Sunday, December 18, 2022

The Heel Turn

Elon Musk with Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, December 18 at the World Cup in Qatar. Original image source: David Niviere/ABACA/INSTARimages via Daily Mail.

In professional wrestling, one of the oldest ways to renew audience interest in a wrestler's “gimmick” is to have the wrestler turn heel.

Wrestling matches are a simple morality tale, good versus evil. The good guy is called the “face” while the bad guy is called the “heel.”

We go to the movies, attend a play, watch a wrestling show because we want to root for the good guy and boo the bad guy. Very few tales end with the protagonist losing to the antagonist. While those stories might be more complex and sophisticated, typically they don't do very well at the box office.

A gimmick can turn stale after a while, so the typical way to freshen a character is a “turn.” A “heel turn” means a good guy turns bad. A “face turn” means a bad guy turns good.

And yet there's a certain charm to having a really good villain.

When I saw Star Wars in 1977 for the first time, it had been out for a couple weeks. It was all the rage on college campuses. I had no clue, but my friends insisted I had to go with them to see it. Off we went, standing in a line that wrapped around the theater. We sat in the last available seats, which were in the front row. That opening narrative crawl began, then the Tantive IV raced over our heads, followed by Darth Vader's massive star cruiser. After the Rebel ship was boarded, Vader entered, wearing black amid all that white. (The bad guy wears the black hat.) To my perplexity, the audience began throwing popcorn bags and soft drinks at the screen!

I thought, “What did this guy do?!”

After we hated Darth Vader for six years, he redeemed himself in Return of the Jedi by — spoiler alert! — saving his son, Luke Skywalker. In pro wrestling terms, Vader did a face turn.

Hulk Hogan's heel turn at Bash at the Beach, July 7, 1996. Video source: WWE YouTube channel.

The best heel turn in pro wrestling history, arguably, is Hulk Hogan in 1996. Hogan had been the #1 “face” for the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) in the 1980s. His catch phrase was to advise children to “say your prayers and take your vitamins.” But by the early 1990s, the gimmick had gone stale, his character always performing the same limited number of moves. Hogan left the WWF for a year in Japan, where he could do more than a leg drop. In 1994, Hogan signed with World Championship Wrestling, a southern promotion owned by billionaire Ted Turner. Hogan did his same prayers-and-vitamins gimmick for WCW, which trailed the WWF in the ratings.

At a pay-per-view event in Daytona Beach on July 7, 1996, Hogan turned heel. He joined fellow WWF refugees Kevin Nash and Scott Hall to form the New World Order. As Hogan addressed the angry crowd, garbage pelted the heel wrestlers in the ring.

The nWo became one of the most successful gimmicks in wrestling history. WCW overtook WWF in the ratings. The nWo T-shirt became a best seller. The heel stable became “cool” and “got over” with more cheers than the good guys.

Like most gimmicks, the nWo ran its course, but it fundamentally changed the business of professional wrestling.

So what's all this have to do with the space biz?

You probably know that SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk bought Twitter in October for $44 billion. He fired executives, fired staff, and those who remained were told to work brutal hours or accept severance payments. Musk founded the acquisition in part with funding from a Saudi holding company.

The value of Tesla shares, year-to-date in 2022. Image source: Google.

Musk has sold billions of dollars of his Tesla shares to help pay his debt; year-to-date in 2022, the value of the car company's shares have plummeted from about $400 per share to $150. That's a loss of about 62% in this calendar year.

According to recent media reports, Twitter has failed to pay rent on its offices in recent weeks. Most of its revenue comes from selling advertising (which is why we see all those annoying ad tweets) but, according to media reports, many significant advertisers have left Twitter. Musk has picked fights with some of those advertisers, most notably Apple, after Musk promised to resurrect extremist accounts linked to white supremacists and insurrectionsts, including former President Donald Trump. Musk was photographed today attending the World Cup with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

In recent days, Musk banned journalists from CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other media companies, supposedly because they reported on a University of Central Florida student who built a web site that tracks Musk's personal jet using information publicly available from the Federal Aviation Administration. Musk has threatened to sue the student and “organizations who supported harm to my family,” claiming that media reports on his whereabouts make him a target for assassination.

Um, okay.

While he was at the World Cup, Musk banned mention on Twitter of other social media platforms. Twitter users, including me, have been signing up for other platforms because they're fed up with Elon's antics. Any tweet posting that you're on another social media platform is grounds for banishment.

Elon Musk in April had tweeted that he intended to buy Twitter to restore “free speech,” but his definition of that has been so capricious and arbitrary that many of us no longer know if what we're posting is legal by his whims or not.

Elon Musk's April 26, 2022 tweet defining “free speech.” Image source: Twitter.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution regulates government restrictions on speech, but that doesn't apply to a private company such as Twitter. Musk can ban people for any reason he wants — and he is.

While he's been busy running Twitter into the ground, Musk seems to have paid less attention to SpaceX, their new launch system Starship in particular. In November, COO Gwynne Shotwell and long-time Vice President Mark Juncosa have been reassigned to Starship. Not only is SpaceX relying on Starship for its future business model, but NASA is relying upon a lunar version of Starship for Project Artemis to land astronauts on the Moon's surface.

April 16, 2021 ... NASA announces the selection of the SpaceX Starship for its first Human Landing System on the Moon. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

SpaceX has become NASA's dominant vendor. SpaceX Falcon boosters launch NASA payloads. SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launch cargo and crew to the International Space Station. SpaceX also launches payloads for the Space Force. The SpaceX Starlink satellite network provides remote communications for American military services, and has been a lifeline for Ukraine this year as the nation defends itself against Russian invasion. In October, around the time he bought Twitter, Musk threatened to cut off Ukraine unless the Pentagon paid for Ukraine's Starlink services.

Unlike Tesla, SpaceX is a privately held company. Elon remains the dominant shareholder at both. If he can't make his debt payments, one has to wonder at what point he has to start selling off his SpaceX shares. Does he declare bankruptcy or sell off assets?

In October 2005, as the Federal Trade Commission considered granting United Launch Alliance a legal monopoly for all U.S. government launch requirements, Musk sued, but ultimately lost because SpaceX had no rockets to offer. Here we are sixteen years later; ULA is still alive, and Blue Origin might one day offer another option, but SpaceX dominates the launch landscape. If SpaceX were to go bust because of Musk's debts, would the government have to bail out the company as it has with other distressed industries in the past?

For more than a decade, Elon Musk was the space industry's Hulk Hogan. His acquisition of Twitter, and subsequent behavior, have turned him heel in the eyes of many. Some have wondered if Elon's heel turn is all an act, if he's trying to create controversy because it will increase Twitter activity and therefore appeal to advertisers. If it is, it's not working, because lots of virtual garbage is being thrown at him online. Musk has destroyed much of the good will he's built up with the American public in the last decade. I wouldn't be surprised if a congressional hearing is held sometime in the next session to question the government's reliance on SpaceX given Elon's apparent instability.

UPDATE December 19, 2022CNN reports that Twitter has deleted its policy banning mention of other social media platforms. Elon Musk posted a poll asking if he should step down as CEO, but also threatened, “As the saying goes, be careful what you wish, as you might get it.”

Leonidas al Raisi, a music producer and entrepreneur who says he's an investor in Tesla and Twitter, posted a series of tweets Sunday night claiming he “overheard Elon Musk [at the World Cup] discussing investment opportunities from the Amir of Qatar @TamimBinHamad & other Saudi Royals for his businesses, specifically Twitter,but from their body language & diplomatic response, it didn’t seem very positive. They asked him to find a suitable CEO ... he was told by his Saudi & Qatari investors to get his shit together. They are not happy with the way he is proving to be an amateur CEO and asked him to step down. That tweet followed by this ‘pretend’ poll asking if he should step down as CEO to save the embarrassment. Remember that Saudi Prince @Alwaleed_Talal invested $1.89 Billion and Qatar @QIA about $400 Million in Twitter. They are the real Power at Twitter.” Raisi's claims have not been independently verified.

I'm still on Twitter at @WordsmithFL but no longer posting there. You can find me active on Counter.Social at @WordsmithFL. It's not doing much right now, but I'm also on Post.News at @WordsmithFL.