Well sure, Elon Musk is a massive asshole. We all know that. He’s an asshole on a multitude of levels. But he’s an incredibly rich asshole, so the stuff he says and does carries some social weight. It’s important, though, for us to remember that that weight is the weight of gold, not the weight of intellect.
Back a few months ago, when he was still just talking about maybe buying Twitter, Musk said this:
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
Free speech IS the bedrock of a functioning democracy, he was right about that. But only a dolt would think that what takes place on Twitter is a debate. And while I can’t read Musk’s mind, I suspect his interest in Twitter wasn’t so much about securing the bedrock of democracy as it was about wanting to own the public square. And if a public square is owned by anybody, it ceases to be a public square.
Compare Musk’s desire to own the public square and influence socieity to the contribution of the richest man in the world a century ago — Andrew Carnegie. Like Musk, Carnegie was an immigrant to the United States. Unlike Musk, Carnegie was born poor. In 1848, his parents borrowed enough money to emigrate to the US. Carnegie was twelve years old, but he was put to work immediately, employed as a bobbin boy in a textile mill in Allegheny, PA (his job was to keep the bobbins wound with thread). He wanted to improve himself, but he couldn’t afford the US$2 subscription fee to the local library.
By the end of the 19th century, Carnegie was rich. Like every rich person (I’m just making assumptions here), he was an asshole in many ways. But he never forgot his experience as a bobbin boy. So one of the things he decided to do with his money was to build a public library. This was in 1889.
This was radical. A public library. A library open to the public. The entire public. A free library, available to everybody–including women and children and folks who weren’t white. That first library was built in Braddock, PA, which was near one of Carnegie’s steel mills.
Then Carnegie built three more free, public libraries, all in locations near his mills. And he didn’t stop. He kept building public libraries. All over the United States. And in his native Scotland. And in the UK and Ireland. And Canada. And Australia, and South Africa, and New Zealand. And France and Belgium and Serbia. And in the Caribbean and the South Pacific.
Dude eventually built or funded the construction of almost 1700 public libraries in the US, and around 3500 worldwide. He had rules and conditions that any community that wanted Carnegie to dig into his pockets and fund a public library had to meet. They had to demonstrate a need for the library, they had to provide a building site, they had to agree to pay the staff and maintain the library (and those funds had be drawn from public sources, not private donations), and they had to agree to provide free service to all.
Not everybody was willing to accept Carnegie’s cash, especially after his steel company was involved in one of the ugliest and bloodiest labor confrontations in US history. Like Musk and so many rich pricks, Carnegie wasn’t a fan of unions (I told you he was an asshole in many ways).
But hey, a public library is still a huge deal for a lot of small communities, so they were generally willing to take advantage of Carnegie’s offer. Take the small town of Woodbine, Iowa, for example. Incorporated in 1887, a small railroad town. In 1908 Woodbine had a population of about 1500. They asked Carnegie for a library and he gave them $7500. That was enough to build the library; the town had to cough up the coin to buy the books and pay the staff. It’s not a grand building, by any means, but it’s quietly lovely.
Woodbine’s population hasn’t changed much in the century or so since the library was built. The library is still central to the community. In addition to books, it offers computers and free wifi and has a small coffee bar. It hosts board game afternoons and a brown bag book club. Hell, this place loans cake pans. Seriously. If you’re a resident of Woodbine and have a library card and find yourself in need of a certain size of cake pan that you don’t have in your cupboard, you can check one out from the library.
Andrew Carnegie had a rich person’s capacity for being a colossal asshole, but he also gave back to the community in way that rich assholes like Elon Musk don’t even consider. During the last couple of decades of his life, Carnegie gave away about 90% of his wealth. And not to his family. He wrote: The man who dies rich, dies disgraced. Which is one of the least asshole things a rich person can say.
Rich assholes are a threat to democracy. Musk talks about democracy without any real understanding of it, with antagonism towards it. Carnegie was a lesser asshole because he actually did something to encourage democracy. He gave common people access to information and knowledge.
Support your local library.