If ever there was a case to be made against the wild excesses of social media, consider Elon Musk’s latest attack on one of the most venerable civil rights organizations in America, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, last week, Musk “liked a tweet by an Irish white supremacist calling on the platform to #BanTheADL” and then “asked users whether he should put such a ban to a poll.” The hashtag been used increasingly by white nationalists and raging antisemites. On September 4th, he threatened to sue the ADL for his own company’s revenue losses.
For the uninformed, the Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1913 to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” The mission was made clear in the trial that same year of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman convicted of the rape and murder of a 13-year-old female employee in Georgia. Frank’s trial is a case study in antisemitism advanced and accelerated under the cloak of law. When the governor reduced Frank’s death sentence to life in prison, a hate-filled mob, including many paragons of the community, dragged Frank from his prison cell and lynched him.
For over a hundred years, the ADL has commanded the respect of Republicans and Democrats, the left and the right, Jews and gentiles, leaders foreign and domestic. It hasn’t confined itself solely to combatting antisemitism, but has fought for civil rights across the board. The organization stood with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. It helped to mobilize support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. In the 1980s, it worked with the Japanese and Asian and Pacific American communities to highlight Japanese relocation and incarceration in internment camps during World War II.
Who can impeach the unimpeachable? Sully the virtuous?
Elon Musk. He’s found a new low, appearing to be anti-anti-defamation.
It should come as no surprise. History informs us that the propagation of bigotry rests on a strategic imperative: discredit and defame those who expose the bigots. Soften them up so their claims have no sting. It makes the ADL a tempting target. The organization has tracked and uncovered massive spikes in racist, antisemitic and homophobic content and harassment since Musk bought Twitter (now known as X) last year and restored extremist accounts banned under the previous management.
It’s a disturbing, destructive fight. In May, Musk clashed with the ADL after it took him to task for echoing antisemitic tropes in his attack on George Soros, the liberal Jewish megadonor. In July, he sued the Center for Countering Digital Hate for its reports on Twitter.
In one of the most chilling of Musk’s diatribes, he claimed that the ADL has been “hijacked by the woke mind virus.” You don’t have to be a historian of 1930s Nazi propaganda to feel queasy at the parallel, intended or not: Jews are somehow alien, contaminated, bound together in some supernatural force that threatens our very way of life. I’m not saying that Musk supports Nazis or neo-Nazis, but he seems to have no problem flirting with the rhetorical invective they’ve employed: Soros, internationalists, viruses — we’ve heard it all before.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO, responded to Musk’s recent attacks about banning the group from X, pointing out the connection between the #BanTheADL hashtag and “in the real world when masked men marched in Florida on Saturday brazenly waving flags adorned with swastikas and chanting ‘Ban the ADL.’” Greenblatt was referring to an antisemitic demonstration by neo-Nazis and white supremacists outside Disney World.
Musk, of course, condones it all under the banner of free-speech absolutism. It’s a maddeningly hypocritical defense. How can it be that one of the smartest entrepreneurs on Earth doesn’t comprehend the glaring, laughable disconnect: arguing for absolute free speech while flirting with a ban of the ADL?
The argument of “free-speech absolutism” was swiped aside by the dictum of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in the Supreme Court decision on Schenck v. United States in 1919. The opinion held that the defendant’s speech opposing the draft during World War I was not protected under the First Amendment because it presented a clear and present danger. “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”
In the case of Elon Musk, the clear and present danger is even more serious. He owns a social media empire tantamount to owning all the theaters, plus the fire departments, plus the manufacturers of matches and gasoline.
So much power concentrated in the hands of one person requires, if not decency, at least accountability. Even Musk’s Teslas have self-correcting navigation to ensure they don’t veer dangerously across guardrails. Elon Musk requires the same.
Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him @RepSteveIsrael.
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