Even if you don’t play or follow golf — which I don’t — you’re probably aware of the controversy now engulfing the game. A number of the world’s top-ranked pro players, notably Phil Mickelson, made extremely lucrative deals to play in a new tour, the LIV Golf International Series, sponsored by Saudi Arabia. The PGA Tour, which has traditionally dominated the sport, responded by suspending 17 of these players.
The Saudis are obviously engaged in reputation-laundering — greenswashing? — in an attempt to make people forget about the atrocities their regime has perpetrated. It’s less clear what motivated the PGA. Did it consider the LIV series flawed, not a proper golf tour? Was it attempting to squash competition? Or was the problem with the LIV series’ sponsors?
PGA attendees surveyed by ProGolf weekly were in no doubt: An overwhelming majority attributed Mickelson’s exclusion to “media/cancel culture.” And I hope they’re right. I mean, if getting paid big bucks to provide favorable PR to a regime that deals with critical journalists by killing them and dismembering them with a bone saw doesn’t warrant 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 so many members of the American elite evidently have no such lines.
That is, the rise of cancel culture seems much less important and ominous than the rise of sellout culture. More and more people at the top of our social hierarchy appear willing to do anything, for anyone, as long as the money is good enough.
This isn’t a purely partisan issue, although sellout culture may be somewhat more prevalent on the right than the left. It remains extraordinary, given Donald Trump’s bellowing about America First, how many members of his inner circle — including Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, and Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer — have been credibly accused of, in some cases have been convicted of, 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 Middle Eastern investors, with both soon receiving huge sums from the Saudis and other Gulf governments.
But as I said, it’s not a purely partisan thing. On Sunday, the president of the middle-of-the-road (and highly influential) Brookings Institution resigned in the face of an FBI investigation into whether he illegally lobbied for Qatar.
And although selling out to foreign governments has special legal status — failure to disclose your role as a paid foreign agent is a crime — it’s not clear that it’s morally any worse than selling out to dubious domestic interests.
My heart sank last fall when cryptocurrency-exchange company Crypto.com began running an ad starring famously liberal actor Matt Damon. Maybe Damon didn’t know much about crypto and the extreme skepticism many analysts have about what purpose it serves; he was hired to play a role. (Larry David made an ad for another crypto firm that ran during the Super Bowl.) But by playing that role, he helped promote what looks more than ever like a pump-and-dump scheme; cryptocurrencies have lost more than $1.6 trillion in value since that ad began running.
But wasn’t it ever thus? Haven’t people been cashing in on power and celebrity since the dawn of civilization? Yes — but I don’t think I’m idealizing the past by suggesting that there used to be more restraint, more opprobrium associated with selling out too obviously. In 1967, John Kenneth Galbraith, hardly a cheerleader for capitalism, asserted that top business executives were subject to a “code” that prevented “personal profit-making” and indeed enforced “a high standard of personal honesty.” I don’t think he was being completely naive.
Or consider the fact that it was regarded as shocking at the time when Gerald Ford got rich, post-presidency, with paid speeches, seats on corporate boards and so on.
Full disclosure: Yes, I sometimes give paid speeches within the limits set by New York Times rules. But I try, not always successfully, to be sure that the sponsors aren’t bad guys, and don’t do paid advocacy — which is, coming back to golf, exactly what Mickelson & Co. were effectively doing when they signed on to play for the Bone Saw Tour.
What explains the rise of sellout culture? Tax cuts may have played a role: Selling your soul becomes more attractive when you get to keep more of the proceeds. Soaring income inequality may inspire envy, a desire to keep up with the super-elite. And there is surely a process of normalization: Everyone else is selling out, so why shouldn’t I join the party?
Whatever the explanation, something has clearly changed; there is a lot more obvious corruption at the top than there was. And the costs of that corruption, I’d argue, include a process of demoralization. Kids used to look up to public figures, sports stars in particular, as role models. Do they still? Can they, given what public figures will do if the checks are big enough?