On the implications of being forced to kiss ideological ass for a job

From Leah Libresco at The American Conservative:

Balkanized businesses, which only hire employees or leaders that are politically palatable to their donors and customers aren’t economically or socially efficient. Instead of creating weak-tie relationships across ideological divides, they segregate people who disagree, fostering a fear of contamination by association. This exclusionary approach raises the stakes of political conflict dangerously high. When the losing side of a debate is blacklisted, all disputes become wars of annihilation.

When [future Mozilla CEO Brendan] Eich donated to Proposition 8, his state was split on the issue; the measure passed by a 4.5 percent margin. If, less than a decade later, the losers of that fight are unemployable, the next group on the losing side of a historical shift has every reason to fight dirtier, while time is still on their side.

Or, for people who plan to stay in the public eye, political activism could start to seem like a risky bet. Ars Technica‘s coverage of Eich suggests he went out on a limb when “he made the choice to spend money toward a political aim” and shouldn’t be surprised to find that his actions have consequences.

It’s hard to exaggerate the sheer destructiveness of this attitude when applied to hiring and firing decisions. It’s the kind of thing that would make Joe McCarthy proud, if not a bit embarrassed by his own reticence as a red-baiting purge artist. The US political mainstream of the 1950’s was principled enough to finally get fed up with McCarthy and turn on him for being at least as un-American as the mushheaded Comintern wannabes he swooped in on and clawed at from his perch as a sitting US Senator. The political establishment was able to appeal to a sense of decency because it had one.

World Vision, a major Christian charitable organization, got itself into a big old pile of derp at about the same time as Mozilla and Brendan Eich did by announcing that it would start hiring qualified applicants who are spouses in same-sex marriages, then retreating two days later to its hardline Levitical status quo ante under fire from a wedge-issue coalition including noted bad seed and troll of Islam Franklin Graham. (If old man Billy had been a Arabian tinpot dictator instead of one of the classiest acts in televangelism, verily young Franklin would have been a most fitting heir to the family business.)

Reading between the lines, it’s pretty easy to see what World Vision was haplessly trying to do. It has a growing reputation, mainly in Christian circles but increasingly in secular social justice circles as well, as a well-run and ethically solid organization genuinely devoted to the betterment of the world’s desperately poor. The accuracy of this reputation, or alternately the prospect of waste or featherbedding by its administrative staff (as happens at countless other charities, often to an epic extreme), is beside the point. World Vision is, by evangelical standards, quite modest about its own theological and moral rectitude. It isn’t in the business of picking fights about who is and isn’t washed in the Blood of the Lamb. Secular and religious-left do-gooders recognize this, and World Vision wanted to improve relations with them and develop them as a part of its donor base. Sure, it sounds craven the way I wrote it, but every charitable organization must deal with these crass temporalities; such is their lot. For an evangelical organization, however, the problem with extending the flimsiest olive branch to anyone in or hanging around the LGBT tent is that it causes Franklin Graham and his ilk to violently fling their shit against the asylum walls until they get their way. They’re the much bigger, much more established donor base, so the stunt works.

This sort of extortion is rampant in American business and charity. It’s practically a standard operating procedure, a feature of the system, not a bug. Franklin Graham and his religious right colleagues do it primarily by proxy, since they’re rich but nowhere near as rich in their own right as their followers are in the aggregate. The fabulously wealthy, people like George Soros and Bill Gates, overwhelmingly use their own money because they have so fucking much of it. Well, it’s kind of their own money in the same way that Willie Sutton’s bank robbery proceeds were his assets and not the banks’, but possession being nine tenths of the law, it’s close enough. And you know what they say: to properly rob a bank, you have to own one. At a certain level of wealth, one can force policy changes by either granting or withholding teh muchoz dineroz. It doesn’t matter whether the cash flow is point-source,  from a freak like Gates or a creep like Soros,  or non-point-source, from millions of pious goobers and channeled through hundreds of religious nonprofits; once it’s enough to affect bottom lines, it’s enough to affect policy.

You may recall the batshit crazy nonsense in Arizona a few months ago wherein some of the state’s career Republican trolls passed legislation to formally legalize a discriminatory free-for-all against gay couples in the state’s public accommodations. It was a total civic embarrassment, motivated by nothing but officious reptilian spite, and Arizona’s hardline right-wing governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed it. But that’s not why she vetoed it. Major corporations started cancelling convention bookings and the hospitality industry shat a brick. This wasn’t like saying, “Just you watch, we’ll think twice about scheduling our next convention in Medicine Hat because Stockwell Day is a wackadoo.” No, what Arizona was facing was a serious meltdown in its huge and normally indestructible tourism economy, all because asshats in its legislature just had to posture about their opposition to teh ghey.

But the defeat of this bizarre bill wasn’t just another little bend in the arc of history towards justice. The incident says a lot about corporate power. It’s eerie to think that maybe the capacity of out-of-state companies to dictate Arizona’s laws on public accommodations for gay couples is of a piece with their capacity to bust unions or to water down workplace safety and environmental regulations. The common thread is that they throw money around and get their way. They extort compliance from the duly elected and appointed civil authorities wherever they do business, usually in places where their corporate officers have no franchise and always in places where they as corporations have no franchise. Even when the duly elected legislature has been overrun by batshit crazy bigots, as has happened in Arizona, how the hell do Coca-Cola or Microsoft have a stake in the policy outcomes? They aren’t Arizona voters.

Any attempt to rein in the bigotry of Arizona’s elected asshats will inevitably smack of imperialism to many Arizonans. It doesn’t much matter that a primary purpose of this imperialism is to retrieve Arizona’s government from the clutches of morally twisted local tyrants. It will still look bad; it will still be interpreted as another ruthless flatlander scheme to fence in the last of the cowboys. Sometimes (or, in Arizona’s case, often) it’s worth the cost to fence the motherfuckers in, but there are bad and worse ways to go about it. The bad ones involve intervention by relatively dispassionate state courts or federal authorities, so that there’s at least a proper civic framework in place; the worse ones involve decisions by private companies with ulterior motives and no meaningful accountability to the public or to any government. Outcomes are important in situations like this, but so are processes, and the processes used by multinational corporations generally suck. We let them do our civic grunt work at our peril.

We let them do a lot of things at our peril. By founding and running fewer of our own small businesses, we allow a shrinking pool of large companies, many of them de facto cartel affiliates, to act as gatekeepers in the job and consumer markets. We do the same thing by patronizing unaccountable big businesses with negligible community ties and civic principles instead of smaller, more accountable more principled businesses with strong community ties. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who isn’t guilty of this. I’m guilty, you’re guilty, we’re all guilty. We’re all stuck, although maybe to varying degrees, in the same positive feedback loop that keeps Walmart and Kroger and Tyson and Labor Ready and stop me please from piling on with more examples all afternoon entrenched as uninvited arbiters of acceptable personnel practices, practices that would most certainly be abolished as entirely unacceptable if applicants and employees had a meaningful say in the matter. They retain critical mass for a variety of reasons; for example, sometimes going to the farmers’ market instead of buying Safeway produce that was grown God alone knows how or by whom is le hard, plus you wouldn’t get the Club rewards points for doing that. Then again, Safeway is a union shop, and so far it hasn’t been noticeably gutted by its new vulture capital overlords at Cerebrus. Walmart is a God-awful atrocious organization, but it sells all kinds of stuff for hella cheap. Even hellaciously bad companies can have their upsides; going full Al Gore moralistic on their customers is daft. That said, it behooves us all to keep in mind that these companies are extremely powerful in more ways than we can probably imagine, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s a bad idea to let untrustworthy corporations and their shadowy cartels commandeer even more power than they already have, because beyond a certain threshold they will surely use it to serve man.

But this civic dysfunction isn’t just a result of impotence and apathy in the face of corporate cartel juggernauts. It’s darker than that. There are a lot of people who see nothing disturbing at all about submitting their entire lives and the entire breadth of their societies to the control of untrustworthy business or ideological collectives. In a broad sense this cult instinct is as old as dirt, but it is not a constant in all societies across time. Its intensity, prevalence, and specific manifestations vary across time and place. A lot. It’s pretty muted in Germany these days on account of that country’s recent unpleasantness circa 1933-1945, but not in the United States, a country rather smug in the knowledge that Ronald Reagan and John Wayne chased the Wehrmacht all the way back to the Brandenburg Gate. Slightly off topic: if we apply a Fourth Turning gloss to this history and count forward eighty years, ain’t we got fun.

Anyway, even the tenor just of postwar American cultism has evolved quite a bit over the years. Not a whole lot of our current crop of young dipshits are getting mixed up with dangerous nutters like Synanon or the Rajneeshis; cults of that ilk were legion in the sixties and seventies, and just another reason to love the boomers just as much as they love themselves. That stuff is too openly megalomaniacal for young’uns these days. It’s too trippy. Kids my age and younger (I’m 31, but I run with a lot of the 25-30 crowd) much prefer something more subtly wrong, which is how so many of us got into soft-authoritarian garbage like “personal branding.” That, and the captains of “industry” (more like the sergeants of felony racketeering) made every effort to get us on board with that awful program. Still, for this wretched scheme to work my age cohort had to do something other than stare at the career coach shysters dumbfounded, as if we had just happened upon a tribe of cannibals. We had to cooperate, and word on the street is that we really know how to fucking cooperate.

It’s worth thinking about what “personal branding” really means. It dictates the total abandonment of any independent, noncommercial identity in any sphere where prospective or current employers, customers, or colleagues might lurk. At heart it’s hideously mercenary and servile. As a constitutional matter, we Americans have freedom of speech, but a hell of a lot of good the Constitution will do us if we let any easily offended sniveling loser abrogate it on grounds of third-party butthurt. Oh, but Orwellian self-censorship is totes cool if it’s done at the behest of nongovernmental actors, since they don’t have powers of arrest and the like? No, it is not. Many of the nongovernmental actors that assert offense in these cases have the power to deny or terminate employment, and in case you’re a bit dense in the head, that’s quite a bit of power. The very philosophy of personal branding is chilling of free speech. It is not the attitude of a free people.

The justification reflexively given for this paranoid degree of self-censorship and marketeering is Wow Much internet Such search power Very technology. The reasoning is basically that technological capacity and organization dictate social organization and relationships, and there’s no way a callow young thing like yourself will be able to let it all hang out after hours without being eaten up by the Panopticon. In Soviet America, world wide web surfs YOU! This line of reasoning, while true in a strict technical sense, concedes no possibility of basic regulations or community norms governing the use of online information so that predators and general shitheads can be held accountable for abusing information asymmetries against innocents and pikers.

Once again, what’s missing is a functioning civic framework. The career advice crowd assumes that since there isn’t one, there can’t be one. In other words, they consider us incapable of basic self-government. The rest of us would be insulted enough to get off our asses and assert ourselves as stakeholders if we understood what the hell they were insinuating about us as a polity. On examination, their attitude towards us proves to be one one of utter contempt. They assume that we’re too helpless and meek to assert bare-bones community standards on privacy against a disgusting bunch of peeping toms.

The sick thing is that they’re right. We’re fucking pussies. We’re candy-ass cowards. Not all of us all the time, but many of us much of the time, and that’s bad enough. We have hordes of corporate and government spies effectively crawling around our bedrooms, reading our diaries and leafing through our photo albums, sometimes for shits and giggles but often on fishing expeditions in search of information to use against us. At least a lot of Americans, especially young ones, are alarmed and outraged by the government spying, the horrors that my age peer Ed Snowden exposed. The problem is that there’s so much less pushback against the corporate spying, whose consequences are generally less dire but are much more widespread. You probably weren’t a contender for a job at the NSA, but there’s a decent chance that you’ve had an application to the Home Depot or Chick-Fil-A shitcanned, maybe for reasons that are as inscrutable as they are inappropriate. Maybe for political reasons. The proper response to corporate spying, not just to NSA data hording, is to say, “Hey now, no one invited you over here, so you’d best be a gentleman while you’re here and keep your damn mouth shut after you leave.”

The proper response is NOT to preemptively self-censor one’s comments on platforms that have absolutely no legitimate bearing on one’s professional life and were never intended for a professional audience. That’s just pathetic. I have in mind platforms like Facebook. It doesn’t matter that everyone’s on Facebook; everyone has a bedroom, too, so shouldn’t you agree to all requests from tentative professional contacts to hang out in the closet and watch while you screw your girlfriend? I thought so. Or if you don’t have a bedroom, would you like to invite your entire contact list down to your warren in the San Diego River floodplain, the warren that you booby-trapped with log-and-rope contraptions to keep out the police? Exactly.

And yet I keep seeing creepy-ass requests from prospective employers and roommates on Craigslist to “send me your Facebook.” Boundary issues like whoa. That, not any carping about our poor work ethic or flightiness or whininess, is why I’m a bit ashamed to be a Millennial. I keep seeing complaints, credible ones in a wide variety of contexts, about how we have no sense of proper boundaries: that we overshare in the most inappropriate settings, that we can’t or won’t keep nosy third parties from intruding into our romantic and sexual relationships, that we can’t form cohesive peer groups or engage in normal give-and-take with peers in any setting, that we’re close to useless as friends and worse as confidants. I don’t recall hearing anything of the sort about Gen X. On top of that, we’re the worst offenders of any living generation, if not also of any dead generation, for acceding to the tortious improprieties of unpaid internships. Yes, many of our parents pressured us in that direction, but for God’s sake a person is old enough to say no to something so unethical by the age of 21. It might be said that we have a trust problem, as in too much of the stuff. It’s bad news. I hate to think that them’s my people.

But again, it isn’t just that youngsters these days are buttinsky dingbats. It would be possible for such a generation to mature into a better-than-calamitous job market and a socioeconomic structure not reminiscent of the Gilded Age. That’s kind of what happened with the Silent Generation in the fifties; apparently their social skills rather sucked, but crucially the socioeconomics didn’t. My peers and I inherit something worse. Our parents and grandparents abandoned most of the broad-middle-class civic organizations and allowed the labor unions to be gutted. Oops. What they built in its place is little more than a wretched mishmash of status-whoring SWPL political outfits, racketeering colleges and professional organizations, and cryptototalitarian general-purpose church/state/business lobbies run by the wing-nut religious right. The middle-ground organizations that keep a society from disintegrating were more or less torched on the way out.

Even if the rising generation sincerely wants to rebuild America’s trashed civic infrastructure, it’s a hell of a tall order. For the Boomers to tell us to just get on with it is like a Roman general telling Hannibal’s soldiers, “Come on, just put your minds to it and rebuild Carthage. By the way, we’re out of salt.” I sincerely want to do what I can to rebuild a functioning middle ground, an honest and just economy, and so forth, and I don’t think I’m entirely failing at it, but shit, all the crazies and asshats are on the loose, and quite a few of them are backed up by in-house multimedia operations. Fox News? SRN? Sweet Jesus. There are a lot of things that these outlets are, but conservative is not one of them. It isn’t a synonym for “reactionary.” Once an organization brings in a critical mass of wackos, charlatans, and bigots, a threshold that both Fox and SRN crossed at the get-go, it ceases to credibly argue from any position of reasonableness or good faith, and it tends to tar by association the few plain dealers still hanging around its precincts,  or else corrupt them to the bone (Huckabee, Palin). Meanwhile, the ostensible left is led by the likes of noted wage thief Arianna Huffington. There’s just no way to make this stuff up. It’s too sordid.

It’s easy enough to see how this regime makes people feel compelled to pick sides in order to get by. It’s as if Josip Broz Cronkite died and now all his countrymen are shooting at each other because the center just won’t hold. And that’s the way it is. The present political environment is one in which theological extremists shamelessly threaten to cut off funding for a scrupulously neutral Christian charitable organization in retaliation for its attempt to accommodate prevailing civil law on marriage, and their threats succeed. It’s an environment in which mayors of Boston and Chicago see nothing particularly wrong with publicly threatening to deny business licenses to a chicken sandwich chain because its CEO said some butthurtful things about “traditional” marriage. It’s one in which the same chicken sandwich chain cravenly turns around, gins up a persecution panic, and gets Mike Huckabee to organize a cash mob. Our politics have all the civic substance of an S&M dungeon. The difference is that the latter has the decency to operate entirely outside the civic realm.

The boundary problems here transcend generations. Church, state, and commerce should not be comingled in this fashion. It’s really that simple. Nothing good comes of blurring these lines; all that results is proliferating corruption in all three realms. When everyone tries to grab the same tar baby, all anyone gets is sticky. It’s a pretty straightforward concept, but I fear that if you tried to explain it to hard-left or hard-right ideologues, and especially to hardline religious right elements, you’d get about the same reaction as you would for reciting the Internal Revenue Code in Amharic. I did a little better than that when I tried to explain the dangers of granting a corporate electoral franchise on abortion to the Catholic Church at a Newman Club meeting, but not by much. It’s scary how many people have no real respect for the political processes that keep the United States from descending into autocracy.

Or try to explain the pitfalls of “Christian” businesses. There’s the obvious one, that they profane the church and its teachings, but that’s a bit deep for the evangelical mainstream. Less obviously, they also have a way of corrupting the rule of civil law. Secular businesses and their owners are fully answerable to civil laws and regulations; they don’t enjoy the exemptions that apply to religious organizations and clergy in the interest of religious liberty. It’s lawful for Cardinal Dolan to discriminate against a priest for professing adherence to Islam or fealty to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but it is not lawful for Seton Medical Center to discriminate against a surgeon or a nurse for these reasons. I shouldn’t pick on a Catholic hospital here; Catholic hospitals are usually quite scrupulous and pragmatic in this regard. The trouble in this area comes much more from evangelicals. What happens is that their owners incorporate under secular auspices, subjecting themselves to full governmental regulation, and often operate largely in a secular fashion, before arbitrarily deciding that they’re actually religious ministries, so that they may now discriminate however the fuck they wish in the interest of strengthening everyone and his mother in the Word. In point of legal fact, they absolutely may not do anything of the sort, and anyone whom they unlawfully target in this fashion has grounds and standing to haul their asses into court for discrimination.

This discriminatory behavior is aggravated by its chameleon-like manifestation: “We’re a business,  no we’re a church, no we’re a business now, oh come on why ya gotta be so legalistic about this stuff my goodness I’m your friend and I’m concerned about your salvation, you really should spend more time in the Word, and you know the Apostle Paul encouraged believers to settle their disputes on the way to court.” All right, stipulate wrongdoing on the record and I’ll agree to a reasonable out-of-court monetary settlement.

At their extreme, Christian business owners really do use piety as a fig leaf for abject lawlessness. I wish I were kidding. I’m currently working for and leasing land from a woman who, by her own completely unbidden description, fired a perfectly competent employee for getting pregnant out of wedlock. By her reckoning, the pregnancy was aggravated by the fact that the father was the neighbor’s day laborer. It speaks to the low regard in which people in her religious circles hold the law that she nonchalantly opened up about this incident without my asking at a time when I was working for her and she hadn’t known me for a month. Legal responsibilities don’t even register because it’s all about God and holiness and shit. Like, uhh, pregnancy is a SPECIFIC PROTECTED STATUS under federal and state employment law, so you, err, might want to keep that in mind when telling a current employee about how you fired a past employee because “she couldn’t keep her legs shut.” This mess is even worse than it sounds because I love this lady and think of her almost as family, but for crying out loud if she does anything like that to me she’ll get one warning from my lawyer to make me whole on the record before I file suit in Superior Court and probably call the Union-Tribune local desk. And if she finds this post and traces it back to me, that’s her problem, not mine; this is about a lot, lot more than just her. She knows that I’m a lot savvier than some of her employees, and she seems to really admire me, so she isn’t trying to scare me. And she didn’t become so moralistic about the unapproved sexual activity of her employees in a vacuum; crackpot buttinsky church yahoos did it to her. I absolutely do not want trouble with her, and I doubt that trouble will find me in this case, but I can’t allow an employer and landlady to become a law unto herself in her dealings with me.

This whole awful situation is basically another epic failure of the culture of honor, the culture of honor commonly being nothing more than an ass cover for disgusting scofflaws. Believe me, I’ve dealt with much worse petty autocracy clusterfucks than this. The pro se correspondence in these cases is a worse headache than you want to contemplate.

Consider that a lot of people would like to codify this sort of discrimination as entirely lawful, and that a larger group would like for it to be tacitly allowed as long as they, and not their rat bastard enemies, are ahead. At that point, they’ll become committed friends of privacy and liberty all of a sudden. It’s barfworthy.

You can probably see why I sympathize with and support Christian conservatives, including theocrats, who would like to keep their political activities and leanings on the down-low and fully clear of their workplaces. Ne’er the twain should meet. They do, but it ain’t right. Think I’m about to tell any of my religious right friends around here about this blog, and help them discover that my politics are all about stuff like religious pluralism and legalized prostitution and that I publish F-bombs every paragraph or two?

In your fucking dreams, brah. In your fucking dreams.


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