Thursday, April 24, 2014

Extremism in Defense of Liberty Is No Vice, Unless It's the Wrong Liberty

Where Christian martyrs were in fact driven to disobedience by sincere religious objections to the actions demanded of them, pagan authorities could see only contumacia, a stubborn and treasonous contempt for the emperor’s lawful command.  Ironically, as we shall see, the same disconnect would prevail under the Christian empire when secular authorities and establishment bishops looked at those they called “heretics” or “schismatics.”  They, likewise, preferred to characterize religious dissidence as a result of pride, obstinacy, or philoneikia (“quarrelsomeness” or “love of controversy”) rather than sincere belief.*
I've been trying to figure out what principles, if any, are involved in the matter of Brendan Eich and other right-wingers who've taken heat for their political beliefs lately.  I must say that the Right is tenacious: they're still yowling about the unfairness of it all, three weeks later, with no signs of fatigue.  I don't think the Left, let alone liberals, would still be setting the airwaves aflame with their indignation for such a long time, though in fairness the Left doesn't have the corporate-media access the Right has.

So, for example, the right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer just published a piece, "The Zealots Win Again," calling for an end to transparency in political donations.  (It was Brendan Eich's $1000 donation to the Proposition 8 campaign, you'll recall, that led to his removal as CEO of Mozilla.) Conor Friedersdorf discussed it at, quoting Krauthammer's conclusion:
If revealing your views opens you to the politics of personal destruction, then transparency, however valuable, must give way to the ultimate core political good, free expression. Our collective loss. Coupling unlimited donations and full disclosure was a reasonable way to reconcile the irreconcilables of campaign finance. Like so much else in our politics, however, it has been ruined by zealots.
What a pity.
You see, this is why we can't have nice things: the zealots ruin them.  Something's wrong here, though.  First, when did the Right begin to object to "the politics of personal destruction"?  Only when it began to hurt them, apparently: the Right has a long history of trying to destroy their political opponents.  (Analogously, liberals only object to it when it hurts them.)  Often they have relied on fabrications to do so, and professional liars who build careers on false accusations against their political enemies are considered heroes, not embarrassments to the faction.

Second, Krauthammer's argument makes no sense, because "free expression" means little if you have to hide your identity to express your views.  This makes me skeptical about the notion that campaign donations should count as free, protected "speech" in the first place, but even if they should, people should take responsibility for their speech and expect to be accountable for it.  By "accountable" I mean willing to give an account of the belief and their reasons for it, not that they should be fired.

I should acknowledge that I began writing this blog under a pseudonym (connected to my persona as a book reviewer for the gay press), partly because of concerns about repercussions against me in my workplace from other gay people.  There had been several attempts by gay managers and administrators in the University to shut me up around campus, though I had numerous allies as well, so those attempts came to nothing.  What worried me was that I might not be allowed to talk back to my critics.  But I soon put my real name on the blog.  (Or I thought I had; I must have changed it back.  My name is connected to the blog in many places on the Internet.  I've just edited my profile to put my real name back on it.)  Which feels odd, I admit, because before the Internet I wrote for the radical gay press under my own name, posted on listservs, Usenet, and electronic bulletin boards under my own name, and wrote opinion columns for the student newspaper under my own name.  I also spoke publicly to classes on GLB panels under my own name.  I knew that anyone who wanted to could track down my identity as a blogger; I just thought I'd put a small barrier up, which would only confound those who weren't determined.  And I do see it as a contradiction in my practice, and a failure of nerve.

Still, when you (or I) make a campaign donation under a regime of transparency, your name is on it, and you should be ready to stand by it.  Eich apparently was not.  When the controversy arose he issued a typical non-apology apology promising, or "committing," to continue the same Mozilla inclusivity you all know and love.  He preferred not to defend his support of a referendum initiative intended to attack the civil rights of same-sex couples, who already were marrying legally in California.  Just out of personal curiosity, I'd like to know how he justifies that in his own mind.

And here's a curious declaration in Eich's post: "And I will not tolerate behavior among community members that violates our Community Participation Guidelines or (for employees) our inclusive and non-discriminatory employment policies."  Oh, really?  So Brendan Eich himself is intolerant of intolerance, and is prepared to impose Touchy-Feely, Politically Correct standards of behavior on Mozilla "community members" and employees?  Compare the current backtracking in some prominent sectors of the Right from support of the rancher and welfare moocher Cleven Bundy, now that he's made some classically racist remarks.  Conor Friedersdorf wrote a post explaining why opponents of same-sex marriage should not be treated like racists.  But why should even racists be "treated like racists"?  Why is it okay to stigmatize and penalize one set of political beliefs but not others?  There has, after all, been a lot of fussing when white racists got into trouble for expressing their views.  Even debating the issues is considered unfair by many.  Okay, maybe these people shouldn't have been "stigmatized," to use Friedersdorf's term, but this is why I find a lot of the defense of Eich problematic: the goalposts keep moving.  First we shouldn't pick on racists, then we should or at least we may pick on racists, but not on antigay bigots.

So it appears that even defenders of Brendan Eich (and of Paula Deen, Alec Baldwin, Phil Robertson, and others) think it's okay under some circumstances to penalize someone for his or her political views and actions.  I'm having a hard time sorting out what those circumstances are, however, and I think they need to be defined.  In practice it appears, as I suggested before, that the exact circumstances are defined by the partisan position of the critic: freedom of political views for me, but not for thee.  Which is certainly a familiar stance, but it's not a principle.

*Michael Gaddis, There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire (California, 2005), 34.