Sunday, June 4, 2023

Sunday reading - Elon, Zaslav, and other whiny rich a-holes

Wanted to give your attention to a great column by labor writer Hamilton Nolan, where he discusses why the uber-rich get so freaked out by the non-issue of "cancel culture" and other reactions to their general douchebaggery.

Nolan starts with the recent heckling that Warner Brothers CEO David Zaslav received when he was addressing the graduating class of 2023 from Boston University. Nolan points out that CEOs and mega-donors decide to take part because it's a way of promoting themselves, and getting the attention of a group of people who otherwise could not care less about what they have to say.
Boston University invited Zaslav to be its commencement speaker this year. If you were under the impression that college graduations are about the students, you are mistaken. The dreary ritual of commencement speeches and honorary degrees, bestowed as an empty honor upon some guy who the students do not give a damn about but who somehow lends wealth or prestige to the school itself, goes to show that the primary role of students at these events is to be a prop for future fundraising efforts. It’s not too different from the way that companies build lavish offices in which the employees are, above all, a backdrop for the CEO to look at in a self-satisfied manner as he ushers business partners into important meetings. Our open plan office makes it hard for you to do phone calls? I’m sorry, but it’s more photogenic.
Then when the students rightfully call out Zaslav for trying to screw over the writers at Warner Brothers and other generally scummy CEO behavior, he whines about how college campuses are "out of control" and disconnected from "the real world". But Nolan points out that Zaslav and other elites are the real ones that live inside of a Bubble, and can't get the respect from the Real America that they so badly want.
The only reasonable way to discuss cancel culture is not “Why are kids these days canceling people?”— it is “Why is this objectively unimportant niche phenomenon suddenly such a large part of mainstream discourse?” The most basic answer is “Because so much of mainstream discourse is produced by a narrow demographic of upper middle class middle aged uncool people who have never worked outside of media or politics or academia or nonprofits and whose nightmare is getting made fun of by college kids.” But on a more fundamental level, it’s that deep yearning for the things that cannot be purchased. Why do Ken Griffin and David Geffen and David Koch spend “charity” money not on feeding the poor, but to plaster their names on public buildings? Because they are thirsty for—above all—that public love. It is a sort of prestige, but not, ironically, the cheap sort of prestige that can be bought; what they desire deep down is the genuine love and respect of humanity. Their performative efforts to earn it are pitiful. But their desire never ebbs. That respect would amount to immortality for them.

You ain’t gonna get it, fuckers. Though it would seem, rationally, that a bunch of not-rich college kids heckling a guy who makes $100 mil a year would mean nothing to him, that is not the case. The idea of being mocked and shouted down by the unwashed masses strikes fear in the heart of the powerful because it is emblematic of their inability to buy that respect that cannot be bought. This goes not just for moguls and billionaires, but for those who have achieved cultural success—the prestigious newspaper columnists who cannot stop writing dumbass columns about this spectacularly asinine topic because it represents their worst fears. Namely, that a lifetime spent worshiping at the altar of careerism and credentialism was all for nothing. When you have long cultivated a resume that demands respect only to be disrespected by a bunch of nobodies, it can shake you to your core. What was the point of it all, if the cool kids think you suck?
And "being cool and entertaining" is the one area that our modern oligarchs can't break into it. And Nolan says that drives them nuts, because these oligarchs thought that their money and power would give them that.
The common thread is nothing more than a pulsing desire by the already powerful to sew up the last few places in the world that they are forced to deal with regular people on an equal playing field. Elon Musk is rich and powerful, but he looked like an idiot when he tried standup comedy. Thomas Friedman is distressingly influential and comfortable cheerleading a war, but he looked pretty normal when he got a pie in the face on stage. And David Zaslav can force thousands of writers to risk their livelihoods in order to go on strike, but he can’t help looking like a pathetic greed-drunk uncool dad when all the kids start booing him at his commencement speech.

If we lived in a more equal society in which everyone had a fair and democratic chance to exercise their own power and influence, we could have a reasonable discussion about toning down “incivility.” Until then, fuck it. You gotta use what you got. Keep booing these fuckers when you are forced to listen to their speeches. Yell at Stephen Miller when you see him in a restaurant. Make fun of billionaires. They can have everything else, but they’re not entitled to our love. They didn’t earn it.
This explains the entire existence of Elon Musk these days, and his pathetic neediness. The Defector's David Roth commented on a similarly odd comment from former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey last week, and reminded us of a great column he wrote that pegged Musk and other Tech Bros perfectly, when you see them whining all over social media about some (non-)issue.

Online reactionary politics is a fan community before it is anything else; as with Donald Trump, the way to tell that Musk is an active participant is how obviously starstruck he is by the corny dingbats that make up its firmament. Where Trump lived for the approval of Fox News's glitching poreless on-air goblins, Musk has been queasily quick with an "exactly" in the mentions of various reactionary influencers: the anti-trans activist that solicits bomb threats to children's hospitals, or the one fellow from the Koch-backed Turning Point USA organization whose face seems to be shrinking, or Cat Turd 2. If it is embarrassing to know who these people are—and it is extremely embarrassing to know who those people are—it is more embarrassing still to have mistaken these relentlessly self-serving grifters for friends.

What all of that decidedly is not, however, is mysterious. Musk's politics, however heterodox he himself might secretly be, appear very much to be those of an extremely wealthy 51-year-old man with an entirely commonplace conservative media diet. There are only so many interesting ways and even fewer interesting reasons to adopt these politics; the most common one, which again is the one that Musk seems to have chosen, is to simply let the combined inertia of your circumstances and incuriosity back you into them. That he is now someplace so strange—winking at QAnon shit, already—seems mostly to reflect how conservative politics have moved in that direction; Musk, typically, seems not to have given any of it much thought. The extremities of his wealth and strange upbringing, and his personal peculiarities and the limits of his capacities for empathy or insight all probably played some role, but this is true of every other butthead that ever aged into reactionary politics. In time, these people realize what they actually believed all along and embrace what has always mattered most to them. In this sense, too, Musk's little blurts of umbrage and upset are just like those of all the other reactionary pilgrims on their own lonely journeys. Separately but in unison, they slough off everything and everyone that is not them, either out of principle or pique or just because they find themselves losing interest; instead of talking to the people they used to talk to, they just shout at everyone. Twitter has always been a good place for that.
Roth adds that since these ultra-rich folks have no real risk of losing anything tangible, they now treat life and their statements as some kind of sporting event or game show, where they have to "battle and defeat"....something. And they don't dare to question why people like them have are allowed to acccumulate so much power and wealth. So they're no more than the everyday a-hole that normal people who never waste their time with if they weren't so rich and given such a forum to spot their BS.
Socialism and barbarism are now both back on the menu, and each on the ascent. But for members of a generation who saw their politics as inseparable from themselves without ever thinking nearly as hard about the former as they did about the latter, this is all still a matter of performance. Such politics are easy to change because they were never really anchored to any actual system of belief. An obliterating narcissism and sawed-off selfishness is latent in American culture like lead in contaminated water; in the absence of countervailing principles, it will naturally make its presence felt over time. If your politics is just about Opposing Authority, for instance, with no regard for or sense of the structural and material realities of actual power, then remaining true to those politics is just a matter of propping up new authority figures to rage against....

Everyone knows what free speech means to people like this, because they have met these people and noticed how much more they care about talking than listening. There is a tendency, because of how much American culture reveres wealth, to assume that rich and powerful people got theirs on merit. That demonstrably incorrect faith predated and presaged Trump's presidency and survived its idiotic apotheosis; it fueled Elon Musk's ascent, and will almost certainly emerge unscathed from whatever reckoning is or isn't coming.

Which is astonishing because it is all just right there, the wild philistinism and the bullying and the offhand cruelty, the compulsive self-aggrandizement and the giddy vengeful sadism toward everyone he believes he can get away with treating that way—all of it so oafishly performed that it could not possibly be mistaken for anything but what it is. There's no principle to find here beyond spite and distaste; the speech is just noise cast out into the chaos by someone eager to mistake the echo for an answer. And then, even though the fact of it is so plain—and, again, so embarrassing and so implicating in its thudding overage—the mistake gets made anyway. "Maybe," the tech podcaster Kara Swisher mused on Monday, Musk is a few steps ahead of us all, and at work "building a new kind of media company." Leaving aside the characteristic mistake of assuming that "new" means "better," I suppose it's possible that what looks like flailing impulsivity and familiar old cruelties is in fact something finer and more reasoned. But it might just be what it looks like.
These people aren't special, and don't know much beyond maybe One Big Thing that they were lucky to hit on at the right time. They are exhibit A of why we need to go back to taxing the mega-rich at 70-90 (especially in capital gains) and why we need to beef up the IRS to make them think twice before trying some other type of tax scheme or give "donations" to fake charities, which prop up other grifters that pollute the discourse with RW misdirections.

These oligarchs think they can get away with every bit of bad behavior and jackassery, and don't have to deal with the consequences of anything. They need to have some real accountability and be brought back toward the Real America and real issues that the rest of us have to deal with in the wreckage of their self-entered foolishness.


  1. Said by a mediocre-at-best government employee, who has probably done NOTHING, I repeat NOTHING noteworthy in his entire existence beyond suckle taxpayer dollars off a leaky teat while counting his hours 'till retirement and a small pension. While men like Musk create things that will live forever and cement their names in history. What a sad, pathetic existence 'men' like you lead. Angry little yipping dog-things, not able to even reach the ankles of men of significance.

    1. You know you’ll never get a party invite from these guys, right? They aren’t your friends, kid.

      But your mediocrity is noted.