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That Principled Conservative Embrace of Anti-Gay Businesses Somehow Doesn't Extend to Anti-Anti-Gay Businesses

The conservative logic on the Mozilla firing


It's been less than two months since the country concluded a big public debate over the rights of employers vis a vis their employees and their customers—a debate in which conservatives overwhelmingly advanced the view that business owners shouldn't be compelled to do just about anything that conflicts with their religious beliefs. 

The debate occurred on such general terms because conservatives strenuously objected to the notion that they were aligning with people who specifically intended to discriminate against gays and lesbians in their hiring and entrepreneurial practices. This was, we were told, an argument about liberty in the abstract.

Six weeks later, those same conservatives are mourning the end of American pluralism. What happened? An employer effectively terminated one of its executives in accordance with deeply held principles (and, I should note, in the company's financial interest). But the person who lost his job in this case wasn't fired by a bigoted boss for the sin of being gay. Rather, he resigned under pressure from his board of directors for the sin of helping a campaign that sought to nullify same-sex marriages.

For those who haven't figured it out yet, the person in question is Brendan Eich, the tech wiz and now-former CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, which is most famous for developing the Firefox browser. Two weeks into his tenure at the helm of the company, the dating site OkCupid began boycotting Firefox in protest of Eich's $1000 donation to help pass California's Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that prohibited the state from recognizing same-sex marriages. Eich stepped down soon afterwards, to the great consternation of the conservative commentariat.

The dizzying speed with which conservatives reversed their views about the rights of employers tells you everything you need to know about the sincerity of their claim that lofty principles are at stake. But the framing has always been used as a shell to obscure the practical underpinning of their position. Today, Eich's ouster is a symptom of a new fascism—but yesterday, conservatives were doing ritual dances to celebrate the firing of Shirley Sherrod, and the termination of the Dixie Chicks' sponsorship contracts. Yesterday, freedom of speech didn't mean you must get to say whatever you want and keep your status as a government bureaucrat or famous musician. Today it is imperiled if it means you can't say whatever you want and remain CEO of a company or the star of a reality TV show about backwater millionaires.

Yesterday, employer rights were sacrosanct, and trumped the rights of sexual minorities; today they must be curtailed to protect the rights of political minorities.   

What all of this reveals is that the animating issue for conservatives isn't abstract principle, but the privileges they are losing, or sense that their tribesmen are losing. This also explains why the reaction on the right has been so whiny and hyperbolic. Eich's supporters think it's appropriate for there to be repercussions for engaging in speech they don't like, but not for engaging in speech they do like. And, very suddenly, speech they like is becoming culturally disfavored.

"Check your privilege" is a popular argument by assertion on liberal social media, and it's typically a conversation ender, which is why I try to avoid using it. But anyone who's white hot with rage over Eich's quasi-firing really needs to check their privilege. 

Nobody seriously disputes that Mozilla's board would've been acting appropriately if they'd fired a CEO for donating to a white supremacist group, because the white supremacist worldview is no longer a privileged one. Opposing gay marriage used to be privileged, but very quickly, and particularly in Silicon Valley, it no longer is. It's that abrupt change in status that makes this episode so jarring to people who still oppose same-sex marriage or who align politically with same-sex marriage foes. People are finding that the views they hold, and which were recently dominant, are suddenly no longer dominant, and in many parts of the country anathema. And CEOs of big companies—particularly companies like Mozilla, which benefit from the largesse of progressive donors—can't dabble in anathema unrepentantly, and expect their boards will just shrug it off.

This is uncomfortable, but only because of the proximity of the status change. It in no way suggests religious people—or the religious Christians who are rushing to Eich's defense—are being marginalized. Anyone who grew up Jewish in a heavily Christian part of the country can attest to this. If you're Jewish almost anywhere in America, and want to visit family during your holidays, you have to take time off work or school and no amount of whining about your religious liberty will force schools and businesses and the government to reorganize their calendars to suit your needs. Being a member of a political or religious minority can be annoying, but people deal with it constantly, without the benefit of an outpouring of rhetorical support from the professional right. And in the end it probably makes sense that federal holidays coincide with Christian holidays because there really aren't very many Jews in America.

But in the extremely unlikely event that we wake up generations from now and American Jews somehow outnumber American Christians, the official holiday schedules will probably change, and Christians would probably perceive it as an erosion of their religious liberty. But in fact it'd simply reflect a transfer of privilege. And everyone would just have to get used to it.