In a widely viewed TED talk, Bill Gates warned about the risk of a global pandemic and stressed the fact that we’re unprepared for it. That was in 2015. Now that we’re actually in a global pandemic for which we are woefully unprepared, Gates has spoken out about the government response, and his philanthropic foundation has promised $250 million to help with the manufacture of promising vaccines for the novel coronavirus.
For his foresight and willingness to help combat the pandemic, Gates deserves admiration. Instead he faces suspicion, attacks, vilification — from both ends of the political landscape. Why?
From some progressives, we hear that behind Gates’s mega philanthropy, there lurk unsavory ulterior motives — a grab for influence and power: “Who elected Gates to be in charge of America’s vaccine production plan, even if he is savvily spending his money?” Moreover, since the pandemic erupted, Gates has spoken out on CNN, The Daily Show, in The Washington Post, on Reddit, and his own blog. Post-pandemic, some complain, this could give him undue influence as a thought leader.
What triggered these insinuations?
Not any evidence or logic. Gates is pouring his wealth into vaccination campaigns in the third world, funding sanitation projects and clean water supplies in Africa, and building factories to produce coronavirus vaccines — why think any of this is geared to seizing political power? And unlike many others in the national spotlight, Gates has engaged seriously with the relevant scientific, technological, and policy issues surrounding pandemics. What should matter for a thought leader is whether they put forward ideas based in fact and sound arguments. How much, or how little, money you have is irrelevant to the truth (or falsehood) of your message.
And that’s a clue. These attacks on Gates are rationalizations for an under-recognized form of prejudice.
What gives this away as a form of prejudice is the blanket condemnation. Willfully ignored is the decisive factor of how Bill Gates (or any individual) obtained his wealth. In sharp contrast with, say, Russian oligarchs or Saudi princes — who literally lie, cheat, steal, and murder their way to billions — Bill Gates earned his wealth. At the helm of Microsoft for decades, he led the creation of blockbuster software products — Windows and Office — that tens of millions of individuals and corporations freely chose to pay for and use. To disregard how wealth is acquired, treating it as an obvious insignia of wrongdoing, is a travesty of moral thinking.
This anti-wealth prejudice is reinforced by our society’s prevailing moral views. From centuries of Christianity and the secularized version of its teachings, we learn that it’s “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” What disqualifies someone is not ill-gotten wealth; it’s simply wealth, emphatically including riches earned honestly through trade.
This prejudice is deep-seated. Even donating tens of billions in philanthropy has not dislodged it. So long as Bill Gates is wealthy, he’s someone to suspect. And it triggers the rationalization that Gates must have some nefarious purpose.
But this anti-wealth prejudice is not the only source of attacks. Gates is also facing vilification because of another kind of prejudice, emanating from our culture’s anti-intellectual gutter.
Conspiracists have spun out assorted claims: Gates engineered the pandemic! Gates is pushing for Big Brother-like tracking of the population! Such claims have swept across Facebook, YouTube, and the outlets of conspiracy-mongers. To spend any time refuting these claims is to give them an undeserved credibility. What deserves special notice, however, is how well-known loyalists of Donald Trump have elevated such conspiracist fantasies to prominence.
For example: Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host, is an avid Trump booster. Not only on her TV show, but also on Twitter, where she has a huge platform of 3.3 million followers. Recently on Twitter, she amplified a conspiracy theory that Gates wants to digitally track Americans.
Echoing the same kind of narrative was Roger Stone, a longtime Trump fixer (who was sentenced to prison for felonies connected to Trump’s 2016 campaign). In a radio interview, Stone insinuated that Gates had a role in the creation of the virus. Why? Gates and “other globalists are using it for mandatory vaccinations and microchipping people so we know if they’ve been tested.”
None of these considerations matter for those who look to Trump as a tribal leader. Instead, they see Gates the outsider undercutting the president. So, Gates has to be wrong, and he must be discredited. What better way to demonstrate group loyalty than by deflecting attention from Trump’s conduct and attacking a prominent, outspoken critic?
The two kinds of attacks leveled against Bill Gates for his activist philanthropy are unjust. They are neither grounded in fact, nor framed by a rational standard. It should go without saying, yet today it needs to be said, that recognizing the injustice against Gates doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with all of his views or philanthropic ventures (I do not). What it does mean is that you take seriously the idea of objectivity in evaluating people.
The unjust attacks on Gates amid the pandemic should push us to ask difficult questions about our society. There are intellectual pathogens that we need to confront. One gives voice to conspiracy theories as a way of putting loyalty to a tribe above the facts and logic. Another pushes baseless insinuations of ulterior motives to rationalize deep-seated hatred of the wealthy.
What we urgently need to question is the collectivism common to both of these forms of prejudice. Instead we should judge Gates, and everyone else, on his or her own merits as an individual — based on the facts and a rational standard.
A version of this article appeared originally in Areo magazine on May 27, 2020.