Saturday, July 21, 2012

Only a Politician Could Make Me Side with Chick-fil-A

I used to eat lunch at Chick-fil-A maybe three times a month. I don’t, now. Part of the reason is that I found out about their position on gay rights, but I’d be lying if I said that the fact that their outlet isn’t as accessible as it used to be prior to renovations in our University Center didn’t play a role, too. Still, I’ve passed on plenty of opportunities in recent months to grab a sandwich from them—in airports, in malls, and such. I’m not adamant about it: I don’t recall having been to a Chick-fil-A in a couple of years, but I freely admit that I might have, and I don’t actively discourage anyone else from patronizing their outlets: after all, they make a pretty good chicken sandwich.

Part of my rationale, of course, is that my one-man protest isn’t going to make even a fraction of a dent in Chick-fil-A’s bottom line. This is the same reasoning by which I didn’t make a big deal out of boycotting General Mills when they starting bullying a small Utah bakery or Target when they made a series of questionable political contributions. The other part of the reasoning is that if I were to refuse to deal with any corporation with whom I disagree, profoundly, on at least one political or ethical issue, I’d have to hole up in a cave somewhere without mass-produced clothes, a cell phone, packaged food, and a whole lot of other things I kind of like having as part of my life. You pick your battles. I don’t go to Chick-fil-A if I can help it, but that decision is ultimately more about making me feel morally superior than about denying them profits.

Anyway, Chick-fil-A has been in the news twice in recent days. The first time was when CEO Dan Cathy (left) told K. Allan Blume of Baptist Press that his corporation is “guilty as charged” of contributing to a host of anti-equality causes… of course, it was written up as “supporting the traditional family,” but everyone on both sides of the issue knew exactly what he meant.

Here’s the rationale:
We are very much supportive of the family—the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.

We operate as a family business ... our restaurants are typically led by families; some are single. We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that.

We intend to stay the course. We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.
The statement is rife with the kind of code words we have come to expect: “biblical definition of the family unit,” for example, seems to omit, oh, say, Solomon’s 700 wives and 300 concubines. This kind of selective enforcement carries over into the corporation’s practices, too: “there are a couple of passages in Deuteronomy that could be interpreted as opposing homosexuality, so we’ll give millions of dollars to deny the right to marry to a few million Americans. But that part of the same book that forbids eating pork products (that would be Deuteronomy 14:8, for those of you following along at home)… well, that clearly doesn’t apply to our bacon, egg and cheese biscuit.” And I bet they don’t spend millions trying to keep people from eating shrimp (Leviticus 11:9-12) or getting tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), either.

Ultimately, though, I can’t get too exorcised about this. Cathy is just another in a long list of pseudo-Christian hypocrites who select the Biblical passages that suit their prejudices and ignore the rest. It’s not the process of selection that’s the problem, of course: forcing a rape victim to marry her assailant (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) isn’t something any of the real Christians I know would condone, let alone command. Rather, it’s the ultra-pious strutting that annoys me. But, as I said earlier, it would be tough to survive if we didn’t ultimately do business with a company run by a pompous fraud. And, to be fair, at least we know where Chick-fil-A stands… in a post-Citizens United world, that company you like so much could be dropping millions into the campaign coffers of the Michele Bachmanns of the world, for all you know.

So… story #2, considerably less publicized, at least in the venues I frequent. I admit to coming late to this party: two of my favorite bloggers, Ken at Popehat and Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms, have already weighed in on this. And I agree with them both, so there’s not a lot of new argumentation here… I just think it’s important that I should talk about this.

It seems that Chick-fil-A wants to expand into Boston, and Mayor Thomas M. Menino isn’t having any of it:
Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.

That’s the Freedom Trail. That’s where it all started right here. And we’re not going to have a company, Chick-fil-A or whatever the hell the name is, on our Freedom Trail.
Typical politician’s bluster, right? Well, actually, no. Menino then goes Full Blagojevich in terms of self-importance: “If they need licenses in the city, it will be very difficult—unless they open up their policies.”

Yeah, well, no. When Northeastern students kept Chick-fil-A off their campus, they did so by convincing their administration that the chicken chain’s “charitable” contributions run counter to the goals of the university (including, one surmises, a lack of on-campus disturbances). But that’s a citizen protest affecting a private university’s decisions. I have no problems with that: indeed, I endorse it. When Menino stopped Wal-Mart from moving into Roxbury, the opposition was crafted in terms of Wal-Mart’s actual corporate culture. This is shaky ground, but at least reasonable.

Threatening to withhold licensing on the basis of what the corporation does with its charities, absent any evidence of criminal discrimination towards gay employees or customers, however, is no different than, in another jurisdiction, withholding a building permit for a mosque because the mayor doesn’t like Muslims.

Ken pretty well nails it:
I haven't seen any evidence that Chick-Fil-A discriminates in hiring or service. Rather, they give money to a cause I despise, one that promotes social discrimination. But the government doesn't get to pick and choose what social causes are permissible, and any government actor who aspires to that power is a lowlife thug. What's particularly alarming about Menino’s thuggery is how openly his referencing to licensing “difficulties” reveals how things really work in government: whatever rights you think that you have, practically speaking some bureaucrat can punish you for exercising them on a whim, and there's very little you can do about it. Menino represents the ethos of government actors who think quite frankly that this is right and just and how it should be—that they, our masters, should be able to dictate what we think and do and say if we want to do business in their fiefdom.

Menino could use his bully pulpit to call on Bostonians to reject Chick-Fil-A if they come to town. He could call for social opprobrium on Chick-Fil-A and its affiliates and even on its patrons. He could organize protests and marches and letter-writing campaigns. He could carry a sign in front of Chick-Fil-A saying “BE LES BIGOT” if it opens. [I love this, by the way.] But if he says he’ll use the coercive power of government to retaliate against Chick-Fil-A for views he doesn’t like, he’s totalitarian. If you support him because you agree with him (and with me) that Chick-Fil-A’s stance on gays is worthy of condemnation, then you’re a damned fool, and don’t let me catch you whining if some other government actor retaliates against an individual or business because of a political stance you like.
Ken is more libertarian than I, and his anathema to government intrusion is therefore more foregrounded. But Menino’s belief that he has the right to keep Chick-fil-A out not because they’re predatory and exploitative (cf., Walmart) but because he doesn’t like the CEO’s socio-politics? What’s next? Denying a license to a grocery store because they plan to sell products made by companies owned by the Koch brothers? I’m with Ken.

I’m reminded of the time I met Harland Sanders, legendary founder of Chick-fil-A’s competitor, KFC. It took him 15 seconds to prove to me that he was the most smug and self-satisfied racist I’ve ever encountered face to face. What Sanders was to race, Cathy is to sexual orientation. I’m not going to buy a whole lot of their respective products [yes, I know, Sanders is long deceased and sold the company before his death]… but partly that’s because there’s a Raising Cane’s practically right across the street from my office. Love me some chicken fingers.

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