November 18, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
By destroying Twitter, Elon Musk reveals contempt for democracy
It’s not enough to stop worshiping billionaires.
Helaine Olen’s column last Friday came a week early.
Word got out Thursday that Twitter could shut down any minute on account of owner Elon Musk telling workers to love it or leave it (ie, to go “extremely hardcore” with no change in pay or go). Turns out some are leaving – “some,” as in thousands. It’s enough to make you wonder about the whole billionaire worship thing that Americans do, Helaine wrote.
“I’m not denying that some billionaires are brilliant entrepreneurs,” Helaine wrote in the Post. “But they are way less special than they are frequently told. (Some are just heirs, or lucky Powerball winners.)
As our men of business become more prominent and wealthier, they enter a feedback loop. Sycophants flatter instead of challenging them. This impacts their ability to hear criticism. And that leaves them more likely to cling to toadies who feed their now inflated self-image. All too often, the end result is ever larger mistakes and more ethically dubious behavior.
Of course, Helaine is right. Billionaires are human. To err is human. To err spectacularly, and destructively, is billionaire-level human.
That’s why there’s more at stake than a “peculiarly American form of worship,” as Helaine calls it. There’s more at stake than even the collapse of America’s premier public forum. We’re witnessing a democratic abomination injure democratic politics, because democratic politics is the only thing that can keep him in check.
Musk deserves ridicule, true, but he deserves more democratic contempt. Why? Because of his contempt for democratic politics.
Destroying Twitter proves it.
Musk was born into wealth in his native South Africa. The dead granted him power and privilege that he neither earned nor deserved. The day he accepted his inheritance was, moreover, the day he participated in the deprivation of other people’s political equality, which they are entitled to for the fact of being born.
Musk became a billionaire in these United States. To become a billionaire is to commit political crimes that would otherwise be impossible without a federal government of, by and for the people permitting them to happen or at least looking away while they do.
Musk then harnessed that power and privilege to help shape and mold the very same federal government that initially allowed the political crimes that animate his power and privilege. To be the world’s richest man – to exist as such alone – is to profane not only political equality but the republican principle of equal treatment under law.
He is, therefore, a democratic abomination.
But that’s not all.
For all its flaws, which are many, Twitter remains the premiere public forum in America. That’s because its nature is democratic. It puts downward pressure on the orders of (white, patriarchal) power established long before Elon Musk was born but from which he still benefits. Twitter is, in other words, democratic politics in action.
As such, Twitter has played a huge role in democratizing virtually every part of society that previously had been shielded and defended by those with the most to lose from democratic politics. These parts included politics, journalism, sports, religion, business, you name it. Elites who would not have otherwise faced accountability did in part because Twitter is a public forum where the people can be heard.
Sure, Twitter can be chaotic. It can really feel like it’s everything everywhere all at once. But ultimately, Twitter gives voice to people who rarely have a voice – look up “Black Twitter” – and it flattens the (white, patriarchal) orders of power that have shaped, influenced and dominated every human society since humans stood upright.
Twitter can be democratic politics at worst – for instance, an angry mob in search of victims. But it can be democratic politics at its best – freedom of speech for the weak and powerless, accountability for the rich and powerful, and a valuable indicator of the public mood.
Good or bad, Twitter is politics from the ground up.
That’s why Musk hates it.
There are many theories as to why Elon Musk bought Twitter for billions more than it’s worth. The simplest answer is that he really believes Twitter was being used as a weapon to silence unpopular points of view – and that someone (a hero!) had to do something about it.
In other words, Musk is captive to the accusation, popular among elite white men, that these days you can’t say boo without offending someone, and that this “fact” is a “violation” of “free speech rights.”
While there are many exceptions to the rule, the rule is still pretty clear to an honest reader of the First Amendment. Twitter is (usually) not a weapon to silence people. It is, however, a source of counterspeech. It’s a place where people who never before had a say have a say.
Pre-Twitter, elite white men could say boo while safe in the knowledge that anyone who had a platform high enough to criticize them looked just like them. Post-Twitter, not so much. Now suddenly anyone off the street, people who are beneath them, can read them the riot act.
For Elon Musk and his ilk, the problem isn’t the silencing. The problem is who’s doing it. Pre-Twitter, elite white men could say virtually anything. They could shut up points of view they didn’t like. Democratic politics didn’t threaten them, nor did it call on them to answer to it.
Post-Twitter, they’re being held responsible. They’re being held responsible by people – Black, LGBT-plus and women, for God’s sake – who have no right to hold them responsible. Worst of all, they can’t do anything to shut them up. For the powerful to be made powerless is a grievous injury. It’s enough to make you want to buy Twitter.
Then kill it.
It may be too soon to say Twitter has gone to ground. But whatever form it takes, it will likely be, in Musk’s view, a restoration of the “natural order of things” by which political elites can do and say whatever they want and the rest of us just have to put up with it.
That’s why rethinking the myth of billionaire greatness – that “peculiarly American form of worship” – isn’t enough. Musk is making choices, which are informed by politics, the kind of politics that not only has contempt for democracy but wants the people to shut up.
It’s not enough to say stop worshiping them.
We need to hold them in contempt, too.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.