our border and coast guard agency, Frontex, to send reinforcements and border guards on the
ground to help with this extraordinary situation.
GOLODRYGA: Well, hopefully they will have more access than NGOs and journalists, who have not been allowed to enter the border.
But let me ask you about the bigger picture here and the elephant in the room. And that, of course, is Vladimir Putin. What role, if any, do of
Russia's participation or aiding of these tactics by Lukashenko?
SCHINAS: We do not know whether there is a Russian link into this extraordinary situation that we're experiencing in our Eastern borders.
It's since last July. We do not know that.
We do know that the people who are pushed into the European Union fly into Minsk from a state-organized company with cheap flights from certain Middle
East countries, some of which have suspended these flights because we asked them to do so. And we know that this is Belarusian regime officers that are
escorting these people and pushing them into the European Union.
So, all this, we know.
SCHINAS: Yes. Go ahead.
GOLODRYGA: Well, I was just going to say, along the lines of what, if any, role that Russia has here, we do know that Putin has a huge role in
deterring Lukashenko in ways that no other country can, and for no other reason that he has been a financial benefactor for the regime.
They just had joint military exercises. They met recently. Is there anything that Vladimir Putin can do at your request? Or is he someone who
you don't find to be an honest broker, as clearly history has shown as well.
SCHINAS: At this stage, I think we opted to work with the countries that are the countries of origin of these extraordinary flows into Belarus, with
some success, if I may say so.
And we are working with the international community and the U.N. to make sure that the same argument is -- passes in the region. We haven't
activated any Russian contacts or channels. And for the time being, the situation in the Russian-Latvian border does not seem to be problematic.
So, we're concentrating our efforts on Belarus and the border with Lithuania and Poland at this...
GOLODRYGA: Let me just end by asking you this question. Your title is vice president for promoting our European way of life.
How much longer can Europe continue with its unified way of life with, as you call them, and many have called him, correctly, I would say, Europe's
last dictator at your borders?
SCHINAS: Well, you see, Europe is confronted with an increasingly uncertain and unsafe world.
And many of our immediate neighbors are authoritarian leaders that do not wish to see Europe prosper. We know that. And, actually, the more they
think of attacking Europe, the more they galvanize our political will here in Brussels and in our member states' capitals to stick together. There is
no alternative for Europeans, rather than to help each other and stick together under difficult situations.
This is exactly what we did with the pandemic. And this is exactly what we're going to do on this as well.
GOLODRYGA: I guess the question is, is revoking visas enough of a deterrent? Only time will tell.
Thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate the time.
SCHINAS: Thank you, Bianna.
GOLODRYGA: Well, now to the U.S., where there some much-needed good news in the long fight against COVID.
For the first time since June, the number of projected COVID deaths is dropping, this as the CDC predicts hospitalizations will also decrease
across the beleaguered nation.
But there's no time to rest, well, at least according to my next guest, Ed Yong, a science and health writer for "The Atlantic." He warns in his
latest piece that we're already barreling toward the next pandemic. And the time to prepare for it is now.
Ed Yong joins us from Washington, D.C.
Ed, always great to have you on the program. Thank you so much for joining us.
So, as you note in this wonderful piece, that there is pandemic fatigue in the country. People not only are mourning the loss of loved ones, but
they're trying to return to some sense of normalcy. So why do you say now is the time to prepare for the next crisis?
ED YONG, "THE ATLANTIC": So, history tells us that our window of opportunity is brief, and is likely already closing.
For more than a century, we have seen that epidemics always lead to spikes in interest and attention, and that those spikes always disappear, that
investments are followed by disinvestments, that attention is followed by neglect.
And we are going to repeat that cycle unless we actively do something about it. And while I appreciate that no one wants to be thinking about the next
pandemic -- I assure you that I definitely do not -- we have to. We are going to be forced to, because, if we don't, if we wait, if we allow
neglect to seep into our lives again, we're going to be repeating the events of the last year-and-a-half, because I can assure you that future
pandemics are imminent. More viruses will threaten us.
And now is the time where we need to put in the systems that will protect us better next time round.
GOLODRYGA: I would say that there was a false narrative that you correctly point out in this piece that many pointed to the reason the U.S. bombed so
early in this pandemic, and, in large part, it was because of the government and the administration and the lack of preparation and action by
But you acknowledge that that wasn't it alone, that no matter who had been president, we would still be facing a catastrophe. Why was that important
for you to break down?
YONG: Because I think Trump mishandled the pandemic so egregiously that it's very easy to say that, if we hadn't had a commander in chief who was
touting false miracle cures or just outrightly downplaying the threat altogether, that we would have done OK.
I don't think that's the case. And I think our performance with -- against the Delta -- the Delta variant shows that not to be the case, America is
riddled with deep-rooted vulnerabilities that make it exquisitely susceptible to a new pathogen.
It's not just to do with who's in charge. It is also to do with its incredibly weak public health system, which has been allowed to rot for
over a century. It has to do with its extreme inequality, such that millions of people cannot access health care at all, and that many, many
more have been the subject of longstanding racist and classist policies that have left them vulnerable to not only COVID, but to a variety of other
All of these weaknesses, as one public health expert told me, are in the rootstock. They're not high up in the trees. And as we have seen, even with
a president who is taking the pandemic seriously, those problems are incredibly costly. And the U.S. cannot expect to just do what it normally
tries to do, which is to use biomedical solutions, vaccines, therapeutics and the like, to plaster its way out of those problems.
Those problems need to be solved.
GOLODRYGA: And that's -- I'm glad you brought up the lack of a strong public health infrastructure that goes back decades in this country,
because you really pinpoint where you think science and public health diverged and split.
And that was germ warfare. I want to read from your piece and the discovery of germ warfare and the germ theory.
You say: "Germ theory allowed people to collapse everything about disease into battles between pathogens and patients. Society matters, such as
inequality, housing, education, race, culture, psychology, and politics, became irrelevancies. Instead of staring into the abyss of society's
intractable ills, physicians could simply stare at the bug under a microscope and devise ways of killing it."
Explain the impact of while, on the one hand, it is incredible, and we do want more advancements in science, that took away from public health
investment and focusing on avoiding some of these pathogens and where they came from to begin with.
YONG: Yes, so, in the 19th century, a lot of people realized that the conditions of society, things like poverty, inequality, housing, education,
politics, affect our susceptibility to diseases.
But once people realized the diseases were caused by microbes, they focused on that target, to the exclusion of that wider societal context. They saw
disease solely in terms of a patient vs. a pathogen.
And that is still how we think of it today. That focus was couched from the very start in the language and ideas of imperialism of war, of technocracy.
There was this idea that we now had an enemy that we could subjugate. We could conquer nature through the right tools, the right medicines.
That is, again, still how we think of infectious disease today. And it meant that, over the much of the 20th century public health, which are
meant to prevent diseases in the community, that is meant to address social factors like inequality, fell by the wayside.
Instead, our attitude to health care became enshrined in hospitals, in medicine, in individual doctors treating individual patients. Now, that
obviously is part of it, but it can't be the whole part. And yet it largely has been. In the 1930s, America was spending just over 3 cents for every
medical dollar on public health on preventing disease.
Now, almost 100 years later, we're spending just over 2 cents per dollar. Public health has long been disinvested. It has long suffered, at the
expense of clinical medicine, which has gained all the attention and all the money. And the result is now we have a lot of very, very sick people,
and just not the right attitudes, not the right psychology to try and prevent them from getting sick in the first place.
GOLODRYGA: And, to be fair, the White House has now introduced a new strategy to prepare for pandemics at a price tag of about $65 billion over
the next seven to 10 years.
Now, $65 billion sounds like a lot of money. But when you're talking about and comparing it to the heated debates over $3.5 trillion bill in
Washington right now, you can understand that this really is a drop in the bucket.
And, in fact, epidemiologist Mike Osterholm says that this should just be a down payment. So have we not learned our lesson here with over 600,000
YONG: I don't think we have.
The economic cost of the pandemic is estimated at $16 trillion. So, $65 billion is nothing. It's -- as Mike Osterholm says, it's a rounding error
for the federal budget. But it's a thing that our existence depends on.
And not only is the number too low, but I think it has been distributed to -- in a disproportionate way to things that we think will work, but
actually might not save us. And I'm talking about things like vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics. It seems absurd to say that these are the wrong
things to be investing in.
But I think that $65 billion, two-thirds are going to these measures. We have already seen right now what happens when you deploy state-of-the-art,
incredible medical successes on to a profoundly inequal society. They lose a lot of their punch.
We cannot think of preparedness solely in terms of biomedical countermeasures, like vaccines and drugs. We also need to think about it in
terms of social measures, in terms of paid sick leave, in terms of universal health care, in terms of food assistance, public housing,
reparations, all of these things that would actually create a society that was less susceptible to a pandemic.
We need to do that right now. It requires a wholesale revision of how we think about preparedness.
GOLODRYGA: Ed, there have been countless losses and tragedies throughout these two years. But one thing that has been a win and a victory for
science has been the vaccines.
And you talk to any experts, I'm sure many of them would have said that they would have never expected efficacy rates above 90 percent, and for
vaccines to be discovered so quickly.
That having been said, are you surprised at the amount of vaccine hesitancy, not only in the U.S. but around the world? And, in response,
should mandate be in place even in democracies?
YONG: I think vaccine mandates are a powerful tool to increase vaccinations at the moment, given the problems that we faced.
But what I'm trying to say is that we have -- that these deep-rooted issues that I have talked about that make us vulnerable to pandemics also affect
the ways in which vaccines can actually contribute to a pandemic response.
Yes, vaccines are incredible. They were produced for more quickly than anyone expected, and they're more effective than anyone had really hoped
for. And yet, when you put those vaccines out into a community that is very unequal, where a lot of people still struggle to access the medical system
or access reliable medical information, then what we see is that vaccination rates plateau really early.
And then we're forced to have these discussions about things like mandates. We think that vaccines will save us because we are primed to think of
injectable substances as like the cure to our medical ills.
But these are social problems. Like, vaccines are useless without vaccination. And vaccination relies on a strong public health system. It
relies on a strong social safety net. It relies on trust between the public and the health care system, between the public and government.
We're lacking in all of those things. So, unless you bolster them, then the next pandemic is going to come around. We're going to get a vaccine in an
even shorter amount of time.
YONG: But we will still be in this situation.
And, as you note, we may not just get one pandemic. We could have twin pandemics, at that.
Ed Yong, every time you write a piece, we read it and try to have you on as soon as possible. Thank you so much for this, another must-read. We
Well, we turn now to Silicon Valley and one of its most influential investors. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel had a hand in the success of many
of the most profitable tech companies from today, from Facebook to SpaceX. He's also on a quest to live forever, investing millions in life extension
It's all down on paper in Max Chafkin's new biography, "The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley's Pursuit of Power."
Here he is speaking with Hari Sreenivasan about the man behind the money.
HARI SREENIVASAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Bianna, thanks.
Max Chafkin, thanks so much for joining us.
You call Peter Thiel the most influential venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. Why?
CHAFKIN: Well, Peter Thiel, Thiel it has been behind some of the most important companies in Silicon Valley. So he's the co-founder of PayPal.
He's the founder of Palantir, which is this gigantic defense contractor data mining firm that has more than a billion dollars in contracts from the
And, probably most significantly, he is the first outside investor and the longest serving board member at Facebook. He is really the person who kind
of made Mark Zuckerberg Mark Zuckerberg, who both set Facebook up with this structure that allows Zuckerberg to control the company at -- basically as
a de facto dictator. He controls the board of directors. He's the founder. He's the CEO.
And he also kind of created this as a sort of ideology which has spread throughout Silicon Valley. And you see this structure and also kind of the
Facebook approach to growth, which Peter Thiel really helped create, having kind of been deployed across the tech industry. And it has led to a lot of
the tech industry's amazing success over the last few years, but also, I think, some of the problems.
SREENIVASAN: Most people in America, if they know of him, they might have caught a glimpse of him during the Republican National Convention when he
was on stage and he was endorsing Donald Trump.
But you point out that that would be kind of an oversimplification of his politics. I mean, what is it that got him to that point?
CHAFKIN: Yes, so that -- this is what makes Thiel so interesting, and probably -- it's like why I was interested in writing about him for this
book, because he's not just this tech guy, this guy who has kind of helped create Silicon Valley as it exists today.
But he's had this really interesting and really long, decades-long career in conservative politics. He got attention way back as the 1980s starting
this newspaper called "The Stanford Review," which is kind of a provocative right-wing newspaper, really similar to sort of "The Dartmouth Review,"
which was Dinesh D'Souza's paper, "Cornell Review," which Ann Coulter was involved with.
He wrote a book about the dangers of -- quote, unquote -- "multiculturalism" in the mid-'90s. He's sort of always flirted with this
kind of very provocative -- this idea that the liberal establishment has gone too far, and these -- and conservatives need to push back.
And I think he really saw an opportunity with Donald Trump, who made that a core part of his candidacy. And, of course, Thiel, who is sort of a
brilliant investor, is always one to spot an opportunity to buy low, got in on sort of on the Trump campaign, the Trump train, as it were, really
early, making this -- making his support known before most in the business world had gotten behind Trump, and then making a donation at a really
crucial time during the 2016 election, shortly after the "Access Hollywood" tape had leaked.
And many Republicans, especially in the donor class, were writing off Trump's candidacy.
SREENIVASAN: You mentioned that, early on in his life, some of his -- one of his colleagues or one of his co-workers had said that he was saying, you
know what, the entire political system is all corrupt.
And here he is playing this like a chess game, which you say he's very good at.
CHAFKIN: Yes, yes, absolutely.
And, I mean, there is this strain of kind of ultra-libertarian. I mean, it's, like, a real bring-down-the-system kind of ethos that you see in
And also, many of the people who have come into positions of power in the tech industry and that's kind of -- again, that's, I think, why he's so
interesting because it's not -- he's not just the singular figure, he's somebody whose ideas have proliferated.
In the early -- sorry, the late '90s, you know, Thiel started PayPal, we think of PayPal as being this, you know, money transfer thing. It's a way
to buy stuff on eBay. And it is that. But back then, Thiel was talking about it as the kind of culmination of this libertarian project. He talked
about, you know, this would be a way to let anyone have a Swiss bank account in their pocket. That it would hurt the viability of nation states.
You know, these are super radical statements. And now, you have seen them cropping up actually, you know, in the world of crypto today. And they have
really, you know, gone mainstream to some extent, but, of course, they are also kind of in conflict with some aspects of Donald Trump and Trumpism
because Trump is -- you know, he's a nationalist and it's all about, you know, America fist. So, you know, Thiel is kind of a swirl of
contradictions at times, but has really been, you know, at -- you know, had these like really radical philosophies.
SREENIVASAN: Tell us a little more about those contradictions. Because as you point out, I mean, on the one hand, the libertarian wants small
government and on the other hand, his company is supporting the CIA and Homeland Security and many other government agencies.
CHAFKIN: Yes. I don't think Thiel is a libertarian in any kind of a normal sense. He definitely supports some libertarian goals such, you know, the
idea that billionaires should be allowed to pay less in taxes and that, you know, businesses should be allowed, you know, increasing freedom. You know,
bordering on the freedom to kind of run the world.
But Thiel has also been, you know, really far right on immigration, you know, kind of really in line with Donald Trump and Trumpism on immigration.
And I think when you kind of add all this stuff up, one possible explanation is he's -- you know, he's just adopted a lot of extreme
positions that have allowed him to enrich himself. I mean, the libertarian position, of course, is a great way to pay less in taxes. His affinity with
the Trump administration has been a really great -- arguably, a really great asset to Palantir, his defense contractor that has won, as I said,
you know, more than a billion dollars in contracts since 2016.
SREENIVASAN: You know, as you read the book, it's like he's almost like a Forrest Gump-like character. He shows up in all these moments in the lives
of these tech companies and these entrepreneurs, which turn out to be pivotal. And they turn out to be huge. I mean, most people don't know that
there was a company called X.com that Elon Musk was running, which was literally in the same building down the hallway from Peter Thiel's company.
You know, he and Elon Musk, at one point, both were CEOs of PayPal. So, they don't seem like they would get along.
CHAFKIN: No. And they don't get along because there was a big blowup. I mean, this -- there's so many crazy stories, and I love the Forrest Gump
analogy because like -- it really is that way. I mean, following Thiel is sort of this alternative path through the history of Silicon Valley.
You know, Musk and Thiel have this -- have a relationship, sometimes it's a friendship, but sometimes it's more after a rivalry. And in 1999 and 2000,
you know, they are both running these competing payments companies. The two companies merged. Musk took over and was running the company. And he was,
you know, the better known of the two men. He had more investment dollars, more famous investors. He was, in many ways, the senior partner.
And Peter Thiel, you know, being kind of a master chess player, and he was, you know, he was a chess champion as a boy, you know, engineers this coup
where Musk flies to Australia for his honeymoon. And I think he maybe had a few investor meetings planned along the way. And when he comes back, he
finds that the -- that these allies of Peter Thiel's have gone to Mike Morris, who the most -- one of the most famous investors in Silicon Valley
and presented him with an ultimatum which says, either replace Elon Musk with Peter Thiel or we walk.
And the amazing thing about that story is not just Peter Thiel, you know, did a coup on Elon Musk, you know, the of two of the most famous people in
Silicon Valley. But after that happened, they managed to kind of patch it up. And if you know anything about Elon Musk, he does not take slights
lightly. But it's really a comment on both Thiel's -- really on Thiel's power that Musk saw that, you know, he would be better off with Peter Thiel
as a friend than as an enemy.
And years later, when Musk's rocket company was struggling in 2008, it had a couple of unsuccessful launches, prospects look really deem, Peter Thiel
comes along and makes an investment in SpaceX that helps save the Elon Musk's rocket company and I would argue helped save Elon Musk's, you know,
business empire, really, because he was in a very difficult place.
And so, of course -- and that's just like another one of these weird influences that Thiel's managed to have, you know, not only over his
friends but over these people who, you know, he's had one over on.
SREENIVASAN: So, tell me about how it is that he becomes the first big backer of Mark Zuckerberg.
CHAFKIN: Yes. So, Thiel is the leader. If you spend time in Silicon Valley, you'll hear this phrase, PayPal mafia. That's the former group of
former PayPal executives basically led by Peter Thiel. After the -- after eBay purchased PayPal, they sort of went off into Sillicon Valley and
started working together, making investments, basically in each other's companies and companies of friends and you'll see employees bouncing from
one company to the next.
The network is not -- you know, it's called a mafia, but it's not a violent network, but it is a network where loyalty and both in terms of business
loyalty, but at times kind of ideological loyalty. A lot of these guys have kind of the same politics, really is valued. And that loyalty also
includes, of course, not talking to the press, which was made my life a little bit difficult.
Zuckerberg comes to Thiel through that network, through this guys, Reid Hoffman, who was a senior executive at PayPal who then founded LinkedIn and
he had this meeting with Zuckerberg and, you know, at the time, Zuckerberg didn't really look like much, right? He had been sort of run into trouble
at Harvard. He was this kind of bad boy who had done something vaguely -- you know, not criminal, but certainly not following the rules.
And Thiel is somebody who kind of loves these people, loves these provocateurs, these guys who get in trouble at elite institutions like
Harvard and sees, you know, very quickly not only that Zuckerberg, you know, was on to something, but that Facebook had a lot of potential. And he
helps Zuckerberg develop a strategy, which is this kind of -- you know, it's like the Roman empire. You know, Zuckerberg tried to grow as quickly
as possible, as fast as possible to dominate this network, you know, that is Facebook. And ultimately, of course, succeeded. You know, 3 billion
users, I think it's, you know, fair to say that Facebook is the most powerful, you know, media company in human history.
SREENIVASAN: What's intriguing to me is what were the effects that Peter Thiel had beyond the just investment of cash into Mark Zuckerberg? Because
in a way, you see some similarities in them, how they think of the world, where they think of their product, what they think is the acceptable and
not acceptable reach of government.
CHAFKIN: Yes, absolutely. Yes. That's -- and that's why Thiel matters because he's -- it's not just a money man. Because if it was just a
question of money, you know, he isn't that rich, you know, he has maybe $10 billion, maybe a little less. You know, I'm saying rich compared to, you
know, Jeff Bezos or something or Zuckerberg.
But he did create this business philosophy. And the philosophy is basically, you know, the philosophy of disruption. It's the idea that
companies should grow as big as possible, as quickly as possible, Thiel talks about monopoly not as, you know, something to be avoided, you know,
as -- which has kind of how most capitalists think about it, but as the end point of business. The thing that all entrepreneurs should strive for,
which is a really, you know, radical kind of far out there suggestion.
And he also talks, you know, at some length about the importance of bending the rules, of breaking norms. And it's not just that the norms -- it's not
just that breaking the rules is something that happens incidentally where, you know, you're -- you accidentally run afoul of the law. It's almost that
doing so is a good thing and that it creates some virtue. And I think that is something that we definitely seen kind of play out over and over again,
not just with Facebook, but with many of these big companies.
SREENIVASAN: And there's also a lot of movement right now to try toing regulate big tech. And interestingly, Peter Thiel is putting money behind
some of the very candidates that could threaten, for example, well, him sitting on the board of Facebook, right, which would be a big tech company
that would be squarely in the radars of Congress if this kind of thing passed.
CHAFKIN: He's backing these two Senate candidates, one in Arizona and one in Ohio and they are both turning, you know, Mark Zuckerberg into a
political punching bag. So, I think it's an interesting question to ask, you know, why is he still on the board of Facebook. And I think there are a
couple different possible explanations, but one thing he's been able to do on the board of Facebook is kind of nudge Mark Zuckerberg in this political
direction, in the direction of, as conservatives see it, you know, not discriminating "against conservative world views." And, of course, being on
the Facebook board, you know, is an important position of influence and power.
During the Trump administration, he was able to kind of serve as this broker between Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump, arguably like the two most
powerful people in the world or two of the most powerful people in the world.
SREENIVASAN: Thiel's personal wealth has also come into the spotlight recently. A lot of us are familiar with what an IRA or a Roth IRA. I mean,
we stock away a little bit every month, if we can. And his account has billions of dollars in it. And all of the profits that it's making will be
tax free. How did we get to that?
CHAFKIN: Yes. So, that is a quirk of the Roth IRA, which is this kind of really not a -- pretty much little noticed investment -- kind of an
investment account that was created in the '90s. You used post tax dollars and any gains are tax free. And as originally created, the Roth was for
kind of middle-class and lower middle-class taxpayers. This was not supposed to have a huge impact on the -- you know, on the IRS's ability to
collect tax receipts, especially not tax receipts from billionaires.
But Thiel, you know, very savvy operator, you know, an -- you know, just like a brilliant chess player, sort of figured out that there's this quirk
which is that start-up founders can get chairs at a very low price. You know, low enough so that he was able to acquire a significant chunk of
PayPal inside of his Roth IRA while still not violating the rules around contribution limits. Because the contribution limits at that time were just
$2,000 a year.
And that money, you know, grew enormously. And he eventually used some of those gains to buy shares in Palantir, you know, founding shares in
Palantir and to buy shares in Facebook and probably to buy shares in other companies. And so, he now has this enormous nest egg, you know, at least $5
billion as of 2019. It's probably quite a bit bigger now. And according to the tax rules as they're written and if the interpretations of the way that
Thiel did this, you know, don't change, he's never going to pay taxes on that.
And that, I think, is -- I mean, it's -- depending on your point of view, again, it's an outrage. It's a case of, you know, kind of oligarchic
behavior or, you know, from Peter Thiel's fan though, of course, who think, number one, that the system is broken, number two, that billionaires should
be allowed more leeway, it's something to be applauded. It's like he got one over on the tax man. And we have seen this structure has been copied by
lots of other people.
So, you know, people are talking about reforming it and there are bills in Congress that could affect the Thiel's, you know, tax liability. There are
also shifts, again, in how they interpret these rules that could potentially impact Thiel. But it's not just Thiel who would be affected. It
would be a bunch of very, very angry Silicon Valley billionaires. So, it would be a formidable fight if it happens.
SREENIVASAN: It's evident from reading the book that you spent a lot of time reading his articles, articles from the Stanford Review, lectures that
he's given and so forth. And he's a pretty famously private person. And I wonder what sort of cooperation or lack thereof there was in sitting down
with him for the book.
CHAFKIN: Yes. So, I approached this project, you know, journalistically. Meaning, I tried to talk to anyone who had worked at his companies, who had
-- who knew him well, his friends, his former classmates and, of course, Peter Thiel himself. And I approached, you know, his PR people early on in
the process and we had a lot of back and forth. And there was ultimately an off the record meeting with Peter Thiel, but he did not comment on the
And that's kind of in keeping with his general position towards the press, which is he's kept the press kind of at arm's length. He has tried to, you
know, I think, it's fair to say, manipulate the press in various ways, both in terms of positive -- you know, sort of positive manipulation creating
this image of a -- you know, (INAUDIBLE) Randy and Superman and also, of course, the sort of more, well, you might think of as negative manipulation
in terms of his, you know, long running battle against Gawker.
SREENIVASAN: The book is called "The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley's Pursuit of Power." Max Chafkin, thanks so much for joining us.
CHAFKIN: Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: And finally, today, the same culture war issues that helped launch Peter Thiel are at the heart of a breakout hit series on Netflix.
"Sex Education," a comedy set in British secondary high school finds laughs and drama in all manner of human intimacy. Now, on its third season, "Sex
Education" takes a deep and nuance look at shame and empowerment. Here's a clip from this season's trailer.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I will get (INAUDIBLE) back on track.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is that?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sex will ruin your life.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE). It's backwards.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not getting involved anymore. It's so much easier when you don't care.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think you stop caring. I think you had your heart broken.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's are you doing here?
UUNIDENTIFIED MALE: She needed a lift.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's convenient.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The quicker you and your fragile little ears realize that you're not that special the better.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: And joining me now is the creator of "Sex Education," Laurie Nunn, for a discussion that, full disclosure, will likely cover topics of a
Welcome to the program.
So, full disclosure on my end, I am just about two episodes into season one. So, I have a lot of catching up to do but I am already intrigued. I'm
already hooked. I have done plenty of blushing in, and my producers were right to warn me to keep my small children, ages five and nine, out of the
room while I'm watching.
It is a fascinating show and that at the same time while I laugh, I recall issues that my friends and I faced while in high school and that is shame,
that is discovering ourselves, sexuality, all of these nuanced issues all sort of bagged into one. What made you focus on that, in particularly, the
area of shame and self-recognition?
LAURIE NUNN, CREATOR, "SEX EDUCATION": I think, for me, what initially really drew me to the hook of the show was that it's a really great comedic
setup, the idea of putting this teenage sex therapist on a school campus. But then, the more that I developed the series I realized it was a great
opportunity to have conversations about consent and body positivity and female desire. And also, to try to really right some of the wrongs that I
felt had been done to me through the bad sex education that I had received in my own schooling.
GOLODRYGA: And this show in this third season now introduces a new character played by Jemima Kirke. She is the new head mistress of the
school. And her mission is to impose conformity and structure, rigidity into the school and it's not received well, not surprising, from the
student. What is her character expected to add this season to the show?
NUNN: With the character of hope, I really wanted to explore a particular type of very toxic feminism. It's really a white feminism. And I think
she's a very complicated character because she -- in a lot of ways, she thinks of herself as being quite progressive. She's quite a young woman.
She's in a position of power. She's had to work very hard to get there. But she's also got these huge blind spots and she's not able to see that her
viewpoints have deeply conservative and that she's actually acting as an oppressor to many of the students from minority backgrounds within the
campus. And it's really gratifying to see the students sort of rise up against her, you know, viewpoints like later on in the series.
GOLODRYGA: And as you do with all of these characters, you humanize her too. She is not a one-dimensional character. She has her own struggles and
her own issues outside of school that audiences come to understand as well.
Look, just two episodes in, I have to say, one character who really stands out to me is Eric. And he is a lovely, funny character who seems to be
really in control of his own sexuality, but it's already clear that that may not be the case when it comes to how his family views him. And one
episode here that we're going to play a clip of is his flight and return back to his native country of Nigeria for a wedding and how he deals with
the stress of seeing family back home who may not accept him as who he is. Let's play a clip.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't want to pretend, mom. Not here or anywhere.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm love that you're afraid to be yourself, Eric. Maybe one day I'll get there too. But it takes time.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sorry for scaring you, mom.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I make you something to eat.
GOLODRYGA: A really genuine and raw moment there and a window into not only what's going on with Eric personally but his family and his parents as
well, where, as his mom says, it takes time for her to deal with this. It's a teachable moment from a child to a parent. And it seems that that is why
you are trying to expose the audience here, not just to teenagers but to adults as well.
NUNN: Yes. The adult characters are equally important really in the show. And, you know, I think in some ways, we're a teen show, but I also see it
as we're a show about being a teenager. And I think that being a teenager is such a universal experience. And I'm in my 30s now, but I feel like I'm
16 inside. I don't think I have changed that much.
And I think that's very much really at the core of the show. It's the adults are learning and messing up just as much as the teenagers are.
GOLODRYGA: Do you feel you are, as you go? Obviously, you have a team of producers and writers there with you and you are still a very young woman,
but I would imagine that there are scenes and episodes where you're learning about life in this younger generation as well. And how it differs
NUNN: Yes. I mean, writing the show has been a complete like learning curve for me. And I feel like I'm just learning new tools and new language
to talk about my sexuality and my identity every day. And things that I wasn't given as a younger person particularly through the sex education I
had at school. And, you know, sometimes I feel a bit grief stricken about that because I kind of wish that I felt as empowered then as I do now. But
it's just really positive to keep learning about this subject matter.
GOLODRYGA: One of the harder issues that you tackle here is sexual assault as experienced by one of the characters, Amy, who in the first season seems
to have a rosy perception of life and is sort of a charming young figure until she is sexually assaulted. You too are the victim of sexual assault.
You have been public about that. What was that like for you to write about and then see on camera through the characters?
NUNN: Yes, I knew it was something that I really wanted to write about for myself. I think in a cathartic way. And Amy, as a character, really was --
it's sort of awful to say, but she was the best character to explore that story line with because she's very innocent and sees the world, you know,
yes, really with rose-tinted glasses. So, you get to see what she's like before that experience and then after that experience.
And it's been very moving, particularly the messages that I get from, you know, lots of young women who had been through, you know, similar
experiences and felt a sense of cathartic and also solidarity seeing Amy and her female counterparts like getting on the school bus at the end and
supporting each other.
GOLODRYGA: And this is not the first show, unfortunately, to have to tackle an issue like sexual assault. This has been going on for centuries,
since the start of mankind for that matter. But what this show does that previous shows have not is tackle the issues of LGBTQI. And you have two
non-binary characters on this show and who really have a lasting role to play. I want to play a clip and then, we'll discuss it on the other side.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Callous (ph) and line, they should join.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Poisonous costumer and (INAUDIBLE) I'm non-binary.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't which one either.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're here. I will ask for you.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What seems to be the problem other than your uniform again?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We don't fit into the description of boy or girl. So, where are we supposed to go?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can both go in the girl's line.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But I'm not a girl.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We will be discussing female anatomy in this class, which I'm sure will be helpful for you.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right. So, we're supposed to go to the vagina line or the penis like. Is that what you're saying.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's OK. I don't want to cause any trouble. I'll go with the girls.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you. That's very helpful.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: Why was it important for you to introduce these characters and their struggles and introducing them to audiences in this way?
NUNN: I have known for a long time that I really wanted to have some trans and non-binary representation in the show. But I wanted to make sure those
characters felt like they had this time and space to be properly flushed out, and we worked with some brilliant non-binary consultants all the way
through the writing process. It was really important to me that -- because it's not my lived experience, but we really were able to tell the most
nuanced and authentic version of that story.
We also worked very closely with Dua Saleh who plays Cal, you know, who has, you know, some similarities in their lived experience to that
character, even though it was a brilliant actor and also very different to Cal. But I think it's really important that people feel involved in their
own story telling. And, yes, it was just very important to get that across.
GOLODRYGA: Yes. One of the reviews that stood out to me as to why the show is such a success is because you make every issue which feels for teens at
the time so titanically important a priority for them and to showcase that. And that comes through even the first few episodes that I have already
seen. I'm looking forward to catching up and watching the rest.
Thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.
NUNN: Thanks very much.
GOLODRYGA: And some good news for the show, Netflix has renewed "Sex Education" for a fourth season. So, we can all look forward to that.
Well, that is it for now. You can always catch us online, on our podcast and across social media. Thank you so much for watching and good-bye from