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Elon Musk is wrong about George Soros and Magneto
But the Tesla CEO is veering into Lex Luthor territory with his own behavior
George Soros has done a lot of good things in his career as a philanthropist. In the mid-aughts he was a prominent voice against George W. Bush’s disastrous military adventurism and a financier of really important political projects related to that. More recently, he’s invested a lot of money in criminal justice reform causes, and some of the work he’s backed has been, I think, misguided. Nobody is above criticism, and occasional over-the-top criticism is par for the course for major political donors. It’s sometimes suggested that the vitriol Soros receives is motivated by antisemitism, and I have mixed feelings about that — it seems plausible, but people should generally be a bit restrained in flinging around accusations of antisemitism.
Earlier this week, Elon Musk said that Soros reminds him of the Mutant Master of Magnetism, then clarified that he meant that “Soros hates humanity” and therefore is deliberately trying to “erode the very fabric of civilization.”
This pissed me off.
Look, I have no idea what Musk’s level of knowledge about any of this is, and unlike him, I will undertake the courtesy of not assuming bad intentions. But canonically, Magneto (like Soros) is Jewish. The original creators of the X-Men, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, are Jewish. Bob Kane, who created Batman, was Jewish. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created Superman, are Jewish.
The comic movie genre has become a dominant force in global culture thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and these characters transcend intra-Jewish communal disputes. That said, they are inextricably bound up with the question of Jewish identity, especially the X-Men and specifically Magneto, who not only had original Jewish creators but whose biography was changed later by Chris Claremont (who is Jewish) to more explicitly incorporate Jewish themes.
And Musk is completely botching this. To Musk, Soros is like Magneto because Musk thinks Soros is bad. But the X-Men is developed by people who think like George Soros and believe he’s the good guy. Musk doesn’t think Soros is like Magneto; Musk agrees with Magneto’s critique of Professor X, that his cosmopolitanism is naive at best, malign at worst, and stands in the way of the strong rightly dominating the weak.
Which way, western man?
In the non-comics universe, there were essentially two Jewish responses to the Holocaust.
One was the sort of liberalism and internationalism embodied by Raphael Lemkin. A lawyer who fled Poland in 1939 for the United States, Lemkin coined the term “genocide” and worked for the establishment of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. He was also a pioneer in working for the recognition of the Holodomor as a crime against humanity at a time when relations between Eastern European Jews and Ukrainian nationalists were fraught, to say the least. But Lemkin represented a broad and influential current in postwar Jewish life, one which attempted to secure the rights of a particular small minority group through cosmopolitan liberalism and a move away from blood-and-soil nationalism. Jews operating in this tradition were early and enthusiastic supporters of the civil rights movement in the United States — and it’s the reason Jews were overrepresented among white opponents of apartheid in Musk’s native South Africa. Nelson Mandela wrote, “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on the issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”
Mandela is describing Lemkin. He’s describing Soros. And I think he’s very clearly describing Charles Xavier.
The other response was Jewish nationalism.
In its original form, Zionism was conceived of as part of a larger intellectual project of liberal nationalism. Theodor Herzl was just one of a very large number of people born in the Habsburg Empire who believed you could make the world a better place by replacing the polyglot empire with a series of ethnostates. The idea that one of those states should be located on the banks of the Jordan River was somewhat eccentric1 compared to the projects of Czech or Hungarian nationalism, but the general idea that “instead of trying to find a way to make this empire fairer and more respectful of rights, we should try to replace it with a series of segregated liberal states” was not unique to Herzl. But liberal nationalism, despite a fairly distinguished intellectual lineage, never seems to work out in practice since nations turn out to have competing and irreconcilable claims. Liberalism in Europe took a hard turn after World War II toward a cosmopolitanizing project — the European Union — while liberal Zionism has been dying a long, slow death in favor of either less liberal strands2 or less Zionist ones.
In Europe, meanwhile, there has been a significant “national conservative” backlash to the cosmopolitan EU.3 Nationalism itself is a very modern project, and people like Jacob Rees-Mogg seem to know on some level that claiming to be acting in the tradition of Aquinas doesn’t make sense, but on they go with it.
Magneto was right?
There’s something on its face absurd about the emergence of a “nationalist international” movement in which nationalists from different countries get together and hang out at big conferences.
Nationalisms, after all, tend to come into conflict. And I think it’s noteworthy that when the claims of Russian and Ukrainian nationalism came into conflict, people like Viktor Orbán, Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and Elon Musk sided with Russia. Ukraine might be fighting for its own independence and right to self-determination (classic nationalist causes), but what Ukraine specifically wants to do with its self-determination is integrate with the European Union.
But even as the Ukrainian cause is inextricably bound up with the values of cosmopolitan liberalism, it also illustrates its limits. Lemkin’s hope for a better world more suffused with the values of human rights has hardly proven futile, but signing a treaty to ban genocide and actually stopping atrocities are very different propositions. Ukraine signed a very nice international agreement giving up Soviet nuclear weapons stationed on its soil in exchange for guarantees of independence. But those guarantees didn’t stop Russia from breaking the rules. They also haven’t changed the fact that most developing countries around the world are not interested in the West’s efforts to wage economic warfare on Moscow, even if they are in an abstract sense sympathetic to Ukraine’s plight. And even as the West does a great deal to help Ukraine, there are considerable limits to what NATO is willing to do and the risks NATO members are willing to run. Power politics still matters.
Part of what makes the conflict between Xavier and Magneto so compelling is that the “Magneto was right” position isn’t a straw man — taken to extremes, liberal idealism veers into counterproductive naiveté.
We’ve gotten some live examples of that in recent years.
The tilt from righteous outrage over real acts of police misconduct to the preposterous view that we could somehow dispense with law enforcement is one example. The tougher pill to swallow, I think, has been asylum. Negative polarization during the Trump years convinced a lot of people that the country should be more welcoming to asylum-seekers. With Biden in office, Greg Abbott has been very effective at relocating asylum-seekers to liberal cities, demonstrating that there are real limits to how many such people any jurisdiction, even a more liberal one, is prepared to accept. There’s a lot of ugliness and partisan nonsense flying around on this topic, but also a convergent consensus that we really do want to deter people from far-flung countries from making asylum claims in such large numbers, which Biden is now doing to the disappointment of hard-core immigration advocates. Magneto isn’t per se right about the world, but you absolutely do need to temper liberal humanitarianism with some conservative realism to get by.
Truth, Justice, and the American Way
Even though the X-Men have been used to tell a lot of different allegorical stories — the civil rights movement, Zionism, gay rights — it’s never been my personal favorite mode of storytelling.
These are superhero stories in which the characters really do have special powers and those powers really are dangerous. If there actually were a class of people who could shoot laser beams out of their eyes, that would pose a lot of regulatory issues that aren’t directly comparable to real-world questions about minority rights. I think the allegory that works better is the story of Superman, not because it’s more realistic but because the fantastical premise is built into the allegory. Here’s a guy who’s a literal alien from outer space who is blessed with incredible powers far beyond any earthling, but he nonetheless chooses to fight for “the American way” and is accepted as an American by his fellow citizens due to his decision to live up to that creed.
This lecture he delivered in 1949 is perfectly in character — the point of Superman is that a space alien who can fly is more genuinely American than a native-born bigot.
That’s the 100-proof cosmopolitan idealism right there. Tweets of this cartoon were a huge hit online in 2017, the digital equivalent of the “no person is illegal” yard signs. It’s a great sentiment, even as I have to acknowledge that realistically, you do need to have immigration rules and enforcement of that.
That said, it’s important to understand that Lex Luthor doesn’t just think that Superman is a little naive or overly idealistic. He thinks Superman is full of shit: a liar who does not have good intentions. Accomplished inventor and businessman Lex Luthor thinks of Superman exactly what accomplished inventor and businessman Elon Musk thinks of George Soros — that he’s a menace who hates humanity.
These are, of course, just stories. There are no Kryptonians, and the yellow sun doesn’t give anyone superpowers.
But the debate is real. Joe Biden likes to say that America is an idea, and National Review editor Rich Lowry likes to disagree with that and go to National Conservatism conferences to explain that actually we’re a nation just like Hungary or anywhere else they have natcons.
Obviously we can, to an extent, use words however we want. America isn’t just an idea, and you can call whatever it is that we are a “nation” if you want to. But I do think it’s important and true that the United States does not primarily conceive of itself as a nation in the sense that 19th-century nationalists intended — there’s no common volk, there’s no special connection to a special plot of land. There is an abstract set of principles you’re supposed to subscribe to, and there’s a kind of alarming-to-some arrogance about American exceptionalism. America is an idea, and it’s an idea that most Americans believe is correct.
There’s a critique from the right holding that really the greatness of America is embodied in a specific subset of its people,4 with the rest just a bunch of pious myth-making. And there’s a critique from the left that holds that the “real” face of America is the dark and cruel one, the one built by enslavers on stolen land, with the rest just a bunch of pious myth-making. And I don’t think that’s entirely wrong — there’s a lot more to American history than the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence playing themselves out. But I think the impulse to throw the baby out with the bathwater is a big mistake.
A new nation….
It’s always hard to do better than Abraham Lincoln, who referred to the United States as “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” which I do think squares the circle nicely.
We’re not “an idea” but we are a nation that embodies an idea, that of the freedom and equality of all people. It’s an idea that’s always radical and controversial because it’s obviously not literally true as a factual description of the world that everyone is equal. It’s a normative conception of politics that’s challenged at times by knuckle-dragging fools and bigots, but also by smart and accomplished businessmen who believe in a “might makes right” approach to the world. They don’t necessarily see Putin as wrong for thinking Russia should be allowed to dominate Ukraine, because their vision of meritocracy is precisely that the strong should dominate the weak — that homo superior should displace homo sapiens, and that if Superman claims to have some agenda other than domination, he’s lying because the nature of the world is that the strong always dominate the weak.
This is not a worldview that’s totally devoid of insight — high ideals are worthless unless tempered by realism to some extent.
But in the comics, it’s the villains’ worldview. To the extent that these modern myths are at all edifying, that’s supposed to be the lesson: that those with power (including Elon Musk) should act like Superman, not Lex Luthor, and that there’s something to be said for erring on the side of Xavier’s naiveté against Magneto’s cruelty.
It’s an important point in this regard that Herzl was not specifically attached to that particular location and explored a bunch of other possibilities. He was a liberal nationalist rather than an ethnic or religious one, so for him, the mythos of the Land of Israel was not the important part of the project.
The standard thing to say is that these are strands that go back to Ze'ev Jabotinsky rather than to Herzl. I’ve never actually read Jabotinsky and can’t really confirm, but that’s the standard reference.
The most successful national conservative politician, of course, is Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. And since Soros himself is from Hungary, he’s taken a special interest in events there, and Orbán consequently has worked to discredit him.
With this subset itself defined differently over time, of course. The idea that white Catholics can’t be real Americans seems absurd now but was commonplace at one time.