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Can Uber’s Travis Kalanick be redeemed? Arianna thinks so. (Me, not so much.)

An eye for an eye or a clean slate? That is the question.

2016 Garden Brunch
Can this man be saved?
Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty

It’s not easy to win an argument with Arianna Huffington.

She was, of course, president of the famous Cambridge Union debating society when she was in college in Britain. And Huffington has since polished her smooth Greek accent to perfection, as she has barreled her way through a life that could arguably be considered one of the more interesting in the digital space.

“Kara, Kara, Kaaaaaaara,” she’ll intone with a dulcet lilt, which draws you in and makes you quiet until the moment she goes in for the kill. In this case, it’s an argument about whether Uber CEO Travis Kalanick deserves what Huffington frequently and publicly calls “redemption.” It deftly casts the struggles of the person who is the quintessence of the aggressive, arrogant and reckless bro-techie into an epic struggle to save a tortured soul.

Imagine Paul on the road to Damascus, except, in this case, it’s someone who writes naughty memos and has created and presided over an organization plagued by sexism, sexual harassment and the kind of corporate dysfunction you need to try really hard to get that bad.

It’s no mistake that it is an argument laced with religion, which is Huffington’s nifty trick here, since she jokingly uses the New Testament to refer to her side and the Old Testament to refer to mine.

It’s judge not lest ye be judged enabling, versus an eye for an eye justice. And while I like Huffington personally very much and have known her for years, I cannot underscore how much I think she is wrong about this whole mess.

To boil that down and spare you the back and forth, Huffington thinks Kalanick has paid the price for his numerous indiscretions and management mishaps as leader of Uber, by agreeing to the forced departure of key confidants like Emil Michael; accepting the recommendations of an internal investigation into Uber’s toxic culture; and taking an unspecified leave of absence to contemplate “Travis 2.0” (which also includes much-needed time to recover personally from the recent tragic death of his mother).

Her basic point: A new and improved Travis — who has absolutely been an unpleasant and pugnacious little innovation-engine-that-could for Uber over the years — is medicine the company needs in order to be cured.

And I think that sounds like poisoning a body more to make it better, given that Travis 1.0 still has a lot more to answer for. I believe, as many inside and outside Uber do, that his leave creates manifest uncertainty (he’s still dialing in and weighing in on a lot, according to many sources); signals that those in charge do not have to pay the same price as others; and leaves the company even more vulnerable if a range of other legals issues — such as a lawsuit from Alphabet — ensnare Kalanick further. And that leaves out the bigger issue of how you go public with a CEO so tainted.

But tainted does not seems to bother Huffington, because she sees a bright line between then and now, between the ugliness of last week and the bright future. Here’s the only quote she’ll give me to use on the subject, which pretty much encapsulates what she has said in public in front of Uber employees, in various cable television appearances on the subject and at board meetings, according to those there. (Whether you agree with her or not, Huffington is nothing if not consistent, even if what she is saying might rankle many.)

Thus, she texted me: “Last Tuesday represented a clear line of demarcation in Uber’s history. We are all united in condemning what happened in the past and are taking clear steps today to ensure it doesn't happen again. As Frances Frei put it, ‘Uber now has strong and swift processes embedded in it. And with certainty, we will not shy away from accountability.’ But we can’t write Uber’s next chapter if we remain mired in the past. We are moving forward.”

Notice the language, which is Huffington’s strength: Demarcation. Mired in the past. Moving forward. And Frei is, of course, another of the strong women — which seems to be a purposeful trend here and also an awfully hoary trope too — brought in to make Kalanick a better man.

It’s all rather clever, a characteristic Huffington has in buckets — and also plays into the very memes she has successfully created around herself and her latest business called Thrive. Without a long lesson on AriannaWorld, suffice it to say, it includes a grab-bag of California-style dreaming, employing things like meditation, self-actualization, deep reflection and lots and lots and lots of sleep.

Now, I get that being a better and more well-rested person is always a good thing — except me, that is, which Huffington always rides me about — and I am all for forgiveness. But, it simply ignores how radioactive Kalanick has become and how much his deeply influential presence continues the contamination.

Here’s what one person who works for Uber posited to me recently, one of many who are critical of Huffington’s seizing of the higher ground for Kalanick’s benefit: “What do you do when bad apples sit at the very top of the tree?”

And here's my answer: Almost nothing if you are on the indulgent board of one of Silicon Valley’s hottest startups, in which powerful and influential investors of consequence have poured billions of dollars and bid up the valuation to $70 billion.

And next to nothing if you are a high-ranking executive at Uber, even if your bosses and their bosses crossed innumerable bright lines, left employees vulnerable to misbehavior and outright abuse without adequate systems to protect them and generally promoted a hostile workplace environment.

And absolutely nothing if you are one of those Uber employees, because it feels like there is nothing you can do about the deeply toxic culture of bro-tectionism and aggression that led to the mess it now finds itself in.

If you are surprised by this, I'd excuse you, since the ideal of Silicon Valley is supposed to be a lot better than protecting the leader at all costs. But, as we also know, this only proves that founder worship is alive and well and will win out over all else.

I get that, of course, since the idea of a charismatic entrepreneur is compelling and one that tech has fully embraced since Steve Jobs arched his first eyebrow in disdain.

He was a hardass too, for sure, but it’s a shame to see it taken to an extreme with Kalanick and hard to move forward without knowing a few things about past behavior of the man Huffington has saved.

Such as, why did Kalanick allow one of his top executives to obtain and carry around the medical files of a rape victim attacked by an Uber driver in India and then engage himself in odd and conspiratorial speculation about the case?

Or why, under his watch, the company found itself perpetrating a series of sketchy schemes like making “greyball” tools to thwart regulators?

Or why, with him as the ultimate leader, did an adequate human resources system not get put in place to protect the very people that were critical to making Uber a success?

There are tons and tons of questions like this, although one more story I heard recently just sent me over the WTF top. As I previously reported, Kalanick and a top product exec named Jeff Holden were onstage at a giant Uber event in Las Vegas two years ago, talking about company values, many of which were mutated from those at Amazon, where Holden had previously worked.

While they joked in front of thousands about how hard they had toiled at making them, Holden joked that they had even “trained” his wife to make meals for them to get through all the work. Kalanick laughed along, according to those in attendance, making it seem as if it was a hoot to carelessly depict woman as subservient.

Just a joke, right? That’s in the past, right? Moving forward, right?

Here’s one thing to note, the gross exchange made it into the two investigations that Uber commissioned from two different law firms. I asked Uber if it was put as a warning in the personnel files of Holden and Kalanick to make sure that they are accountable if they did it again.

Uber is not commenting, although it is ironic that board member and investor David Bonderman had to immediately resign when he made what was a much more tame remark — offensive still — about how women talk too much. He was, in fact, interrupting a salient point that Huffington was making about the need for more women on the Uber board at the all-hands meeting to deliver the recommendations of the investigation.

Since Bonderman was on the other side of Huffington’s “demarcation” line, of course, all was not forgiven, and he had to go. It was a decision that — irony alert — Kalanick apparently called in to push for.

But not for Kalanick himself, who is getting a pass for the past and the kind of clean slate that Huffington and the board of Uber are doling out without him paying much of a price.

That seems unfair to me and it tracks on what was said by another person who got in trouble for getting into a fight with an Uber driver, an exchange what was caught on camera and went viral.

That would be Travis Kalanick, of course. “Some people don't like to take responsibility for their own shit,” he said to that Uber driver. “They blame everything in their life on somebody else.”

To which I say: Preach, bro.

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