Why It Was Always Dumb To Worship Elon Musk As A Savior
America is currently held in the grip of a ruthless megalomaniac who insists he's making the world better. Every little thing he does dominates the news cycle, and his horde of fans ceaselessly attack anyone who dares criticize him, even as his ideas become increasingly outlandish. I am talking, of course, about Elon Musk. His embrace of green energy and space travel has earned him the title of The Good Billionaire Who Will Save Us All among a legion of adoring fans who bitterly defend his every move.
Right now, Musk is taking a beating over a bizarre episode in which he came up with an impractical plan to rescue some Thai children trapped in a cave, and then when criticized by one of the rescue divers, responded by calling him a pedophile on Twitter. But, as with some other notable figures in America today, Musk's bizarre Twitter outbursts are just a symptom, not the problem ...
It Starts With A Carefully Crafted Image
If I asked you to sum up Elon Musk in one word, you'd probably say "nerd." Or at least, you would if you work for the media:
You know what that means. Instead of another stuffy billionaire, he's just like us!
Of course, the image he projects serves a purpose, just like how I project an image of stunning yet approachable sexuality. To understand how it helps him, we need to look at what I call the Walmart-Amazon Neural Kontradiction, or WANK. Walmart has long been reviled for driving local mom and pop stores out of business with low prices made possible by their terrible treatment of workers (a survey ranked Walmart 69th out of 100 major corporations in public reputation). Amazon is also driving locals out of business thanks in part to treating its workers like shit, but that same survey found they're the most respected brand in America, presumably because half the people reading this have an Amazon parcel en route to their house right now.
They're both behemoths offering the exact same tradeoff of convenience at the cost of other people's well-being. So what's the difference? Well, Walmart is considered a white trash store (remember People of Walmart?) that you shouldn't be caught dead in. Amazon is billed as a hip, customer-first service for busy, tech-savvy people. (Did you hear they're going to start delivering with drones?) Amazon is new and high-tech and forward-thinking. You know, like Elon Musk! He is to other billionaires what Amazon is to Walmart.
But are you sure that Musk is just like you because you both love gadgets? Because I bet you wouldn't steal an artist's work for your own product, then mock the artist in public when they complained. This, then, is where we have to separate Musk the man from Musk the celebrity/hero/meme.
Next, They Learn To Manipulate The News Cycle
Musk recently made the news for going on a Twitter tirade about the supposedly sorry state of modern media. It was a huge but ultimately inconsequential story that conveniently buried the backlash he was getting from business media for acting like a sociopath during a turbulent investor's conference call -- behavior that hurt Tesla's stock price. Oh, and some of his fans hate journalists now.
When Musk went on about how he was going to start selling $500 flamethrowers (and got a ton of free press about what a wacky free-spirited billionaire he was), that killed stories about major production problems at Tesla. Reading about assembly line problems is boring. Reading about flamethrowers is fun, even if Musk never got around to explaining exactly how selling 20,000 glorified blowtorches was bettering humanity and the environment. But he joked about how they'll help us during the zombie apocalypse, because he's such a neeeeeeerd!
I'm betting a lot more of you read about Musk's new relationship with Grimes, an artist many of you previously hadn't heard of, than read about Tesla leaving nasty workplace injuries off the books in their rush to reach production deadlines. Tesla's also been accused of discriminating on the basis of race and sexual orientation, and of terminating employees with pro-union views. One Tesla employee suffered a series of injuries that forced him off the job. He had to live in his car, but hey, it's pretty cool that Elon Musk, who has a net worth of over $20 billion, sent one of the cars that man helped make out into the Universe to become space trash. The car said "Don't Panic" on the dashboard, because he likes the same geeky things you do!
Hey, do you think that Musk slamming journalists has anything to do with the investigations into Tesla's working conditions, which Tesla has called "an ideologically motivated attack by an extremist organization?" Maybe Musk is a misdirection genius, or maybe the timing is coincidental. Does it even matter? The end result is the same: We all talk about Musk's weird personal life and showy, headline-grabbing projects instead of the actual human impact of his work.
So let's check the scoreboard so far. Musk is a billionaire who has convinced regular people he's their champion, and has mastered the art of manipulating the media into covering inconsequential bullshit instead of substantive scandals, and insists fake news is the enemy.
Huh, it's almost like there's a playbook ...
At A Certain Point, Friendly Media And Fans Will Attack His Critics For Him
Here's a fun headline: "Woman Tries To Attack Elon Musk On Twitter, Doesn't Expect A Response Like This." The exchange, which was apparently "like a raging fire," involved Musk tweeting about an upcoming SpaceX launch, a woman asking "Can you donate to a food bank instead?" (What a vicious attack!), and a Twitter mob descending to rip into her. We've reached the charming stage in capitalism where a billionaire's fanboys attacking some random person en masse makes for an upbeat, inspirational story.
It's not even that her argument was compelling. After all, space exploration and charity can coexist. It's the knee-jerk reaction to leap to the defense of a billionaire with infinitely more power than the random person criticizing him. The site that wrote that dumb article filtered out most of the insults and anger, presumably because that would have spoiled the fact that this woman was "owned." And sure, Twitter is admittedly a cesspool where people are currently exchanging death threats over their preferred anime translations, but you can see this attitude everywhere.
Let's visit the Elon Musk subreddit, where fans call themselves Musketeers with not enough irony to make it fun. They're doing perfectly normal things like complaining that Musk isn't getting enough media coverage (one of the first search results for Musk's name, as I write this, is the pandering fluff piece "With a Single Sentence, Elon Musk Showed Why Being Wrong Is Important") and responding to that stolen art complaint with comments like:
The man is literally working like a machine, for us. Possibly THE greatest mind of our time, and people are bothering him about farting unicorns?!? If Albert Einstein were around today, he would be truly ashamed of every one of you. Leave the man alone.
So what if he stole some art? So what if his business practices made that dude homeless? He's doing it all for humanity. I mean, not the artist and that homeless guy specifically, or any other actual humans he can name, but humanity as a concept. You know, like if somebody promised to make a country great again while hating half of its people.
Meanwhile, in some of that apparently rare media coverage, HuffPo wrote about the "5 Coolest Things Elon Musk Has Done (Or Is Bound To Do)," which featured a mixture of very important ideas like "Caused panic in LA with 'UFO'" and totally real ideas like "Maybe he'll go to Mars one day, probably, because he says he totally will." It's like there's no claim, no matter how spurious, that Musk-friendly media won't repeat without skepticism. They say he's saving the world, and if you ask for proof that he's saving the world, you are attacked for questioning the man who's saving the world.
Eventually You Reach A Point Where Critical Thought Becomes Impossible
I realize that this is almost starting to sound vindictive. "OK, so Musk's not perfect, but so what? He's still doing more for humanity than you ever will! It's not like he's forcing people into official Tesla-brand concentration camps!" But if he did, how many people would twist themselves into knots trying to justify it?
If that's too cartoonish, what about the workers he's treating like shit right now? Tesla employees are destroying their bodies for 17-21 bucks an hour (the industry average is $29.53) and Musk's response to their grievances was to give them froyo machines.
People can go on about how Musk is saving humanity's future, but they're assuming that any present-day suffering he's causing is not only worth it, but necessary. Are we sure we can't build the future without steamrolling people in the present? Musk's personality cult kills the ability to even have that discussion. That is by design.
Our culture loves the idea of the rebel genius. We attribute most scientific innovations to one person instead of the years of research that preceded it (no, Steve Jobs did not invent the PC in his garage). We write main characters in TV and film who are selfish assholes but get a free pass because they're always right. The reality is that superheroes aren't real; society is more than a handful of superior beings dragging billions of ungrateful bozos along for the ride.
Yet Musk can get all the credit for talking about futuristic ideas like going to Mars and building his pet Hyperloop, while critics point out that his Mars plan is rife with obstacles he's glossing over and the Hyperloop is just a fancy private car for rich people that fails to address the fundamental mass transportation needs of the future. (Musk once said that public transportation was a pain in the ass, but he's still a man of the people!)
It's A Playbook That Has Worked Before, And Will Work Again
If you look carefully at this article, you may notice I've drawn some subtle parallels to Donald Trump in several dozen places. Musk and Trump do not share the exact same vision of the future, and don't have the same ideology. But they are absolutely coming from the same toxic "I'm a billionaire and no one has the right to question me" mindset, and are exploiting many of the same flaws in the system to get ahead.
If you'll forgive me for revisiting the Musk subreddit, many of his fans dislike Trump because of, well, the general offensiveness of Trump's existence. So how did they reconcile the fact that Elon Musk, their savior, was sitting on advisory panels for Donald Trump, the enemy? Here's what one Musketeer had to say:
Elon Musk is the only voice of reason in this psychotic, sociopathic administration. He's being extremely diplomatic in working with Trump and for good reason. Elon Musk is paving the way for a whole new paradigm in the way we live. Electric cars, electric grid system, taking man to Mars...! He's is thinking big for the future of our humanity. And currently we are on the brink of extinction if all hell breaks loose and we go into WWIII. With nukes.
Yes, Musk is being polite to Trump because he wants to save humanity in case of the totally plausible scenario wherein he can stop Trump from triggering nuclear Armageddon. It certainly has nothing to do with maintaining those generous government investments. Musk, to his credit, eventually left his advisory role over Trump's climate change denial, but how far do you need to torture your own brain before you'll accept that people you don't know beyond their carefully presented public image are in fact fallible? And that as a general rule, billionaires don't give a shit about you?
There's no denying that Musk has made some valuable humanitarian contributions. But in response to a question on Quora asking why Musk doesn't do much more, given the vast resources available to him, a user who describes himself as "99% straight but 1% gay just for Elon Musk" said that while using your fortune to fight disease and hunger is like giving a man a fish ...
Elon Musk teaches you how to fish. Elon Musk is trying to safeguard the very existence of humanity in case of an extinction event, and to inspire us to stop killing each other because we let tribalism overrules reason and logic, there's nothing more philanthropic than that. ... So please, it's time to join the Elon Musk fan club.
That doesn't seem like someone who's thinking critically about what Musk says and does.
This isn't about choosing between Musk's version of the future and Trump's. This is about choosing between a world in which we actually hold powerful people accountable for their behavior, and one in which we are all just picking which billionaire's personality cult we want to mindlessly join. If history has taught us anything, it's this: Anyone who assures you they're only inflicting suffering in the present in order to bring about a glorious future Utopia is about to take you down a very dark road.
Mark is on Twitter and has a book.
Electric cars are really not that hard to build, either. Elon's are just bigger and more expensive than ones you can get in kits.
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