Xmas Greetings from EV Farm

Channeling Xenophanes, Tesla fans want to believe their idol is just like them. But too much trust leads to terrible things.

Happy holidays readers, and Merry Xmas as applicable! I hope you’re all able to enjoy a safe, healthy, and restful break as the year winds down.

Maybe because I’m an atheist* but probably because I’m Japanese, this is my all-time favourite painting of Jesus. It comes from the Jingjiao Documents (also known by the catchier name of the “Jesus Sutras”) which were rediscovered about a hundred years ago in a cave along the old Silk Road. They date somewhere between the years 600 to 1000, an era when Nestorian Christianity spanned the landmass of Asia (with outposts from Jerusalem to Beijing, including India and Tibet) while Orthodox and Catholic Christianity played in the sandbox of Europe. First mover advantage doesn’t always work out...

*I may be an atheist, but I’m faith-friendly and well-read enough to know that Christians have abbreviated Christmas as Xmas for centuries, X (“chi”) being the first letter of “Christ/Christos” in Greek.

The painting underscores Xenophanes’ saying that “if horses had gods and could draw, they would draw their gods as horses”. The ancient Greek philosopher’s point was that ethnic groups always depict their gods as being members of their ethnic group. The Chinese Jesus above is no more arbitrary than the Germanic Jesus who dominates western culture. 

Generalizing a bit, we’d say that gods don’t create men in their image; rather men create gods in their (the men’s) image. 

Which brings us to Elon Musk.

Politically-liberal, environmentally-idealistic fans want to believe he shares their values and ideals; that he’s just like them. I certainly did.

Of course, he’s not.

Musk is as different from his fans as televangelists are from their followers, whether their evangelism happens to be religious (too many to mention), secular (Bill O’Reilly? Alex Jones?), or political (Donald Trump).

These leaders use their community’s intense in-group identification and “Othering” of outsiders to violate the norms and codes they say they stand for, without consequence. They’re able to do this precisely because the community fervently wants to believe their leader / idol / god-figure is just like them.

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The greater the trust, the worse the violation

As the Catholic church reeled from its horrific sex abuse scandal, the Catholic League prepared a report on sexual abuse by faith groups and secular professionals. One of those “if I go down, we all go down” situations. It’s terrifying.

Several studies have found roughly one-third of Protestant clergy admitting sexual misconduct with church members. This ratio probably holds for rabbis, and is surely similar for other religious groups too. To think otherwise would be Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or fill-in-the-blank exceptionalism.

The reported figure is 3 to 12 percent for psychologists, with an estimate of “less than 5 percent” for school teachers. So sexual misconduct from these secular authority figures happens at maybe one-fifth or one-tenth the rate of religious authority figures.

The simplest explanation is that the greater the trust, the worse the violation. 

And what CEO is more trusted by their fanbase than Elon Musk? Most don’t even have a fanbase to begin with.

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True Power 

Power isn’t the ability to gain the support of people who share your values, though. That’s popularity. 

Power -- true power -- is the ability to keep the support of people as you violate their values. Power is convincing people their loyalty to you overrides their loyalty to themselves.

The neighbourhood Christian church leader who shares the values of their parishioners has popularity in their community. The Christian televangelist with a mansion, private jet and/or media empire has power over theirs, because the televangelist enjoys support even as their hedonism inverts the values their community claims to stand for.

Akio Toyoda (CEO of Toyota) doesn’t have power. Toyota’s hybrid technology won it popularity, but its ongoing dismissal of battery electric vehicles has cost them enormous goodwill among one-time supporters.

Elon Musk does have power. In the year 2020, and in the United States of America no less, the second-richest man in the world denigrated transgender people -- 40% of whom contemplate suicide -- without backlash from LGBTQ-friendly fans who had probably condemned Donald Trump’s comments about Mexicans. Given the acute vulnerability of our transgender siblings, Musk outdid Trump at punching down. And his fanbase outdid Trump’s, in ignoring it.

I’d like to think that if I’d still been a fan, this incident would have caused me to “hit rock bottom” and decide I needed to make drastic changes. But if I’d made it this far, maybe I’d turn a blind eye and wait for Musk to do or say something even worse, before reclaiming my moral loyalties.

That’s unfortunately what happens when people truly want to believe their idols are just like them.


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