Friday, Nov 21, 2014
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If you can get fired over your politics, what good is the First Amendment?


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Now that the controversy over Mozilla’s firing of CEO Brendan Eich over his anti-gay politics has subsided (and before something similar happens again, which it surely will), it’s time for a brief tutorial on McCarthyism.

Because, if those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, Americans — who don’t notice history even as it’s happening — are condemned to the endless purgatory of idiocrasy.

McCarthyism, also known as the 20th century’s second Red Scare, took on several forms in the 1950s. Let’s focus on blackballing.

Blackballing, often known as blacklisting, is the act of denying employment to someone due to political opinions they express, and activities in which they participate, away from the workplace.

The qualifier “away from the workplace” is important. Denying you a paycheck because of your politics — politics you don’t express at work — is the core essence of blackballing and arguably the most powerful torture device in the censor’s toolbox. Examples of blackballing include the disgusting Hollywood blacklist of left-leaning actresses like Marsha Hunt and director Charlie Chaplain, and the 2004 firing of an Alabama woman because she had a John Kerry bumper sticker on her car. Also in 2004, Men’s Health magazine dropped my comic strip — which was about sex and relationships, 100 percent apolitical — because I opposed George W. Bush and his invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

As Timothy Noah wrote about the bumper sticker firing: “Firing a person because you don’t like his or her politics runs contrary to just about everything this country stands for, but it is not against the law.” The U.S. embraces the savage fiscal Darwinism of “at-will employment,” which allows employers to hire and fire workers as they please, unless a victim can prove — which is difficult — discrimination due race, color, gender, age or disability.

Incredibly, your boss can fire you simply for being a Democrat or Republican.

Blackballing squelches expression and debate. Yet the American public doesn’t seem to mind that the First Amendment doesn’t protect them where they spend more than half of their waking hours — at work. Which set the stage for what happened to Brendan Eich.

Star LGBT columnist-editor-author Dan Savage “shrugged off” suggestions that Mozilla blackballed Eich: “No gay rights organizations had called for him to step down. This wasn’t really an issue in the gay community, it was an issue at Mozilla. There were people at Mozilla who didn’t want this man representing them.”

(Disclosure: Savage has commissioned work from me, and I have said nice things about him, which I meant.)

Savage is right. No gay rights groups weighed in. They kept quiet. None spoke out in Eich’s defense.

“He was perceived by his own employees as an unacceptable CEO,” Savage remarked, pointing to Eich’s record of right-wing politics, which included supporting Pat Buchanan and Rand Paul, in addition to the $1,000 campaign contribution to California’s Proposition 8 in 2012, which attempted to ban gay marriage in the state.

Exactly so.

Eich was perceived as “an unacceptable CEO” by Mozilla. But this was not because of his computer skills, which are widely seen as unimpeachable, or his management talent, which only came under fire after his politics came to light.

The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki showcased the rationale of McCarthyism. Allowing that Eich is “a brilliant software engineer who had been the company’s chief technology officer,” Surowiecki explained: “The problem was that Eich’s stance was unacceptable in Silicon Valley, a region of the business world where social liberalism is close to a universal ideology.” To which one might ask: so what? If I only bought products made by companies whose CEOs I liked, my house would be empty.

And here, the “well, duh” logic that ignores the much bigger question of whether censorship is a good idea: “In interviews, [Eich] repeatedly spoke about the need to respect the diverse views of Mozilla community members. ... But there was something self-evidently odd about the pairing of Eich’s rhetorical support for diversity with his financial support for denying legal rights to gay people.”

Bear in mind: Eich pledged, in writing, not to discriminate against gay Mozilla employees. There’s no evidence that he ever mistreated any member of the LGBT community.

What is “self-evidently odd” about the argument that a company that values diversity ought to be able to make peace with a right-wing, anti-gay marriage CEO? Nothing. These “liberals” are blind to their own prejudice. In the same way that cable news channels believe that ideological diversity runs the gamut from center-right Clinton Democrat to right-wing Republican, Surowiecki and Mozilla’s top executives think acceptable political discourse allows for no disagreement on gay marriage.

This makes me nervous, and not just because I’m a political pundit or because gay marriage is an issue about which Americans have changed their minds at a breathtakingly rapid rate. If anything you say can be used against you in the court of the HR office, who is going to risk saying what they think? At Mozilla, Republicans would be wise to stay in the political closet. Isn’t that kind of ... fascist?

Which is why I have consistently refused to join, actively opposed and publicly argued against boycott campaigns against right-wingers like Dr. Laura and Rush Limbaugh.

I think Eich is wrong about gay marriage. I disagree with his right-wing views. He’s a rich (former) CEO, so I don’t care about him personally. Nevertheless, Eich has become a symbol of something dangerous and wrong.

If you can lose your job due to your politics ­— especially if those in charge find those politics repugnant — there are only two options available to those of us who need to earn a living: keep our opinions to ourselves or lie about them. If politics leaves the public sphere, forced underground by watchful employers and politically correct coworkers and anonymous online crusaders, how does the United States differ from East Germany?

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