Thursday, May 12, 2022

Call a spade a racist shovel

 Michael - Thursday

Just to put this in context, I’m a supporter of The New York Times and a subscriber to their digital edition. The Washington Post is my other international subscription. (I have no difficulty with Jeff Bizos owning it; he seems to let the editors and the journalists get on with their job. The Pulitzer Prize for public service that they received this week would seem to support that.)

Keeping with context, I’m not a starry eyed admirer of Elon Musk. He is certainly a brilliant innovator with the ability to convert way out ideas into actual products against all odds. He follows in the footsteps of Steve Jobs. He's a Fellow of the Royal Society, which is an honor reserved for people who have made a major contribution to science and technology, and not awarded lightly. However, the best I can say about his behavior is that it’s often, shall we say, strange. The current furor about him is motivated by his purchase / potential purchase of Twitter, and particularly his recent tweet that banning Trump was inappropriate and would be reversed if he did buy the company.

The New York Times apparently decided that it would be a neat idea to comb his past and take him down a peg or two, so a couple of their journalists dug around in his background in South Africa. Fair enough. Celebrities have to expect that everything they do and have done will be open to public scrutiny.

Here is a bare-bones summary of the facts of his background in South Africa.

Musk grew up in Pretoria. His father was a South African and his mother was Canadian. His father seems to have been successful in a variety of commercial ventures. He was also elected to the Pretoria city council as a Progressive Party member—the only (white) political party at that time that actively opposed apartheid under the leadership of the redoubtable Helen Suzman. He must have had a tough time on the council of a city whose white electorate was largely Afrikaans and supportive of apartheid. According to The New York Times article, the sons shared their father’s dislike of the system. Musk attended Pretoria Boys High School, a school with liberal values by the standards of the day, but nevertheless exclusively for white boys and generally privileged ones at that. Yet, other white males who graduated from the school include Edwin Cameron, gay rights activist and constitutional court judge, Booker prize-winner Damon Galgut, and Peter Hain, anti-apartheid activist and subsequent member of the UK parliament. Musk briefly attended the University of Pretoria to avoid joining the South African Army, which had compulsory military training for all young white males. At the age of 18 he left South Africa permanently and went to live with relatives in Canada.

Pretoria Boys High School
Now SA's most expensive private school

None of this reflects on Musk particularly well, but neither does it reflect on him badly. Certainly, as a young man he could have actively opposed apartheid, but the large majority of young white men didn't, whether or not they were against it in principle. It’s hardly likely that the family home was racist given his father’s politics and his mother’s background, and Musk had black friends – not usual in that segregated era. But somehow, during their five-day time-slot, The New York Times journalists had to find a story about this white South African. The premise they came up with was exactly that – he was a white South African. In fact, there's nothing really negative reported in their article. You can read the full piece here: In Musk’s past, a South Africa rife with misinformation and white privilege”.

So what was the point of the exercise? How many company CEOs have grown up in overseas countries with authoritarian governments and censorship? For that matter, how many grew up in the south of the US? Yet it seems that just being a white South African is enough to throw doubt on Musk's suitability to own a communications company. That’s the tone of the piece. That doesn’t seem the sort of standpoint one expects from a world-class, liberal newspaper.

Of course, since I’m also a white South African, my comments could be brushed aside as just one supporting another. So I’ll leave the last words to Palesa Morudu, a South African writer based in Washington, DC. Her full piece, “TheNew York Times declares Elon Musk Guilty of being a white South African”, appeared in the Daily Maverick. 
Here's an extract:

“There may be a lot that is unlikable about this particular billionaire, but being a white South African is surely not a credible starting point for a takedown.

The central problem with the Musk piece is that The New York Times has imposed its latter-day American racialist lens on what is a supposedly South African story. This approach, which infects more and more of the paper’s reporting and commentary, is effectively a new form of tribalism – the opposite of the nonracial worldview championed by Mandela.

What, for example, are we to make of the authors’ contorted implication that Musk’s views on free speech and his pending purchase of Twitter should be suspect purely on the basis that he was born white in a country that denied free speech to its citizens who were black? ‘It is unclear what role his childhood – coming up in a time and place in which there was hardly a free exchange of ideas and where government misinformation was used to demonise black South Africans – may have played in that decision,’ the writers postulate. Should this logic extend to all white South Africans or is this only reserved for Musk?

Some of the other assertions look like special pleading, or are downright risible. ‘Elon’s electric car company, Tesla, has faced serious accusations of racism.’ Oh, really? Have Ford and General Motors never faced such accusations? Is Tesla therefore ‘more racist’ because it’s owned by someone born in South Africa, which held its first democratic elections 28 years ago?

In the Times’s blinkered world view, skin colour is destiny, and the reader is left poorer for it.”

Yes. That sums it up!


Upcoming events:

Join Stan this week at Crimefest in Bristol:

THURSDAY, 12 MAY, 15.50 – 16.40
* M.J. Lee
* Douglas Lindsay
* Michael Stanley
* T E Kinsey 
Participating Moderator: Michael Ridpath


FRIDAY, 13 MAY, 12:30 - 13:20
* Kia Abdullah
* Antony Dunford
* Sarah Sultoon
* Holly Watt

Participating Moderator: Michael Stanley

FRIDAY, 13 MAY, 16:00 – 16:50
* Alison Bruce 
* Dugald Bruce-Lockhart
* Alex Shaw
* Michael Stanley
Participating Moderator: Zoë Sharp


  1. In general, anyone who is wildly successful at anything will become the target of antipathy from many. Musk is far from perfect (he is, after all, a human being!), and has certainly said and done things that I cringe upon hearing. But, where it's incredible for anyone to do ONE great thing in their life, Musk has achieved two: he's dragged the automotive industry into the era of electrification, kicking and screaming all the way (even when 'everyone' knew that's where things had to go) and has dragged the space industry into the era of reusable rockets.

    Warts? Yes. Notable achievements? Absolutely. But, just as we shouldn't set people up for worship, neither should be demonize them. Balance, in all things...

    1. Spot on, Everett. As you say, everyone is human. If you're looking for warts, find ones they earned rather than those they were born with!

    2. Was the article slinging accusations of racism at Musk, or merely observing his past as a mixture of both privilege and liberal attitudes in Apartheid South Africa? At most, I thought the piece was unfocused and vague about its message. My first reaction was, “So, your point is...?Nor did I understand how the accusations of racism against Musk's company were strongly connected to his past.