Contest: Who's the Worst Human of the Year?
Four top contenders emerge in the contest of character, or lack of it
OK, there’s not really an award, but if there were, who do you think would deserve it? (Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash)
We’ve got a race, folks: At the top of the 2022 homestretch, Elon Musk is apparently trying to overtake the perennial contenders for Worst Human of the Year – namely, Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. The three older dudes remain leaders of the pack — it is no easy thing to do more harm than such adept merchants of misery — but Musk seems bent lately on being not just the world’s richest man, but also its most callous.
This may sound like hyperbole if you think that all Musk has done to draw anybody’s ire is waste billions of dollars buying a money-losing technology platform that he seems intent on running into the ground. I mean, it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that if you don’t like Twitter, you shouldn’t use it, right? And, clearly, Musk is not wholly evil: He makes good rockets and cars, and he seems to be a man eager to share his love, which we infer by the 10 children he has fathered with three moms. “Doing my best to help the underpopulation crisis,” Musk explained last year, after one of his former companions bore twins, just a month before a more recent ex-paramour also had a child.1 Adorable!
But Musk qualified to contend for the 2022 WHY Cup because he, like the other top contenders, has not only intentionally propagated distress on others, but also set in motion conditions that will hurt countless people unknown to him, and perhaps many yet to be born. That’s what sets the Four Horsemen of Atrocity apart from your run-of-the-mill butchers and barbarians, people like Bashar al-Assad of Syria or Kim Jong-un of North Korea, who are responsible for death and devastation in their countries: Awful dictators often arise from chaotic conditions, which they plumb to maintain power, while our four leading louts have the resources to make life so much better for so many — indeed, to be agents of hope. They have instead chosen to induce ruin.
It’s a contest of character, then — or, more accurately, of displays of bad character — which might be understood as not mere carping, but as a way to discern the values that matter to us and the consequences of their absence. These four finalists have each been given so much, and have found themselves in a position to uplift so many others, which is what makes them stand out: They are such disappointments.
Of course, the most obvious choice for Worst Human must be Vladimir Putin. The war he launched in February has left 100,000 fighters dead or wounded on each side, killed some 40,000 Ukrainian civilians and displaced perhaps 30 million people from their homes.2 Putin’s war will cause some people to starve and others to freeze to death. His rationale for the attack on a sovereign nation is a sham — Ukraine was not, as Putin claimed, led by Nazis, and his argument that Ukraine is by rights a part of Russia hinges on a shallow sense of history. Over the past two decades, the repression of Russia internally and projection of its power abroad are especially tragic in light of the chance Putin had at the outset of his presidency to promote domestic reform and international collaboration. He took a different course, tragically, leaving his nation an outcast and the planet less stable.
Compared to Putin, Donald Trump isn’t so bad, you may say, which is true enough, but only in that context. Among American leaders, there has never been one worse. His presidency encouraged white nationalism and anti-Semitism, put wind in the sails of right-wing extremists, enriched the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and tore at the fabric of our Constitution. America’s national security was weakened by his careless foreign policy, and his attacks on government itself (including the Big Lie that he was cheated out of a second term) have made the survival of America as a democracy a realistic worry for the first time since the Civil War.
And then there’s Rupert Murdoch. I could argue that Trump wouldn’t be where he is — or, rather, where he was, namely, the White House — without Murdoch. Nor would America be so unsettled. That’s because Murdoch pioneered the notion of intentionally biased news coverage on a national scale, spawning a new media ecosystem that has distorted reality for millions of unsuspecting people, and building an audience eager for the grievance politics of Trump. The digital revolution would surely have upended the traditions of serious journalism even if Fox News hadn’t been hatched by Murdoch and Roger Ailes just as we were learning what a Web site is. But would America be as divided and nearly ungovernable a nation as it is now without Fox’s quarter-century of distortion, and its daily dose of cultural conflict to stir resentment and reap profit? And wouldn’t a more united America be more of a positive force for peace and justice globally?
Which brings us to Elon Musk, whose unpopular and reckless takeover of Twitter isn’t just financially irresponsible, but dangerous to Twitter's users around the globe. Musk upended the lives of thousands of families directly by firing two-thirds of Twitter’s staff, then brought a wrecking ball to the platform’s efforts to stem the flow of digital hate speech and lies.3 Now he seems to be using his Twitter feed to tout some of the outrageous notions of QAnon, a fringe movement that claims the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles whom Trump will chase away from government.4 He has tweeted attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci, an honest public servant whose life has been threatened on Twitter by those who claim he created Covid. Then last month Musk so pumped up an angry online mob that a former Twitter safety expert had to move his family out of their home in fear of their lives. As advertisers flee Musk’s Twitter and it totters toward insolvency, the chaos he is sowing is not only pushing Twitter off a cliff, but also tanking the value of Tesla stock, costing investors in the auto company billions of dollars.5
Why, you ask, should we care about Twitter? Because Twitter has become a vital link to information not only in America, but also in nations where citizens can’t otherwise get honest reporting. Without Twitter — or with a Twitter that is as likely to publish fake news and propaganda as facts — social movements in many controlled societies will be hobbled. Musk seems intent on converting an information lifeline into a noose of falsehoods.
In this country, he has meted out internal documents to a few chosen journalists — the so-called Twitter Files — that reveal, according to the right-wing media claque, that pre-Musk Twitter caved in to lobbying by Democrats to downplay or withhold stories that might hurt Joe Biden’s political prospects. A more realistic view is that the documents show earnest efforts at content moderation in the face of efforts to fill digital space with pro-Trump and anti-Biden posts. Musk’s manipulation of the information to suggest malfeasance or corruption is yet another blow to a polarized nation.
Musk’s actions are perverse because we need the major digital platforms to be more thoughtful, not less so, in deciding what to publish. It took years before Twitter and other digital platforms, including Facebook, got serious about reducing their incitement to violence, yet in just moments this week, Musk disbanded Twitter’s international Trust and Safety Council. What sort of an executive trashes the apparatus set up to inspire integrity in his company? Answer: an executive who cares more about attention than honesty, it seems — one who qualifies to be considered for the Worst Human of the Year trophy.
What links the four WHY finalists, in fact, is their shared lack of concern for the sort of fundamental decency that we hope to teach our children. We make the instructions pretty simple for youngsters: Don’t lie. Be kind to others. Treat weaker people gently. Encourage honesty.
We don’t give trophies for that because it’s viewed as simple good behavior that ought to be expected of all of us. It’s tragic, don’t you think, that such conduct isn’t the habit of so many people in positions of prominence?
So it’s awfully hard to pick one who is the worst. Or maybe we should just recognize that the value of Putin, Trump, Murdoch and Musk, and their ilk, is as object lessons: This is what bad character looks like, and it reminds us of how not to behave in a world that is desperate for leaders of good will.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Fort Smith, Ark. (Fort Smith Times Record, swtimes.com)
Killingly, Conn. (The Bulletin, norwichbulletin.com)
Doniphan County, Kan. (Salina Journal, salina.com)
Carlsbad, N.M. (Carlsbad Current Argus, currentargus.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Homelessness isn’t just a problem in big cities
Each night, some 300,000 Americans find themselves without a place to call home. We usually consider the crisis of homelessness to be a problem for big urban centers, but officials in Fort Smith, Ark., population less than 90,000, are trying to figure out what to do with “multiple areas” where lots of tents have sprung up on private property in the city. Reporting by Robert Medley in the Fort Smith Times Record notes that tents — the preferred mode of habitation for a lot of unhoused people nationwide — are prohibited by the same city ordinance that requires property owners to remove downed tree limbs and abandoned motor vehicles. City officials offered no solution, beyond proposing state legislation to ban homeless encampments on private property. Yep. That’ll do the trick.
Schools reluctantly adopt mental health plan
A month ago, Connecticut state education officials concluded after months of investigation that the Killingly school district had engaged in “deliberate indifference” to students’ “mental health, socio-economic and behavioral needs” by rejecting a grant-funded behavioral health initiative. Republican school board members had complained the mental health initiative might enable students to access care from licensed therapists without their parents’ permission. Now, just days before the state education board was to take up the issues raised in the investigation of the district, John Penney in The Bulletin of Norwich reports, the school district has made key staff changes and agreed to implement a new mental health initiative that is led by school district personnel — whose work, presumably, is funded by taxpayers, rather than a grant, but who thus work for the school board. The original proposal, Penney reported, arose after “a troubling spike in student mental health issues that included reported instances of suicidal ideation and self-harm incidents.”
Fears rise that ambulances won’t be available to serve rural areas
In a survey earlier this year, reports Andrew Ball of the Topeka Capital-Journal, 90 percent of the volunteer EMS companies in Kansas reported that they were understaffed. The pandemic aggravated trends that had been building for years, with many areas of the state on the precipice of losing ambulance service altogether due to a dearth of volunteers and fiscal constraints. While the shortage of trained workers is a national issue, it’s especially a problem in a rural state like Kansas, where two-thirds of the counties have fewer than 10,000 residents. Solutions aren’t uniform, Ball reports, but in some instances, taxpayers have voted to impose a tax surcharge on themselves to fund a private ambulance service in their county.
Petition seeks to reintroduce jaguar in the Southwest
Scientists believe there is only one jaguar living in the wild in the United States, reports Adrian Hedden in the Carlsbad Current Argus. Now a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, an independent Arizona-based nonprofit, argues that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ought to be compelled to do more to restore the big cats, and that the Gila National Forest in southern New Mexico — adjacent to lands in Mexico where jaguars survive — would be an ideal place for that work. “Because all life is connected in ways that humans only partly understand, I truly believe that jaguar reintroduction will benefit the long-term sustainability of all living beings in the Southwest,” a center advocate said.
ENDNOTE 12. 17.22
A season of music
We’re in what’s often called the Season of Light, a concept that surely arose from the stories of the birth of Jesus, depicting illuminated heavens and a star guiding the three magi to the manger in Bethlehem. For me, though, the season surrounding Christmas has always been a season of music.
When I was a youngster, the Christmas Eve candlelight service at our family’s church always featured special music, including choral pieces that the choirs, of adults, teens and children, had worked on for weeks, and often brass or string players from the high school band and orchestra. One evening I finished my role with a children’s choir and followed our director’s instructions to join our families — which, in my case, included a mom and sister in the choir loft and a dad in the pulpit. So I set out to tuck onto the floor of the big round wooden pulpit, which meant I had to slip past a crowd of instrumentalists outside the chancel — a couple of timpani and some trumpets and trombones, as I recall, and perhaps somebody with a pair of cymbals. Like a kitten in a barrel, then, I squeezed into a spot in the pulpit where I would be within view of my parents — indeed, I could have touched my dad’s shiny shoes. Then, since it was late, and I was a little boy, I dozed off.
I apparently missed the part where my father said, recounting the nativity account in the Gospel of Luke, “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying…" — words that clearly were the cue for the musicians. I still recall, though, a great crash, a rolling that sounded like thunder and a fanfare that seemed to be all around me, so that I might be, in fact, within that heavenly multitude. Surely, as the King James Bible would have it, I was “sore afraid,” and witnesses reported that at the first roll of timpani, I jumped about a foot from my curled-up sleeping spot, bumping my head on the pulpit — although, as described later that night by one chuckling choir member, “Like Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” I caught the choir’s exultant version of the movement from Handel’s Messiah, “Glory to God…” and I was transfixed, surrounded by the glorious sound. I wanted to be among them, to be one of those people making that music.
And so I have been, ever since. This weekend, threescore and more years after that night, I will join a terrific chorus and orchestra in a concert featuring booming timpani and shining brass, carrying on a family tradition that so moved a child as to instill a lifelong love of music.
Christmas is for some a sacred observance, and for others it is a cultural event. Whatever your relationship to the holidays, I hope you have a wonderful season, full of music and light, and I thank you for joining me here, on *our common ground, this great America.