These Vampires Can Have Everything Except Our Love
Psychoanalyzing the cancel culture panic.
What do you get a person who has everything? For those who already have wealth, and status, and power, there is only one thing they truly crave: Admiration. Prestige. Love. These are among the tiny handful of things that are not directly available for purchase, and consequently their appeal rises. When the basic dreams of job titles and influence and nice houses have been satisfied, the thoughts of the rich turn to the intangible things. It is that yearning that keeps them tethered to the messy world they could otherwise leave behind. It is their weakness.
David Zaslav, the president and CEO of Warner Bros Discovery Inc., made $500 million in the past five years. Right in the pocket. He is the definition of the modern Hollywood mogul, the studio boss, the power broker, one of the unseen hands guiding our culture. Movie stars are famous, but movie stars work for him. There he is: the boss! The one that all must impress! Cower in his shadow! Maker of deals! Not just another middle aged Hollywood guy in a convertible—a very special middle aged Hollywood guy in a convertible.
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.
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Anyhow. When Zaslav did his little speech he got roundly heckled and booed by the graduating students of BU, in honor of the ongoing Writers Guild Strike, in which Zaslav is one of the central villains. “Pay your writers!” the kids chanted as Zaslav stood at the podium, delivering ghostwritten platitudes while wearing dark shades and red robe. He looked absurd and uncomfortable. It was great. The first cool thing that has ever happened in Boston, as far as I know. A sterling moment. The kids are alright.
Then this week, BU president Robert Brown, determined to add to the contrast between cool 21 year-olds and fusty, uncomfortable middle aged rich men, wrote an essay decrying the “appallingly coarse and deliberately abusive” “obscenities” aimed at Zaslav from students who were “attempting to implement the cancel culture” on him, haha. Setting aside the fact that outgoing BU president Robert Brown writes like George Will attending his first rap concert, let me say that I would like to know what the obscenities were, and that I hope they were creative, because David Zaslav really looks like he has stashed his $500 million in cash in his cheeks like a greedy chipmunk.
But I do not want to dwell too much on the specifics of this latest entry in the parade of inanity that is “cancel culture” discourse. (Here is a piece that specifically dwells on the inanities of cancel culture discourse, if you like.) Rather, I want to point out how we can use this modern avalanche of weeping cultural elites to our advantage in the class war.
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?
In a world riven by inequality, regular people who do not have money or connections or prestige must guard their few weapons carefully.
Unions allow regular people to wield economic power. Powerful people want to crush them.
Creativity allows regular people to create great art that leads to cultural power. Powerful people want to buy it and control it.
Mockery allows regular people to cut through all the advantages of wealth with a single insult. Powerful people want to—well, they want to decry it as an “appallingly coarse and deliberately abusive” attempt to “implement the cancel culture.”
Fuck 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.
Philanthropy is also a scam, for similar reasons.
Yesterday, I wrote a piece for In These Times about a group of workers in Erie, PA who are on the verge of striking—in part, to win back their own right to strike. This may sound a little meta but it is legitimately important for our national balance of power between capital and labor. Will I write more about the evils of no-strike clauses in future installments of How Things Work? You better believe it!
And did you know that if you are a member of any union you get a free subscription to In These Times??? Do it now.
Thank you to the thousands of people who have subscribed to this prestigious Substack. Here’s a metaphor I thought up: In “right to work” states, people can refuse to pay union dues, but still reap the benefits of the union contract. These “free riders” are taking advantage of the work enabled by the dues-payers. Here on Hamilton’s How Things Work Substack, some people are paid subscribers, and they allow me to buy food, which enables me to have enough brain function to write things that are read by many unpaid subscribers. See what I’m getting at here? Is this an “accurate” metaphor? Not really, but I do encourage you to become a paid subscriber. The righteous feeling is quite powerful, I hear.