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America, Can We Talk About Our Guru Problem?
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America, Can We Talk About Our Guru Problem?

The rich and famous might feel less like they belong on Mount Olympus if we stopped treating them like Greek gods.

Elon Musk attends The 2022 Met Gala. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue)

I don’t know much about cryptocurrency, but I can still recognize when a financial Hindenburg bursts into flames. This, for example, seems bad:

In less than a week, the cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried went from industry leader to industry villain, lost most of his fortune, saw his $32 billion company plunge into bankruptcy and became the target of investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department.

I know even less about the science of testing blood, but I know this seems pretty bad as well:

Federal prosecutors have asked a judge to sentence disgraced Theranos CE0 Elizabeth Holmes to 15 years in prison, arguing she deserves a lengthy prison term because her massive scheme duped investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars by falsely convincing them her company had developed a revolutionary blood testing device.

Readers know I enthusiastically endorse Elon Musk’s considerable accomplishments with SpaceX. His Starship Super Heavy booster just successfully test-fired 14 engines simultaneously, his Starship spacecraft now sits atop a booster in Texas awaiting its first orbital test flight, and the takeoff and recovery of his Falcon 9 rocket are so common as to be routine. 

That’s all spectacular stuff. This, however, is not:

Musk has owned Twitter for about 20 days. In that time he has taken a platform that, while flawed, was functional, and done the following:

  • Cut staff so aggressively that people fear the site won’t be able to function properly, and so hastily that Twitter has had to ask some employees to come back.
  • Rolled out a pay-for-verification plan that may or may not lose Twitter money while also turning Twitter into a chaos market where people are paying $8 to impersonate politicians, brands, and public figures, and watch it go very viral.
  • Alienated advertisers that the company desperately needs with conspiratorial tweets and general erratic behavior.

I hope Musk can right the ship and actually improve Twitter, and it’s far too soon to call him a failure. But it’s clear that he was not immediately ready for the challenge. He’s a user who became an owner, and he’s learning on the fly. 

Finally, if you read anything else today, please read this superb takedown of Peter Thiel acolyte (and failed Republican Senate candidate) Blake Masters in National Review. It’s by Jack Butler of Remnant fame, and it begins like this:

You need a very high I.Q. to understand Blake Masters, in his telling. The Peter Thiel protégé — Masters had long worked for Thiel and they cowrote 2014’s Zero to One — has been consistent about this through the years. In a frustrated online exchange from his college days that emerged during his failed Arizona Senate campaign, Masters made his high self-regard clear. “I don’t mean any disrespect — but it takes years to understand where I’m coming from, let alone agree or disagree,” he wrote. “To expect NOT to receive the usual (intelligent, perhaps, but still typical) objections and questions in response to a post such as mine above would be silly. . . . I don’t know what gave me the urge to try anyways.”

I apologize for the lengthy opening quotes, but I had to set the stage for a simple, but important, declaration. America, we have a guru problem. 

Sometimes the guru problem manifests itself in outright fraud or spectacular failure. Here I’m talking not just about FTX and Theranos, but also about WeWork and other examples where otherwise-smart people fell under the seductive charm of a “visionary.” But our guru problem isn’t limited to fraud and failure, it also manifests itself in the idea of “transferable expertise,” the idea that great success in one arena can translate into extraordinary knowledge or capability in completely different fields.

This has always been a problem, especially in politics and government. While some generals or some CEOs might also make good politicians, American history is littered with examples of men and women who were simply out of their depth the moment they migrated from the industry or arena that made them famous. 

I’m sure it’s recency bias, but I keep thinking that the information revolution and the rise of big tech made the guru problem worse. In some ways the very mystery of technology created its own allure. The fact that tech titans seemed to make magic granted them a mystique. They could seem larger than life, with insights keener than our own. If they could see new technology, could they not also peer into the future and see the new world they’ll make?

How many times have we seen different versions of the same movie—the tech guru stalks the stage, lavalier mic around his ears, speaking to a packed audience of cheering fans and employees—not just about his or her products, but the way in which they’ve “reimagined” their industry and reshaped the Earth?

Or how many times have we seen some version of the same panel discussion—often at a prestigious event or location—where current or former world leaders share the stage with the entrepreneur of the moment, praising their “revolutionary” products, and at least pretending to seek their counsel about the course of peoples and nations? 

Sometimes, the conversation can be downright embarrassing. Let’s go back to Peter Thiel, renowned as a co-founder of PayPal and Palantir (good for him!) and revered by some as a “visionary.” But is he really? Here’s an excerpt from a 2020 Hoover Institution conversation with Peter Robinson called “The World According to Peter Thiel.” Feast your eyes on this:

Peter Robinson: Visions of the future. During a trip to Europe last year, you realized that, at least in Western Europe, there are really only three visions of the future on offer. Vision one, accommodation more or less, in one way or another, with Sharia. Explain.

Peter Thiel: Well, I would say that, I think in politics or culture for the future to have power over the present, let me start with the general point, it has to be different from the present. The future has power because it’s a time that will look different from the present and so it can’t just be an endless Groundhog Day. If it’s just always the same, it’s just always repetition, then the future does not have any appeal and that’s not part of a political agenda. And so if we look at Europe and we say, well, how will Europe be different from the way it is today in the future? I think there’s sort of three pictures of a very different future, and sort of behind door number one is Islamic Sharia law, and if you’re a woman, you’ll be wearing a burka. So that’s a very different picture of the future, it’s very concrete. Behind door number two is the Chinese communist AI, and it’s the big eye of Sauron that will be watching you at all times and all places. That’s door number two for the future. And door number three is the green movement, and you’ll be puttering around in an E scooter and you’ll be separating out your garbage in a recycling can. And then I think the challenge is that there are no other doors. Those are the three options. And this is a, even though I’m not a crazy environmentalist, this would be my sort of argument for why the green stuff has so much traction in Europe. If those are the only three options, you know, I’ll go with Greta.

Wait. What? The three options for the liberal democracies of Western Europe are Sharia law, “Chinese communist AI,” and some kind of green energy state? And there are “no other doors?” The only thing that separates that comment from a light-night, weed-infused dorm room bull session is his few billion dollars. That’s the person who should reshape the GOP? 

I’ve come to your inbox less to condemn the gurus (though people who commit fraud should pay the price), but to ask a different question. Why do we fall for them time and again?

I’m not someone who tells celebrities to “shut up and sing” or athletes to “shut up and dribble.” And I’d never tell Elon Musk to “shut up and get to Mars” or tell Peter Thiel, “shut up and facilitate cashless transactions.” I like the marketplace of ideas. I’m open to interesting thoughts from unlikely sources. 

But I object to the presumption of insight from famous or successful people. I object to the hero worship (or greed) I’ve seen with my own eyes, where sycophants and fans won’t tell the wealthy and famous obvious truths because they hope to bask in their reflected glory or benefit from their largesse. 

As I’ve written before when pondering the problem of Christian celebrity, America’s wealthiest and most famous people might stop thinking they belong on Mount Olympus if we stopped treating them like Greek gods. 

It’s human to seek earthly saviors, especially in uncertain times. We want to be inspired. We want to find champions who will defeat our enemies. And so we fall for the frauds and beg even those who are genuinely successful to give us more—even when “more” stretches them beyond their ability. 

This is a teaching moment. As Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto empire implodes, as Elizabeth Holmes likely goes to prison, as WeWork lies in ruins, as Elon Musk flails away on Twitter, and as Thielism is exposed as pretentious nonsense, perhaps this is the time when we can finally stop seeking saviors and start saying to even the most rich and powerful among us, “Remember, thou art only a man.”

One more thing …

I’m apologizing in advance for ending with a commercial, of all things. But in light of our latest Advisory Opinions podcast, this one hit me in all the feels. Enjoy: 

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.