Cancel culture is good. Cancel culture works.
For Wall Street, that is.
It sometimes seems like woke orthodoxy isn’t a progressive movement but instead a tax-dodging ruse designed by bankers and billionaires. Why? Because it makes sense and is also kind of brilliant: if cancelistas focus on college professors, writers, artists, and show-business types who make impolitic gaffes, they are sidetracked from attacking those who are most responsible for maintaining social injustice and income inequality: the super-rich.
Instead of turning people against politicians and plutocrats who bend the laws and stack the deck in their favor, the woke intelligentsia expends its capital mauling the reputations and careers of the low-hanging fruit of politics—middle-class professionals who have little real power.
A case in point: at the University of Michigan, Bright Sheng, a Chinese-born musicologist and winner of a MacArthur “genius” award, had to stop teaching his class after students denounced him for including in a lecture on Verdi’s Otello a screening of the 1965 film version of Othello, which stars Laurence Olivier in blackface. After a British historian did a satirical impression of Adolf Hitler to make a debate point about bad taste, the Cambridge Union put him on its blacklist. That prompted Louis de Bernières, the author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, to demand that the debating society blacklist him as well.
Meanwhile, the rich and powerful tiptoe past the mêlée and whistle on their way to their Cayman banks and citadels in Palm Beach and Kauai. Oh, and as the trove of secret tax documents known as the Pandora Papers reveals, numbered trust accounts in South Dakota.
Italians have a word, dietrologia, which is the art of detecting the more sinister reason hidden behind an official explanation. The transgender-identity debate—whether one’s sex is a physiological fact or a personal determination (just google J. K. Rowling or Dave Chappelle and Netflix)—is so conveniently inflammatory it almost has to be a decoy.
Surely a Lee Atwater–esque political operator must have dreamed up the bogeyman known as critical race theory, which, loosely defined, is a way of analyzing society through the prism of race. The right used C.R.T. this year to help snatch the Virginia governorship from Democrats and hand it to Glenn Youngkin, a neophyte Republican private-equity financier who is worth more than $400 million and won a 95 percent tax reduction in 2020 after labeling his 31-acre horse farm in Great Falls, Virginia, an “agricultural preserve.”
It sometimes seems like woke orthodoxy isn’t a progressive movement but instead a tax-dodging ruse designed by bankers and billionaires.
The Daily Beast this week reported on a new crop of anti-C.R.T. groups pouring money into local communities to combat wokeness, funded by right-wing think tanks and billionaires. A group of free-speech aficionados—notably Lawrence Summers, a former president of Harvard, and Niall Ferguson, of the Hoover Institution at Stanford—on Monday announced the creation of a cancel-free institute of higher learning, the University of Austin, in Texas. None of this will actually smother the woke movement; it will just add oxygen to the forest fire.
While parents manned the ramparts to denounce Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved as too disturbing and explicit to be taught in schools, Trump pocketed $300 million in a shady SPAC deal. So it’s pretty obvious why business tycoons such as Stephen Schwarzman, a Trump supporter with a $40 billion fortune, and Jeff Bezos, who is worth more than $200 billion, publicly decry woke censorship. They need to keep people looking to the left and ignoring the thievery on the right.
Elon Musk, who is now worth $300 billion and has 63.2 million followers on Twitter, loves to taunt the woke with tweets such as “Cancel Cancel Culture!” and “More fun, less shun!”
We are still battling a deadly pandemic, and yet, as our colleague William Cohan noted in a recent dispatch in Puck, compensation consultants at Johnson Associates, a Wall Street firm, predicted that bankers’ bonuses would be up between 25 and 35 percent in 2021, to the highest levels in about a decade.
According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the 500 richest people in the world added $1.8 trillion to their combined net worth this year and are now worth $7.6 trillion—the biggest annual gain in the eight-year history of the index. And as the bank accounts of the .01 percent grow, so do the laws that buttress the status quo. And some are gobsmacking: earlier this month, the Federal Election Commission revealed a new ruling that allows foreigners to donate money to support ballot initiatives. (Needless to say, the four commissioners who voted it through were appointed by Donald Trump; George W. Bush picked the other two.)
The commissioners determined that, while foreigners are banned from giving money to political candidates, campaign-finance restrictions do not apply to referendums because they are not elections—even though citizens express their preferences in the voting booth on Election Day. In other words, thanks to the F.E.C., Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman can now spend as much money as they want to raise marijuana-sales taxes in Denver or block a minimum-wage hike in Tucson.
The more agitated and divisive society gets over cancel culture, the less likely it is to come together to pursue confiscation culture. Bernie Sanders never lost sight of the need to tax the rich, but the Zeitgeist has kind of lost sight of him. Is it simply a coincidence that while the Democrats control Congress, there are fistfights at school-board hearings about C.R.T.—but proposals to tax the super-rich simply … quietly … fade away.
You don’t need mobs armed with pitchforks to fix the tax code, regulate Wall Street and Silicon Valley, and reform health care, prisons, and public schools, but you do need ordinary people’s unity and full attention. Which is why the rich are so very lucky: cancel culture came along and pulled the focus.
It’s just getting harder and harder to believe it happened by chance.
Alessandra Stanley is a Co-Editor of Air Mail