Why the fuss about Elon Musk?

Jeremy Gordin writes on the Pretoria boykie's takeover of Twitter and the pushback it has received


When (pace Dylan Thomas) I was a windy boy and a bit – which, sub specie aeternitatis, feels as though it was just a week ago – one of the most important things required for an article was a so-called “news hook”: a piece of information that captures the attention and interest of the reader.

Here you go then, brothers and sisters, from The Washington Post (“Democracy Dies in Darkness”) of May 10: “Elon Musk says he would reverse Twitter ban on Donald Trump”.

The bait on the hook would be paltry, however, if one didn’t also mention that Trump advisers say the former president has (so far) no plans to return to Twitter, nor has he talked to Musk yet.


My brother Joel can be bothersome [1]. But what else are brothers for?

Think for example of Cain and Abel, who feature right at the beginning of the Good Book. Still, given that he is my elder and better – and sensitive to boot – I try to cut him some slack.

Once Joel was a red-hot reporter and sub-editor on Joel Mervis’ Sunday Times. Those were the days when men were men and wore neckties; women were also, so to speak, men (no offence intended[2]); Mervis was Mr Mervis; and subs could tell the difference between a split infinitive and an Italian soccer player.

Now, however, Joel is retired and living in a “pent-hoos,” as the locals call them, in Israel – with not a lot to do. And, although his present partner, a Ukrainian, who came to Israel not long ago (i.e., she’s still learning Hebrew), seems to be both admirable and smart, Joel can’t for obvious linguistic reasons swop puns or stories about TV news coverage and English tabloid headlines with her, can he? (Similarly, he presumably doesn’t get her in-jokes about Dostoevsky or Lermontov.) Nor, inexplicably, does she care much for rugby.

Consequentially Joel is wont to lock onto selected pieces of TV news and then to WhatsApp me wry or purportedly witty comments or observations about these items. And sometimes he is indeed very funny. At any rate, a couple of weeks ago he sent me the following WhatsApp: “Elon Musk and you were born in the same town. You could tie this into an amusing blog ... e.g., what else do you two have in common, blah blah ...?” ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

“Ja,” I replied, “but what else do we have in common?” He thought a little, then responded: “Petulant? Thin-skinned? Narcissistic?” (My brother’s my brother, what can I say? Alas, we don’t have a “comment policy” when we correspond.)

“Nothing positive?” I asked. He answered: “Intelligent, almost genius but of course the borderline between genius and eccentricity, even madness, is usually blurred ...”

Now – to paraphrase roughly the immortal words of Norman Mailer[3] – we may leave my brother’s WhatsApps in search of some sort of clarity.

Not about me – but about 50-year-old Musk, the co-founder and CEO of Tesla, and said to be the richest person in the world with a net worth of $268 billion [4].


If you think about it, for most of us the connection with, or intimate knowledge of, famous or important (or rich?) people is extremely tenuous – at best.

Yet we humans (or many of us) have a propensity for talking about such people as though they were intimate friends, as though we and they shared a genuine kinship. Talk, for example, about “Roger Federer” to the average, sport-lovin’ Seffrican and you’ll see what I mean. You’d think Mr X and Federer grew up living next door to one another.

This “propensity” is not a sin of course. It’s a kind of pride; or in the case of we Seffricans, it’s the natural reaction of those of us frogs who live in a tiny pond and want to boast that we do have leading players, bullfrogs, in the biggest ponds of all.

So having been born in the same city as Musk could become a subject of momentary introspection. Could the air in Pretoria, or the qualities of the city’s gynecologists, help impel one into becoming the richest person in the world? The answer is evidently No.

Now then, moving on, petrolhead Jeremy Clarkson has said Musk is “petulant,” which sounds to me like one exhaust pipe calling the other black; Vernon Unsworth[5], who Musk called a “pedo guy” [6], resulting in a defamation suit, said Musk is “thin-skinned”; and various psychobabble sites on the Internet tell us Musk is clearly “narcissistic”.

But none of these sobriquets, if they’re indeed accurately applied, has any connection with Pretoria, or any connection with my own petulance, thin-skinned-ness, and narcissism. Nor, quite obviously, do Musk and I share the same intelligence or genius. As my father once asked me, and as my wife often does: “If you’re so clever, why aren’t you rich?” (I rest their case.)

But having been born in Pretoria and grown up in SA (until the age of 17, in Musk’s case) does carry with it certain burdens – such as, for example, being hatcheted by the mighty New York Times – not only on completely spurious grounds but on the basis of so-called “evidence” that has absolutely nothing to do with Musk himself, a tack that (we?) narcissists find really annoying. (Though if you look at Endnote vi below, you will note that Musk is himself not above playing the same “game” – blaming things on his South African youth.) 

I’m glad therefore that Michael Cardo has written such an excellent piece about this incident. I think everyone in the world, specially NYT staffers, should have to read “The banality of ‘White Privilege’ discourse” at least three times over, and then the NYT folk should have, as it were, their mouths washed out with Russian soap [7].


Now, having dealt to some extent with the ad hominem and some (but only some) of the Woke stuff, let’s return to section 1 of this article and ask ourselves: Why the present fuss about Musk?

Duh, I hear you cry. On Monday, 25 April, Twitter announced that it had inked a “definitive agreement” to sell itself to Musk for $44 billion; and that once the deal is implemented, it will become a privately owned company.

Still, why the excessive excitement, we might wonder.

Bill Gates has been attributed with saying “The Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow”[8] – the point being that in the town square, especially for obvious reasons the US one (and when the US coughs, we sneeze), information and communication are indeed these days driven and controlled by modern high-technology – the internet, mobile phones, satellites, Twitter and other similar apps, etc., etc. (The control part is vitally important; it’s no secret that those who write the algorithms control what academics call the narrative.)

And Musk, if he gets his 44-bill together, is going to be in control of one of the key “platforms” (Twitter). So far, so trite, I suppose.

But, flowing from this, I want to posit that there are two “groups” (for want of a better description) of “users” who have reason to be mighty upset about Musk getting control, as well as those who have reason to be mighty pleased – and that, in the US especially, these two groups overlap.

By this I mean that there is a battle going on in the US, with – again for want of better terms – what I’ll call the Woke of various sorts on one side and the non-Woke of various sorts on the other. (I immediately acknowledge that the short-hand I’m using is far too inexact and wide-ranging, that there’re many more “forces” involved, but it’s the best I have for the moment.)

For clear examples of the “battle” I am describing too inexactly, just take a look at three articles taken from the last week or so on Politicsweb – the previously mentioned piece by Cardo, Andrew Donaldson’s “Woke-washing Bob Dylan”, and James Myburgh’s “In defence of Tucker Carlson's stance on South Africa”.

The second “group” battling it out, which overlaps with what I have just described and vice-versa, is a political one; in the US politics is “fought” to a massive extent on Twitter; it started to be so particularly when it became a highly effective tool for Trump. We read that the @realdonaldtrump handle had amassed 88,7-million followers by the time Twitter suspended it in January 2021 after the 2021 United States Capitol “attack”.

You don’t therefore need a PhD to figure out that there are many, many people (many of whom work for Twitter) who are “concerned” about whether Trump will be allowed to return to Twitter – which (see above) Musk says he will be.

If you have the time, and even if you don’t like its message, take a hard long look at “Who Funds the Campaign to Smear and Pressure Elon Musk?” by Armin Rosen.


Finally, another three questions often asked about Musk are these. First, why would he want to get into the highly charged morass of owning Twitter? Second, will he be able to get it together to buy Twitter – be able to raise the money? Third, if he succeeds, will Musk be able to monetize Twitter successfully?

I’d like to try one answer to all three questions.

Some suggest, as we have heard, that Musk might be petulant, thin-skinned, narcissistic, name his children oddly, and even have been irreparably damaged by being born a Seffrican. Others might tell you that Musk became interested in buying Twitter after the satirical website The Babylon Bee – which carried an interview with Musk – was banned from Twitter. Musk himself would, I assume, tell us that he’s just a lekker oke who just wants to fight the good fight for “freedom of speech”.

I read somewhere the other day that Maya Angelou once wrote – on Twitter davka – that “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time”. Don’t worry about this aphorism being ungrammatical (an observation that could be labelled racist); rather let’s consider what Musk has shown us overall.

Leaving aside the folderol, the posturing, the importunate tweets, the name-calling, the bravado, etc., Musk has demonstrated that he’s a brilliant businessperson – especially in terms of projecting into the future. (Though if you think SpaceX is about colonising Mars, you’re a bit naïve; it’s about satellites, which the so-called military-industrial complex loves for reasons I don’t have to explain.)

So Musk’s primary reason for wanting to buy Twitter is hardly complicated: besides being in the power seats and the main spotlight (which is always fun), he can make a seriously large packet of boodle. How?

By doing (and part of it is already done) what is as American as apple pie and that even a financial illiterate such as I can understand. He’s clearly arranged (and is arranging) a leveraged buyout, or LBO.

A leveraged buyout (LBO) is the acquisition of another company using a significant amount of borrowed money to meet the cost of acquisition (while simultaneously loading this debt onto Twitter as part of its sale). Sometimes, in an LBO, the assets of the company being acquired are often used as collateral for the loans, but in Musk’s case, he’s got plenty of collateral in terms of what he already owns and, besides, it’s common case that US banks and private equity houses are awash with cash.

As good ol’ Mother Jones [9] tells us: “Covid-19 did not slow private equity’s rise: In 2020, the private equity sector generated about $1.4 trillion – about 6.5 percent of the United States’ GDP, and a jump from two years prior, when it was five percent of GDP. Private equity firms also managed $7.3 trillion in assets in 2020 – roughly the value of Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Tesla combined. Nearly 12 million workers in the US collect paychecks from companies run by private equity”.

In short, Musk’s not going to have trouble finding backers – and if, by the way, things go wrong, his backers will have collateral in the shape of Tesla and other Musk companies – who’d want more than that?

Having taken Twitter private, Musk would then find ways to improve profitability (just 10 US cents per 280 characters?) – and if there’s any veracity to the reports about internal dysfunctionality at Twitter, Musk shouldn’t have any difficulties making things functional (it’s what he does) and making profits. But even if Musk fails at monetization, it doesn’t matter much – later on he’ll take Twitter public again at a much higher price and make beaucoup bucks.

Any questions? Oh ... what about freedom of speech and all that stuff? Well, there could be some issues that could prove more complicated than Musk foresees. For example, one of the major Tesla plants is situated in China and. notwithstanding their understanding ways, the Chinese authorities might take offence at a flood of anti-Chinese sentiment that could flood an unfettered Twitter. Well, Musk would then have to re-introduce some rules. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” – we all understand this.

But I don’t think freedom of speech or that stuff is on Musk’s mind. That discussion is, I suspect, mostly smoke from the media’s pipe dreams. Take it from me; I was born in Pretoria.


[1] So much so that I have long suspected that the etymological root of bother must be brother. Turns out I am wrong – “give trouble to” (1745) is apparently derived from the Anglo-Irish “pother,” because its earliest use was by Irish writers (Sheridan, Swift, Sterne).

[2] I am not here entering the debate about transsexualism, etc. – nor do I, as noted, intend any (sexist) offence whatsoever. I’m merely trying to capture in words that era’s go-get-em female reporters, who generally beat their male colleagues into a cocked hat.

[3] The Armies of the Night (1968), last sentence of Part I, chapter one. Mailer is/was a favourite of my brother’s. Though if you ask Joel, he’ll probably tell you that Mailer never managed to repeat the excellence of The Naked and the Dead (1948); and Joel might even be partially correct. Btw, for those interested in such arcane matters, it seems that Russia’s Sergei Lavrov might also be a Mailer reader; I refer to the great Norman’s rather bizarre – but, according to him, deeply researched – book about Hitler’s antecedents, The Castle in the Forest (Random House, 2007). Lest you be disappointed, however, I should mention that Mailer doesn’t blame the Jews for Hitler; he blames – I kid you not – Satan. The book, incidentally, was the New York Times (aha!) Bestseller for 2007 and won the 2007 “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” from the London literary journal Literary Review.

[4] Though do bear in mind please that “richest” relates to money only; there do exist other kinds of riches, or so my mother told me.

[5] The full saga of Unsworth vs Musk can be read on Musk’s Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elon_Musk). Basically: In July 2018, Musk arranged to have a small rescue pod built to assist the rescue of children stuck in a flooded cavern in Thailand. Engineers at SpaceX and The Boring Company built the mini submarine out of a Falcon 9 liquid oxygen transfer tube in eight hours and delivered it to Thailand. But it was never used because eight of the 12 children had already been rescued using other means.

Vernon Unsworth, a British recreational caver who had been exploring the cavern for the previous six years and played “a key advisory role” in the rescue, criticized the submarine as amounting to nothing more than a PR effort and said Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts”. Musk responded on Twitter inter alia that Unsworth was a “pedo guy”. He subsequently deleted the tweets and issued an apology for his remarks. Then it was revealed that Unsworth was going to sue Musk for defamation. Musk hired one James Howard-Higgins, later revealed to be a convicted felon for multiple counts of fraud, to “look into” Unsworth. Then, using details produced during Howard-Higgins’ alleged investigation, Musk sent a BuzzFeed News reporter an email prefaced with “off the record,” telling the reporter to “stop defending child rapists, you fucking asshole”. Needless to say the reporter did not honour the “off the record” notation, and in September Unsworth sued for defamation seeking $190 million in damages. During the trial Musk apologized to Unsworth again for the tweet. On December 6, the jury found in favor of Musk and ruled he was not liable.

[6] Pedo guy: In his defence in the Unsworth defamation trial, Musk argued that “pedo guy” was a “nebulous” common insult used in South Africa “when I was growing up... synonymous with ‘creepy old man’”. Any readers from that era remembering hearing the phrase “pedo guy”? Can’t say I have, but then I left Pretoria in about 1958 – and never attended Pretoria Boys High. I went to Brakpan High, where, needless to say, we didn’t use such language.

[7] Btw, as a card-carrying narcissist, etc., might I take this opportunity to point out (loudly) that I warned readers about the local NYT bureau on the 28th October last year: “Life in the ANC loony-bin” (Life in the ANC loony-bin - OPINION | Politicsweb).

[8] I’ve always thought of Jürgen Habermas as being, as it were, the real progenitor of serious thinking about (what he called) “the public sphere” while at about the same time (early 60s) it was Marshall McLuhan who first coined the term “global village”. No matter.

[9] Yes, I know some say Mother Jones is Woke; if you can fault its data in the quote, go for it.