In defense of Musk
In which I paid $6 to read a bombshell, but got to see Trump arrested for free
Elon Musk is a natural target for Ronan Farrow, like a duckling is prey to an owl.
Farrow—the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen—is a journalist born into money, eccentricity, and a kind of smarts you sometimes find in people born into similar circumstances with the family name “Shapiro” or “Weinstein.” Dude is seriously OP: Ph.D. from Oxford, JD from Yale, Rhodes Scholar, whose dissertation in political science was titled “Shadow armies: political representation and strategic reality in America’s proxy wars.”
I think he wastes his time writing for a celebrity rag, but that’s his gig—perhaps a calling more than a gig. He’s attracted to the kind of power-behind-the-throne people who can make or break nations, industries, and culture. He stalks them to expose their pernicious secrets.
So when I read Farrow’s piece “Elon Musk’s Shadow Rule” (behind a paywall), I expected the kind of seismic shock that birthed the #MeToo movement when he took down Harvey Weinstein. Since I didn’t have a subscription to The New Yorker, I had to buy one.
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I paid $6 to The New Yorker to read Ronan Farrow’s latest bombshell about Elon Musk. I should have kept my money. In a rare swing-and-a-whiff, Farrow, didn’t prove a thing about Musk that we didn’t already know. The great revelation is allegedly that SpaceX, at Musk’s personal command, crippled or geofenced Ukraine’s army from using its Starlink service, strong-arming the Pentagon into some secret deal to pay up.
But Farrow failed to prove his case, or even approach the kind of evidence one would need to convince a reasonable person it happened. Part of Farrow’s problem is that Musk plays an open hand; it’s a case of HIPS (“hiding in plain sight). Musk publicly posted that SpaceX can’t afford to keep financing the use of Starlink service in Ukraine, and that the service was not designed to run a war. In September 2022, SpaceX’s director of government sales sent a letter to the Pentagon asserting “We are not in a position to further donate terminals to Ukraine, or fund the existing terminals for an indefinite period of time.”
Farrow didn’t break any story here—the Financial Times reported in October 2022 that Ukrainian troops were having problems with Starlink
Musk’s tweet read: “Bad reporting by FT. This article falsely claims that Starlink terminals & service were paid for, when only a small percentage have been. This operation has cost SpaceX $80M & will exceed $100M by end of year. As for what’s happening on the battlefield, that’s classified.”
Not that Farrow didn’t do his homework—he spoke to a Ukrainian soldier who was “responsible for maintaining Starlink access on the front lines,” who told him “It’s the essential backbone of communication on the battlefield.” But what was unsaid is that Starlink was not designed to be a hardened battlefield comms system. It’s a system designed for individuals to get Internet access in places where traditional fiber and other last-mile solutions aren’t economical.
Farrow hand-waved away the possibility that the Russians have technology that could jam or otherwise interfere with Starlink on the battlefield. Let me clear that up. The Russians have been trying to jam the satellite service for months, but with limited success. This is well-known and has been reported by the Washington Post. Website technology.org reported that the Russian 4Ts227 Tobol electronic warfare system was being used against Starlink, and DefenseOne reported that Russians are using drones to “paint” Ukrainian targets that use Starlink terminals.
The Russians “will find you,” the soldier said, who goes by the call sign Boris. “You need to do it fast, then get out of there.”
It’s certainly possible, and even probable, that at some point in 2022 the Russians were testing some kind of jamming or interdiction methods, and found one that worked in certain circumstances. Of course, SpaceX sees what’s going on (as well as U.S. intelligence and other NATO assets), and reacts. Plus, SpaceX continues to launch new satellites to add to the Starlink constellation, which consists of nearly 5,000 small orbiting communications devices, around 3,500 active. SpaceX and Ukraine’s allies are inside Russia’s OODA loop in the communications war, able to react faster than Moscow.
But Farrow attributed the problems in 2022 to Musk, and some kind of political sea-change in his attitude toward Ukraine and Russia. But it’s not a change at all. Musk believes he has the answers to many problems. Sometimes he’s right, and sometimes he’s nuts.
For example, during the Thai soccer team cave rescue, Musk proposed building a mini-sub, which was dismissed as a PR stunt by Vernon Unsworth, one of the British cave divers on the rescue team, who said on camera, “He can stick his submarine where it hurts.” Musk was offended and did his best to smear Unsworth, who sued him for defamation after Musk called him “pedo guy.” Musk won the suit, but admitted he was an “idiot,” and that making remarks in an email to Buzzfeed was “one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done.” At least Musk is self-aware and even mildly introspective.
Musk also has a giant streak of distrust for authority, especially government authority. Farrow covered that very well, especially his sparring with NASA and the FAA over safety protocols for SpaceX launches in Boca Chica, Texas. But again, we know all this because Musk has been giving the bird to the Securities and Exchange Commission for years, even cancelling Tesla’s directors and officers insurance and replacing it with his own personal promise (pretty much unprecedented for a large public company), because his public statements and tweets are so incendiary.
Farrow’s central argument is that Musk has too much power and the U.S. government is too dependent on SpaceX. The latter may be true, but the alternative was for the U.S. government to be dependent on Russia, which licensed its RD-180 rocket engine to Boeing and Lockheed’s United Launch Alliance (ULA), but will no longer sell to the U.S. The facts are simple: SpaceX produces a solid, reliable delivery system that has launched thousands of payloads, and supplies the International Space Station. No other U.S.-based company rivals it, despite years and billions of dollars spent by NASA to competitors.
The argument about Ukraine is similar. Without SpaceX—which didn’t begin the Starlink project with war in mind—the war effort against Russia would look much different than it does. If there were some other battlefield system immediately available to Ukraine that Russia could not disable, jam, or destroy don’t you think they’d be using it?
Elon Musk has no obligation to do stuff for free, for the U.S. government, for Ukraine, or for anyone. He is a businessman. His politics are a bit on the rabid libertarian side, but eccentric billionaires have always been a political hand grenade. It still bothers me that both sides of our political divide claim that the other side’s elite billionaires are “the man” and their side is the rebellion. It’s all nonsense.
Musk has access to world leaders, because he’s arguably the world’s richest man. That means he’s one of the few who could possibly place a call to Vladimir Putin and the call would be answered. (Similarly, Henry Kissinger, at 100 year old, said he thought Putin would take his call, as well.) Both Kissinger and Musk share a “realpolitik” view of foreign policy. Unless and until it’s likely that Ukraine can take its territory (all its territory, including Crimea), they both think the best way to end a long, bloody, and disruptive war is to negotiate with Putin. The fact that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people aren’t ready for that doesn’t change Musk’s opinion. But that doesn’t make Musk a Putin apologist. Except Farrow says it does.
By then, Musk’s sympathies appeared to be manifesting on the battlefield. One day, Ukrainian forces advancing into contested areas in the south found themselves suddenly unable to communicate. “We were very close to the front line,” Mykola, the signal-corps soldier, told me. “We crossed this border and the Starlink stopped working.” The consequences were immediate. … The Financial Times reported that outages affected units in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk. American and Ukrainian officials told me they believed that SpaceX had cut the connectivity via geofencing, cordoning off areas of access.
This is bordering tin-foil hat stuff, because this is literally the only evidence Farrow presents. Being a lawyer, Farrow must know that it’s inadmissible if this was a courtroom, being hearsay, and being a journalist, he must know it’s weak, because there’s no internal SpaceX source, or technical confirmation of this opinion. It’s just speculation. But it’s designed to appeal to an audience who already believe Musk would do it. It’s confirmation bias fish food.
As reporting goes, it’s garbage.
The rest of Farrow’s piece is high school level essay material covering Musk’s business career, and his life story. Nothing in it is remotely groundbreaking. Some of it, like remarks from former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine (who was a Navy pilot and a Congressman from Oklahoma), is entertaining. But nothing Farrow wrote is remotely seismic like the Weinstein story.
I paid $6 to read a high school essay filled with fish food. I’d give it an “F” but can’t because it’s pretty well written fish food. My old high school English teacher had a better grade for this: a “W” for “Waffle.” In Farrow’s case it’s a “W” but for “Whiff.” He swung at Elon Musk, and he whiffed.
In other news, Donald J. Trump is now inmate number P01135809 at the Fulton County Jail. He was released on $200,000 bond, which he arranged without having to stop at the Second Chance Bail Bond office (as Giuliani had to do). It was fly in, close every freaking Interstate in Atlanta, go in the jail by the secure sally port away from the crowd of supporters and foes, take the best mugshot in history, and leave by the same way.
I watched this in real-time, for free. I recently realized that my Hulu live combo with Disney Plus was going to cost me nearly $100 a month! That rivals what I was paying for cable before I cut that cord and went high speed fiber (nearly a gigabit). I realized I almost never watch live TV except for sports, and the kids only mainline YouTube on the Apple TV. So I cut the digital cord and went back to over-the-air (OTA) digital TV.
So I paid $6 to read a “W” essay from Ronan Farrow and nothing at all to see the O.J.—I mean Trump—motorcade run through Atlanta like poop through a goose, and then see him bee-line to the camera and his pie-hole mouth make a statement before boarding his 757 to depart to Bedminster.
One more thing: the other day, I was charging my Kia, and at the charging station pulled in two older men wearing red MAGA hats. They were driving a Polestar. The charging station was in the parking lot of a Target. The got out, hooked up the charger, and decided to go into the Target while the car charged. They didn’t recognize any irony at all. If you know, you know.
Have a great weekend!
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