Photography: Bloomberg/Getty Images
You’ve heard of racism and sexism, but there’s a horrible new -ism we all need to be aware of: wealth. The obscenely rich, you see, are an increasingly persecuted, denigrated minority in modern society. Wealth is so deeply ingrained that, without even knowing it, you’re probably using anti-wealth language and making billionaires feel very, very sad indeed.
This public service announcement is brought to you by the Wall Street Journal editorial board, which just published a scathing piece about a ProPublica investigation into US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s friendship with a Republican mega-donor and billionaire real estate developer named Harlan Crow.
In a much-reported piece, ProPublica revealed that Thomas and his wife Virginia (a conservative activist who allegedly seeks to overturn the 2020 election) have been taking luxury trips from Crow for more than two decades without disclosing them. And we’re not talking a few nights at a Hilton here, we’re talking private jets and superyachts. A vacation given to the supreme court judge would have cost at least $500,000 if he had paid for it himself. Which, to reiterate, he didn’t do.
Why was the Wall Street Journal so shocked by this article? Were they worried about one of the most powerful people in the United States, a man whose decisions can affect the lives of millions, potentially influenced by a billionaire with strong opinions and reportedly a disturbing amount of Nazi memorabilia? No, they were appalled by ProPublica’s inflammatory use of wealth-adjacent adjectives.
“The piece is loaded with words and phrases intended to convey that all of this is somewhat disreputable,” the editorial board wrote. “’Superyachts’; “luxury travel”; “exclusive men’s retreat in California”; ‘sprawling ranch’; “private chefs”; ‘elegant accommodation’; ‘opulent lodge’; ‘profound justice with gifts.’ And more. Yes, I’m sorry to inform you that there were even more words in the article – shocking stuff.
What, one wonders, would have been acceptable terminology? How exactly should one describe a ‘superyacht’ or ‘private chef’ in respectable terms? The Journal did not provide any information on this. Luckily for us, however, a few offended billionaires have already chimed in to offer suggestions on how to be more compassionate toward rapacious capitalists. In 2019, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz told a New York Times columnist that “the moniker ‘billionaire’ has now become the catchphrase” and suggested that it might be better to use phrases like “rich people” or “rich people”.
Oddly enough, those sentences didn’t catch on, and poor old Schultz, who is worth $3.7 billion, was repeatedly subjected to the billionaire slur. Last month, while being questioned during a Senate hearing on union breaking, Schultz had a meltdown after Sen. Bernie Sanders called him a “billionaire” too many times. That word is “unfair,” Schultz complained. “This ‘billionaire’ moniker, let’s go to that, okay?” he said. “I came from nowhere… Yes, I have billions of dollars, I earned it.” Take note: he’s not only entitled to his billions, he’s entitled to your respect!
Jay-Z, who is worth an estimated $2.5 billion, also took offense to the language used to describe wealthy people. In a conversation on Twitter Spaces last year, he appeared to be calling the word “capitalist” a similar slur to the #1 word. “They start making up words like ‘capitalist’ and stuff like that,” the rapper and businessman complained. “We worked hard, we fucking killed ourselves to get to this space and now it’s like, ‘eat the rich.'” Ah, yes, “capitalist”: a word famously invented by an angry teenage girl on Twitter just a few years ago.
While it’s fun to laugh at the thin skin of fat cats, it’s also alarming to see the ways the ultra-wealthy are trying to blur growing inequality by reconfiguring how we talk about immense wealth. We may not all say “rich people” just yet, but the 1%’s rebranding efforts have been successful in some cases. Take the word “elite” for example. The “elite,” you’ve probably noticed, now means anyone with an education that leans vaguely to the left. A penniless academic? An elite! A billionaire? A humble person of means! It’s not enough for the ultra-rich to try to take money out of our pockets, they also try to put words in our mouths.
• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist