The World According to Elon Musk’s Grandfather

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By usawebstories

This month, Elon Musk threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League, alleging that its denunciation of X—the A.D.L. had accused the social-media platform formerly known as Twitter of amplifying antisemitism—has cost Musk’s company a fortune in advertising revenue. The Anti-Defamation League, in turn, asserted that Musk’s threat was “dangerous and deeply irresponsible.” This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to California to meet with Musk to discuss artificial intelligence, but their other much-anticipated topic was antisemitism. Netanyahu asked Musk to “stop antisemitism as best you can.” Musk, alluding to SpaceX and his hope for a mission to Mars, responded that he favors anything that “ultimately leads us to become a spacefaring civilization,” and, since hate hinders that mission, “obviously, I’m against antisemitism.”

This all unfolded amid the release of Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Musk. Musk’s family history has a bearing on the dispute, but, in the book, as I pointed out in a review, Isaacson only glancingly discusses Musk’s grandfather J. N. Haldeman, whom he presents as a risk-taking adventurer and whose politics he dismisses as “quirky.” In fact, Haldeman was a pro-apartheid, antisemitic conspiracy theorist who blamed much of what bothered him about the world on Jewish financiers.

Elon Musk is not responsible for the political opinions of his grandfather, who died when Musk was three years old. But Haldeman’s legacy casts light on what social media does: the reason that most people don’t know about Musk’s grandfather’s political writings is that in his lifetime social media did not exist, and the writings of people like him were not, therefore, amplified by it. Indeed, they were very unlikely to circulate widely, and are now quite rare. Still, they’re not hard to find, which makes it unfortunate that Isaacson neither quotes from nor mentions them.

Musk has said that he bought Twitter to halt the advance of a “woke mind virus” spreading online. His grandfather wrote his tracts to raise an alarm about what he called “mind control,” on the radio and television, where “an unconditional propaganda warfare is carried on against the White man.”

Haldeman was born in Minnesota in 1902 but grew up mostly in Saskatchewan, Canada. A daredevil aviator and sometime cowboy, he also trained and worked as a chiropractor. In the nineteen-thirties, he joined the quasi-fascistic Technocracy movement, whose proponents believed that scientists and engineers, rather than the people, should rule. He became a leader of the movement in Canada, and, when it was briefly outlawed, he was jailed, after which he became the national chairman of what was then a notoriously antisemitic party called Social Credit. In the nineteen-forties, he ran for office under its banner, and lost. In 1950, two years after South Africa instituted apartheid, he moved his family to Pretoria, where he became an impassioned defender of the regime.

Before the age of the Internet, the writings of political extremists tended to be privately published, in quite small numbers. An angry man typing out memos about an invisible world government might make a few mimeographs or carbon copies, but the chance that any ended up in a library, catalogued and preserved, is slight. Presumably, most of Haldeman’s papers remain in family hands, if they have not been destroyed. But some of his writing survives, including in the Michigan State University library’s extraordinary Radicalism Collection.

In 2017, the collection acquired two of Haldeman’s tracts, as part of a trove from an anonymous donor which has now grown to nineteen thousand pieces of right-wing propaganda and conspiracy literature. One of the Haldeman tracts, “The International Conspiracy to Establish a World Dictatorship and the Menace to South Africa,” is dated May, 1960. The timing is significant. In February, 1960, Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister, delivered his famous “Wind of Change” speech to the South African Parliament, discountenancing apartheid and urging acceptance of independence movements: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and, whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” In March, South African police opened fire on a crowd of thousands of Black South Africans protesting outside the Sharpeville police station, killing sixty-nine people, including children, and wounding nearly two hundred. The killings were captured on television and the coverage reached around the world. In the ensuing protests and state of emergency, Nelson Mandela was among eighteen thousand people arrested and jailed. Haldeman’s tracts defended white rule against an “international conspiracy” that opposed it.

“Every day the brain-washers repeat and emphasize the things they want us to believe,” Haldeman warned in his forty-two-page May, 1960, tract. “As examples ‘The Natives are ill-treated,’ ‘underpaid,’ ‘underprivileged,’ ‘separate development is wrong,’ ‘apartheid is un-Christian.’ Every day newspapers, magazines, commercial radio newscasters, bioscopes, din this into the conscious and subconscious minds of the public.” (“Bioscopes,” here, means motion pictures.) “People who know it is 99% untrue repeat these lies emphatically and emotionally,” Haldeman wrote.

Haldeman railed against many dark forces that he believed to be propagating these ideas: Jewish bankers, Jewish intellectuals, philanthropic foundations run by Jews, communists, Black leaders, and anyone who supported the overthrow of colonial rule in Africa. “The facts of history show that the White man has always developed the country he inhabits to the benefit of all concerned,” he wrote, peddling stock apartheid propaganda, and “The Black people of Africa have been in close contact with civilization from the earliest times but, on their own, built nothing and discovered nothing, not even the wheel.”

In the second tract that M.S.U. holds, “The International Conspiracy in Health,” Haldeman blamed the “collectivist-internationalist” conspiracy—“from Kennedy to Kenyatta”—for “centralized health schemes” that include national health insurance and various pharmaceuticals (including fluoride in the water, another conspiracy), all of which he considered “anti-Christian infringements on human liberties.” If some people were not alarmed by all of this, he wrote, it was because of mind control. “When a Christian subscribes to this, it is the result of the concentrated, intentional brain-washing done by the International Conspiracy.” Submitting to national health care was one way the conspirators were allowing “Black or Coloured political puppets” to take “control of responsible White people.” The Conspiracy, he warned, controls universities, medical schools, and even textbooks. “The Conspiracy feels that any medical intervention, so long as it is in mass, is a desirable procedure.” Above all, “The promoters of World Government have always been behind mass vaccination programmes.”

Aside from these two tracts, a rare-books dealer earlier this month sold an issue, No. 5, of a newsletter called Survival (“For Adults Only”) that he attributes to Haldeman. (The author’s name, the dealer reports, appears on the back page.) In the issue, published sometime after January, 1962, the writer represented the growing independence movements across African nations as a “WORLD GONE MAD.” “Throughout the so-called African Independent States there is complete chaos,” he wrote. “The population is reduced to starvation and cannibalism approaching what it was before the arrival of the White man.” He described the Mau Mau as engaging in a rite that required an initiate “to suck the dismembered penis of some other unfortunate victim of Mau Mau.” He denounced Israel, for having “consistently voted against South Africa in the United Nations.” But, in any case, he explained, the U.N. was riddled with communist spies.

Haldeman typed his tracts, presumably on his own typewriter. He might have made dozens of copies, or maybe hundreds, but not likely many more. He might have sent them out by mail or handed them out at political gatherings or church meetings or men’s groups. They were read, in any event, by a handful of South Africans in and near Pretoria, and possibly also by like-minded people farther afield. And then they very nearly disappeared. But if Haldeman were writing today, he’d likely be distributing his ideas on Facebook and YouTube and Twitter and Reddit and 4chan and more. Algorithms would deliver them to thousands and possibly millions of people. He would find an audience. He would become bolder. He would find a bigger audience. He would become bolder still. Elon Musk’s grandfather’s political views are not Musk’s responsibility. But what would happen to those rantings, if they were posted on X today, really does lie at his doorstep. ♦

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