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How Isaacson's "Elon Musk" Reveals the "Woke-Mind Virus" is Projection
It would be easy to tell you everything that’s bad about Elon Musk, Walter Isaacson’s new book, which Brian Merchant of the Los Angeles Times suggests should singlehandedly kill the genre of “great man” biographies. Novelist Gary Shteyngart savaged it, calling it an “insight-free doorstop of a book.” And Kara Swisher took Isaacson to task on her podcast for not drawing any conclusions and generally letting a 53-year-old manboy off the hook for abhorrent behavior because he had a mean daddy.
They’re right, the book is crap, albeit bestselling crap. But chief among its virtues, which include admirably correct spelling and a winning font, is that he lets Elon talk and talk and talk. We get to see the world from his perspective, namely that he is our tech bro savior trying to rescue humanity from … wait, this can’t be right, hold on … the woke-mind virus.
Once upon a time, Elon Musk was a full-on Barack Obama fanboy. Then the coronavirus forced the closure of his Tesla factory in Shanghai. “The coronavirus panic is dumb,” he tweeted on March 6, 2020. Later that month he defied California’s stay-at-home order, keeping his Tesla factory in Freemont open. “This is not democratic. This is not freedom. Give people back their goddamn freedom,” he said. Arguably, he had a point. Public health emergencies necessarily require limits to personal freedoms, but to him the real threat wasn’t an airborne virus that would go on to kill 3 million people. It was the government taking measures to protect people from it.
Later his yee-haw stance on the pandemic expanded to include “what he considered the excesses of political correctness and the woke culture of progressive social-justice advocates,” leading to this weird-ass tweet in December 2021:
“Unless the woke-mind virus, which is fundamentally antiscience, antimerit, and antihuman in general, is stopped, civilization will never become interplanetary.”
That there is some serious settle down, Beavis energy. You have to stand back to really admire the scope and grandeur of his proclamation. I mean, kudos. And while a reasonable person might be inclined to feel a little silly putting something that dumb into the universe, Musk has not let it go, tweeting last December, “The woke mind virus is either defeated or nothing else matters.”
To me this sounds as silly as saying… Honestly, I can’t think of anything as silly as saying political correctness is an existential threat to humanity. But to him it must make sense. He says he bought Twitter to save “the future of civilization. Birth rates are plummeting, the thought police are gaining power.”
A big part of it to him is that his sense of humor, which Isaacson writes (with an admirable grasp of clichés) “would crack up a dorm room of stoned freshman,” had become unfashionable. He said as much in an interview in 2021 with the Babylon Bee.
“Wokeness wants to make comedy illegal, which is not cool,” he contended.
I’m sorry, I gotta stop right there. Guys, he’s serious. Wokeness wants to make comedy illegal, man. Dude, that is not cool. Not cool at all. Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest, but I gotta keep it real. Making comedy illegal is most uncool.
Let me try that again.
“Wokeness wants to make comedy illegal, which is not cool,” he contended.
Oh man, still hilarious. Ironically, Musk is unintentionally funny as hell, going around saying he’s going to save humanity by colonizing Mars, but first he needs to make America safe for dick jokes again. OK, for real this time.
“Wokeness wants to make comedy illegal, which is not cool,” he contended. “Trying to shut down David Chappelle, come on, man, that’s crazy. Do we want a humorless society that is simply rife with condemnation and hate and no forgiveness? At its heart wokeness is divisive, exclusionary, and hateful. It gives mean people a shield to be mean and cruel, armed with false virtue.”
The pedant in me hastens to point out that while Chappelle lost some gigs after he told some anti-trans jokes, he was recently awarded the Mark Twain Price for American Humor. Worst. Cancellation. Ever. But Musk’s serious about being funny. “I mean, I love my own humor, even if others don’t,” he told Isaacson. “I kill me.”
The problem Musk falls into is a common one for anti-wokesters: He can’t say exactly what “woke” is. Earlier this year on Real Time With Bill Maher, Musk failed to answer Maher’s perfectly reasonable question, “So what is the woke-mind virus?” Musk called it “anti-democratic” and said it suppressed free speech in that “you can’t question things. Even the questioning is bad.” He compared it to cancel culture, but that’s as far as he got. To be fair, Musk is great at a good many things like reusable rockets and sports cars that run on batteries, but he’s new to reactionary rightwing political ranting, so maybe we should give him a pass on this one.
Nevertheless, the question stands: What on God’s green earth is Elon Musk talking about? What is the woke-mind virus?
It’s not true, as Musk thought, that Twitter was suppressing conservative viewpoints. Twitter’s own research (which it published in 2021) found its algorithm actually did the opposite, according to The Guardian.
The research found that in six out of seven countries, apart from Germany, tweets from rightwing politicians received more amplification from the algorithm than those from the left; right-leaning news organisations were more amplified than those on the left; and generally politicians’ tweets were more amplified by an algorithmic timeline than by the chronological timeline.
According to a 27-page research document, Twitter found a “statistically significant difference favouring the political right wing” in all the countries except Germany.
As professor and podcaster Scott Galloway has observed, Musk was projecting his perspective onto external events.
Listing only the (anecdotal) evidence favoring their view and declaring “a pattern has emerged” while ignoring contrary evidence and science. Elon draped himself in right-wing credibility on this issue over the past year, pandering to the right’s baseless, subjective victimhood with promises to restore “free speech.” The right confirms this, acting as if letting the Babylon Bee back on Twitter makes you John Stuart Mill.
There’s a good argument to be made that most of what passes for conservative political argument is actually psychological projection.
Lauren Boebert (R-Beetlejuice) likes to accuse the “Far Left” of grooming children when the father of her four sons pleaded guilty to and went to prison for whipping it out in a bowling alley in front of two underaged girls.
Donald Trump, whose campaign colluded with Russian assets and who actually handed over highly classified intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office, accused Hillary Clinton of colluding with the Russians.
Trump was the king of using projection as a political weapon, accusing Joe Biden of nepotism after making his own son-in-law Jared Kushner a White House Senior Advisor and putting him in charge of criminal justice reform, the Middle East peace process, and the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
Hillary called Trump “temperamentally unfit” for the White House, which was kind in retrospect. His own Cabinet considered Trump so incapacitated they debated invoking the 25th Amendment. And who could forget the time he bragged about passing a dementia test in 2020 and said that remembering “person, woman, man, camera, TV” was “difficult.” So what are Republicans attacking Joe Biden on? His mental acuity, of course.
And now that it has fallen to the Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate the myriad crimes committed by the Trump administration, he’s being accused of politicizing the DOJ by Bill Barr, whom you might remember as the Attorney General who politicized the DOJ.
A new book, “Hatchet Man: How Bill Barr Broke the Prosecutor’s Code and Corrupted the Justice Department,” attempts to catalog actions Barr took that author Elie Honig, J.D. ’00, says greatly damaged the department’s reputation for impartiality and independence from politics. From Barr’s efforts to neuter the Mueller investigation and to burying the Ukraine whistleblower’s complaint to public validations of Trump’s claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election, Barr appeared to equate serving the White House’s political interests with the DOJ’s mission and constitutional duty to the country, Honig argues.
So if this whole woke nonsense is projection, then that would explain why Musk bought Twitter saying he wanted to protect free speech only to ban journalists who wrote unflattering stories about him.
Understood as projection, the widespread handwringing over the censorious woke mob becomes a confession. The same people complaining about woke are the ones passing laws making it harder to vote and illegal to teach anything but a politically approved version of history. For crying out loud, a teacher in Houston was fired for reading from a graphic novel adaptation of the Diary of Anne Frank. A San Antonio biology professor was fired for teaching that biological sex comes from X and Y chromosomes, i.e., for teaching biology.
And the people enforcing this anti-wokeness are acting like, well, a mob, shouting down school board meetings, threatening elected officials, and, oh yeah, engaging in a little light insurrection.
Earlier this month, a public health advocate testified to the Los Angeles County Public Health Commission Meeting in favor of requiring masks in healthcare settings to prevent a resurgence of COVID. So outraged by this fairly mundane opinion were two anti-mask advocates, one of whom founded the Los Angeles Leftists for Choice and Unity. They waited for him outside the building so they could follow and harass him until he reached his car.
If you’re wondering which of them is infected with a mind virus, read what the lefty anti-mask activist has to say about why a guy in a Bernie shirt :
“The pharma-owned and so-called liberal media have made (vaccines and anything dealing with vaccines) a political issue, and it is not. It's a nonpartisan issue,” he said. “Anyone who objects to the vaccines or points to vaccine adverse reporting are dismissed as right-wing conspiracy theorists. I am not right wing.”
Crazy person says what? Only in Southern California would someone deny being right wing and let stand being the conspiracy theorist accusation. And by the way, I got that quote from a so-called liberal newspaper. He’s not being censored. He’s being laughed at, and so is Elon Musk when he says something as absurd as people being mad at Dave Chappelle for telling unkind jokes about trans people is a threat to civilization.
Isaacson portrays Musk as a “visionary who didn’t play well with others.” He places Musk’s origin story in childhood when bullies beat him so badly that he needed to recuperate in a hospital. The reason for this, writes Isaacson, is that “he had neither the desire nor the instinct to be ingratiating.” Other than calling little Elon “emotionally awkward,” Isaacson chalks the episode up to Musk having faulty emotional wiring.
In his 2015 biography of Musk, Ashlee Vance dug deeper, saying that as a child he “came off as a classic know-it-all” with a “constant yearning to correct people.” In other words, he was kind of a dick, a pint-sized “debate me” bro who grew up to become the richest and one of the most powerful men in the world with little patience for different opinions. To him, free speech means no one complains when he tells dick jokes or repeats homophobic and unfounded rumors about Paul Pelosi.
Musk has a trans daughter who calls herself Jenna and has legally changed her last name because, as she told the court, “I no longer … wish to be related to my biological father in any way, shape or form.” Musk thinks she’s rejecting him for woke reasons. “It’s full-on communism,” Isaacson quotes Musk as saying, “and a general sentiment that if you’re rich, you’re evil.”
There might be more to the story.
Musk had made peace with Jenna’s transitioning, even though he had not embraced the protocols about listing one’s pronouns.
Being asked to accept your child on their terms, pronouns and all, isn’t stifling free speech. It’s a chance to show empathy to someone you purport to love, but as Isaacson makes clear, empathy isn’t something that Musk does. Perhaps that beating he took as a child damaged his capacity for empathy. Maybe his odd, unhappy upbringing and obscene wealth have prevented him from experiencing opportunities to develop it. But the fact remains that the richest man in the world, who sees himself as singlehandedly saving humanity, doesn’t appear to actually like humans. Musk might save us all with renewable energy, electric cars, and interplanetary migration, but who will save us from him?
Jason Stanford is a co-author of NYT-best selling Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth. His bylines have appeared in the Washington Post, Time, and Texas Monthly, among others. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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