Zelensky had to put Elon Musk in his place. It’s funny until it isn’t

Musk is a joke, but he’s a dangerous joke

Noah Berlatsky
New York
Tuesday 04 October 2022 19:49 BST
Zelensky hits back at Elon Musk's Twitter poll on annexed areas of Ukraine

Elon Musk is a very wealthy white guy. And very wealthy white guys believe they are entitled to weigh in on everything. Ideally, wealthy white guys would be ridiculed for this, and sometimes they are. But there are also times when their wealth and power allows them to force others to take them seriously. And that can be dangerous.

Musk’s latest foray into entitled bloviating involves the war in Ukraine. On Twitter, he posted a poll about the crisis, asking that people vote “yes” or “no” on his own geopolitical solution to the crisis. In it, he suggested that Russia should retain Crimea; that regions of Ukraine just annexed by Russia should hold referendums to decide if they want to remain part of Ukraine; and that Ukraine should promise never to join NATO.

Musk’s company, SpaceX, sent Starlink satellite internet kits to Ukraine to help prevent Russia from disrupting communications. This has made Musk very popular in Ukraine.

More, Musk’s net worth is around $232 billion. That’s as much as the GDP of many countries, such as Portugal. It also means he is worth more than the GDP of Ukraine, which is about $200.9 billion.

Musk has vast wealth, and that wealth has allowed him to help Ukraine in ways that most people couldn’t. As a result, he obviously feels like he is an expert, entitled to weigh in on the future of Ukraine. But being very wealthy and very famous does not, in fact, make you an expert on everything. In this case, Musk’s glib “solution” reflects Russian propaganda, as more informed outlets have pointed out. It also ignores Russian aggression. The easiest way to end the war right now is for Russia to simply leave Ukrainian territory.

Asking Ukrainian provinces invaded by Russia to hold a referendum over whether or not they want to be Ukrainian is incredibly insulting, just for starters. Nor should anyone blandly accept Putin’s assertions that Crimea is part of Russia. Or, as Andrij Melnyk, Ukraine’s former ambassador to Germany, told Musk on Twitter, “F**k off is my very diplomatic reply to you.” Later, President Zelensky himself got involved, tweeting his own poll asking: “Which Elon Musk do you like more?” with the options “One who supports Ukraine” and “One who supports Russia”.

Melnyk’s response was quite satisfying, as was Musk’s thorough defeat in his own Twitter poll (he blamed “bots.”) A rich, famous fool thought his riches and celebrity gave him the right to impose his opinions on everyone, and he got publicly slapped down and humiliated. What’s not to like?

Unfortunately, the Elon Musks of the world are not always slapped down. Sometimes, wealthy, powerful people who know nothing are so powerful and wealthy that they can’t be shamed or for that matter educated. Sometimes they impose their opinion on the rest of us. Sometimes they even become president.

For example, consider statistician Nate Silver. Silver is not as rich as Elon Musk by an order of magnitude. But he has become quite wealthy and well-known through his analysis of sports and more recently for his political polling aggregator at 538.

Silver has no qualifications in public health. But nonetheless, he decided to use his large platform to pontificate on Covid policy. That had some ludicrous results. For example, he was much mocked for his suggestion that closing schools during the pandemic was as much of a failure as the US war in Iraq, which killed hundreds of thousands and destabilized the region.

But Silver continues to pundit, and he helped create a climate in which the US has abandoned most pandemic measures even though 500 people a day are still dying. Nate Silver’s ignorant burbling didn’t lead to that outcome in itself. But it didn’t help.

Then there’s Peter Thiel. Thiel, like Musk, is a megabillionaire who made his fortune in large part through an early association with PayPal. Thiel’s also a far-right true believer, who thinks his massive fortune gives him the wisdom and the right to decide how the US should be governed.

Thiel helped fund Trump in 2016. This year, he invested heavily in the campaigns of Ohio’s J.D. Vance and Arizona’s Blake Masters, both of whom won their Republican primaries. In 2023, 1/50th of the Senate could easily owe their office to the personal intervention of Peter Thiel.

The most egregious example of a wealthy jerk who thinks he knows everything about everything is Donald Trump, a real estate heir and reality television star who decided he should be president because he felt like it. (And maybe because he wanted to be even more famous.)

As president, Trump got to weigh in on a whole range of issues he knew nothing about. He recommended injecting bleach to combat Covid. (Please do not inject bleach for any reason.) He wanted to bomb Mexico. He asked China to interfere in the 2020 election.

Trump basically governed like the blowhard at the end of the bar who won’t shut up — or like the blowhard on Twitter who won’t shut up. He knew nothing and was utterly unqualified to speak. But his thoughts and words mattered a lot anyway, because he was wealthy and famous and without shame.

Elon Musk has dabbled in politics too — most recently by threatening to buy Twitter and make it a safe space for the far right. That deal, like many of Musk’s clownish initiatives, appears to have crashed and burned.

Mocking rich, powerful people as clowns is satisfying and fun. Unfortunately, you can be very, very clownish, and if you’re rich and powerful enough, you can still do a lot of harm and ruin countless people’s lives. Wealth, notoriety, and the sense of entitlement that goes along with them, are dangerous. Musk’s a joke. But a joke with enough money and unearned self-confidence can hurt a lot of people.

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