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Even the Oppressed Have Obligations

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After the Hamas attack on Israel October 7, an old, bad argument resurfaced. In the streets of New York, London, and Paris, and on American college campuses, protesters who consider themselves leftists took the position that oppressed people—Palestinians in this case, but oppressed people more generally—can do no wrong. Any act of “resistance” is justified, however cruel, however barbaric, however much these protesters would rage against it if it were committed by someone else.

I remember the same argument from the days of the Algerian struggle for independence from France, when the National Liberation Front (FLN) launched terrorist attacks against European civilians. The movie The Battle of Algiers shows a bomb being planted in a café where teenagers met to drink and dance. This really happened, and figures as eminent as Jean-Paul Sartre defended such attacks. Killing a European, any European, the famous writer announced, was an act of liberation: “There remains a dead man”—the victim—“and a free man”—the killer.

By this same logic, the murder of young and old Israelis has been justified, even celebrated, by people who, again, consider themselves leftists. For them, the Hamas murderers are not ordinary mortals, responsible for what they do; they are agents of resistance, doing what must be done in the name of liberation.

[Simon Sebag Montefiore: The decolonization narrative is dangerous and false]

Framed this way, the issue is simple: Oppressed people have a right to resist; the Palestinians have a right to struggle against the Israeli occupation. But rights come with obligations. What are the obligations of the oppressed and, most immediately, of those who act in their name? This may not seem like an urgent question, given the horrors of the war now unfolding. But it is a question for all time; it is about the moral and political health of all those who fight for liberation—and of everyone who wants to support them.

The Hamas terrorists claim to be acting on behalf of the Palestinian people. At the same time, Hamas is the government of the Gaza Strip—a strange situation: a terrorist organization that also rules a territory. The anomaly explains why Hamas terror leads to actual conventional wars, whereas Irish Republican Army or FLN violence against civilians never did. Hamas’s government is substantial, the real thing, with a civil service and a system of social provision that includes welfare and schooling. It has, therefore, the same obligations that any government has to look after its citizens or, as in Hamas’s case, its subjects. It must secure their rights and protect their lives.

But much evidence suggests that the government of Gaza does not meet these basic obligations. Despite the large funds that Hamas has accumulated, chiefly for its military wing, some 80 percent of Gazans live in poverty. Hamas rejects the very idea of civil rights and liberties; it imposes a harsh religious discipline (though short of the Iranian version), and it does not seem overly concerned with Gazans’ general well-being. Instead of protecting the lives of its people, it exposes them to attack by embedding its military communication and storage centers in the civilian population and firing its missiles from schoolyards and hospital parking lots. It spends much of its money on the manufacture of rockets and the construction of an elaborate network of tunnels for military use. Knowing the wars it plans, it doesn’t build shelters for its people.

Insofar as anyone genuinely cares about Gazans’ well-being, it is the foreign governments that send money (Qatar pays the salaries of the civil service) and the United Nations agencies and other humanitarian organizations working on the ground. One might also mention the state of Israel, which, until October 8, supplied half of Gaza’s electricity. (Cutting off the electricity was, I believe, morally wrong and politically stupid, but those who call it so should acknowledge the years of electric service, even while rockets were fired at Israel.)

What would Gaza look like if Hamas was a normal government? That’s hard to say, because normality is hard to come by in the Middle East today. But when Israel withdrew from the Strip (taking Jewish settlers with it) in 2005, there was excited talk of a Palestinian Hong Kong, with a seaport, an international airport, water-desalination plants, and much else—all of this funded with investment from abroad, chiefly from Western Europe and the Persian Gulf states. Hamas was not interested in anything like that, and all these projects faded with the first major barrage of rockets aimed at Israel in 2006. The definitive end came a year later when Hamas, having won a narrow election victory (the last election in Gaza) seized total power and murdered its opponents. What it wanted was not a prosperous Gaza but a base for a long-term war against Israel—and, later on, against Egypt’s control of the Sinai. Hamas’s rise to power, coupled with the group’s Islamist ideology, is what led to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, designed (not very successfully) to prevent Hamas from bringing weapons into the Strip.

In light of all this, to cast Hamas solely as an agent of resistance is to overlook a lot. It is a government that has failed its people. It is also a movement for Palestinian national liberation with a significant, but probably minority, following in Gaza and considerable influence throughout the Arab world. It is, finally, a movement that has chosen terror as its means of struggle—not as a last resort but as a matter of policy from its beginning. What are the obligations of a movement like that? I should say right now: Its first obligation is to reject terrorism.

Let’s pause here and look at a classic argument first worked out in a different liberation struggle—the class war of Europe’s and America’s workers. Lenin famously distinguished between “revolutionary” and “trade union” consciousness among the workers, the first directed toward the distant achievement of a communist society, the second aimed right now at higher wages, better working conditions, and the end of the factory foreman’s tyranny. Lenin favored the first and worried that any advance along trade-union lines would make revolution more difficult. Most workers, it turned out, favored the second approach. Revolutionary consciousness ended in dictatorship and terror or in defeat and sectarian isolation; trade-union consciousness led to the successes of social democracy.

That old distinction holds for national liberation too. In the case of Palestine and Israel, revolutionary consciousness aims at a radical triumph: Greater Palestine or Greater Israel “from the river to the sea.” That aim is often expressed in messianic language—the religious version of revolution. By contrast, trade-union consciousness is represented by those who work for a division of the land—two states, sovereign or federated or confederated. That may seem utopian right now, but it isn’t messianic. One can imagine it as a human contrivance, worked out by Palestinians and Jews who are committed concretely to the well-being of their people. We should judge Hamas, I would argue, by the standard of trade unionism because that kind of politics is genuinely responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people it aims to liberate.

Hamas has never been interested in the kinds of political work that follow from a “trade union” commitment. Begin with the obvious: Hamas should be making Gaza into a model of what a liberated Palestine would look like (perhaps, sadly, that’s what it has done). And then it should be organizing on the West Bank to achieve a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It should be working with Israeli opponents of the occupation and with other Palestinian groups for that version of liberation—which is achievable short of war and revolution. Two states (with whatever qualifications on their sovereignty) would be the most beneficial outcome for both Palestinians and Israelis. So Hamas should be building a mass movement with that end in view, a movement that would stand behind or, better yet, replace its revolutionary vanguard. It should be educating people for civil disobedience and planning marches, demonstrations, and general strikes. It should be working to strengthen Palestinian civil society and create the institutions of a future state.

Of course, Israel will make this work difficult; the current Israeli government will make it extremely difficult, because it includes religious messianists and ultranationalist settlers. Settler thugs regularly attack Palestinians living on the West Bank. Against the thugs, self-defense is required—force against force. But the goal of Palestinian “trade unionists,” a state of their own alongside Israel, requires a mass movement. Fatah, Hamas’s rival, produced something like that in the First Intifada, from 1987 to 1993; it wasn’t entirely nonviolent, but in some ways it resembled the nationalist version of a union strike. It played a large role in making the Oslo Accords possible. Hamas can’t claim any similar achievement; indeed, rockets from Gaza helped undermine Oslo.

There are people on the ground in the West Bank committed to nonviolent resistance and to constructive work of exactly the sort I’ve just described, but Hamas does not look at them as allies. Nor does it regard Palestinians in and around the Palestinian Authority who support the idea of two states as allies. It is committed to a revolutionary, totalizing politics. It insists not only on the replacement of the state of Israel by a Palestinian state but also—equally important to Hamas—on the end of any Jewish presence on what it regards as Arab land.

Hamas is not doing anything in a “trade union” way to build a liberation movement with more limited goals—a movement that might actually succeed. That kind of political work requires an organization less Bolshevik-like, less repressive, less rigidly ideological, more inclusive than Hamas has ever been. Hamas is a vanguard that isn’t looking for an organized rear guard. It is an elite of ready-to-be-martyrs who plan to liberate Palestine and eliminate Israel—not by themselves but only with those allies who won’t challenge their supremacy. They seek the help of the Arab street, excited by Hamas’s violence but not capable of replacing Hamas’s rule—and the help of movements and states that share Hamas’s zealotry and will never question its authoritarianism. The resort to terror follows. It is the natural expression of this kind of politics.

The most succinct argument against terror as a strategy for liberation comes from the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Although he wrote the essay “Their Morals and Ours”—one of the earliest versions of the bad argument that I began with—Trotsky also wrote critically about terrorism, arguing, accurately, that terrorists “want to make the people happy without the participation of the people.” The terrorists, Trotsky continues, mean to “substitute themselves for the masses.” Some on the left view that ambition as heroic and admire terrorists for that reason. But the politics of substitution is an authoritarian politics, not a leftist politics, precisely because it does not look for popular participation. Its end cannot be a democratic state: Algeria, long dominated by authoritarian FLN leaders, is a useful example of how things are likely to turn out. So is Gaza itself.

[Michael Ignatieff: Why Israel should obey Geneva even when its enemies do not]

Terrorism is a betrayal of the oppressed men and women whom its protagonists claim to defend—and plan to rule. Because they substitute themselves for the people, they will, if victorious in their struggle, simply replace the oppressors they defeat. But this is only part of the story. What about the people the terrorists kill? Terrorism is the random killing of innocent men, women, and children for a political purpose. But its worst and most common form is not random in a general way but random within a group: the killing of Black people in the United States by police or by white men with guns, or of Europeans in Algeria, Muslims in India, or, as in the recent attacks, Jews in Israel. This kind of directed terror needs to be called out—as American activists did with the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” Remember the counter-slogan, “All Lives Matter,” that many people—including me—took to be a denial of the specific politics, the racial hatred, that drives the killing.

For similar reasons, we should give the attack of October 7 its right name: It was a pogrom, a massacre undertaken for the purpose of murdering Jews. People who refuse the term, saying instead that all killing of civilians is wrong, are right in the general way that “All Lives Matter” is right, but they are avoiding the crucial moral and political point.

Still, precisely because all lives do matter, we must also draw universal moral lines. What about you and me, random individuals, who are sitting in a café or attending a music festival and are suddenly blown up or machine-gunned by attackers who are deliberately trying to kill us? I can’t understand anyone on the left or the right who, when thinking of themselves in the café or at the festival, would say that such violence is all right. Surely we are all innocent: ordinary folk, going about daily business, thinking of politics only occasionally, worrying about money, looking after kids—or just being kids.

But aren’t men, women, and children just like these also the victims of war? Yes, and terrorism—the deliberate killing of innocent people—is often enough a military strategy, as it was, I believe, in the firebombing of Dresden and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. But that is not always true: Many armies and many soldiers aim only at military targets and do what they can to avoid or minimize civilian injury and death. That is especially difficult when the enemy deliberately exposes its civilian population to the risks of combat.

Civilian casualties are obviously much easier to avoid in the course of a political struggle. Those who resist oppression can focus and therefore have to focus narrowly on the oppressors. No good society, no liberated state, can be produced by denying life and liberty to the ordinary folk I have described. No good society without them. No good society without you and me! That is the fundamental principle of a decent politics. Terrorism is a deliberate, overt denial of that principle, and so the defenders of terrorism are the betrayers first of the oppressed and then of the rest of us. Like the terrorists, they may think that they are advancing the cause of liberation, but they have forgotten their obligations to you and me.

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25 days ago
Like many progressive Jews living in the US, I have long had reservations about the Palestinian occupation, but I am luckily old enough to heed my parents warnings that peace is a partnership, and not to assume that your partners are as willing as you.
Greenlawn, NY
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reddit is having a glitch where it puts the wrong captions over photos and it’s the only thing i…

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reddit is having a glitch where it puts the wrong captions over photos and it’s the only thing i care about right now

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26 days ago
I don't know when these are not going to be funny any longer, but it's certainly not now!
Greenlawn, NY
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The Automat Cinematic Universe

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I find it soothing that, Legion being a Marvel property, the Waffle Boats Cafeteria and the Key Lime Pie Cafeteria are technically a part of the same multiverse.

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32 days ago
I love reminders that the criminally underrated show Legion is part of the larger MCU.
Greenlawn, NY
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Elon Musk and the Infinite Rebuy

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[adapted from the exceptionally-long Bluesky thread where I livetweeted my way through this shoddy book]

There’s a scene in Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Elon Musk that unintentionally captures the essence of the book:

[Max] Levchin was at a friend’s bachelor pad hanging out with Musk. Some people were playing a high-stakes game of Texas Hold ‘Em. Although Musk was not a card player, he pulled up to the table. “There were all these nerds and sharpsters who were good at memorizing cards and calculating odds,” Levchin says. “Elon just proceeded to go all in on every hand and lose. Then he would buy more chips and double down. Eventually, after losing many hands, he went all in and won. Then he said “Right, fine, I’m done.” It would be a theme in his life: avoid taking chips off the table; keep risking them.

That would turn out to be a good strategy. (page 86)

There are a couple ways you can read this scene. One is that Musk is an aggressive risk-taker who defies convention, blazes his own path, and routinely proves his doubters wrong.

The other is that Elon Musk sucks at poker. But he has access to so much capital that he can keep rebuying until he scores a win.

Isaacson, our narrator, doesn’t grasp the difference. He doesn’t understand poker well enough to recognize Musk as the grandstanding sucker at the table. So he portrays Musk’s complete lack of impulse control as a brilliant, identity-defining strategic ploy. (If you go all-in and lose six times, then go all-in a seventh time and win, then you’re still down five buy-ins.)

Isaacson clearly knew what sort of book he was setting out to write. He is a star biographer, one who specializes in penning classic, “Great Man” stories of history-defining figures. He has chronicled the lives of Ben Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and others.

The motivating premise of these “Great Man” stories is that history is made by unrestrained, risk-taking geniuses. Isaacson strives to give his readers insights into the complex inner lives of these singular, special individuals: what drives them, where they come from, what they have figured out that positioned them to make such a dent in the universe?

The “Great Man” version of history is always limiting (and, as Brian Merchant argues, it should probably be retired at this point), but it is particularly ill-suited to a character like Musk. Isaacson wants his reader to appreciate Musk’s accomplishments and also ponder his personal “demons.” But there is a deeper puzzle that Isaacson constantly avoids “Is Elon Musk really some world-bending genius, or has he just benefitted from the world’s biggest case of survivor bias?”

That’s not a question that Isaacson is comfortable assessing. And so he brazens past all the warning signs, attributes every self-destructive act to a tough childhood or a mean girlfriend, and faithfully reproduces for his readers the view-from-Musk. The result is a bland, trite, uninteresting book, one that is destined to be remembered as the worst of Isaacson’s long career (the negative reviews have been delicious).

There is a worthwhile biography still to-be-written about Elon Musk. But it will require a biographer with a sharper eye, a more discerning ear and a more tenacious voice.

The first sign of trouble shows up on page 1 of the prologue. Isaacson opens with an anecdote from Musk’s troubled childhood, relating a story from when Elon was twelve and he was sent to veldskool, a wilderness survival camp:

“The kids were each given small rations of food and water, and they were allowed—indeed encouraged— to fight over them. (…) Near the end of the first week the boys were divided into two groups and told to attack each other. (…) Every few years, one of the kids would die.” (page 2)

The intent of this anecdote is to relate how, when Musk went back to veldskool at age sixteen, he realized he was too-big-to-bully. Isaacson uses this scene to impress upon his readers that (1) Elon learned at an early age that you have to fight to survive, (2) he carries the scars of that childhood with him today, and (3) it drives him to want to control and dominate every situation.

It’s an unbelievable story. And by that, I mean I don’t entirely believe it. Musk grew up rich and white in apartheid-era South Africa. Are you really telling me that rich white kids in South Africa were repeatedly dying, and the camp stayed open?

If veldskool left a trail of child corpses, it would’ve been covered in the newspapers. That’s something a reporter could easily track down. Instead, Isaacson merely confirms the anecdote with Musk’s brother (and frequent business partner) Kimball. Elon says it happened that way. Kimball says it happened that way. Maybe they’re exaggerating a bit, but it’s still a great anecdote!

This marks a fundamental problem that pops up throughout the book: (1) Musk is a serial liar. (2) Isaacson seems utterly disinterested in investigating whether anything Musk says is particularly true.

This authorial disinterest renders the early chapters unreliable. Isaacson retells the story of Musk’s difficult childhood as Musk himself would like it told. The narrative beats here are pretty well-known: he was bullied as a child. His father was emotionally abusive. His father had an ownership in a emerald mine, but kinda not really. He moved to Canada and started with little money. He got decent grades at Queen’s University in Canada, then transferred to Penn. He double-majored at Penn, got into Stanford’s PhD program, dropped out to join the Silicon Valley gold rush. etc etc etc. Musk himself has told this story to a hundred reporters, always with slight variations and embellishments as suited his mood at the time.

Which parts of this story are actually true? Which parts just feel true to Musk today? And which parts are convenient narrative devices? We have no real way of knowing, because Isaacson views his job as establishing a proper “Great Man” origin story.

One omission that caught my eye concerned Musk’s undergraduate degree. This has been the subject of substantial controversy, and factored into at least two lawsuits. Isaacson says Musk graduated from Penn in 1995. We know for a fact that he left Penn in 1995, but his undergraduate degree is dated May 1997. Musk insists that this was basically a clerical error (He had “agreed with Penn” that he would satisfy his History and English credits at Stanford, but then he dropped out of Stanford and forgot about the whole matter for a couple years). Critics charge that he lied about his academic credentials, hustled his way through mid-90s Silicon Valley on an expired visa, and then asked a well-connected investors to tidy things up and get the credits waived by Penn.

It seems like something a biographer ought to take the time to nail down: Did Musk drop out of college, lie on his resume to get a head start in Silicon Valley, and then pull some strings to get it all cleared up? Or did the University of Pennsylvania administrative bureaucracy tell an at-the-time-unremarkable international transfer student, “sure, that’s fine, just finish your degree requirements at a competing university and we’ll mail you the degree. We don’t really want those extra tuition dollars from you.”

Musk’s first biographer, Ashlee Vance, asked Elon about it. Elon spun an elaborate tale, which Vance found persuasive. Isaacson doesn’t even bother to ask. He doesn’t even acknowledge the discrepancy or mention the controversy. Elon’s youth was whatever Elon and his friends say it was.

I imagine part of the reason Isaacson doesn’t pick at this knot is that young-Elon already isn’t fitting the mold for the standard world-changing-genius origin story. He got A’s and B’s in his classes and did little to distinguish himself. He showed some gifts as a computer programmer, but nothing particularly noteworthy. (he coded his own computer game in the 1980s. I had two friends in my public high school who did the same thing, and I wasn’t even hanging out with the computer club.) There is nothing in his youthful biography, with the exception of the extreme bullying and the awful father, that made him any different from all the other computer geeks of that era. There is little in the narrative that would lead one to think Musk possesses some special spark, vision, or insight that is setting him up for greatness.

But he must be great. Look at all that money and all those companies!

Musk flipped his first company (Zip2) for a profit back in the early internet boom years, when it was easy to flip your company for a profit.

He was ousted as CEO of his second company (PayPal). It succeeded in spite of him. He was still the largest shareholder when it was sold to eBay, which netted him $175 million for a company whose key move was removing him from leadership.

He invested the PayPal windfall into SpaceX, and burned through all of SpaceX’s capital without successfully launching a single rocket. The first three rockets all blew up, at least partially because Musk-the-manager insisted on cutting the wrong corners. He only had the budget to try three times. In 2008 SpaceX was spiraling toward bankruptcy.

The company was rescued by Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund (which was populated bybasically the whole rest of the “PayPal mafia”). These were the same people who had firsthand knowledge of Musk-the-impetuous-and-destructive-CEO. There’s a fascinating scene in the book, where Thiel asks Musk if he can speak with the company’s chief rocket engineer. Elon replies “you’re speaking to him right now.”

That’s, uh, not reassuring to Thiel and his crew. They had worked with Musk. They know he isn’t an ACTUAL rocket scientist. They also know he’s a control freak with at-times-awful instincts. SpaceX employs plenty of rocket scientists with Ph.D.’s. But Elon is always gonna Elon. The “real world Tony Stark” vibe is an illusion, but one that he desperately seeks to maintain, even when his company is on the line and his audience knows better.

Founders Fund invests $20 million anyway, effectively saving the company. The investment wasn’t because they believed human civilization has to become multiplanetary, or even because they were confident the fourth rocket launch would go better than the first three. It was because they felt guilty about firing Elon back in the PayPal days, and they figured there would be a lot of money in it if the longshot bet paid off. They spotted Elon another buy-in. He went all-in again. And this time the rocket launch was a success.

If you want to be hailed as a genius innovator, you don’t actually need next-level brilliance. You just need access to enough money to keep rebuying until you succeed.

Isaacson goes into great detail about Musk’s management philosophy — his “production algorithm”: (1) Question every requirement, (2) Delete any part or process you can, (3) Simplify and optimize, (4) Accelerate cycle time, (5) Automate.

(Also, “All technical managers must have hands-on experience,” “comradery is dangerous,” “It’s OK to be wrong. Just don’t be confident and wrong.” “Never ask your troops to do something you’re not willing to do.” “Whenever there are problems to solve, don’t just meet with your managers.” “When hiring, look for people with the right attitude.” “A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle.” “The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation.”

Isaacson elevates this philosophy to vaunted status. This is supposed to be the skeleton key that explains, despite all his personal flaws and demons, why Musk is such a transformative figure.

There are bits to admire here. Musk’s focus on efficiency seems to have lowered the cost of space flight. Putting engineers close to the production lines helps them identify hidden bottlenecks. Small teams of inspired, talented people can accomplish a lot if they are given a deadline and a sense of urgency.

But it often seems like what Isaacson finds most appealing about Musk is that he treats rules and regulations as somebody else’s problem. You can accomplish a lot if you just decide that none of the safety regulations apply to you. (What’s the worst that can happen? A rocket blows up? A driverless car kills someone? Some employees are maimed? We’re inventing the future here. Let’s be bold and insist someone else pays for the damages.)

It’s not just that Musk is constantly, at an individual level, a complete asshole to his employees. Injury rates at Tesla factories were 30% higher than at other car companies. We get no sense of the baseline success rate of Musk’s constant “surges,” where he forces teams work 20-hour days to meet an arbitrary deadline. It seems likely that the surges mainly serve to make Musk feel good about himself, while burning out his employees and creating a cascading litany of errors that have to be corrected later, once Musk’s attention has turned elsewhere.

Musk’s “algorithm” sounds a lot like what you would hear from any YCombinator-style startup evangelist: Simplify, iterate, pivot, hustle, pursue constant growth. If Musk’s management philosophy is the key insight separating him from everyone else, why does it sound interchangeable with every techbro podcast?

Isaacson manages to barely mention the labor issues at Tesla. And this is a noteworthy omission, given the attention he pays to Musk’s political, uh, evolution.

He writes about the 2021 White House electric car event, where Biden invites the three major car manufacturers and the UAW, but not Musk. Musk is outraged by the snub. He takes it personally. Isaacson mentions in passing that “the UAW had failed to unionize Tesla’s Fremont plant, partly because of what the NLRB deemed to be illegal anti-union actions by the company.”

It’s reasonable to suspect that part of Musk’s personal evolution is that, as his companies have gotten bigger and his wealth has soared, he has faced institutional pushback from (for instance) unions. And he has reacted by developing intensely plutocratic, authoritarian political views. Illegal anti-union actions are a problem for the Democratic party coalition. For the Republican party coalition, illegal anti-union actions are a feature, not a bug.

Elon’s philosophy is full of unexamined contradictions. He expects employees to work 20-hr days and show obsessive devotion to the job. He lectures them for not having lots of kids. He says the secret to innovation is “challenge authority.” He fires any employee who challenges him.

I’m pretty convinced that Elon believes all of the things he says. The trick to understanding the contradictions is to realize he just isn’t especially bright. …And that’s a problem for Isaacson. If he inquired deeply, the Great Man facade would slip.

This also comes up on page 241, in the origin story of Open AI. Musk is at a party with Larry Page in 2013. He starts droning in about AI replacing us. Page notes that, hypothetically, there’s nothing special about human consciousness. Maybe something comes after us. This is a pretty standard philosophical point. But Elon can’t deal with it, so he just gets mad. “Well yes, I am pro-human. I fucking like humanity, dude.” Musk leaves the conversation with a permanent grudge, convincing himself that a whole new company is necessary to compete with Google.

(Just think… in a world where Elon Musk could either (a) pass an intro-level philosophy class, or (b) didn’t have billions in spare cash to throw behind every grudge, OpenAI might never have gotten its initial seed funding!)

I had assumed that Isaacson’s biography would effectively be two books — the first, an origin story, retelling old stories as Elon and his buddies prefer them told; the second, based on firsthand reporting, spilling tea from his two years being in the room where it happened. That turned out not to be the case. The later chapters studiously maintain the view-from-Musk tone, even as Isaacson becomes increasingly disillusioned with Musk’s flailing Twitter antics.

This is where the correction Isaacson issued to the Ukraine chapter proves especially damning. It effectively invalidates the whole book project. The promise of this book — the bit that makes Isaacson something more than just a dutiful stenographer — is that he spent two years in the room, listening to Musk, watching the most powerful individual in the world as he publicly melted down.

In the Ukraine chapter, Isaacson writes that Musk “personally took charge” and “secretly told his engineers” to turn off Starlink coverage that was necessary for their planned drone strike. That’s, y’know, actual treason. So, once the excerpt is published, Musk pressures him to correct his reporting. Isaacson announces that he was just confused. The coverage was never enabled, it’s just that Ukrainians thought it was.

Isaacson interviewed no Ukrainians. He has no insight into what they thought. He only knows what Elon told him, the text message chains Elon shared with him, and what he saw firsthand.

Either you make sure you nail down your reporting, you publish your book, and you stand by what you saw, or you’re effectively nothing more than a glorified publicist. The years spent shadowing Musk amount to nothing if the details are so flimsy that they can be reconfigured upon command.

The whole narrative begins to unravel in the last 150 or so pages, once the Twitter drama takes center stage. Isaacson tries his best to justify Musk’s obsession, writing:

[on Twitter] the clever kids win followers rather than get pushed down the concrete steps. And if you’re the richest and cleverest of all, you can even decide, unlike back when you were a kid, to become king of the schoolyard.

The gaping flaw in this analogy, of course, is that clever has nothing to do with it. If the most-clever users got to run Twitter, then Dril would be Twitter CEO! Elon recycles Reddit memes. His jokes are stale. He became obsessed with Twitter because he has no impulse control, not because he was a world-class poster.

The entire story of Elon Musk buying Twitter is that he is a centi-billionaire with no impulse control. (The night before he submitted an offer to buy Twitter, he stayed up until 5:30am playing Elden Ring. Who among us hasn’t stayed up all night playing a video game and then impulse-bought a $44 billion dollar company?)

He wanted Twitter, so he bought Twitter on a whim. Because he could. Because being that rich means you can keep pushing all your chips into the middle. You have enough money for infinite rebuys.

(Then Musk tries to back out of the purchase, and learns that the Delaware Chancery Court does not believe merger contracts are “just recommendations.”)

Elon enters Twitter and immediately tries to run it like SpaceX and Tesla. And that doesn’t work at all because why the hell would it? This is a huge problem for Isaacson’s narrative, because if Musk’s “production algorithm” is a trash fire at Twitter, then maybe it isn’t so uniquely special after all. Maybe Musk was an unremarkable-but-hardworking businessman who had two improbable bets turn out in his favor, thus acquiring so much money and influence that he became immune to consequences.

That’s a story of good fortune, not a story of inherent greatness.

It seems clear that Isaacson desperately wishes the Twitter deal hadn’t happened. He set out to write about the car-and-rocket guy… The rich guy who is taking risks and building the future! He doesn’t want to write about the plutocrat with no impulse control and no clue.

The last 100 pages of the book are almost all Twitter stories. And the remarkable thing is that, even though Isaacson was IN THE ROOM, they still read like a bland ChatGPT-summary of Casey Newton’s reporting.

Musk, as I’ve mentioned, is a lousy card player. But Isaacson is clearly the sucker at the table. He writes that, just days before the Twitter acquisition, Parag Agarwal spoke positively about the opportunity to work with Elon: “he was being guarded, but I think he believed it.”

All Isaacson needed to do was read contemporaneous reporting to realize otherwise. EVERYONE knew Agarwal was immediately going to be fired. EVERYONE knew he would walk away with a $50 million severance package. Agarwal was speaking in the bland, lawyered voice of someone waiting for the ink to dry.

This points to a larger issue in the book. Musk is a vindictive asshole. Isaacson says so himself. But Isaacson also repeatedly leans on words of polite support from people in Musk’s orbit to demonstrate what a Great, Visionary Man he is. He has no ear for half-hearted, cover-your-ass praise.

How many of the actual rocket scientists working at SpaceX, when they tell Isaacson, ”oh yeah my vindictive billionaire boss with a business degree and no impulse control absolutely has unique, helpful insights into physics and material science” are dutifully repeating the phrases that keep them employed? “Great Man” histories are more reliable when the subjects are already long deceased and can seek no retribution.

Ultimately, the trouble with Elon Musk (the book) is that Elon Musk (the man) doesn’t easily fit into the “Great Man” template. On paper, he ought to. He is the world’s richest man. He’s the CEO of companies that have restructured two major industries. He is a flawed, colorful character. If, a few years ago, you were scanning the ranks of Silicon Valley billionaires, asking which one had the most interesting stories to tell, it would be hard to settle on anyone other than Musk.

There are even a few stylistic similarities between Musk and Isaacson’s other most famous biographical subject, Steve Jobs. The temper. The ambition. The “reality distortion field.” Musk’s single greatest success is, I suppose, somewhat Jobs-ian. Steve Jobs had a gift for convincing journalists and adoring consumers that his company’s products were the future. Musk, too, has undeniably influenced how journalists and the public talk about electric cars and space flight.

But the similarities fall apart upon extended exposure. Musk’s design sensibilities are atrocious (*cough* Cybertruck *cough*). Jobs, for all his faults, matured as he aged. Musk, just earlier this year, was vindicated in a lawsuit under the legal defense that “[52 year old] Elon Musk is just an impulsive kid with a terrible Twitter habit.”

And then, of course, there’s the Twitter fiasco. Walter Isaacson set out to write a book about the fascinating rockets-and-cars innovator. He tries, throughout the book, to fashion a picture of the troubled and troubling genius who insists on only being bound by the laws of physics (everything else is “just a recommendation”). But, hard as he tries, Isaacson just never manages to make Musk look like anything all that special.

Part of the problem is that Musk never satisfies himself with being hailed as the next Steve Jobs. He insists on being lauded as the next Steve Wozniak as well. And he just, plainly, isn’t. Not even Walter Isaacson can sell that image.

The book concludes by attempting to make a metaphor out of the Starship launch. Musk ignores all regulations, because they stifle his ambitions and he’s too big to be bothered. Starship takes off… and then blows up. There’s success, but also tons of damage. Isaacson, as he does throughout the book, diverts our attention from the damage. He asks us instead to consider it a trade off.

Isaacson’s model of society is that history is written by unrestrained, risk-taking geniuses. That’s the type of biography he set out to write. He doesn’t much like Musk, because Musk won’t fit into the archetype.

But it’s the only story Isaacson is equipped to tell.

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65 days ago
Greenlawn, NY
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68 days ago
Elon Musk is a gambler, but not a very smart one. Dave Karpf on the Musk Biography and Musk himself.

The Weird, Fragmented World of Social Media After Twitter

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Are you on Bluesky? Let’s be honest: Probably not. The Twitter clone is still in beta and has been notoriously stingy with its invite codes. Its small size means that every time an influx of newbies arrives, the existing user base freaks out, filling the algorithmically curated “Discover” tab with incredibly overwrought complaints. A much-discussed recent post lamented that “Bluesky elders”—and here I should note that this is a service that launched a mobile version only in February—were suffering a degraded experience because of all the blow-ins. The phrase has become an instant meme.

You need to know only two things about Bluesky. The first is that its users are trying to make the word skeeting happen, although it’s an even worse alternative to tweeting than Mastodon’s tooting. The second is that it operates at a high emotional pitch at all times. Whereas scrolling Twitter’s “For You” tab is now like bobbing for apples in a bowl full of amateur race scientists and Roman-statue avatars lamenting that we no longer build cathedrals, the Bluesky equivalent features discussions of whether sending death threats to the site’s developers is acceptable if they really, really deserve it.

As far as I can tell, Bluesky is siphoning off both Twitter’s most emotionally dysregulated users and its most committed shitposters. I dare not post there—my account was briefly the most blocked on the app, according to a tracking service—but it’s nice to see that a small, tight-knit, and politically distinctive community has formed, albeit around shared interests that include hating me. Although it is a mere fraction of the size of the big social networks, Bluesky appears to have hit the critical mass needed to sustain itself, suggesting that Elon Musk’s actions at Twitter have irreparably fractured the service. We are now living in the post-Twitter era, literally and metaphorically. After Musk’s rebrand, X marks the spot where a large number of people no longer want to be.

Until recently, I doubted that even an owner as slapdash and capricious as Musk could bring down Twitter. The narcissists and addicts who linger there would put a barnacle to shame. The site has always been much smaller than Facebook, and it only mattered because politicians, journalists, and those who currently pass for public intellectuals were using it. Whether you read The New York Times or watched Fox News, you would encounter content that began its life on Twitter. When Twitter kicked Donald Trump off, it severely dented his ability to derail the news agenda, because journalists simply weren’t prepared to join Truth Social, the right-wing platform that the former president himself controls.

[From the May 2022 issue: Why the past 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid]

Now, though, I can see the first glimmers of a post-Twitter world. The weirdos, early adopters, shitposters, furries, and scolds are trying out Bluesky, where they can complain about “Elmo” and his tenure in charge of “the bird site.” Actual young people are on TikTok. True Boomers never made it to Twitter and are still happily posting on Facebook about UFOs and Bunco nights. A handful of disgruntled tweeters tried Post and Mastodon, but the first is a graveyard, and the second is an obstacle course for non-techie users. The normies and the brands went to Instagram’s new Threads app, and then many of the normies promptly left because Threads was too boring without enough weirdos, furries, or scolds to add seasoning to the mix. (Corporations might love placing their ads next to unobjectionable inspirational content, but the cumulative effect is to make Threads like watching a television channel entirely composed of infomercials.) Grindfluencers—the type of people who listen to 15-minute summaries of Freakonomics and The Art of War—have always been happiest on LinkedIn, posting about their podcast drops and congratulating you on your “work anniversary,” which is not and never will be a real thing. Instagram is still full of hot people who are feeling #blessed and keen to demonstrate this humility by posing in a bikini by an infinity pool. (If these posters have a hot sister, she can wear a bikini too, and then they can observe that #familyiseverything.) Twitter is now the social network of choice for people who know what a Sonnenrad is and, moreover, believe it has been unfairly maligned.

And some people will have looked at all of the options above and decided, at last, to touch grass.

Many controversies in the early era of social media grew out of the assumption that users had a singular, coherent identity across platforms. The researchers danah boyd and Alice Marwick described the resulting discord as “context collapse”: Users invited criticism by speaking offhandedly, as if in a private room, before potentially limitless audiences on Twitter or Facebook. Too often, a joke that would have slayed between two close friends was held up for wider disapproval in a BuzzFeed listicle or a TV-news chyron. Now we have become better at sorting ourselves into different modes in different spaces, to the extent that I have seen people lament that they know who they are on Instagram and they know who they are on Twitter, but I don’t know who I am on Threads.

[Yair Rosenberg: How to redeem social media]

Given this trend, the surprise isn’t that Twitter has now splintered, but that it lasted so long. For many years, it was a coliseum where both the gladiators and the lions had volunteered to be. Twitter allowed the right to troll the libs, and the libs to mount cancellation campaigns against the slightly less lib.

Was that healthy? For a long time, I worried about the proliferation of what the Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser called “filter bubbles,” which he defined as “your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online.” Perhaps polarization was driven by our imprisonment in echo chambers, I thought, and we were succumbing to pluralistic ignorance—a lack of awareness of the majority view. Now I wonder if the past decade of social media drove us all too far in the other direction, toward spending too much time with people unlike ourselves, herded together in ways that exaggerated our differences.

In 2018, the rationalist blogger who goes by Scott Alexander published a short story called “Sort by Controversial.” In it, a tech-start-up employee invents a program that can spit out “scissor statements”—assertions that instantly divide groups down the middle. The world avoids falling into perpetual low-grade warfare only because she accidentally creates a scissor statement that tears apart the company before its work is finished. The story captured the sense of social media as a rolling referendum on every subject under the sun. Were you a plane-seat recliner? Must you feed a visiting child dinner if they stayed late at your house? Was the dress blue or white? In political debates, that meant being force-fed the most head-banging obsessions of your political opponents. Take the Twitter account Libs of TikTok, which exists purely to harvest ultraprogressive views from one social network and serve them up to another social network as rage bait. Its popularity makes me think that filter bubbles, at least in a mild form, might not be such a bad idea.

In order to thrive, communities need boundaries and norms—and even, God help us, elders. That’s why I enjoy sticking my nose into Bluesky and taking a deep huff every so often. It’s a walled garden for people with a mutual interest in anime genitalia and cruel jokes about Mitch McConnell. They’re happy there. You probably wouldn’t be. And that’s okay.

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125 days ago
Great summary of the state of the current post Twitter world we live in right now. It'll be a good time capsule to look back and reflect on when everything in social media inevitably shifts again.
Greenlawn, NY
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Police Urge Calm In Light Of Unspeakable Evil They Committed

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MEMPHIS, TN—In an attempt to quell public outrage over the upcoming release of body-cam footage showing the deadly beating of Tyre Nichols by five of its officers, the Memphis Police Department continued to urge calm Thursday in light of the unspeakable evil they had committed. “I understand that this heinous atrocity beyond the comprehension of anyone with a shred of basic human decency might be upsetting to some, but we are asking everyone to please maintain their composure,” said police chief Cerelyn Davis, explaining that while it was regrettable that officers were mercilessly slaughtering innocents in the streets with complete disregard for their humanity, it was no excuse for causing a big commotion. “This barbaric instance of malice and savagery need not inspire uproar. I pray that cooler heads prevail during this time of unending death and misery being inflicted upon the powerless masses.” Davis went on to insist that any sign of unrest would only give the forces of unconscionable evil an excuse to impose even more wanton suffering on those who have no choice but to endure it.

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306 days ago
Greenlawn, NY
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