This month, Elon Musk threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League, alleging that its denunciation of X—the A.D.L. had accused the social-media platform formerly known as Twitter of amplifying antisemitism—has cost Musk’s company a fortune in advertising revenue. The Anti-Defamation League, in turn, asserted that Musk’s threat was “dangerous and deeply irresponsible.” This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to California to meet with Musk to discuss artificial intelligence, but their other much-anticipated topic was antisemitism. Netanyahu asked Musk to “stop antisemitism as best you can.” Musk, alluding to SpaceX and his hope for a mission to Mars, responded that he favors anything that “ultimately leads us to become a spacefaring civilization,” and, since hate hinders that mission, “obviously, I’m against antisemitism.”
This all unfolded amid the release of Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Musk. Musk’s family history has a bearing on the dispute, but, in the book, as I pointed out in a review, Isaacson only glancingly discusses Musk’s grandfather J. N. Haldeman, whom he presents as a risk-taking adventurer and whose politics he dismisses as “quirky.” In fact, Haldeman was a pro-apartheid, antisemitic conspiracy theorist who blamed much of what bothered him about the world on Jewish financiers.
Elon Musk is not responsible for the political opinions of his grandfather, who died when Musk was three years old. But Haldeman’s legacy casts light on what social media does: the reason that most people don’t know about Musk’s grandfather’s political writings is that in his lifetime social media did not exist, and the writings of people like him were not, therefore, amplified by it. Indeed, they were very unlikely to circulate widely, and are now quite rare. Still, they’re not hard to find, which makes it unfortunate that Isaacson neither quotes from nor mentions them.
Musk has said that he bought Twitter to halt the advance of a “woke mind virus” spreading online. His grandfather wrote his tracts to raise an alarm about what he called “mind control,” on the radio and television, where “an unconditional propaganda warfare is carried on against the White man.”
Haldeman was born in Minnesota in 1902 but grew up mostly in Saskatchewan, Canada. A daredevil aviator and sometime cowboy, he also trained and worked as a chiropractor. In the nineteen-thirties, he joined the quasi-fascistic Technocracy movement, whose proponents believed that scientists and engineers, rather than the people, should rule. He became a leader of the movement in Canada, and, when it was briefly outlawed, he was jailed, after which he became the national chairman of what was then a notoriously antisemitic party called Social Credit. In the nineteen-forties, he ran for office under its banner, and lost. In 1950, two years after South Africa instituted apartheid, he moved his family to Pretoria, where he became an impassioned defender of the regime. [Continue reading…]