The outspoken tech billionaire is the embodiment of both America’s main problem and its main founding principle
Billionaire tech entrepreneur, space visionary, and the richest man in the world Elon Musk may be wrong about any number of things, but he and many observers are certainly right about one thing: a recent Wall Street Journal article detailing allegations about his use of drugs was a hit piece.
One dead give-away was the astonishingly weak sourcing, as conservative-leaning polling and media company Rasmussen Reports has correctly noted. The Wall Street Journal, one of the most important newspapers in the US, has relied on what can only be described as a large heap of hearsay. It’s big but hollow.
Another clue is that the allegations belabored at exhausting, mind-numbing length are, actually, not new. Similar claims have been made before, for instance in a less blunt if still underhanded piece by the occasionally controversial journalist and centrist favorite Ronan Farrow (of “Me-too” fame) in the New Yorker.
Musk’s response has been threefold. He has lashed out at the Wall Street Journal, denouncing it for, essentially, stooping to yellow-press level. He has a point. Beyond that, on one side, he – and his lawyer Alex Spiro – have denied the allegations as “false.” On the other, Musk has argued that, in principle, using drugs makes sense if it increases productivity. Among adults, the message should be pretty clear. Musk defends himself in legal terms, as he would (share values, contracts, and security clearances could be at stake), while also signaling that whatever drugs he may be taking are no one’s business.
So far, so expectable. You can agree or disagree with the billionaire’s position on his own use (or not) of various alleged substances, including LSD and psychedelic mushrooms. But that is not what is most interesting here. The more intriguing question is what is behind the attack and why it is happening now.
The Wall Street Journal piece itself hints at the real stakes in the very first sentence, referring to the tycoon’s “contrarian views, unfiltered speech and provocative antics.” Oops. Seems someone has been a bad boy. But then again, many bad boys (and girls, too) get away with much worse. Think Hunter “that laptop really did belong to him” Biden, for instance. What’s special about Musk’s case?
Musk has many fans. His business acumen, ingenuity, and sheer obstinacy (that’s a compliment) are special. He also has, for better or worse, genuine if peculiar charisma. But – full disclosure – I am not a fan. For one thing, I profoundly disagree with what may well be the single worst decision in his life, namely, to pay a PR visit to Israel while it is committing genocide against the Palestinians.
I also see extremely disturbing patterns of purging critical voices from the social media platform X (formerly Twitter), which he now controls. More long-term, my heart beats on the left. Hyper-rich, right-wing libertarians with a sterling record of fighting unions are just not my thing.
Yet it is a matter of healthy skepticism toward those going after Musk to ask what those “contrarian views” are. Among Musk’s frequent scraps, several key things come to mind. They all have one thing in common; and they fall into two main categories. It’s always about politics, and some of the issues concern domestic US politics, while others touch on geopolitics.
Let’s look at the geopolitics first. Over the last two years or so, Musk has spoken up about two places that are at the heart of American global strategy: Taiwan and Ukraine. In both cases, he has been maligned and accused of two things: acting contrary to US interests – that is, as the Washington blob misunderstands them – and of being out of his depth. Regarding Ukraine, he advanced his own suggestions of how to end a war already ongoing; concerning Taiwan he pointed out facts that may help avoid another one.
The irony is that, with respect to the war in Ukraine, one key point of Musk’s position in the fall of 2022 has by now become if not mainstream then at least acceptable. Back then, he was roundly condemned for arguing that Russia should keep Crimea and Ukraine should choose neutrality. Now, one predictably failed Ukrainian counteroffensive and many dead and injured later, even a former NATO commander has gone public to suggest that Kiev should let go of territory (and more than Crimea, by the way) to make peace. Musk is right. The West’s flag-waving “friends” of Ukraine only make its territorial (and other) losses worse.
Coming round to neutrality (at least in public) may take Western “elites” longer. But on territory, a key issue, Musk was simply ahead of the curve, and it is likely that the question of neutrality will go the same way. Put differently, Musk – and others (full disclosure again: this author included) – were right to call for a compromise peace early. Ukraine would not have been worse off than now but probably better, and fewer people would have died.
But making reasonable peace proposals when no one felt like listening was not Musk’s only sin with respect to the Ukraine war. There was also the matter of Starlink, a technology produced by Musk’s company, SpaceX.
In the first year of the war, Musk did two things. First, he made this mobile satellite internet service available to the Ukrainian military, which was vital and made Ukrainians gush with gratitude. Second, he then limited its use geographically, which made Ukrainians very angry.
At the time, he unconvincingly argued that the service was costing SpaceX too much (although he had a point, asking why he was supposed to provide it for free or subsidize it in the first place).
More convincingly, he also expressed ethical concerns. While willing to help Ukraine, he sought to draw a line at being “explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.” In other words, he insisted on his responsibility for his own acts in disposing of his technology, instead of following the then obligatory maxim of “whatever Zelensky wants, Zelensky gets; no questions asked or permitted.”
That – and the unheard-of offense of actually talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin – became the peg for Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker take-down of Musk’s “shadow rule,” which went after the recalcitrant billionaire for being too full of himself (it takes one to know one…) and monstered him as, in effect, a national security risk and also a bit of Bond villain.
Taiwan may well be the next Ukraine – another place to be ground into dust in a perfectly avoidable war mostly fueled by Washington’s almost pathological inability to pursue its national interest through grown-up compromise instead of futile fights for unipolarity.
A few months ago, Musk committed the unforgivable sin of stating the facts. From Beijing’s standpoint, he explained, Taiwan is “an integral part of China that is arbitrarily not part of China mostly because … the US Pacific Fleet has stopped any sort of reunification effort by force.” That is, actually, true. (Yes, he also made a comparison with Hawaii. Frankly, who cares?)
Taiwan, it is also true, is a special case. The US and China have long practiced a compromise, going back to 1972. China has insisted that it has the right to use force to reunite Taiwan with mainland China, but, crucially, it has refrained from doing so. The US has recognized that Beijing speaks for China (and not Taiwan’s capital Taipei), while still supporting Taiwan militarily and maintaining a policy of “strategic ambiguity.” This is designed to leave open the question of whether Washington would fight for Taiwan. This compromise has been inconsistent but helped preserve the peace for half a century.
Yet since 2022, it has been Washington, not Beijing, that has upset this fragile balance the most, by provocative visits, exercises, and statements, most importantly by President Joe Biden himself. This is the context in which Musk reminded everyone of the underlying reality: that Taiwan is not a sovereign country, and that China has a legitimate claim under international law.
Yet the narrative build-up to what may be the next major war for American global hegemony (this time to be lost against China, not Russia), requires us to forget that basic fact. It would be hard for CNN et al to whip Western publics into the requisite furor against “Chinese aggression,” if they were too well aware that, as a matter of fact, China is after what is legally its own territory.
If Musk has been worse than tactless, namely factual, about the world outside the US, he also has created upset at home. In general, he has become more outspoken about his politics that tend strongly – and for my taste – very unattractively to the right, even by American standards, in a capitalist-libertarian register. In particular, he has loudly challenged what he sees as the bane of the “woke-mind virus” and the failure of American border and immigration policy. In addition, he has been open about shifting his allegiance from the Democrats to the Republicans. And, worst of all, of course, he has taken over the social media platform once known as Twitter.
Since then, the death of “X,” as Musk has renamed the platform, has been foretold with a regularity reminiscent of Western fantasies about Russia’s government. Musk has also been criticized for bias and caprice in his very personalized handling of X, often with good reason. But the real issue for his centrist detractors is not his being biased but being biased in the wrong direction. Whereas old Twitter was a solid bastion of the center-liberal US establishment, Musk’s X is more right-wing, erratic, and unpredictable.
It is, however – as Jill Lepore, another Musk-slayer with impeccable centrist credentials has rightly pointed out in the New Yorker – not a matter of “free speech” or “representation.” Because Twitter/X has always been a business. What is at stake is something else: control, or, as the perspicacious Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci would have put it, ideological hegemony. And with Musk at the helm, the former Twitter is certainly not a stable tool of such hegemony. That does not make it an agent of revolution or even progress. But it does make for an increase in establishment insecurity and infighting, for now.
The greatest irony of the Musk case may be that it shows, again, that, in the US such pluralism, as it is, warts and all, is dependent on the will and personality of individuals owning media, whether new or traditional. On the verge of the 2024 election, which may well turn into a severe crisis of the American oligarchy, whether with or without Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the attacks on Musk are not really about Musk. Rather, they reflect what is at one and the same time America’s essence and its worst, quite possibly fatal problem: “freedom” has been reduced to property, and property is unequal as never before.
January 12, 2024 at 12:00AM