Cash In

Maui Time | March 14, 2013
Why Sheryl Sandberg is Evil

Sheryl Sandberg is the author of a new book that you've heard of if you're connected enough to be reading this, promoted by one of those PR tsunamis that publishers inflict upon the public every year or two in hopes of recouping six- or seven-figure advances: Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.

She is also the chief operating officer of Facebook.

"Lean In," we are told, is More Than Just a Book. It is a social movement. A way of life.

A happening.

"She is someone who works at Facebook," moons Garance Franke-Ruta in The Atlantic. "Who leads Facebook. Who helped invent the Facebook we know today. Hers is a Facebook feminism."


Comparing herself to Betty "The Feminine Mystique" Friedan, Sandberg wants her book to inspire "Lean In Circles" where women would meet to plot how to climb the corporate ladder and achieve gender parity in the boardroom. At their creepy gatherings, women will learn how to act more boldly, aggressively - more like men. Her idea of how men act, anyway.

Franke-Ruta again: "Sandberg is an unapologetic capitalist and senior manager who began her career in Washington, DC. She says she's interested in seeing more women in leadership posts in corporate America and in the highest ranks of government. That means more women at the top, more women in positions of power, and more women who have the training and experience to lead within institutions actually getting a shot at doing - or daring to do - it."

Visions of armies of women in beige blouses and dark safe corporate jackets marching through the streets of suburban office parks, chanting quotes from and waving copies of Sandberg's manifesto, fill her dreams.

I think Sandberg is one of the most insufferable fools in the world of business. Which is saying something. But I don't hate her for the same reasons as people like Maureen Dowd.

In the New York Times, columnist Dowd sums up Sandberg as a "PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots." Such Dowdian snark, though cruel, is fair. Sandberg, after all, uttered a comment whose revealing immodesty would make Donald Trump blush: "I always thought I would run a social movement."

Memo to SS: You don't "run" a social movement. Lead it, maybe. If you're lucky.

The Paper of Record asks the six- or seven-figure question:

"Even her advisers acknowledge the awkwardness of a woman with double Harvard degrees, dual stock riches (from Facebook and Google, where she also worked), a 9,000-square-foot house and a small army of household help urging less fortunate women to look inward and work harder. Will more earthbound women, struggling with cash flow and child care, embrace the advice of a Silicon Valley executive whose book acknowledgments include thanks to her wealth adviser and Oprah Winfrey?"

Oh, and her husband quit his job to mind the homestead. That's convenient.

Still, Dowd et al's argument that Sandberg's wealth denies her the standing to issue advice to working women leaves me cold. It doesn't matter who or what she is; either her ideas are smart and/or good for society or they're not. A doctor who tells you to diet and exercise is giving you good advice even if she's fat and smokes. Hell, I'm a dude yet I think I know better than Sandberg what's better for women. For all I know, and many women agree, she gives good advice to ambitious women trying to climb the corporate ladder.

What grates about Sandberg, I think, is less the fact that a person born at mile 25 thinks she won the marathon because she worked so hard, than her failed attempt to elevate a self-help book to the level of politics.

Sandberg doesn't know about politics. She doesn't even know about identity politics.

Politics – debate and discussion about how we should live our lives and how to solve our problems after we have identified them – is hard. Very few people – including most politicians and elected officials – undertake the lifetime of thinking and research, or possess the magic of inspiration, it takes to come up with a transformative vision for an alternative future. The U.S. is tragically devoid of brilliant public intellectuals – our best and brightest political minds are ruthlessly censored and marginalized.

That's real politics.

Then there's identity politics.

Identity politics, the struggle by women, gays, ethnic minorities and so on against their privileged rivals in the economy and society, is a dead end. It's tokenism. At best, movements based on identity politics grant special privileges to a tiny subset of traditionally oppressed demographic groups. Meanwhile, the overall hierarchical class structure remains intact.

It was moving, for example, to watch African-Americans celebrate the election of Barack Obama. Four and a half years later, however, not only can we see that the status of blacks remains the same as 2008 – harassed, arrested, shot and imprisoned at disproportionately high rates, discriminated against in the workplace, deprived of access to a high-quality education, their lifespans shortened by disease and poverty – Obama himself, supposed symbol of progress, doesn't even talk about racial problems, much less try to fix them.

Everyone's goal ought to be to liberate humanity from oppression. Identity politics distract from this struggle. They liberate no one.

What Sandberg advocates is even less worthwhile than identity politics.

Sandberg wants rat-race politics. Men, she argues, act like a bunch of testosterone-fueled jerks at work. She wants women to beat them at their own game.

"When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women," writes Sandberg. "When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less…The solution is making sure everyone is aware of the penalty women pay for success. Recently at Facebook, a manager received feedback that a woman who reported to him was 'too aggressive.' Before including this in her review, he decided to dig deeper. He went back to the people who gave the feedback and asked what aggressive actions she had taken. After they answered, he asked point-blank, 'If a man had done those same things, would you have considered him too aggressive?' They each said no. By showing both men and women how female colleagues are held to different standards, we can start changing attitudes today."

Man, I sure wouldn't want to work at Facebook. It's a lot more fun to work in an organization where no one – men or women – comes on too strong. Where people work as a team.

"Lean In" fails because Sandberg wants to accelerate the "race to the bottom" behavior that has become standard in American business and politics. She is not the solution to a problem.

She is a problem.

What we need to do is create a society in which everyone – men and women, gays and straights, whites and blacks, and so on – enjoys equal access to the good things in life. Whether like me you have concluded that capitalism, the idea that we are all created unequal, is evil and irredeemable, or you'd prefer to reform the system to make it more humane, replacing male assholes with female assholes gets us nowhere.

Rather than tell American women (or men) what to do, Sandberg would do better to consider her own role in making the United States a worse place to live.

She's worse than a garden-variety "an unapologetic capitalist." The virtual antithesis of Google's "don't be evil," the company where she works has become one of the most culturally and economically destructive businesses in America by monetizing the death of a nation's right to privacy. (This is worth, by one calculation, about $130 per user.) Facebook is so unaccountable that it doesn't even provide a phone number for customer service. Now it's emulating the reprehensible Arianna Huffington, attempting to accelerate the aggregation of what's left of journalism outlets so essential to the health of civic life and democracy with its latest redesign of its News Feed.

Facebook is the face of the New Economy. It sucks $5 billion a year out of the U.S. economy, yet it puts almost nothing back in. It employs fewer than 4,000 Americans. (By way of comparison, GM—which generates less than twice as much as Facebook—employs more than 200,000 workers.)

Even if Sandberg is successful with her Lean In Circles, she will have accomplished the same thing as Facebook. She will have made a tiny privileged of elites richer—and 99% of America poorer.

(Ted Rall's website is His book "After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan" will be released in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)


Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
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