TERRY PRONE: Being a ‘genius’ now seems also a licence to be badly behaved

Elon Musk

Lady Caroline Lamb would have loved social media. She would have been a highly-paid fashion influencer, offering tips like “spray a fine mist of water on your gauzy gown, before you go out for the night, because the mist will make it cling to your body in a way that’s to die for”.

She might have been like the influencer who posed on her bed with a bottle of Listerine in the background and was excoriated on social media, as if she, her bed, and the mouthwash were harbingers of World War III. But what’s an excoriation between friends? Nothing, if you are as rich and reckless as was Lady Caroline.

She was up for anything in breeches, but particularly up for Lord Byron, for whom the delights she offered in bed were speedily outweighed by her craziness everywhere else.

That said, she summed up the romantic hero of her time better than anyone else. He was, she said, “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

Glossing over the fact that she pretty much qualified for the same description, most of the poets of the time (with the exception of William Wordsworth, who was a solid, even boring, citizen) could be so described. They were dissolute, did what they wanted with whoever they wanted, and were forgiven, for the most part, because they were bestselling artists who imprinted themselves for life on bookish teenage girls.

The mantle of “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” has passed, in the current century, from poets to entrepreneurs. Permission to be reckless and destructive is now firmly in the possession of the “geniuses” who start up major corporations, especially those in the hi-tech area. 

You don’t even have to look at the working life of Steve Jobs to see this in action, although the examples are multiplicitous when he was at Apple and other corporations. Just visit his deathbed.

Now, you know the Victorian drill about deathbeds. The person occupying the bed calls in old enemies and begs forgiveness for ought that he (occasionally she) might have done to screw with an erstwhile good relationship. Sons and daughters are gathered around and given loving instructions. 

The lads were always pointed toward minding their mothers, without any proof offered that the mothers needed minding. But it sounded good and felt good.

The deathbed was where even a man of limited nobility in life, a spectacular nobody in death, faced the last trump with dignity and courage, as the waiting archangel’s wings started to shed feathers onto the quilt.

When Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs, popped his clogs a few years back, when he was in his 50s, he didn’t follow proper deathbed protocol. Sons and daughters from more than one relationship visited him. He spoke to them. 

He spoke words they would remember for the rest of their lives, because of the gravity of his health situation. One of them, his eldest daughter, was told by her dying father that she smelled like a toilet.

This was consistent with how he had treated her from before she was even born. He first denied paternity of baby Lisa. When the law forced him to do a DNA test, which conclusively proved his paternity, he continued to deny it. 

Then, he claimed that the Apple computer on which he was working around the time of her birth was named after her. Then, he denied it, saying the title was an acronym for local integrated systems architecture. When he became a multimillionaire, while she was still a child, he increased his payments to her to $500 a month.

Golly, gee. Oh, and I nearly forgot, he later backtracked on the local integrated systems architecture acronym and admitted the machine was named after her.

Steve Jobs, in short, was a nasty, even crazily nasty, piece of work. It’s understandable that his emotionally abandoned daughter would tolerate his disgraceful treatment of her, and, like a whipped dog, come back for more. That’s what adults who were once children with attachment issues do. What’s more puzzling is why this kind of behaviour is tolerated, even justified, by others.

Jobs’s sister, Mona Simpson, for example, didn’t grow up with him or depend on him. Because he was adopted, she didn’t meet him until her 20s. She is a successful novelist, whose work shows keen observation of the human species. Yet, her eulogy for her brother, published in the New York Times (and not anonymously), is gag-making in its hagiographic fervour. Not to mention its daft incoherence.

“For an innovator,” Simpson said, “Steve was remarkably loyal. If he loved a shirt, he’d order 10 or 100 of them. In the Palo Alto house, there are probably enough black cotton turtlenecks for everyone in this church.”

Three sentences. The first makes no sense at all. Have we all missed the research proving that entrepreneurs, by their nature, are disloyal? And on whom do they focus their disloyalty? I appreciate that Facebook boss, Mark Zuckerberg’s early colleagues might put their hands up, but one example does not a trait make.

In her eulogy, Mona Simpson reduces loyalty to unimaginative bulk purchase by a man with the money to do it, who clearly had no interest in how he was viewed by others. It simply saved him time.

Since his demise, Jobs’s fame-shaped place in the international public mind has been largely taken by Tesla founder, Elon Musk, who shipped a silvery submarine to Thailand to help rescue the football team of boys stranded on an underground rock.

Thanks, but no thanks, was the response of the real rescuers.

In reply, Musk called one of them a paedophile and has continued this accusation ever since.

Except, of course, when his time is taken up telling everybody (except the proper authorities and his own board) that he’s going to take Tesla private, then — in an echo of Jobs’s masterful inconsistency — announcing that, on second thoughts, he’s not going to do that all.

He has also been filmed, on a narrowcast interview, apparently smoking hash.

Tesla’s share price dropped because of these capers, but the fact that Musk is still in situ, at the top of Tesla, speaks to the oversized reverence the 21st century has for the entrepreneur, especially if, like Musk, they’re geniuses, having won several post-grad degrees at an early age.

Add all that up, and it amounts to a free pass to Musk, allowing him to be as crazily nasty as was Steve Jobs and as mad, bad, and dangerous to know as Byron.

Poets no longer evoke such adoration, but we’re still all over the place in our tolerance for disgraceful behaviour in our heroes. Something is seriously wrong with us when we assume all politicians to be grievous, evil self-servers, yet put genius entrepreneurs above the laws of common decency.

More on this topic

Worldwide tributes to Apple supremo JobsWorldwide tributes to Apple supremo Jobs

Taoiseach hails 'creative genius' JobsTaoiseach hails 'creative genius' Jobs

Obama hails 'visionary' JobsObama hails 'visionary' Jobs

Apple co-founder Jobs dies aged 56Apple co-founder Jobs dies aged 56


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