Wednesday, August 29, 2012

First Amendment Chicken Sandwiches

By all accounts, S. Truett Cathy has been a very successful businessman and entrepreneur.  Years ago he decided to offer an alternative to the usual fast food business by serving chicken exclusively instead of the omni-present beef hamburger.  And so Chick-Fil-A was born in Atlanta in 1967.

Cathy’s restaurants are notable for (as fast food goes) excellent quality from good ingredients; unfailingly cheerful, prompt, and eager-to-please staff; good, adult onsite local management; orders brought to the table along with a strolling staff member continually offering free drink refills; and buildings kept impeccably clean.  It is an experience replicated in virtually every outlet I have visited.  It is exactly the first-class operation (within its fast-food niche) that American ingenuity can deliver and the American people should support so as to encourage good corporate conduct and customer service.

In addition to his business skills, Mr. Cathy is also a very fundamentally religious man.  His expectations of employee conduct are reputed to be very high; he generously rewards in return; and he closes all of his restaurants on Sunday to allow his people a day of rest away from work and the opportunity to share in their own observance of the Sabbath.  Sunday closing is almost unheard of any more, particularly in the restaurant business.  In some ways it is nice to see a return to that quiet time 50 years ago when people did not need to shop seven days/week and twenty-four hours/day.  A time when people could stop the endless pursuit of profit and labor for at least one day of recuperation, recreation and reflection.  Perhaps surprisingly, that one day of closing does not seem to have affected Chick-Fil-A’s financial statements in any serious way.

S. Truett Cathy remains as Chairman and CEO of Chick-Fil-A, while daily operation of the corporation has now been passed to his son, Dan Cathy, as President and COO.  A few weeks ago in a television interview, Dan Cathy expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage.  He went on to say that “I think we are inviting God’s judgment as a nation when we shake our fist at Him and say ‘we know better than you what constitutes a marriage.’”  Why Dan Cathy chose to speak out in this controversial topic, having little or no special insight or contribution to add to the topic, is unclear.  But as to be expected in this age of instantaneous dissemination and responding commentary, his comments “went viral” all over the Internet and broadcast airwaves.  The gay/lesbian community and various liberal commentators denounced his comments, and many called for a boycott of Chick-Fil-A.  Fox commentator/former Governor Mike Huckabee off-handily proposed an eat-in day as a show of support to Chick-Fil-A, and hundreds of thousands subsequently lined up at some of the establishments.  Videos showed some Cathy protestors trying to inappropriately engage Chick-Fil-A staff into the debate and hold them guilty-by-association.  Yet it is safe to say that a smiling 17-year-old high schooler sitting in the drive-through window making $7/hour is hardly going to alter this political/social discourse or change Mr. Cathy’s thinking.

My support for same-sex marriage is likely well known by my readers.  (See an extensive discussion on the topic in my blog of 12/15/2008.)  I am in full disagreement with Mr. Cathy’s opinion and his basis for it.  I am also an advocate and practitioner of using my purchasing dollar to try to influence corporate conduct.  (I still avoid Exxon gas due to the Exxon-Valdez incident over two decades ago!)  So my immediate reaction was to instinctively join the boycotters and avoid any Chick-Fil-A sandwiches in my future.  But the more I continued to think about it, I have hesitated.

There are many people in this country who have opinions I disagree with, at times very strongly.  And certainly vice-versa.  But the bigger problem we have in America right now is not one of our disagreements, but our inability to work through these in a civil and productive way to the benefit of the many.  We simply argue, shout louder, move further and further apart, and seek to defeat each other at all costs any way we can.  Nobody gets anything instead of many getting something.  Social and economic progress does not move.

 I do not agree with Mr. Cathy’s views.  But in America our First Amendment protects each of us to hold and speak whatever views we have; we must respect that right in others if we are to have that right in turn for our own beliefs.  So I would be happy to sit quietly with Mr. Cathy and have a civil discussion of our disagreements to see what we might be able to learn from each other.  But it is when one moves from thoughts to actions that consequences are to be truly measured.  In that regard I think the Cathys run an excellent business in a manner I wish more businesses would follow.  To my knowledge, there has been no report of a gay or lesbian (either married or single) being refused employment or fired from a Chick-Fil-A establishment, or a customer being turned away, solely due to their sexual identity.  However abhorrent Dan Cathy’s views may be to me, it does not appear that those views have permeated into his corporation’s policies and practices.  And, to my somewhat surprise, that has come to make a significant distinction to me.

So I will continue to protest Mr. Cathy’s views whenever and however possible.  Nevertheless, I choose not to penalize his company and its many good employees as long as in their actions they remain independent of those views.  But let me be clear: the minute I may hear of a confirmed report of any such discrimination occurring in the business place, I will join such a boycott and return all of my dollars to the hamburger world without hesitation.

The older I get, and the more experiences that I have with tough ethical situations, the blacks-and-whites of my values and principles seem to become more clear.  But the clarity of the right course of action to take in consideration of all those involved becomes more gray, more nuanced.  Maybe, in one ideal world, that hesitation should not be.  But hopefully it simply reflects a greater willingness to pause in reflection, work through a more thoughtful reasoning, and make a small personal step towards achieving greater wisdom.  Our hardest decisions never come easily.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It Cannot Happen In America - Again

On February 9, 1950, a little-known and undistinguished senator from Wisconsin gave a luncheon speech in Wheeling, West Virginia.  In that speech, Joe McCarthy waived a sheet of paper in the air that he claimed listed 205 people working in the U.S. Department of State that were supposedly members of the Communist Party.  But McCarthy actually showed that piece of paper to no one.  Thus began a four-year assault on the character and reputations of countless individuals in the court of public opinion, but which produced no legal convictions of criminal or treasonable activity whatsoever.

Russia, our World War II ally, had become America’s principal peacetime foe.  Their postwar conduct internationally had led to a national paranoia that believed Communist supporters and spies were everywhere, a suspicious climate fueled by self-promoting politicians and sensational elements of the news media.  In this setting, Joe McCarthy did not invent “Congressional terrorism,” an assault on Constitutional liberties perpetrated by Congresspersons undeserving of their office.  That beginning is more properly attributed to the House Un-American Activities Committee of the late 1940s, with their attempt to decry any perceived lack of patriotism as un-American if not treasonable.  But Joe McCarthy raised such political terrorism to a new height and gave it a human face.  Virtually no one in power spoke out against McCarthy, and he raged through the shreds of our Constitution for four years until his endless one-note stream of unsubstantiated accusations finally caught up with him.  After the public finally tired and turned on McCarthy, his Senate colleagues voted to “condemn” him after his years of unrestricted rampage.  People had said that the trampling of the Constitution could not happen in America, that people’s right to innocence until proven otherwise was our fundamental right never to be denied.  But it did happen in America, and “McCarthyism” would forever after define political demagoguery by innuendo, smear, and unproven questions of one’s patriotism.

Fast forward to 2012.  In July, Representative Michele Bachman of Minnesota and four other Republican Congressmen (from Arizona, Texas, Florida and Georgia) sent letters to government agencies demanding an investigation into a supposed “subversive infiltration of our government” by the Muslim Brotherhood.  Singled out in these allegations were charges directed towards one Huma Abedin, a Muslim-American with broad bipartisan support who serves as Deputy Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  No details, no examples, no documentation, no substantiation of this supposed infiltration were offered by any of the Congresspersons.  Ms. Bachman, who has a long and documented history of publicly displaying an absence of concern about facts, history or substance – combined with an apparent willingness to say anything about anything to garner political attention – once again offered nothing to support her outrageous accusations.

This time, however, condemnation was quick from bipartisan quarters at high levels of visibility.  Secretary Clinton said that claims of Ms. Abedin’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood “have no place in our politics.”  Senator John McCain called the accusations “an unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable woman.”  House Speaker John Boehner called the accusers’ charges “pretty dangerous.”  And Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, while not condemning Bachman & Company outright, had previously stated that “It is absolutely wrong to stereotype or look badly at anyone because of their religion.  It is a bad thing to look at a Muslim and think bad things.”  Since originally sending these letters, these five Congresspersons have since been notably silent.  No apology offered, but no further press for their dubious case.

In the 1950s, Communism and the seeing of Communists in every alleyway was the tool of the demagogue.  Innocent people who had identified with peace movements and economic communism decades before – all then fully legal activities – were hounded from their livelihoods for no ethical or legal reason.  It was made all possible out of public fear and political opportunism.

Today, the scapegoat is the Muslim, including our bona-fide Muslim-AMERICANS.  Like “Communism” in the 1950s, “Muslim” is the fear word towards which people react with minimal-to-no knowledge of substance.  And there appears to be no end to the people willing to aggravate and trade on that public fear.  People willing to strike out against people who have done nothing more than choose to be different from their accusers.

Meanwhile, back in Egypt, the actual Muslim Brotherhood organization is trying with their other countrymen to bring order and a new form of government to a country dominated by military dictators (with U.S. assistance) for the last sixty years.  A ranking leader of the organization was asked about the Brotherhood’s infiltration of the U.S. government.  The spokesperson, Ibrahim ali Iraqi, responded by saying, “The Muslim Brotherhood cannot even penetrate the Egyptian government!”  So much for a fearsome enemy, who has much bigger problems on their hands right now.

Two weeks ago, a member of America’s domestic white supremacy movement walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin just before the beginning of Sunday services.  The Sikhs are a religious group from India who believe devotedly in peace, social justice for all, in the name of one God.  Into this peaceful setting, this gunman massacred six defenseless worshipers before killing himself after being wounded by police.  His particular reason for selecting this Sikh temple to vent his rage is still unknown.

Given the pattern of exploited hate that we have experienced in this country, where should we in fact be looking to find the greatest threat to our country?  The threat to our best values, and our promise of freedom and equality for all, no matter our differences?