Even if you don’t play or follow golf, which I don’t, you’re probably aware of the controversy now surrounding the game. Several of the world’s top professional players, notably Phil Mickelson, made extremely lucrative deals to play on a new tour, the LIV International Golf Series, sponsored by Saudi Arabia. The PGA Tour, which has traditionally dominated the sport, responded suspending 17 of these players.
The Saudis are obviously involved in reputation laundering: greenwashing? — in an attempt to make people forget about the atrocities his regime has perpetrated. It is less clear what motivated the PGA. Did you consider the LIV series to be flawed, not a proper golf tour? Was he trying to crush the competition? Or was the problem with the sponsors of the LIV series?
PGA attendees surveyed by Weekly ProGolf they had no doubts: an overwhelming majority attributed Mickelson’s exclusion to “media/cancel culture.” And I hope they are right. I mean, if I get paid a lot of money to provide favorable public relations for a regime that deals with critical journalists for killing and butchering them with a bone saw does not justify cancellation, what does? And yet Mickelson and others were willing to provide that PR
So if you ask me, the real story here isn’t that the PGA may (or may not) have found a line it won’t cross. It is that many members of the American elite evidently do not have such lines.
That is, the rise of cancel culture seems far less important and sinister than the rise of sellout culture. More and more people at the top of our social hierarchy seem willing to do anything, for anyone, as long as the money is good enough.
This is not a purely partisan issue, although the culture of surrender may be somewhat more prevalent on the right than on the left. It remains remarkable, given Donald Trump’s roar about America First, how many members of your inner circle — including Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, and Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney — have been credibly accused, in some cases convicted or even confessed to serving as paid agents of despotic foreign governments.
And even before Trump left office, both his son-in-law and his Treasury secretary were courting investors from the Middle East, and both soon received large sums of the Saudis and other Gulf governments.
But like I said, it’s not a purely partisan thing. On Sunday, the president of the median (and highly influential) Brookings Institution give up before an FBI investigation into whether he illegally lobbied for Qatar.
And while selling out to foreign governments has special legal status — not disclosing your role as a paid foreign agent is a crime — it is not clear that it is morally worse than selling out to dubious national interests.
My heart sank last fall when the Cryptocurrency exchange company Crypto.com has started running a ad starring famous liberal actor Matt Damon. Perhaps Damon didn’t know much about crypto and the extreme skepticism that many analysts have about his purpose; he was hired to play a role. (larry david did an ad for another cryptocurrency company that was featured during the Super Bowl). But in playing that role, he helped promote what seems more like a pump-and-dump scheme than ever; cryptocurrencies have lost more than $1.6 trillion in value ever since that ad started running.
But was it never like that? Haven’t people been cashing in on power and celebrity since the dawn of civilization? Yes, but I don’t think I’m romanticizing the past by suggesting that there used to be more restraint, more opprobrium associated with selling yourself too obviously. Back in 1967, John Kenneth Galbraith, hardly a cheerleader for capitalism, he claimed that top business executives were bound by a “code” that prevented “personal gain” and, in fact, enforced “a high standard of personal honesty.” I don’t think he was being completely naive.
Or consider the fact that it was considered shocking at the time that Gerald Ford He became richpost-presidency, with paid speeches, corporate board seats, etc.
Full disclosure: Yes, I sometimes give paid speeches within the limits set by the Times rules. But I try, not always successfulto make sure the sponsors aren’t bad and don’t do paid promotion, which is, getting back to golf, exactly what Mickelson & Co. were effectively doing when they signed up to play on the Bone Saw Tour.
What explains the rise of the sales culture? Tax cuts may have played a role: selling your soul becomes more attractive when you keep more of the profits. Rising income inequality can inspire envy, a desire to keep up with the super-elite. And surely there is a normalization process: everyone else is selling out, so why shouldn’t I join the party?
Whatever the explanation, something has clearly changed; there’s a lot more obvious corruption at the top than there was. And the costs of that corruption, I would say, include a process of demoralization. Children used to look up to public figures, particularly sports stars, as role models. They still do it? Can they, given what public figures will do if the checks are big enough?