Elon Musk’s epic bumbling is a daily reminder that America is not a meritocracy
"He really is the living embodiment of the Dunning-Kruger effect," a friend responded in a group text over the weekend. We had been sharing stories about the bouts of dumbassery on display, as Elon Musk starts his ill-advised reign of Twitter. And hoo boy, there was plenty to share. Did you see the one about Musk telling software engineers to print out 30 days of code, only to tell them to shred it when he likely realized this exposed how he doesn't know what he's doing? Or how he plans to take a bazooka to the content moderation team, even though doing so will likely send advertisers packing? Or how he thought carrying a sink around was a hilarious joke? Or how he tweeted an asinine conspiracy theory about the Paul Pelosi attack, only to delete it hours later?
None of this should be surprising. From day one, this entire saga has been a story of a man with far more money than brains. After all, this all started when Musk stupidly offered to buy Twitter at a price way over its valuation, for no other reason than a fit of trollish pique. It was only after he realized what a foolish idea it was to set $44 billion on fire that he started coming up with disingenuous excuses to escape the deal, only to discover that it was too late, legally, to back out.
Yet, somehow, much of this still feels surprising. The idea that Musk is "smart" has persisted through years of very public evidence to the contrary. Even now, many of his critics offer pre-emptive caveats that they don't think he's stupid, before explaining why the latest of his endless string of idiotic choices is a bad one. This notion of Musk's intelligence clings to the discourse around him for one simple reason: He is very, very rich.
The myth of the American meritocracy is a stubborn one. Americans can't help but believe that someone as rich as Musk must have something going on for him beyond dumb luck. To imagine otherwise is too unsettling. So many people block out what should be an obvious truth: You probably would have never heard of Elon Musk if he wasn't a white man from a wealthy family that literally owned an emerald mine in South Africa.
To be fair, it's entirely possible that, at one point, Musk wasn't a total birdbrain. His resume suggests there was a time when he was relatively competent at computer science, though there's no reason to think that such skills mean fluency in any other higher-functioning tasks. But regardless of what some IQ test from back in the day might have said about Musk, it's clear that in the past couple of decades, his brain has turned to total mush.
The irony is that the very wealth and privilege that tricks people into thinking he must be a genius likely contributed to the current state of affairs. Being surrounded by nothing but flattery makes it hard to distinguish between thoughts you have that are smart and useful and thoughts you have (such as right-wing conspiracy theories) that are idiotic. Either way, the people in your life — and for Musk, his legions of fanboys on Twitter — are swooning over what a super genius you are. The lack of meaningful feedback would damage most people's capacity for critical thinking. Musk's narcissism renders the diagnosis of his rational capacity terminal.
One can only hope the daily updates on Musk's antics will put some dent into the American myth of meritocracy. But then again, having to endure four years of a Donald Trump presidency didn't seem to make much difference, even as he shared moments of Trumpian wisdom like telling people to inject bleach into their lungs to cure COVID-19 and trying to "correct" a weather map drawn by actual meteorologists because he felt it would better serve his ego for a hurricane to make landfall in Alabama. Trump was elected in no small part because he had convinced large numbers of Americans that he was a successful businessman and therefore smart. In reality, he was a historically terrible businessman whose wealth exists because other rich white guys spent decades bailing him out of his self-inflicted financial woes.
The insidious nature of the meritocratic myth is on full display this week, as the Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit over affirmative action at Harvard University. Unfortunately, polling shows that 63% of Americans oppose universities considering race in their admissions process, naively believing that ending affirmative action means some objective measure of "merit" will be used instead. In reality, the opposite is true: Far from being meritocratic institutions, Ivy League schools are largely devoted to elevating rich white kids at the expense of people who have more talent. As Mark Joseph Stern at Slate explains, "Harvard has a preference for four specific groups of applicants known as ALDC: athletes, legacies, those on the dean's list (frequently because of family donations), and the children of faculty." He continues:
In theory, ALDC preferences are colorblind. In practice, they operate as a massive affirmative action program for white applicants. Over a recent six-year period, 2,200 out of 4,993 admitted white students were ALDC—a figure significantly higher than the overall number of admitted students who are Black (1,392) and Hispanic (1,283). White ALDC students are not overrepresented because they happen to be more qualified; to the contrary, about three-fourths of them would have been rejected without the ALDC boost.
The existing race-based affirmative action program is mostly an attempt to make up for the diversity that is lost giving such a massive advantage to white applicants. And yet, somehow, you hear no complaints from most conservatives about the ALDC preferences. That's because they don't actually want a meritocracy. They want a system where white people can get twice as far while being half as talented. Or where the richest man in the world keeps getting called a genius, even as we can all see — if we're willing to look — that he's just another privilege-addled idiot who lost his capacity for critical thinking many billions of dollars ago.