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Contempt: Elon Musk

and the Quality of Scorn

Scoffers, naysayers, and bully pulpits

· history,musing

I recently rejoined the UN in East Africa, working temporarily with the UN's emergency food agency, known as the UN World Food Programme.

Then my boss got into a spat with Elon #Musk.

This is, I think, the fourth time I've re-joined the UN, but the first stint with WFP. I've never worked with such an amiable and expert group of people, a bunch equipped with good humour, dedication, and excellence by day, and by night steeped with gaiety, a thirst for sumptuous enjoyment, and streaks of roistering Bacchic abandon.

Elon Musk's Space-X takes to the skies

When I first began with the UN, with peacekeeping forces in Bosnia in the mid 90's, I swore a disinterest in a lifetime of working for any organisation, and I have fulfilled that by moving in and out with relative ease into the worlds of private and international business, academia, NGOs (one of which I co-founded with former Hague Tribunal staff to investigate war crimes), journalism and authorship.

A storm rolling in, outskirts of Herat, 2002.

In Bosnia, during that first exposure to this illustrious outfit, I thought distasteful the words of a senior group of UN personnel whose conversation I once overheard. They referred to themselves as the "pick-of-the-crop," presumably in comparison to the dull grey workers of the world.

It was a remark betraying a dulling self-appreciation, I thought, the kinds of remarks vectored in self-referential and enclosed work environments. Intellectual stagnation.

My experience of the UN ever since has been that while it attracts some of the very best people in the world in terms of commitment, hard work, and intellectual fervour, it equally – like any outsized group of people – attracts its share of deadbeats and free-loaders.

Grifting through life...

But how is this not true of militaries, diplomatic corps, management consultancies, banking groups, and other vast agglomerations of people? I had a friend who worked for one of the world's big legal firms, and marvelled at his 4 years there spent partying at night, and sleeping it off in the legal library during the day.

Dust Bowl refugee from Chickasaw, Oklahoma in Imperial Valley, California. 
“Black Sunday, 1934, that was the awfullest dust we ever did see,” ca. 1937.

Anyway, these decades since have seen a cleanup of some of the laziest excesses of people who enjoy such privileged employment in the UN – the sexual predators, the corrupt, the workplace bullies, the senior diplomats filled with such hauteur and capacious ideas of themselves that they cannot spot the heel of their own debased cruelty.

And of course, often worst of all, the expectation of a lifetime job, a cultivar which cannot be good for anybody in terms of accountability.

“Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them,

one cannot understand.”

The UN is certainly highly imperfect, but as has been quoted too many times of the former UN Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld, "It has been said that the United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell" (Churchill may have used the line first, but nobody can find a trace of that).

The deeply spiritual Swede, Dag Hammarskjöld: "In our age, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action." He died in a plane accident in the Belgian Congo in 1961 as he was trying to end civil war.

I've spent plenty of time beating back at the galaxy of ignorant critiques hurled at this singular organisation, not least in my own book (so voluptuously described by The Spectator as a parable of "The World, the Flesh, and the Devil," that is, The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers), which was (for the innumerable people who never read it but thought fit to have an obscured opinion), a back-handed defence of the UN and the many remarkable people who work for it.

Leaving aside the more glamorous headquarters positions in places like New York, Rome, Paris or Vienna, tens of thousands of UN personnel serve in strife-ridden countries, many living in hardship positions, dealing with brutality and dearth every waking day. The psychological scars can run deep, never mind death and injury.

The French philosopher, writer, soldier, activist, and ascetic Simone Weil –

"I do, therefore I am." And she did.

UN field staff rarely have the kind of protection of others. In Afghanistan, Bosnia, Angola, and a dozen other places, we waded into nasty corners where we encountered nasty, frightened, angry and sometimes fanatical people.

During my time in this most outward-facing profession, murdered friends included David (blown up by a bomb in Iraq), Francisco (strangled in his bed in Tirana), and Maria-Grazie (captured and stoned to death by bandits, or Taliban, in Afghanistan).

Guillaume in Haiti was killed by an earthquake. Dozens of others were killed or permanently maimed (physically and psychically) by rape, beatings, accidents, or simple terror and exhaustion.

Herat 2002. The Taliban were gone, but not before they killed Maria-Grazie. My photo.

So when the very remarkable billionaire #ElonMusk tweeted in reference to the UN that "A little sunshine is a beautiful thing," I felt a profound sense of personal offence. The scales of natural justice slid sharply lopsided as this armchair Tweeter slang-off the probity of the UN, and various of his lickspittle and cultish Twitter devotees followed suit with glee.

Here's what happened: David Beasley, the juiced chief of WFP and a former governor of North Carolina, has got a beef about U.S. billionaires doubling their wealth during Covid, while tens of millions more people sank into the quagmire of acute hunger.

Guillaume, early 2002. We were both in Afghanistan. He later died in Haiti.

Hunger here means when the cupboards are bare, the piggy bank empty, and families go to bed uncertain whether they'll eat the next day.

Threadbare hunger is the equivalent of a slice of pizza each day for a famished child, which won't stave off the whittling away of bodily defences against disease, or the depletion of minerals and vitamins essential for bodily and intellectual development.

Western Afghanistan, 2002, and a child being measured for malnutrition (this infant had edema I think). 

There was an incipient famine in the mountains, where plenty of the fallen Taliban still roamed. Bandit country. 

Thus, WFP's task is not abstract, or theoretical science, or a moonshot, but rather the tangible effort to bring human existence – basic equitable survival – into harmony with the best teachings of the Buddha, of Christ, of Mohamed, of the Greek and Roman and Chinese and Enlightenment philosophers.

Like Simone Weil, many of the people I work with exemplify in the doing, and believe in their work because they witness the results of action or inaction on the lives of innocents.,

The very remarkable and thoroughly modern Mr. Musk.

The World Food Programme saves lives, every day, thousands of them. With 20,000 staff, 30 ships, 90 planes, more than 5,000 trucks, it purchases the equivalent of 400mt of food every hour, and then moves it to places where angels fear to tread, but where people are hungry.

Does this really deserve the scornful and derisive challenge of a Musk? As Neal Ascherson writes, "vulgar postmodernism proposes that what matters about a statement is not whether it’s true, but what its effect is." Such is the Twittersphere.

“The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like the condemned man who is proud of his large cell.”

― Simone Weil

The thing is, a new billionaire sprang into our empty lives every 17 hours in 2021 according to Forbes: Five of those made it from something as vapid and parasitic as the vaping industry.

In the Twitter thread that day, Musk said that he would gladly hand over billions of dollars to end world hunger, if only WFP would transparently show it was possible and open its books (that was the sly 'sunshine' bit).

So what does Elon think that 20,000 people do every day, if not our jobs? WFP happens to be one of the world's most transparent and accountable organisations.

Fresco of satyr with, it barely needs pointing out, a large phallus (Naples Museum, Italy)

Was Musk just vaping? I can only think that he was lazily trafficking in canards, the most vulgar and ignorant being that the UN is "a waste of time."

I have a profound ideological disagreement with those who choose to use such extraordinary wealth for moonshots, rather than dealing with the leviathan troubles of the world. I'd rather Musk and Bezos and Branson save the lives of a single endangered mushroom, than mount their steel phalluses and gallivant about space like goofing teenagers.

And have ya seen Jeff's biceps??? Yowza.

And who authorised the littering of our nighttime skies with Musk satellites? At a time when we are trying to undo the damage wreaked upon the global commons, the galactic blanket that brightens every human and animal nocturnal venture has been re-drawn.

Somebody decided to add a few candles to the Christmas tree, without asking the other householders.

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night, at Saint-Remy June 1889 – 

he probably wouldn't recognise it now, everything's change so...

Weil, who could never have understood a Musk except as a symbol of humankind's psychological fallibility, like a child presented with a lollipop that is irresistible if you're of child-like character, would have said that virility lies in rejecting what is most obviously available (Weil dressed as a man her whole life).

Don't Look Up. Because he is an admired figure, noted for his good fortune and a high intelligence, Musk Matters. Musk also outwardly seems to be a fairly decent person, if not massively enlightened despite his personal galaxy.

If only he would tread on earth like the rest of us, and realise that most of us are doing the very best we can, and do not deserve such scorn from the giant bully pulpit in the sky.

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