Sarah Hoyt, a science fiction writer and a thought-provoking blogger, has a long post called the architecture of fear. One of the things she talks about in this post is an incident from several years ago, where on a mailing list for writers she:
…dared question the insanity of a well-respected pro who said that George Bush (personally) had raised the price of stamps to ruin her (personally) in her efforts to sell used books through Amazon.
There are levels of insanity I can’t tolerate and couldn’t even while in the political closet. So I pointed out the sheer insanity of this, the inefficiencies of the post office and probable causes for it.
The list went silent. I figured tons of people were cussing me behind my back (this was when GB’s name was after all like invoking the devil.)
So, I shrugged, figured I’d be kicked out of the list and went for a walk. When I came back my email was full of “Oh, thank you, for saying…” ALL OF IT IN PRIVATE MESSAGES. The senders ranged from raw beginners to established pros, but no one would challenge this lady’s illusions to her face. Only me.
Sarah’s story uncannily parallels another story, this one told by long-time IBM CEO Tom Watson Jr and dating from the early 1950s.
There was a moment when I truly thought IBM was going to lose its shot at defense work because of the kind of window blinds I had in my office.
These were vertical blinds, which were not common at the time. An engineer who was in Watson’s office for a meeting made a sketch of the blinds, and inadvertently left it in his shirt pocket when he took the shirt to the dry cleaner. The laundry man thought the paper looked suspicious, and sent it to McCarthy. Pretty soon, a group of investigators came and said to the engineer, “We’ve identified this as a plan for a radar antenna, and want to hear about it. We want to be perfectly fair. But we know it is a radar antenna and the shirt it was found in belongs to you.”
The engineer explained about the vertical blinds, and the investigation team then asked to see Watson. The chief executive officer of IBM showed them the blinds and demonstrated the way they worked.
They looked them over very carefully and then left. I thought I had contained it, but I wasn’t sure, and I was scared. We were working on SAGE (the computerized air defense system–ed) and it would have been a hell of a way to lose our security clearance.
Shortly after the incident with the vertical blinds, Watson was invited to a lunch at Lehman Brothers, along with about 20 other high-ranking businesspeople. During the lunch, he mentioned his concerns about McCarthyism
Of the twenty-odd people present, I was the only one who took that position. That didn’t bother me. What bothered me was that the following week I got letters from several people who had been there, and they all had a similar message: “I didn’t want to commit myself in public, but I certainly agreed with everything you said.