Even if you don’t play golf or are a fan of this sport, as I am, you are probably aware of the controversy that currently surrounds it. Several of the world’s top professional golfers, notably Phil Mickelson, have struck lucrative deals to play a new circuit, the LIV Golf International Series, sponsored by Saudi Arabia. The PGA Tour, which has historically dominated this sporting specialty, reacted by suspending 17 of them.
It is clear that the Saudis are making efforts to whitewash their reputations—eco-whitewash it?—in an attempt to make people forget about the atrocities perpetrated by their regime. What is not so clear is what the PGA’s motives are. Have you considered that the LIV Series is flawed, that it is not a true course of golf? Trying to crush the competition? Or was the problem the sponsors of the tournament?
PGA participants interviewed by Pro Golf Weekly are in no doubt: an overwhelming majority attributed Mickelson’s exclusion to “cancel culture” or “the media.” I hope they are right. I mean, if receiving massive amounts of money for providing favorable public relations to a regime that treats critical journalists by killing and dismembering them with a bone saw doesn’t justify cancellation, what would? And yet Mickelson, among others, was willing to provide them.
So, if you want my opinion, this isn’t about whether the PGA has (or hasn’t) found a line it won’t cross. It is that, evidently, for many members of the American elite those lines do not exist.
In other words, the spread of the culture of cancellation is much less important and threatening than that of the culture of everything for sale. More and more people at the top of our social hierarchy seem willing to do anything for anyone as long as the money is attractive enough.
This is not a purely partisan issue, although it is possible that this culture is somewhat more prevalent on the right than on the left. It remains remarkable, given Donald Trump’s bellows touting “America First,” the number of members of his inner circle who have been credibly accused of acting as agents of despotic foreign governments, or have been convicted of doing so, or even they have confessed. And even before Trump left office, both his son-in-law’s and his Treasury secretary were courting investors from the Middle East, soon collecting huge sums from the Saudis and other Gulf governments.
He knows in depth all the sides of the coin.
But, as I said, this is not a purely partisan issue. On Sunday, the president of the equidistant (and highly influential) Brookings Institution resigned in the wake of an FBI investigation into whether he had illegally lobbied for Qatar. And while favoring a foreign government for profit has special legal status, it is not clear that it is morally worse than favoring dubious national interests for money.
Last fall I was very disappointed when the cryptocurrency exchange Crypto.com started running an ad starring the famous liberal actor Matt Damon. Maybe Damon doesn’t know much about cryptocurrencies and the extreme distrust of many analysts about what purposes they serve. The actor was hired to play a role, but in doing so he helped promote what, now more than ever, appears to be a fraud: cryptocurrencies have lost more than 1.6 trillion in value since that ad began to circulate.
Now, hasn’t it always been like this? Haven’t people been getting a slice of power and fame since the dawn of civilization? Yes, but I don’t think it’s idealizing the past to insinuate that before it was done with more restraint, that the disgrace that came with selling yourself too much in full view of everyone was greater. In 1967, John Kenneth Galbraith, who was not exactly a fan of capitalism, stated that top corporate executives were subject to a “code” that prevented “private profit” and that, in fact, imposed “a high level of personal honesty”. I don’t think he was being totally naive. Or consider the fact that, at the time, it was considered scandalous that Gerald Ford, when he was no longer president, enriched himself with paid speaking engagements, positions on company boards, and so on.
For the sake of full transparency, I will say that it is true that I sometimes give paid lectures within the limits set by the rules of New York Times. But I try, not always successfully, to make sure that the sponsors are not villains and don’t pay for favorable publicity, which, going back to golf, is just what Mickelson and company did by agreeing to play the Tour de la Bone Mountain.
What explains this boom in the culture of everything for sale? Tax breaks may have played a role: selling your soul is more attractive when you keep a bigger share of the profits. Rising income inequality can inspire envy, the desire to keep up with the super-elite. And, surely, little by little it has become something normal: if everyone else is sold out, why shouldn’t I join the party too?
Whatever the explanation, it is clear that something has changed; at the top there is much more corruption than before. And among the costs of this corruption, I would say, is a process of demoralization. Before, children looked to public figures, and sports stars in particular, as role models. Do you still see them like this? Is it possible, given what public figures will do if the checks are big enough?
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