SMIRK (audio version)
Chapter 9, Part 2: No Adults in the Room

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Chapter 9, Part 2: No Adults in the Room

Elon Musk might let Martin Shkreli back on Twitter. What madness does that portend?
An illustration of Martin Shkreli scrolling through his phone.
An illustration of Martin Shkreli scrolling through his phone.

The apocalypse is upon us. Or, rather, Elon Musk owns Twitter. Judging by the framing of the situation in media headlines, it’s a bit hard to tell the difference. 

There is definitely a generalized sense of mayhem. After saddling the platform with billions of dollars of debt in his leveraged buyout, Musk has been desperate to cut expenses – slashing jobs seemingly at random, and demanding that remaining employees commit to being “extremely hardcore.” There is rampant speculation that Twitter might end up in bankruptcy, slowly fall apart, lose all of its advertisers, or be shut down completely. 

Worst of all, at least in the eyes of much of the media establishment, Musk is letting people back on the platform who had been previously banned for life. First, he opened the doors to former President Donald Trump, kicked off for encouraging insurrection after he lost the 2020 election, and then he welcomed back other right-wing politicians. Now he’s pledged to institute “amnesty” for many others who committed terms of service violations, like harassment — including, presumably, Martin Shkreli

This series of events is, naturally, being characterized by the press as opening “the gates of hell,” and causing a surge of hate speech that will lead to literal destruction, violence and death.

This headline is a little much.

As much as I despise verbal abuse, particularly when it’s directed at people for being gay, or trans, or for the color of their skin, for their religion, or for their gender, I can’t take Nostadramus-style predictions by major media institutions seriously. Monstrous behavior on Twitter didn’t suddenly stop because Trump, or Martin, was banished. It doesn’t seem likely to me that letting the outcasts back – on closely-watched probation, anyway — would suddenly inspire any more vileness than what already exists in our culture. 

Instead, I see a power struggle. There was once a lever that could be pulled: If someone offended certain constituencies, their voice could be silenced, their persona diminished and their ability to fully participate in society kneecapped. Now the lever is in the hands of a wildly unpredictable billionaire who is impervious to the influence of left-leaning political groups and the Fourth Estate. They want it back, and they will use every bit of ammunition they have to try to reclaim it. 

And they may very well win. It’s not like their criticisms of Musk are completely wrong. The world’s wealthiest man makes his own rules; he openly mocks authority; he is impulsive, eccentric, and notoriously difficult to work with; he is self-absorbed and cultivates a following of acolytes; he spins elaborate fantasies and over-promises and under-delivers; he’s a contrarian; he delights in shocking and needling people, and generally being a troll; he takes insane-sounding risks and flirts, smilingly, with disaster.

In short, he’s not really very different at all, at least in those respects, from Martin Shkreli.

True, Martin never managed to build a Tesla or a SpaceX, but his big ideas and chaotic management “style,” if you could call it that, had very Musk-like notes. Never content to sit still, Martin kept up with his ambitious scheming even after he was arrested, fired as CEO of KaloBios, and stepped down as CEO of his drug company Turing. He got interested in coding, and he started to think about information services for financial professionals. One company had long held a near-monopoly over that market: Bloomberg.

The result, his short-lived startup Gödel Systems, had potential but was such a disorderly mess that its prospects for living up to Martin’s dreams seemed severely limited, a former developer told me back in 2018. I’m going to call him “Luke,” which is not his real name, to protect his privacy.

Over coffee in Park Slope, the rich and mostly white liberal enclave where I used to live with my ex-husband, Luke described…

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SMIRK (audio version)
My experiences uncovering the story of, and falling in love with, Martin Shkreli.