Can You Do Good Things with Bad Money?

Or, why I still have one more Coachella left in me.

Philip Anschutz is the world’s 128th-richest man, and the 43rd-richest in the U.S.

With an estimated $10.9-billion net worth, the 79-year-old Kansas native and self-described Christian conservative took his father’s small oil-extraction concern and built it into a diversified conglomerate. That company, The Anschutz Group, now owns shares of sports teams, stadiums, and many other engines of mass entertainment. Anschutz also controls the conservative-leaning Washington Examiner, and from 2004-11, he owned the San Francisco Examiner (which for the last five years has been a part of the same company as SF Weekly).

The S.F. Examiner is much more progressive than it used to be, and certainly more so than the current Washington Examiner. But we still hear griping about his ownership from time to time, as if it were an ineradicable stain. 

Although a resident of Denver, Anschutz wields a disproportionate amount of influence over California, which of course wields a disproportionate amount of influence over American popular culture. AEG, an entertainment subsidiary of The Anschutz Group, owns two professional soccer franchises, the San Jose Earthquakes and the Los Angeles Galaxy. Promoter GoldenVoice, which is an arm of AEG, operates the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which takes place over back-to-back weekends in April at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif.

Anschutz also gives quite liberally to charity, and therein lies the rub. Of the $63 million or so his foundation disbursed in 2016, some went to expressly anti-LGBTQ organizations — including $50,000 to one Dare 2 Share Ministries, which may sound like it’s run by teens with a lot of feels but which calls gayness a “Satanic perversion.” After that news broke, Anschutz put out a statement affirming his support for people irrespective of their sexual orientation, noting that his foundation supported more than 800 separate entities, some of which are also anti-choice or hostile to the fight against climate change (with the implication that his staff couldn’t thoroughly vet them all). Then he gave $1 million to Elton John’s charity, kind of like how Eminem once performed with Elton John to wiggle out of accusations of homophobia.

That might have been the end of it, just another flare-up over one of the old, white, straight, conservative billionaire men who dominate every aspect of our lives and who will die years before humans burn down the atmosphere. But in January, Spin determined that while Anschutz and his foundation had ceased giving money directly to conservative nonprofits, he was still freely giving to the Republican National Senatorial Committee and various state GOP parties, more than $100,000 in all. This caused the very firmament of the internet to shake with righteous fury. Fool me once, shame on you — but twice?

In light of that, who could possibly attend Coachella in good conscience? That seemed to be the prevailing attitude on wide swaths of social media, anyway, with accusations of hypocrisy thrown far and wide. But in the end, old, rich, right-wing, white, heterosexual, Judeo-Christian men own virtually everything. It’s impossible to untangle it all. And maybe we need to learn to tolerate a little hypocrisy in each other in order to get along, just as we can fret about the health of the oceans while drinking water out of plastic bottles and fly home to visit our parents.

Something about Coachella, though, inspires pyroclastic eruptions of hatred. Something about it causes people to feel an acute disgust that they likely would not experience upon walking into a Regal Entertainment Group movie theater (a brand that The Anschutz Group owned until 2018) or to a Lakers game at the Staples Center (both of which are part of AEG, which is sort of the Lyft to LiveNation’s Uber). You can’t even take a cynically noble point of view — if you will — and write off professional sports as the irredeemable repository of America’s hypermasculine id. Because even with the belated horror at the depth of Michael Jackson’s sins, few people connect Anschutz and the planned residency at London’s O2 Arena — another AEG property — that the King of Pop was rehearsing for at the time of his death. (It got much uglier, too.)

It’s always, and only, Coachella.

Maybe it’s the specter of young people having carefree fun and taking selfies in the desert. Maybe it’s the thought of Los Feliz-based wellness influencers losing their shit in the Sahara Tent while the world burns. Maybe it’s grouchy San Francisco residents who hate living within earshot of Outside Lands and who are certain that Coachella is bigger and louder and more vapid and more self-absorbed and more drenched in privilege, specifically the privilege not to have to care about one’s impact on the world. Maybe it’s convenient to get worked up about something far away that you’ll never go to. Or maybe Coachella used to be cooler before it got so huge. There may be a kernel of truth to all of that.

As a queer San Franciscan who has covered Coachella for the last three years, this has been on my mind. Specifically, I keep scrutinizing my conscience for self-absolving rebuttals as they worm their way out, from the dismissive (“Ooh, for that amount of money, Anschutz could almost buy a divorce attorney”) to the hackneyed (“Live your best life, gurl!”) to the anecdotal (“I’ve never personally experienced any homophobia there, and queer visibility is important”) the nihilistic (“So what? Everything is terrible!”).

Everything is terrible, though. And if the past few years have taught us nothing else, it’s that we seldom have the luxury of letting our guard down for a second when countering hate and injustice. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” as the hard-to-disagree-with maxim goes. But just as “haste makes waste” can arm-wrestle “he who hesitates is lost” to a perpetual draw, the picture may be more complicated than inspirational quotes can convey. For instance, one can be aware that colorism exists within the African-American community, while also appreciating that — if one is, say, white — there are more appropriate topics to weigh in on.

And outrage fatigue is very, very, real, as any well-informed person who ever needed a clandestine weekend off from push notifications can tell you. We have finite energy to fight the fight. Even journalists get exhausted just from thinking about the exhaustion they cause in others.

The more you pay attention, the angrier you can become with other people’s slip-ups. In calling for empathy, we can find our capacity for forgiveness dissolving away. This is also why people often feel more betrayed by allies who inadvertently err than by outright enemies who behave with pure malice. Personally, I find myself puzzled by people who adamantly refuse to eat at a restaurant with a chef who faced credible accusations of sexual harassment yet who patronize places that have a documented history of stealing their employees’ wages.

It’s also easy to spin non-action as virtue. After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I vowed never to get BP gas again. But I didn’t realize that Arco was part of BP for a few years, effectively neutralizing my principled stand every time I went to that cheapie gas station on Fell and Divisadero streets. (My no-BP-not-never-not-now approach isn’t even a true boycott, either. Realistically, boycotts have to cause some pain or inconvenience to the boycotter, and the boycottee should probably be aware of it.)

But you can try to do good. You have to try. Take Chick-fil-A, which was always pretty homophobic but now we have further proof that it’s really, really homophobic, having donated almost $1.8 million to anti-LGBTQ causes in 2017 alone, many times more than Anschutz. There are about a dozen Chick-fil-A restaurants in the Greater Bay Area, all of them seemingly maintaining a wary, 20-mile perimeter from San Francisco ever since Mayor Ed Lee tweeted at them not to come any closer. Food writer J. Kenji López-Alt posted to Instagram the other day that he’ll make a $10 donation to the Our Family Coalition, a Bay Area LGBTQ nonprofit, for any pics of fried chicken tagged with #betterthanchickfila, up to $1,000. That strikes me as fitting, and kind. I’m not Jewish, but I’ve always loved the concept of tikkun olam, or “repair the world.” López-Alt’s seems like it.

What also seems important to keep in mind is that while Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy might be yet another billionaire bigot, the people who work at his restaurants are real people with real-life problems of their own, most of them not earning terribly much.

They’re not the enemy, but they’re contaminated — because we’re all contaminated. We have few ways of judging something to be morally good except by standards of purity that we all fail sooner or later, some of us more publicly than others. On top of that, no money is clean money, and even “bad” money can help good people. It is perilous in the extreme to measure ethical good by economic impact. But undoubtedly, something like Coachella helps a lot of working people — bartenders, ride-share drivers, the people who cart away Porta-Potties full of poop and beer cups — to make a living. Then again, viewing the world that way for too long can make you callous, like an American hippie who makes a spiritual pilgrimage to India, sees impoverished children playing in the gutter, then muses over how everyone has their role to play in this marvelous pageant we call life.

To no small extent, contemporary liberalism is an ever-expanding and evolving list of don’ts and mustn’ts and secular thou-shalt-nots, put out there and signal-boosted by traumatized people who have every right to demand a better world. This orthodoxy is often incomprehensible to people of good will whose tech savvy is low or who don’t get out much. If you don’t have an advanced degree in cultural studies from Oberlin, you’re even more screwed. Apart from cancelling them with the sweeping, pseudointellectual term “problematic,” we don’t know what to do with mostly good people when they fail. And they will fail.

Granted, it’s practically impossible to see a BBQ Becky in action and not conclude, “Wow, what an absolutely terrible human being with no possibility of redemption,” but everybody makes mistakes. No doubt, I feel terrible for the humiliation and fear people like that cause when their hateful behavior goes unrecorded, but I instinctively recoil from spectacles where the whole internet condemns total strangers on the basis of a one-minute video, gets them fired, and destroys their lives. I can’t even look at the Yelp page of a dentist who kills a lion on safari, because you know it’s the hapless receptionist who by definition is on the receiving end of all that. And everything is terrible. Even President Obama killed a bunch of kids with a ghoulish drone-war program, raining death from the sky at weddings. Then he went upstairs to have dinner with his wife and daughters.

It is frustrating, though, in this climate of cancellation, to see horrible people continually having a platform to be horrible. Swedish YouTuber Pewdiepie has had many chances to stop espousing pro-Nazi sentiments, but he won’t, and intrepid Japanese “suicide-forest” explorer Logan Paul is also a flat-Earther. And Twitter would never, ever ban the president, even if he tweet-launched a nuclear first-strike on Pyongyang.

Beyond that, the list of smart and seemingly decent people who have done bad things is endless. Joan Rivers said awful things about Palestinians on numerous occasions. Joyce Carol Oates has at least a few Islamophobic tweets along with her dozens of novels. Liam Neeson admitted he wanted to find a Black guy to kill after someone in his life disclosed that she’d been raped. MSNBC host Joy Reid wrote a number of homophobic blog posts in the aughts, blamed them on hackers when they came to light in 2018, then deleted her entire website. Alec Baldwin is a comic genius, but maybe America’s worst celebrity liberal. In light of the Kevin Hart Oscar-hosting fiasco, you almost wonder why celebrity publicists don’t comb through their clients’ social-media profiles before auditioning them for high-profile gigs.

As with virtually everything, the faults of consumer capitalism are infinitely worse than people’s gaffes and ill-considered status updates. Fashion brands from Urban Outfitters to Dior pay substandard wages, and while Nike used Colin Kaepernick’s lonely knee to transform itself from Adbusters punching bag to progressive icon — truly, 21st-century P.R.’s ultimate coup — it can sometimes appear that amoral fashionistas specifically provoke outrage to draw attention to their clothes, then issue perfunctory apologies after the fact. (They’re almost like Silicon Valley that way.) There’s even a Danish apparel company called Carcel that specifically uses the labor of women incarcerated in Peruvian prisons. It’s a business model of brazen exploitation enrobed in the discourse of a TEDx talk, neocolonialism marketed as feminist emancipation.

By this point, you are probably feeling deeply cynical about our world, and maybe even grimly satisfied that we have only 11 years to stave off climate catastrophe, something only the fabulously wealthy will weather unscathed. But there is the outrage, and then there is our response to the outrage, which is almost always arbitrary and capricious. The ease with which we leap from hate-scrolling through some grotesque injustice du jour to “We’re doomed” is getting eerier in light of all the calving glaciers. You can feel the varicose nihilism spread in real time. Worse, because we live in a surveillance state of all against all, to question this dynamic is often to invite suspicion. Brandishing one’s progressive bona fides on Facebook is practically obligatory to evade hurt feelings. That’s not hard to live with, all things considered. There’s a lot of awfulness out there; who would want to fuel it, especially by accident? But what are we to make of Cancel Culture when Kevin Hart is banished from the Oscars yet Mel Gibson still gets nominated for one?

Further, it’s alarming how rich people’s loads of cash can paper over all of this. Philip Anschutz gives money to harmful people, but it’s his $3 billion wind farm project in Wyoming that Forbes included as a bullet point on its 2019 list of billionaires. Mark Zuckerberg couldn’t bring himself to criticize Holocaust deniers without hedging, a mind-blowing equivocation that was bizarrely similar to fellow billionaire President Donald Trump’s flippant “very fine people on both sides” remark after the Charlottesville attack. Meanwhile, Facebook has become a chaos agent of an unfathomable magnitude, yet its founder’s name adorns a hospital. One outspoken nurse is fighting to de-Zuck S.F. General, but it’s even more amazing how long it took for the art world to disavow the philanthropy of the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin. (The U.K.’s National Portrait Gallery flatly rejected a million-pound donation only last week.)

Meanwhile, funding from Wells Fargo and Chevron underwrite plenty of arts spaces in the Bay Area. Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater is home to the New York City Ballet in spite of Koch Industries being perhaps the most ferocious fighter of environmental regulations in America today. (We’ll bestow upon Exxon a consolation prize for “Worst Suppression of Valid Science.”) Art and dirty money — the filthiest money, the viscous Alberta tar sands of money, leaking poison and death — fuse seamlessly right where they should be most at odds. Yet how many of us mortals use Brawny and Quilted Northern products on the daily? Those brands are owned by Georgia-Pacific, part of the Koch empire.

Of course, you could hardly accuse late-2010s progressives of insufficiently vigilant rage. Even a call to distribute that rage more evenly feels like a canard. It’s an impossible request, for one, and honoring it would almost certainly turn up the temperature even higher on basically everything, leaving less room for cooler heads to prevail. Conversely, high-minded calls for “civility” — an elastic term if there ever was one — often translate into “Know your place, prole,” or “Express more deference to the power structure, corruption and all.”

Sometimes, the outrage seems so inexhaustible that it’s also infinitely transferable — and what with social media’s powers of magnification, immune to retraction. There was the time in 2017 when cosmetics maker and vlogger Jeffree Star and Kim Kardashian West got into a row over makeup that escalated into a feud over Star’s history of racist remarks (which were vile, although he apologized). Kardashian West’s millions of followers continued to hound Star online with homophobic and transphobic attacks, until Kardashian West pleaded with them to stand down — causing them to turn on her until she effectively had to issue a retraction. Concurrently, writer and transgender advocate Janet Mock had profiled Kardashian for Interview magazine, the cover of which was styled to make Kardashian West appear as Jackie Kennedy but with darkened skin.

That was certainly poor judgment on an editor’s part, but no fault of Mock’s, although she had referred to Kardashian West’s having made prevailing beauty standards “browner.” She later clarified that, affirming she should have said “bronzer” instead. But by that point, the skin tone component of the magazine cover drew Mock into the Kardashian West-Star imbroglio even though the interview for Interview had taken place well before that other episode.

If you look at all this and notice how much vitriol in the name of social justice was directed at a mother of biracial children (Kardashian West), a Black trans woman (Mock), and a queer person who presents as high femme (Star), and all of it seemingly for the enraged entertainment of their respective stans, you probably aren’t alone in thinking there’s no way out.

In light of the Fyre Festival and the brilliantly flawed twin documentaries it led to, I sense extra scrutiny on Coachella this year. It didn’t get too widely reported, but between the 2018 festival’s two weekends, high winds nearly shredded the site apart. If a dust storm were to rise suddenly out of the desert while everyone tried to find cover, expect self-pitying Instagram stories in the vein of that sad, semi-real cheese sandwich to go hyper-viral, powered by endlessly renewable schadenfreude. But apart from that, practically the whole world is waiting for some drunk guy to behave boorishly and have it all be caught on a cell-phone camera, so they can hashtag him #CoachellaChad and rake all 250,000 attendees over the coals for their moral turpitude.

I honestly don’t know if I should even be there. Wherever I might be instead, though, it’s not going to be in the company of saints. And at some point, these issues become less a question of politics and more a question of temperament. In the meantime, I think I have one more Coachella left in me. I’m particularly excited to see Janelle Monáe for the fourth time. She is an Afrofuturist of seemingly limitless potential, the spiritual successor to Prince and a paragon of Black excellence, more radical than me, more queer than you.

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