Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, writes about women and social media. She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
After a year in which vaccines developed by brilliant scientists became widely available in the United States and health care professionals worked heroically to treat millions of people sickened by Covid-19, Time magazine has selected tech billionaire Elon Musk as its Person of the Year. The choice says so much about our priorities as a culture and the way we fixate on the wealthy – even when their actions are selfish and irresponsible.
Musk, of course, is the chief executive of SpaceX and Tesla, two businesses at the forefront of innovation. (Not to mention controversy: Tesla is facing a federal investigation into the safety of its autopilot driving feature, in addition to worker accusations of racial discrimination and sexual harassment. On the former, Tesla has challenged the accusations; on the latter, the company hasn’t yet issued comment.)
While Time doesn’t necessarily intend for its Person of the Year title to be laudatory, but rather to convey a person’s impact, even by this measure it’s a miss. With the staggering resources Musk has amassed as a titan of the tech industry, he’s mostly chosen not to wield the power he enjoys to use his money and profile to make the world a better place. The Person of the Year designation may not be intended as an honor – in its 94-year history, those chosen aren’t always morally upright – but it is a massive spotlight.
Time’s announcement of Musk as its pick for the title began by describing him as “the richest man in the world.” In this sense, the selection is fitting, since Americans so worship wealth. But it’s unfortunate that Time has chosen to recognize someone who is so cavalier with his money, and whose charitable giving doesn’t begin to match the scale of his resources. As The New York Times explained, “Before this year, one estimate put his giving at $100 million, a lot by almost any standard, except for multibillionaires like Mr. Musk.”
It’s particularly unfortunate that Musk – like other leading billionaires, including Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson – is spending so much effort and money trying to get people to outer space while there’s so much need right here on Earth. For instance, millions of Afghanis are facing starvation right now. This winter, the lives of more than half the people in Afghanistan – an estimated 22.8 million people – will be endangered by lack of food.
What’s even worse, Musk has discouraged other people with resources from helping their fellow human beings in need. He has recently engaged in what one researcher describes as “troll philanthropy” by questioning the value of important contributions he and others could make to the well-being of humankind. For example, Musk recently cast aspersions on the World Food Programme by challenging it to explain how it would end hunger, and even offered to sell his stock to pay for it. The UN responded with a detailed plan, but Musk has been silent. Musk also ran a poll asking people whether he should pay taxes. Let’s be clear, Mr. Musk: everyone should pay their share of taxes to contribute to public spending on things like education, safety and a healthy environment, from which we all benefit.
Musk has also demonstrated remarkable irresponsibility in his response to the pandemic. As I’ve written before, his call for America to reopen during a time when social distancing was necessary to save lives was nothing short of selfish. He also promoted vaccine skepticism early on by questioning their safety and saying he wouldn’t get one. Any responsible public figure would have done just the opposite and used his profile to encourage as many people as possible to get inoculated. While he later said he was vaccinated and supported vaccines, his initial comments came at a crucial moment when attitudes about vaccine hesitancy and refusal were still being formed. Musk should have had a better understanding of his influence.
It’s also abundantly clear that Musk is not a man in need of further attention. The entrepreneur apparently thinks he’s so interesting that, as Time pointed out, he’s been known to Tweet to alert people when he’s going to the bathroom. While it’s easy to see why he’s become so self-absorbed – and the prospects of a future with self-driving cars and tourist flights to outer space are certainly fascinating – it’s unclear why we as a culture should be fixating on a man whose individual choices are not worthy of recognition. Imagine the very different message that would have been sent if Time had instead focused on the scientists and healthcare workers who have selflessly thrown themselves at the service of others during a devastating year for humanity.
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We can all be interested in futuristic advances without venerating boy-men like Musk whose personal behavior is anything but exemplary. While his business ventures are certainly worthy of discussion, there’s no need to create a personality cult around a man whose personal choices aren’t a worthy model for others to follow.