Anyone looking for a Christmas revelation should look no further than Elon Musk’s mum. On Sunday, as the second-richest man in the world (recently demoted by LMVH’s Bernard Arnault) flailed around in the $44 billion skip that used to be Twitter, his mum stepped up to defend the 51-year-old. Many of us have shackled our hands to heavy furniture to avoid such public strops but Maye Musk steamed on.
Like her son, the 74-year-old self-described “author, dietitian, supermodel and Dior Beauty ambassador” is confident that her success in one area means she has nothing left to learn. When Elon the advocate of free speech absolutism provoked loud derision on Sunday by announcing that Twitter users were forbidden to promote rivals on his platform, Maye weighed in. “This makes absolute sense. When I give a talk for a corporation, I don’t promote other corporations. If I did, I would be fired on the spot and never booked again. Is that hard to understand?”
The problem is that Twitter users are not his employees. There may be a Musk planet where a flow of unpaid views from heads of state, Nobel laureates, distinguished academics and well-informed journalists is comparable to lipstick marketing but this is not it.
On the upside, Maye’s line of defence may finally explain the mystery of her son’s chaotic venture. Twitter’s descent into QAnon content – Trump himself has refused Musk’s entreaties to return to the site – was always going to damage the transformative Tesla by association. The Musks are unable to tell the difference between them.
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When the diktat against other platforms was posted on Sunday, Elon was tweeting pictures from the World Cup final in Doha, standing next to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. One of his largest Tesla shareholders was on Twitter demanding his resignation while Musk himself was polling the same pool of users asking if he should step down as “head of Twitter”.
Within less than a day nearly six in 10 of 17.5 million “voters” said he should, which was convenient. The poll presents a transparently cowardly but neat route out of his agony, under cover of a “democratic” vote. And he is going to have to go anyway. He continues to sell off large chunks of Tesla shares (down from $400 to $150 in a year) and is being sued by various shareholder groups for tanking the company and going AWOL from the board, not to mention the legal actions flooding in from thousands of former employees and Twitter creditors.
Yet right up to a week or two ago, Musk fanboys sniffed disdainfully at anyone who wondered if the guru knew what he was doing. He was putting a match to $44 billion.
When a BBC correspondent suggested on Monday that Musk’s mother might replace him as Twitter CEO, it was an obvious joke but it encapsulated the Silicon Valley spirit of 2022. The casual entitlement and vanity of Musk and mates’ private communications blew up any perceived connection between wealth and basic sense, or between wealth and ability or between wealth and a little prudent humility.
What these Christmas crumbs of comfort tell us are that greed, hubris and contempt towards fellow humans sometimes crash into boundaries. They also point to the primary cause: there are people – usually men – who will set the world on fire rather than admit to defeat.
This year witnessed several public implosions of men who set out to destroy countries, institutions and democracy itself simply to avoid the loser label. Putin’s fantastical three-day plan to conquer Ukraine. Trump’s failure to insert election deniers into the heart of American democracy. Mark Zuckerberg’s ruinous metaverse obsession and refusal to admit defeat, slashing 11,000 employees with the infamous warning that “there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here”.
The collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto empire put the final nail in the notion that billionaire techbro must be synonymous with genius, that the outlier asserting his superiority in the slobby T-shirt and shorts who plays League of Legends at Zoom meetings with venture capitalists is uniquely gifted to turn a hand to any problem. Bankman-Fried’s story has all the ingredients of the modern mega-scam: “the next Warren Buffett” running “the best derivatives platform ever built” according to sundry high-end finance publications; the casino masquerading as an edgy asset class, the Hollywood celebrities who shill for it and the fanboys who kneel in awe.
Legendary US investors and business partners Warren Buffett (92) and Charlie Munger (98) were never crypto enthusiasts, to put it nicely. “If you told me you owned all the bitcoin in the world and you offered it to me for $25, I wouldn’t take it. What would I do with it?” Buffett said last April.
“It’s partly fraud and partly delusion ... the delusion may be more extreme even than the fraud”, said Munger last month, calling the professionals who go into trading crypto “just disgusting ... Somebody else is trading turds and you decide ‘I can’t be left out’“.
Maybe this is the Christmas miracle. Maybe Elon’s mum could have a word. Old-fashioned common sense could be on the way back.