Car culture is horribly right wing (or why Petrolicious had to, at least temporarily, die)

(This is an article I originally wrote for another site, but that site doesn’t exist anymore.)

I’m sure many of you who are car enthusiasts will have heard of Petrolicious. Petrolicious is a website and YouTube channel that specialises in producing written and video content about beautifully preserved, historic automobiles. “Drive Tastefully” is its slogan and it definitely does live up to that, at least in terms of the cars that have been featured on there. It even had a webshop, a subscription service featuring premium content and it even held a members’ meeting at Bicester Heritage in Oxfordshire last year. However, murky times are ahead for the publication. Petrolicious’s CEO Afshin Behnia has stepped down following various complaints about the content of his Facebook posts that were often racist and far-right in nature. This is something that seems to have been exacerbated by the protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Furthermore, freelancers and former staff members have come out saying that they were horrified by Behnia’s views once they got to know him better and that they were often not compensated properly for their work for the site. From how things seem, Petrolicious is going up for sale in the hope that a new owner will be able to carry the publication on and maybe even bring its reputation back around.

Petroliciousgate (as I’m going to call it because it’s a scandal and in the unassailable laws of journalism every scandal has to have a ‘-gate’ suffix) is a pretty eye-opening moment for more reasons than you might think. Obviously, it’s horrific that Behnia was so openly racist in his world view. You’d expect better from an Iranian who emigrated to America and worked his arse off building a successful business, which he managed to sell in 2011 to fund his passion project about vintage Alfas that eventually became Petrolicious. You’d think that surely he had experienced enough racism in his life because of his heritage to not be racist. But life is complicated and it doesn’t often work out that way. Clearly Behnia has a bit of an issue with black people because his ire was directed entirely at the Black Lives Matter protests. He also clearly has a lot of issues with the American ‘left’ (which to a Brit/European like me isn’t really the left – it’s like saying that David Cameron or Angela Merkel is left-wing) because he ragged on them a lot in similar posts. The scariest thing though is that this is an issue that, in the context of the car world, doesn’t stop at him. A lot of car enthusiasts are, to put it bluntly, absolutely fucking racist and exist in a weird liberal-right hellscape. Why is that? Why is it that so many car enthusiasts seem to be like this? Well, it could be a multitude of factors.

To be able to really indulge yourself in a passion for cars, you’ve got to have a decent amount of money. That money carries a certain privilege with it and, in many countries, if you have that kind of money, you are very likely a white person. See where I’m going here? Good old-fashioned white privilege is very much in force. When you live in a society (Joker jokes at the ready, guys!) where being white and rich is a decidedly advantageous position to have, you are a lot more likely to be racist towards people who are not white and not act brilliantly towards people who are not rich. I know it seems like a bit of a roundabout point, but hear me out. There’s probably a lot of racist car people around because of the fact that to really properly indulge yourself in cars as a hobby, you are probably a beneficiary of white privilege. Whilst Behnia doesn’t fit into the white portion of this as he is Middle Eastern, he definitely fits into the rich portion because he became very wealthy off of building a software business. Being a rich person means that you spend a lot of time around other rich people and those other rich peoples’ ideas end up soaking into your head. Without knowing that you are, you’re in an echo chamber of privileged viewpoints. This would definitely explain Behnin’s self-described “very small government libertarian” viewpoints. It would also explain Petrolicious’s comparatively deep neglect of its freelance contributors. The richest of us, at least in the developed world, don’t really look upon freelancers that fondly. It’s a cultural failing that really permeates itself into creative industries, especially when companies with a lot of money and/or big financial backers are concerned. They’ll be very reluctant about paying freelancers a good wage or even about paying them at all, even though they’ll have the budget to do so. It’s a very odd and very selfish way at looking at people who freelance for a living and, to be absolutely honest with you, it really needs to stop. Maybe Petroliciousgate will make people more aware of how endemic the problem is finally. I can only hope.

A big part of the right-leaning mentality of car enthusiasts probably also has a lot to do with a lot of left-wing politics of the 90s and 00s being decidedly very anti-car. Cars have been seen by green campaigners as a huge contributor as to why global warming is hurtling towards us at an ever-expanding rate. Private car ownership has also been seen by the economically left as a decadent manifestation of the ultimate power of capitalism, especially the tendency of people buying fancier and fancier cars as they become richer and richer. With those two types of left-leaning schools of thought coming at car enthusiasts, it’s no wonder why a lot of them decide to embrace the teachings of the Trump school of Republicanism or the Boris Johnson school of British conservatism. There’s also been a lot of research in recent years that has consistently recorded a correlation between how left-wing or progressive a country is and how strict they are regarding traffic laws. The Netherlands and Denmark, two of the most progressive-leaning countries at least in Europe if not the world, both have very strict traffic laws and fairly severe punishments if you are caught flouting them. This flies right in the face of the hyper-liberal views espoused by people like the Cannonball Run legend Brock Yates. The left has alienated car enthusiasts for a long time and those anti-car sentiments only really got broken in the case of the green campaigners when electric cars finally became good enough to be used as more than urban runarounds. Whether there needs to be more active engagements with car enthusiasts or car enthusiasts just need to lighten up is a matter that’s up for debate, but it’s something worth mentioning. The left (in Europe, at least) has been so anti-car for well over a generation at this point that it’s forced the default political position for car enthusiasts fairly into the conservative end of the spectrum. That is not good for anybody.

I could go into a whole debate about so-called “cancel culture” but I’m not going to. It’s a stupid debate that leads absolutely nowhere. Cancel culture doesn’t exist. If it did, we wouldn’t be hearing about Jeffree Star and Shane Dawson every week. Instead, those two prominent influencers and dozens of others like them are still allowed to have big platforms and big money businesses. If “cancel culture” really existed, we wouldn’t have also seen a resurgence of the band As I Lay Dying even though their frontman and major creative force Tim Lambeisis was actually sent to jail for attempting to have his now ex-wife murdered. We wouldn’t have seen Tripp Eisen return to playing music as well in 2019 despite spending two separate stints in prison, once for his conviction of having sexual relations with a minor and once for breaking parole several years later. Political commentators like Ben Shapiro and Steven Crowder and actual Nazis like Richard Spencer and Varg Vikernes wouldn’t still have audiences too if “cancel culture” was real. Decrying “cancel culture” like Behnin did in one interview an attempt to defend himself is a non-argument. He only uses the term because he has lost his business due to his own stupid actions. Porsche, a major sponsor of Petrolicious, as well as several other big automotive-related companies who could pay up to finance the beautifully shot high-quality productions he demanded from his website no longer want to work with him.

This is something that goes beyond Petrolicious and the world of car journalism too. I’m sure many of you will have seen the debate surrounding the treatment of NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace as the only current black driver in his sport. I’m sure many of you will have also seen the weirdness surrounding Formula 1’s anti-racism campaigns and the drivers seemingly being so divided about whether to take the knee or not or how they should support anti-racist causes. In the case of both motorsports, it feeds back into an already existing fanbase that has been steeped in racist attitudes for a while as well as sexist ones (the sexism is maybe a topic for another time). You only have to look at how Lewis Hamilton has been treated differently from other world-class drivers who have been his peers at some point like Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen, Kimi Raikkonen, Valtteri Bottas, Nico Rosberg and even Michael Schumacher when he returned to Formula 1 to race for the emerging Mercedes team that Hamilton would later join to replace him. Whether you agree or not, there is absolutely no doubt that a fair amount of the negative treatment Lewis Hamilton has had both from fans and the media has been racially-motivated due to him identifying much more with the black half of his mixed heritage and being so vocal about the fight to eradicate racism and create more opportunities for black people in motorsport. Even other drivers of mixed heritage like Alex Albon, Jack Aitken, Nicholas Latifi and Roy Nissany don’t get the same kind of racist (it is racist, I’m going to be blunt about it) treatment that Lewis Hamilton gets. It’s very, very odd and very, very wrong. There really is an endemic problem of anti-blackness in motorsport and amongst fans of motorsport, whether or not it is deliberate, and it’s something we really need to get a hold of before things really get out of control. How long is it going to be before a non-white driver is the victim of a hate crime? I know I might seem like I’m exaggerating here, but this is 2020 not 1970. We should be able to sort these issues out and if it means that certain things have to go away or the sponsors risk being upset (this is a whole other issue that I could talk about at length, but that would end up bloating this article even more than it already is), that is a risk we have to take.

I feel like in the context of this whole debate, Petrolicious has had to be a sacrificial lamb. With a lot of situations like this where there are serious, systemic problems within a culture, one person or one company has to fall to really expose the problems that have been hidden away from the rest of us for such a long time. In this case, it’s Petrolicious. Whilst their content was amazing and focused on producing the best quality content about classic and important cars, that incredible content had a very dark secret behind it. Often, things that look the best and flashiest have something very nasty hidden underneath. That is something I’ve sadly learned through experience in multiple years of being a journalist covering multiple industries. In Petrolicious’s case, that nastiness was the offensive views of its CEO and a culture that’s been exposed by former employees of neglecting freelancers. It’s also opened up a realisation in a wider sense that car culture has a problem with racism and toxic right-wing views, something that absolutely needs to be stamped out. Whilst Petrolicious may have claimed to “Drive Tastefully”, the company practices and the views and behaviour of its CEO were anything but tasteful. It’s a shame that Petrolicious has a chance of going away for good and I really hope a new owner turns things around, but if that results in a more inclusive and more ethical community in motoring journalism then Petrolicious absolutely needed to die.

One thought on “Car culture is horribly right wing (or why Petrolicious had to, at least temporarily, die)

  1. For example, UK boy racers make their contempt of community, and rule of law heard by revving modified exhausts up and down residential areas. In the right-wing world, it’s all about being the strong-man, the “alpha”, getting the better of others, above all else, especially decency and common sense. Otherwise, they would not intersect with racism and chauvinism, an ultimate fix to deem yourself at the top.

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