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Elon Musk’s tweet to Putin should be the end of us pretending he’s a quirky, cool tech hero

Musk is just another performative hypermasculine egotist dressed in a geek suit and it’s time we accepted that

Noah Berlatsky
New York
Tuesday 15 March 2022 05:11 GMT
James O'Brien reacts to Elon Musk challenging Vladimir Putin

Oligarchs deploy hypermasculinity to justify their own power and aggression. That’s true of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. But it’s also true — in a geekier, self-parodic, but still wearisomely predictable way — of Tesla CEO and tech billionaire Elon Musk.

Today Musk bizarrely tweeted, “I hereby challenge Владимир Путин [Vladimir Putin] to single combat.” He added, “Stakes are Україна [Ukraine]. Do you agree to this fight?”

The director general of Russia’s space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, quickly replied, “You, little devil, are still young.” “Compete with me weakling; It would only be a waste of time,” came the reply.

The spectacle of Musk and Russian officials engaging in WWE-style boasting and chest-thumping to gin up publicity for themselves is inappropriate and ugly, to say the least. Russia’s aggressive invasion of Ukraine has already left thousands dead and forced millions from their homes. It’s a massive humanitarian tragedy, not an opportunity for Musk to market himself.

Yet, Musk’s comments also highlight the way in which self-promotion, hypermasculinity, and violence are often grotesquely intertwined. As just one obvious example, Putin cultivates a cult of vigor and strength in Russia. He’s constantly having himself photographed shirtless as he does manly, outdoor things, often with horses.

Putin’s also tried to define Russian national identity around hatred of feminized western decadence, which he often associates with LGBT people. This rabid homophobia descended to yet another nadir recently when the leader of the Russian Orthodox church said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was justified as part of an effort to eradicate “gay parades.” Toxic hypermasculine bigotry justifies horrifying militaristic excesses.

Elon Musk didn’t invade any countries, and his own leveraging of a quirkier, more cerebral masculinity can look at least somewhat more benign. In the past he’s performed his toughness not by taking up arms, but by working 120-hour weeks. His public persona is about strength of brain, not physical strength. His company Tesla is devoted to developing green tech electric cars, while SpaceX promises to put humans on Mars in five years. This is hypermasculinity, yes, but with a geeky, supposedly socially conscious swagger.

On closer inspection, though, Musk’s billionaire masculine geek energy doesn’t look all that different from standard alpha-male posturing. His intense work ethic is weaponized against his own employees: he’s been convicted of illegal union-busting and violating labor laws. He’s also been accused of mistreating workers — especially Black workers.

Musk’s ex-wife says that Musk treated her as an employee in many ways, his “big man at the office” schtick fitting neatly into sexist dynamics at home. He’s dabbled in transphobia, as well tweeting “Pronouns suck,” which most people interpreted as a veiled sneer at nonbinary people’s nonstandard pronoun choices. His on-off partner Grimes, who identifies as nonbinary and has said she is “impartial” to pronouns, asked Musk publicly not to target trans people, and he deleted the tweet. But kicking a marginalized community to look edgy remains ugly — not least when it’s a marginalized community that you know your significant other identifies with.

Musk’s weird offer to fight Putin isn’t really out of character; it’s just another illustration of how his smart-guy masculinity can slide easily into traditional, aggressive, militarist masculinity.

It’s also an example of how the financial and social power of oligarchs is built on and feeds into hypermasculine fantasies of physical dominance and control. Musk is joking on some level, but he obviously enjoys the image of himself battling Putin (with fists? Swords? Guns at twenty paces?) And he enjoys putting himself in the position of chivalrous heroic savior, rushing in to rescue a prostrate Ukraine so that he can — what? Declare himself king? Marry Ukraine’s daughter and ride off into the sunset? Accept the universal applause of Ukrainians grateful that a tech billionaire is willing to wrestle for their freedom while they are being bombed?

The exact details of the heroic narrative are fuzzy. But it’s clear that Dmitry Rogozin welcomed the opportunity to participate. Putin is happy to frame the war in Ukraine as a test of personal strength and masculine resolve, rather than as a brutal, callous power grab which involves shelling maternity hospitals and sending teen conscripts to be shot.

Again, Musk isn’t Putin. But his empty-headed musing about physically fighting for Ukraine suggests he maybe would like to be. Powerful billionaire men often speak and act as if the only people in the world are themselves and their masculinity. At best, they sound callous and out of touch. At worst, they do what Putin is doing now.

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