Saturday, July 28, 2012

Why many conservatives don't (and won't) understand the Chick-Fil-A controversy

It's been a busy couple of weeks in the news, with regards to things I could have potentially blogged about, what with the number of calls to God and atheism and whatever else being behind the Aurora, Colorado, "Batman" shooting (hint: God doesn't do that stuff on either side of the argument, btw, and it wasn't God's plan--so brazenly stupid). The ensuing debate on gun rights is an important one, and one that is unlikely to be sober and productive for the very same reason I'm about to lay out here concerning a vastly less deadly weapon: fried chicken. I'm going to talk about the controversy about Chick-Fil-A, why conservatives (particularly religious ones and libertarians) don't (and likely won't) understand it, and how that connects directly back to the gun rights question raised, yet again, by a massacre. The reason, of course, is ideological thinking.

For a very quick recap, in case anyone is not aware of the situation, Dan Cathy, Chief Operating Officer of Atlanta-based Chick-Fil-A, a fast-food fried chicken place that claims it invented the chicken sandwich, put himself in a pickle lately. It's been widely known among those who support gay (marriage) rights that Chick-Fil-A as a business is openly supportive of "traditional" or "biblical" marriage. He recently made the statement that he and his business are "guilty as charged" of this activity, and the LBGT and supporting communities pretty well went straight to full boycott in response, as I'll justify momentarily.

We might note that Dan Cathy, to everyone's knowledge, does not have concubines, multiple wives, or profess absolute ownership of his wife as a piece of his property, so "traditional" and "biblical" marriage is a dubious term in the first place. We might also make a short note, but not a fuss, out of his classic example of erroneous God-does reasoning. Cathy said on the radio program The Ken Coleman Show, "I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about."

Let me also make a quick note about their careful way of wording the fact that they are against gay marriage without directly saying so. To frame yourself as "pro-traditional-marriage" instead of "anti-gay-marriage" is a semantic game. Indeed, this crafty little bit of politicking is essentially identical to saying "It's not that I'm against flipping tails, it's that I'm very, very in favor of flipping heads" in reference to a coin toss.

Now, of course, the reason that the boycott is justified should be able to go without saying (although it can't--because it seems almost no conservatives understand it). Gay rights supporters have it out in the open that this company actively donates large sums of money to organizations that directly engage in activism against their cause, being that "pro-traditional-marriage" means "anti-gay-marriage" in everything but the wording. Thus, anyone who supports the gay-rights campaign cannot support Chick-Fil-A without being in a moral quandary since they are indirectly funding the opposition to their efforts on what they see as a major moral problem. They are as justified in boycotting Chick-Fil-A as any minority or supporter thereof would be in boycotting a company that directly donates some of its profits to the Ku Klux Klan.

Predictably, the highly polarized nature of our politics right now has turned this into a culture war--fought not with guns but rather with money that might be paid for chicken. Just as predictably, those in support of the Chick-Fil-A boycott are having their minds blown by the seeming inability of those on the right to get their heads around this matter, particularly libertarians, who have to violate their central claim on "liberty" to do as they are. It's because the matter is ideological, and two essentially religious forces on the right wing are coming to the battle here.

First, there is the obvious one: some Christians, scared to find out that their views might be wrong and thus that other things they are taught, like that they will never truly die, might be wrong, are rallying in support of the traditional values that they actively support. This is to be expected, and however disgusting it is to use your religion to justify a form of bigotry and oppression (God doesn't do that either, by the way), it really surprises no one. The boycott isn't a "war on Christianity," but a lot of these folks want to find one and see it here.

Then there is the harder one, captured by this comment I read on Facebook: "All lovers of the U.S. Constitution should eat at Chick-Fil-A right now." It's literally enough to leave those of us who understand why there is a boycott scratching our heads in befuddlement. The force involved here, though, is almost the same monster as it is quasi-religious itself--the incredibly American ideology of Libertarianism.

Libertarians have exalted "liberty" as their highest moral standard. In fact, Libertarians might be qualified as those people who place liberty, as opposed to oppression, and loyalty, as opposed to betrayal, at the very highest level in their moral framework. The problem is that they don't have a very keen understanding of liberty, as the liberty they are fighting for at present literally is the freedom for those with privilege to oppress and tyrannize those without it. It may be this fundamental dissonance, in fact, that inspires so much of their anger about the matter.

Since "liberty" of the "do as you will" brand is elevated to an ideological standard for these people, and since they (rather ironically, given the history--see NB at bottom) essentially consider the U.S. Constitution to be the scriptural embodiment of that abstraction, they are willing to subvert all kinds of evidence, including oppression and even bloody massacres, to protect and support the notion. In championing the cause of doing what one will, they are even able to suppress the call to the responsibility to do what one ought. Indeed, until their ideological adherence changes and their moral framework is built anew, they cannot do otherwise. We see them hold aloft "liberty" detached from humanity.

So, for these Libertarians, the whole controversy arises because they see it as an attack on Dan Cathy's liberty to do what he will with his company, and thus by extension they see it as an attack on their own liberty and on the abstraction of Liberty itself (rather like the abstraction many people call God). They see other people telling Dan Cathy what he can and cannot do with his own business or company profits. That, of course, is what they see because they want to see it, and it is not at all what is going on. What is going on is straightfoward: people refusing to support a business (and discouraging others from supporting it) that openly engages in behavior that they strongly disagree with, i.e. that people have the liberty to use their money as they will and their speech to truthfully defame a business (as that does not qualify as libel). Unsurprisingly, then, we're witnessing a group who insists that the business and people only have the right to do as they please if it agrees with the views of the members of that group. As noted, this is a very narrow definition of "liberty" and one that can only be enforced by a contradictory method: authority.

Also predictably, then, all kinds of bad arguments and distractions are flying around. For instance, there is a common call to the hypocrisy of those who boycott Chick-Fil-A but not other Christian businesses (given the recent article in Businessweek, Marriott hotels, owned by a devout Mormon, makes a good example). There is no hypocrisy there, though, unless those other Christian businesses are directly and openly donating large sums of money to anti-gay-marriage campaigns. Still others accuse hypocrisy for not boycotting other "evil" businesses like the fossil fuel industry, which does raise a larger moral question just now than does gay marriage. That's a matter of practicality, though. Most Americans do not possess the level of capital needed to effectively boycott the fossil fuel industry, but all have the ability to choose not to eat a chicken sandwich for lunch.

What does this have to do with the shooting in Colorado, or any of the other dozens that take place in the United States with stunning regularity? Everything.

The same people can and do make the same arguments about gun rights. They can take the liberty of gun ownership and lawful operation and place that ideal under the glass of sanctity, preventing any reasoned discussion of the matter--and in this case, amazingly, the glass is apparently bulletproof. The liberty to own guns and ammunition, whatever the costs, outweighs the innocent blood of everyone killed by them, enabling the bizarre disconnect between killing and death exhibited widely in American culture. I have to wonder if this disconnect has its roots in the Christian religion, which actively denies death and thus teaches people to think in very unclear terms about it.

Now, please note that I do not claim to know what the right answer is about gun rights, nor do I call for gun bans or even, necessarily, more gun control. Certainly I don't deny the fundamental right of people to defend themselves against attack or danger. All I'm calling for is non-ideological conversation about it, looking at data and statistics and wading our way through the muck to effective rules and regulations surrounding the topic. Bad arguments need to be taken off the table, including Bruce-Willis-movie fantasies about gun fights, so that sober discussions can lead to a better situation for everyone. So long as guns, like the rights of corporations, are mired in the quasi-religious wasteland of the American ideology of Liberty, this is impossible, though.

So long as Liberty is an ideological ideal in our culture with a quasi-religious following, these problems will be as common and heated as those surrounding every religious movement--and this religion will produce dangerous fundamentalists and extremists just like every other (even if some, like peaceful Jainism, only produces fundamentalists and extremists that are dangerous to themselves).

Somehow a cult of Liberty has wound its way through American history, occasionally, as now, rearing its head in a way to create problems that force us to ask hard questions--while trying to suppress the asking of them--like "how much innocent blood and oppression of the pursuit of happiness is an abstract concept like Liberty actually worth?" Some folks now are calling all of this discord and death the "high price of liberty." Is it really worth it, or is there some balance that can be struck where we are all still free to do literally anything that free, civil people have a reasonable right to be doing and yet limits are placed to keep the uncivil more in check, even if imperfectly?

EDIT: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told FOX News that the matter of whether or not the Second Amendment "freedom" covers the right to bear "rocket launchers that can bring down airplanes" is one that "has to be decided." This is a clear indication that an abstract notion (Liberty) has left the realm of the reasonable and pragmatic in the minds of even representatives of the highest court in the United States. View the video just below.

Nota bene: The irony of the Consitution being held as the American scripture of Libertarianism is in its establishment--which is why many Libertarians favor the more appropriate Declaration of Independence as their central scripture. Essentially, following the revolution, starting immediately in 1776, the Articles of Confederation were drafted, and by 1781 they were ratified by all thirteen states. Those articles made for a very loose, very Libertarian-style government, and over the following decade, the problems caused by this situation led directly to the need to draft a Constitution that established a relatively strong federal government, giving birth to the Federalist Party that dominated late eighteenth-century American politics. The capstone moment really came at Shays Rebellion, and it motivated even many of the Republicans (though not Thomas Jefferson so much) to aim for a more consolidated federal government as outlined in the current Constitution, in response to the sentiment expressed by Abigail Adams in her January 29, 1787, letter to Thomas Jefferson: "Ignorant, restless desperadoes, without conscience or principals, have led a deluded multitude to follow their standard, under pretence of grievances which have no existence but in their own imaginations." In other words, the U.S. Constitution is a document that was written in its current form specifically to address the societal ills created by attempting to govern via purely Libertarian ideals--and that at a time when single-shot, barrel-loaded weaponry was state-of-the-art. It is starkly ironic, then, that the people who wish to be governed as if there were no Constitution at all hold it up as a scriptural standard to rally around.

Of course, just as most Christians don't read or accept everything in the Bible, so we see with many Libertarian activists and their central scriptures.


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