Why Elon Musk Strikes Fear in the Progressive Heart
Free speech terrifies the mandarins of the professional-managerial class
Prompted by Elon Musk’s bid to purchase Twitter, The New York Times has endeavored to discover “the elusive politics of Elon Musk.” The resulting investigation by Jeremy W. Peters is studiously fair-minded, but ultimately inconclusive. A survey of the serial entrepreneur’s political contributions yields little. Unlike fellow billionaires Charles Koch and George Soros, who have given hundreds of millions of dollars to candidates on the right and left, respectively, Musk’s giving has been “paltry” and dispersed among an ideologically diverse set of elected officials.
While Musk has loudly protested COVID-19 lockdowns, a position typically associated with libertarians and conservatives, he is also the founder of Tesla, a company beloved by crunchy liberals for being the world’s largest producer of electric vehicles. When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott defended a controversial law restricting abortion access by citing Musk—“Elon consistently tells me that he likes the social policies in the state of Texas”—Musk demurred, saying, “In general, I believe government should rarely impose its will upon the people and, when doing so, should aspire to maximize their cumulative happiness.” He then offered a perspective that, considering the state of our discourse, most Americans could heartily endorse: “That said, I would prefer to stay out of politics.”
All in all, Musk finds himself among the plurality of Americans who are neither right nor left, but politically homeless. From these facts and more, Peters reasonably concludes that Musk has a “nondenominational political philosophy.” As for what the implications of that philosophy might mean for Twitter should Musk acquire it, Peters cites a “person who has worked closely with Mr. Musk” who says it’s his “firmly held belief that in a functioning democracy, it is anyone’s right to say ‘whatever stupid thing you want.’”
Perish the thought. The mere prospect that someone harboring such a straightforward (if demotic) understanding of what the First Amendment entails might gain control over his favored social media platform naturally triggered an outburst of hysteria among progressive media elites. “Musk has long advocated a libertarian vision of an ‘uncontrolled’ internet,” former Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich warned darkly. “That’s also the dream of every dictator, strongman, and demagogue.” Indeed. What linked Idi Amin, Suharto, and Adolf Hitler was their belief in unfettered freedom of speech. Not to be outdone in stupid fascism analogies, CUNY Journalism Professor Jeff Jarvis, last seen in this space accusing The New York Times of “sympathy with the white-right,” lamented that “today on Twitter feels like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany.” To be fair to Jarvis, Twitter often does have the vibe of a speakeasy. But it’s one more akin to the Star Wars Cantina than the Kit Kat Club.
Musk’s detractors fear that his potential Twitter ownership would open the floodgates to “disinformation.” Yet some of the loudest voices calling for more “content moderation,” a euphemism for censorship, are themselves leading purveyors of fake news. Consider one Robert Reich, whose 1997 memoir of his time in the Clinton administration, Locked in the Cabinet, was notable for its surfeit of distortions, invented conversations, and outright lies. “The book reads like good fiction,” Jonathan Rauch, author of the canonical free speech text Kindly Inquisitors, concluded at the time. “Unfortunately, some of it is.” Lane Kirkland, the legendary former president of the AFL-CIO, lambasted Reich for his “imaginative accounts of some of our meetings.”
The current debate over “disinformation” and what, if anything, to do about it, is fundamentally a conflict over dueling conceptions of American citizenship. People like Elon Musk believe that, as citizens, we possess a fundamental right to distribute and consume information freely. People like Robert Reich see American citizens as subjects and assert that it is the responsibility of professional-managerial class mandarins like himself to determine what we are allowed to read, hear, and think. Call it whatever you want—disinformation, propaganda, bullshit—human beings have been trying to stamp out falsity, or what they perceive as falsity, ever since Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the godly injunction not to lie. Our capacities for disseminating information have evolved dramatically since then, but the best way of responding to “whatever stupid thing” someone says has never changed. Speak the truth, and let the citizen—that archaic concept fast becoming obsolete—decide what to believe.