Public opinion is turning on Elon Musk after his submarine spat.
Public opinion is turning on Elon Musk after his submarine spat.

At this point, Elon Musk is more arse than class

A PERFECTLY delivered insult is a thing of beauty.

It should puncture pomposity, skewer idiocy.

It should have a laser-like ability to throw stupidity into stark contrast.

When billionaire Elon Musk called one of the Thai cave rescue heroes a "pedo" this week, it did none of that. It only showed Musk up as a vacuous tanty-chucking arseclown prone to cruelty.

Musk is an extraordinary character, whose oversized reputation is clearly matched by an oversized ego.

He has done amazing things; he created Tesla, he built our giant battery. He is planning to race to Mars (although a NASA luminary told me a few months ago that he was widely expected to deliver a spaceship full of corpses to the Red Planet).

But no achievements, and certainly no amount of money, gave him the right to unleash a demented tirade at British cave diver Vern Unsworth, a man who had just risked his own life to save 12 young Thai boys.

In typical look-at-me-I'm-practically-Tony-Stark fashion, Musk turned up to the scene in Thailand toting a mini submarine. He was like a man with a fork in a world of soup, to poach a Noel Gallagher insult. Unsworth said it wouldn't work. A metal tube was not going to be able to snake around the tight corners. So Musk said something about a British guy living in Thailand and then followed up with "pedo".

"Pedo", said the billionaire to the hero.

As insults go, it was a flaming fail trifecta. It was neither witty nor funny. It did not touch on some kind of truth. And the choice of target was about as bright as his idea to make money selling flamethrowers.

A good insult must be smart, illuminating, and well-directed.

Take the Scots. When United States President Donald Trump visited this week they showed their remarkable ability to braid an insult. It started when he mistakenly said Scotland had voted to leave the EU. The printable responses included "you mangled apricot hellbeast", "you weapons-grade plum", and "you bloviating flesh bag". Other UK contributions to the Trump visit included:

"Yer Maw was an immigrant, ya tangerine roaster."

"Super-callous fragile-ego'd lying fascist baw bag."

"All in all, you're just another prick with no wall."

These are thoughtful insults. They play with words, they paint a truth, and they are an attack on someone powerful and consistently wrong.

A meander through Matthew Paris' book Scorn: the wittiest and wickedest insults in human history show that a good taunt must go beyond name calling. It is a political weapon, a linguistic device, a way to caricature someone.

Unsworth said Musk could stick his submarine “where it hurts”. (Pic: supplied)
Unsworth said Musk could stick his submarine “where it hurts”. (Pic: supplied)

The UK book has an entire chapter devoted to Australian politics. Unsurprisingly it's dominated by Paul Keating quotes - his classic line that Liberal Leader John Hewson's performance was "like being flogged with a warm lettuce". And his description of John Howard: "What we have is a dead carcass, swinging in the breeze, but nobody will cut it down to replace him."

Even better than a good insult is a great comeback - when Richard Nixon called then-Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (yes, Justin's dad) an arsehole, Pierre had a withering reply: "I've been called worse things by better people," he said.

A good swipe also has to hit the spot. As a "mature" soccer player, some turkeys would try to target my age. One aggressive young chicken who failed a hip-and-shoulder challenge and ended up sprawled on the ground screwed up her face and said, "You're so old, you look like you're 30." Her teammates laughed uproariously; as did mine. I was about 38.

To hit its target, a gibe must be closer to the mark. The banal, unthinking insult - "pedo" - was repulsive and inexplicable. More arse than class, and directed at someone less powerful.

When someone with a mouthpiece, like Musk, uses it to bash others it's a whole different category of insult. It's cowardly abuse that gives his followers license to be dumber, and meaner.

There's a Shakespeare-inspired insult generator online, that spews out floral invective, and no matter how many times I refreshed the page, the results seemed equally applicable to Musk: A churlish full-gorged hugger-mugger, an impertinent doghearted knave, weedy hedge-born canker-blossom.



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