Elon Musk: The Best We've Got
We are asking for superhuman feats from just a man
by Ryan Famiglietti
Elon Musk can be a bit problematic at the best of times. He once called the man responsible for saving twelve Thai children from a cave a paedophile. A few months earlier, he called a Tesla board member ‘boneheaded’ for asking an honest question about the company’s capital stocks. Musk is being sued for libel; being formally investigated by the United States’ Securities and Exchange Commission for market manipulation, and is accused of serially underpaying employees for dangerous work. But this information, considered without context, is a poor way to understand Musk.
Musk is more than just a mega-rich asshole. He's a self-made, immigrant mega-rich asshole. He grew up in apartheid South Africa and, sure, things were cushier for him than they could have been, but it was still a tough environment for a kid. He had an abusive father. He was bullied in school. Once, the other kids beat him so badly that he was hospitalised for several days. To boot, all of this occurred in a time and place where there were no protections for the likes of scrawny, sci-fi obsessed nerds.
I don't mean to suggest that having a tough childhood excuses being a dickhead in one’s forties, but I do think it’s central to who Musk is today. Incidentally, it's a thing that Musk himself—and therefore the media—almost never discusses.
See, Musk is a media machine. We never hear about his childhood because he never talks about it, and this is emblematic of the wider truth about Musk. More or less, we see Musk how he likes to be portrayed—as a real-life Tony Stark. We don’t see an immigrant who worked his way to the top and does his best to make the world a better place, we see a superhero who, let’s face it, is not living up to expectations.
Musk isn't Tony Stark. He's a capitalist. A billionaire. A CEO. It’s unfair to hold him to the standard of a fictional superhero, and that's what I think, inadvertently, we've started to do. Because Musk is the closest thing we have to Iron Man, we’ve started treating him like Iron Man. Anytime he does anything, un-Iron Manly, like calling someone a paedophile on Twitter or taking a ‘meh’ approach to labour laws, we register it as a personal betrayal and respond more aggressively than we would be were the perpetrator anyone but Musk.
This has consequences, not just for Musk, but for us. Nearly all of the CEOs in modern America are ‘worse’ than Musk, they just don’t have celebrity status and can, therefore, be “evil” without attracting massive public criticism. Does anyone know who the CEO of Exxon Mobile is off of the top of their head? Walmart? Lockheed Martin? Musk is publicly derided for offering poor working conditions and calling investors boneheaded, and yet the real villains of the business world—the arms manufactures, oil titans, and sweatshop operators—are seldom held to public account.
Indeed, at a time when most companies are outsourcing their labour to countries with few safety regulations and wage protections, Musk keeps most of his manufacturing in the United States. Sure, conditions aren’t the best in the country, but are they better than those in Dell’s Southeast Asian electronics factories? Who even is Dell’s CEO?
All things considered, Musk is relatively unentitled for someone who went from working minimum wage jobs at age 20 to being valued at over ten billion dollars by age forty. He’s probably a megalomaniac, but if it's not excused, it can at least be understood—particularly when we take his early life into account.
First and foremost, Musk is a dreamer. He's been playing video games, watching Star Trek, and reading classic sci-fi since he was a kid. All of his companies have a futurist, semi-political bent. They don’t just strive to maximise profit, they strive to create a certain sort of technologically advanced, post-scarcity quasi-utopia. These qualities are quite rare among billionaire CEOs and are ultimately the ones that drive civilisation.
I don’t think Musk is a hero. I don’t think he’ll save the species. But, unlike most of the rest, he tries—and that counts for something in my book.