Since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War this year, celebrities and public figures have been unanimous in their moral support for Ukraine. Some, like Telsa CEO Elon Musk, have gone further than words, lending significant material support to the cause. His spacecraft company, SpaceX, paid $80 million to provide Ukraine with the services of Starlink, which, among other things, enables Ukrainian troops to operate drones and communicate with each other. Musk has explicitly declared himself “pro-Ukraine.”
A normal person would therefore view Musk, a self-professed centrist, as supporting an ally of the American government against the ravages of war. However, Musk’s material and moral contributions mattered little when he proposed a peace plan outside the bounds of the liberal internationalist consensus. Russia, Musk tweeted, should be allowed to keep Crimea, and Ukraine should end its bit to join NATO and adopt a neutral status.
Musk’s diplomatic musings swiftly drew the ire of the Ukrainian government and its supporters. It also attracted resentful remarks from his own government. Senator Lindsey Graham went on an angry rant against Musk that culminated in a call to cut electric vehicle tax credits, which he mistakenly thought benefitted Tesla. Elon’s car buyers haven’t qualified for a tax credit since 2018.
One may wonder why there is such intense outrage against Musk or why expressing an anti-war opinion is akin to providing support for Putin. Why is it that one tweet with a peace proposal has become a more powerful expression of Musk’s position than $80 million worth of material aid to Ukraine and numerous declarations of support?
The reason is that American and Ukrainian politicians—along with their loyal supporters—are not actually interested in real support for the Ukrainian people. What they want is compliance and consensus for their foreign policy endeavors. Media outlets have noticeably censored and attempted to silence opinions that deviate from a consensus that stops short of extravagant government spending on weapons for Ukraine and unwavering admiration for Zelensky. Big tech has had no problem censoring and removing anyone deemed as a Russian affiliate from their platforms. This includes left-wing journalists like Chris Hedges, whose open criticisms of Putin and Russia’s actions could not spare him.
Ideally, there would be a moral consensus against killing innocent people with room for civil political debate about the root causes of these wars, how we can de-escalate or end ongoing violence, and how to prevent them in the future. One could have contested Musk’s proposal with a counterargument about whether it is the optimal way of reaching what most people agree is wrong: killing innocent people.
But this would only be possible if everyone involved in the discourse was concerned with achieving the end of the war and pursuing truth. However, the U.S. foreign policy elite—who have nakedly pursued their interests through intervention in the region before—and Ukraine’s corrupt president do not show an interest in either.
Instead, the aim is to browbeat any dissenters—however slight the dissent is—into submission. After decades of liberal interventionist foreign policy and revelations of the lies that held them up, many are rightfully skeptical of narratives that support more of the same. Thus, the foreign policy elite knows it cannot merely exercise the power to realize its goals by fooling everyone into thinking they are supporting a moral—rather than utterly self-interested—cause. They must also interpret dissenting opinions as not only wrong but evil. Dissenters are effectively assigned their motives and moral values by those in power.
What should pass for good-faith political analysis is now labeled as moral bankruptcy. Someone like Musk who has explicitly condemned Putin and expressed support for Ukraine can still be labeled pro-Putin and are helpless to do anything about it. Their expressed belief can never be their real belief; it must be the belief that the powerful assigns them.
There is little that can be done about this as long as the same people remain in power and the same consensus continues to be forced and demanded of us. The only thing one can do is refuse to play. There is now simply no point in qualifying your opinion with “but I think Putin is bad,” or “but I still support Ukrainians.” It will not be read that way. What matters to the discourse’s enforcers is subservience to their portrayal of events in this crisis and other interventions to follow. The more people recognize this, the better.