The Elon Musk Puzzle — A Post Alley Round Table

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Editor’s Note: With Elon Musk’s attempted purchase of Twitter in the news, we asked some of the Post Alley writers to weigh in on Musk’s appeal (and un-appeal), Twitter, and the nature of his libertarian politics. 

David Freiboth: In many ways Elon Musk resembles many famous, non-religious business types.  When asked about their politics these stylish “progressive” business leaders typically cast themselves as “socially liberal, fiscally conservative.”  This means progressive if the “cause” doesn’t hurt their business interests.  This is not necessarily insincere, but it almost always aligns (or at least doesn’t conflict) with how they made their fortune.  For example, LGBTQ rights and addressing third world health really doesn’t threaten those who make software or electric automobiles.  Middle class economic empowerment through a strong labor movement, though, can affect the bottom line so that will not be a part of their “progressive” agenda. 

In terms of the free-speech debate. remember that free speech originally meant an individual has the right to make public statements from the “town square” and publish their views without government interference.  Constitutionally protected free speech was not intended to require others to publish (or not publish) your views.  As media matured, it was established that newspapers had a property “right” to control and filter the speech of their readers.  Twitter likewise claims the “right” to limit speech they feel will harm others.  Now what Twitter determines is harmful is certainly debatable but there is no constitutionally guaranteed “right” for those peddling misinformation.

But there is a more troubling issue here in terms of misinformation.  The notion is floated that science-based, or legally-vetted information is some sort of lefty liberal perspective. Right wingers routinely offer up disinformation based on superstitions or deceit, claiming it’s only “the other side of the coin.”  Objective, bi-partisan legal analysis concluded that there was no significant fraud in the 2020 presidential election, and this was portrayed by the right as a “liberal perspective.”  The right insisted that the other side of that issue, the baseless claim that the election was “stolen,” be a part of the debate.  Those, like Twitter, who refuse to buy into that cockeyed rationalization are labeled as “snowflake liberals” who are against free speech.

So, if Musk intends to leverage his wealth to give that dubious form of “free speech” a more substantial platform then he is truly destructive, regardless of how much good he may have contributed elsewhere.

 

Steve Murch: A Tesla salesperson told me a few years ago that Seattle was the number-one metro area in America for sales of Teslas per capita. Last I checked, we are still in the top 3, behind San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are bound to be a few good deals on used Teslas here in Seattle, so keep your eyes peeled.

One reason for these bargains is that the prog left happens to now be laser-focused on Tesla’s CEO. Never mind that he’s the individual who has done more to usher in a green-energy revolution than any other in our lifetime. He’s an African immigrant who came to the United States who now employs nearly 100,000 people, and a taxpayer who paid more than $13 billion into federal coffers this year.

Three reasons for the ire from the Left. One, he’s a billionaire. Two, his hostile takeover bid for Twitter represents a threat to a major base of progressive cultural power. Politics is downstream of culture after all, and in 2022, culture is downstream of Twitter. Musk would like the left and the right be able to speak openly, with consistently applied moderation policies. That is a major threat to a formula that’s worked well for the left of late, silencing opposition and uncomfortable news stories or narrative.

A third reason is that Musk utterly disproves the idea that major innovation and societal advancement necessarily requires collectivism, catastrophism, anger, envy, sacrifice, or grievance. Musk, by contrast, exudes optimism.

He reminds us uncomfortably about our past joy about accomplishing big things, our willingness to risk big things, our awe, our heroes. Today, there is excessive cultural emphasis on all the reasons we suck. But, through action and attitude, Musk rejects much of what emotionally powers the prog left, though he aligns on several end-goals. Transform America’s transportation to be less reliant on fossil fuels? Check. Make solar power much more ubiquitous and affordable? On it. Send a reusable rocket up into space, then land it on a postage stamp out in the ocean? You got it. Help Ukraine fight Russia in its existential crisis with vital communication satellites? Your package has arrived.

For him it’s not just sloganeering, but “yes, we can.”

Tom Corddry: Twitter is unique among social media to the extent that it does serious work. COVID proved this very dramatically. The scientists, doctors, public health administrators, political leaders, and journalists who were coping with COVID as it exploded around the world needed a much faster way to share information than the stodgy process of publishing peer-reviewed articles, and their primary informal communication network—drinking together at conferences—was shut down by COVID. An amazing network of COVID-focused Twitter users blossomed almost overnight, and transformed the way science was done, and the ways in which science translated into policy and practice.

This clearly happens across other fields, to the extent that The New York Times has recently told its reporters that they are not required to maintain an active Twitter presence, and encouraged them not to forget other ways to do reporting. I’d hate to see Musk crash this system by flooding it with even more elite-bashing trolls than already exist. Perhaps another althernative would emerge, but today there’s nothing else like it. What Twitter enables can’t be done on Facebook, Reddit, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Instagram, TikTok, Zoom, chat, messaging, or email.

That said, Twitter would become Musk’s Ukraine. He’d fail like he never has before, crashing his aura of invincibility, with consequences for all of his businesses. 

Eric Scigliano: Yes, Musk’s libertarianism is unstable and perpetually formative — nowhere near as fundamental and fundamentalist as that of his fellow PayPal founder Peter Thiel. I suspect it’s more a matter of temperament and instinct—his impatience, impishness, and improvisation—than of ideology. And I wonder if there’s a deeper driver operating behind and often contrary to this temperamental libertarianism, one that may do even more to make Musk an honorary Seattleite: his environmentalism, particularly his seriousness about the climate crisis.

Steve Murch lists the pretty amazing advances Musk has made in bringing electric vehicles, battery charging, and solar power to the world. There is the messy matter of adding 2,000 Starlink satellites to the growing load of space junk, but maybe he has a plan for cleaning that up too. His reusable rockets may be the biggest advance in recycling since manure and plagiarism. 

Consider when his libertarianism and environmentalism collided. First he was the cryptocurrency bros’ hero, when Tesla announced it was holding $1.5 billion in Bitcoin. Then he became their bogeyman when he tweeted, “We are concerned about rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for Bitcoin mining and transactions” and declared Tesla would no longer accept it as payment.

Anyone who pisses off the blockchainiacs can’t be all bad. I’m giving Green Elon the benefit of the doubt. What all that has to do with the Twitter deal, I’ve no idea–except that he’s not an ideologue and is capable of self-correction. 

David Brewster: Musk is an unstable libertarian, and his politics resonates for Seattle for several reasons. We have lots of very rich tech folks in our region, and they lean libertarian. One reason is they regard government as a lagging sector that can’t get its act together, move quickly and decisively, and is as muscle-bound as railroads and banks. So much for the middle-class-reform consensus of recent Seattle politics.

A second reason is that Seattle, like the Far West, is a place where the rolling stones — individualists, cranks, pioneers, visionaries, escapees — tend to end up. That means the closeted libertarian resides in many breasts. A third reason is that the Left has only recently graduated from anarchism, which characterized the Far Left until the rise of Bernie-style, big-government socialism.

Accordingly, libertarianism (wet or dry) is a kind of default stance for growing numbers of local voters, and certainly for the majority of young voters. These voters are impatient. They think government has been corrupted by big business and big donors. They like the kind of fluid, anarcho-democracy of the Occupy Movement and the CHOP zone on Capitol Hill. They will be slow in returning to the office, rather liking being loners. Looking at the huge, unaddressed problems (climate change, inequality, reviving racism, unaffordable housing, Russia), they’ve had it with compromised, go-slow incrementalism. That’s why they are drawn to the unpredictable disruptions of Elon Musk or Kshama Sawant. They start where these voters start: the current regime is falling apart, so build your rocket ships.  

Eric Redman: I feel no ire toward Elon Musk, but I want to be able to stop thinking about him.  He did one great thing early on:  He made EVs snazzy instead of Prius-ugly, and in so doing he provided an extraordinary boost to EVs.  I did, after all, buy one of his first cars, and I did so with thanks and admiration.  Kudos to the man for those cars.  And for supporting Ukraine and not being Tucker Carlson.

His solar and battery efforts have been attention-getting but neither remarkable nor particularly significant; he won’t be remembered for them, and in this discussion, they are make-weights.  Meanwhile he has latterly become, or revealed himself to be, a right wing whack job.  Another aggrieved-and-in-love-with-his-grievances person who imagines social media have somehow helped liberals and Democrats rather than being the instruments and enablers and amplifiers of Donald Trump, conspiracy theorists, racists, science-deniers, Fox News, nativists, and anti-democratic authoritarians.

Yes, Elon Musk is an immigrant — but one who gives aid and comfort to those who are trying to keep immigrants out.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. It doesn’t hurt us to hear, consider, and react to other’s ideas and thoughts ; and the only ones not wanting this exchange are the ones that know they’re thinking is the correct position. I remember when The Atlantic was controversial – I remember when my Utne Reader came in a plain brown envelope.
    Elon Musk is a throwback not a throwaway…..He represents to some of us the American Dream, not the American Conscious. Not long ago we were publishing Bill Gates’ book list – now we run away from his advice because, like all of us, he is flawed. GET OVER IT !!! Joe Rogan might have a following bigger than the Pope (an exaggeration)…….

  2. I guess I should have read up on Elon Musk beforehand. Having read these analyses, I feel like I’m missing the required reading. As far as I know, there isn’t an official libertarian dogma, so while it’s a convenient way to refer to a sort of naive mechanical ideal of society, it isn’t really super illuminating as a label. I mean, libertarianism can find expression in various ways, and for someone who hasn’t been following the Elon Musk story, I am none the wiser about what he’s up to here.

    If the outcome is that Twitter is going to poison the well of public discourse … well, I guess we could take that as a given, anyway.

  3. Here’s an interesting take from Kevin T. Dugan in New York Mag. He argues that Musk is entering his “Murdoch” phase, and that his interest in Twitter is a logical extension of his long-running interest in having media power. Dugan’s argument makes me think it’s more likely than I initially did that Musk will in fact acquire Twitter. I still think it offers him rich opportunities to get bogged down in messes he can’t fix, but I think he’s very serious about this. Whether having the world’s richest human controlling a platform that is the go-to social media for influential people is a good idea is another question. Murdoch established huge global influence by taking over media properties. Perhaps if Musk acquires Twitter, that will just be the beginning. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2022/04/elon-musks-twitter-bid-is-his-rupert-murdoch-move.html

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