Hypocrisy in politics is about as hard to find as Kentucky bluegrass at a baseball park. And this week, the front line in the culture wars produced two interesting examples.
The first had to do with a little bit of corporate posturing gone awry. In 2008, California voters passed Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage. (It was later declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.) The fight surrounding the vote was not pretty, and it brought in a lot of different players. The Mormon Church and the Catholic Church, for example, were both prominent supporters of Prop 8. Less prominently, a software developer named Brendan Eich donated $1,000 in support of the gay marriage ban.
Earlier this year, Eich was named CEO of Mozilla Corporation. Among other things, the company is responsible for the Mozilla Firefox web browser. How Eich’s donation became public knowledge is interesting in its own right, but what’s important for now is what another web company did next: after Eich’s promotion, OKCupid began a public campaign against Mozilla Firefox. When people using the browser visited the dating site, they were greeted with this message:
The backlash against Eich ultimately led to his resignation. We’ll get to the free speech implications shortly, but where’s the hypocrisy? Easy: it turns out that OKCupid’s CEO and founder, Sam Yagan, has donated to an anti-gay Republican Congressman from Utah. Yagan apologized and explained that he had made the donation because Rep. Cannon was the ranking Republican on an important House committee with responsibility for overseeing the internet. Yagan claims he was ignorant of Cannon’s stance on gay marriage.
Of course, OKCupid didn’t extend the same level of nuance to their treatment of Brendan Eich – though, on the other hand, donating to a politician is different from donating to a particular issue. But it’s hard to feel a whole lot better when someone tells you that they only betrayed your effort to gain political equality because those efforts happened to conflict with their economic interests.
The second object lesson in political posturing also had a familiar ring. Vance McAllister became a member of the House representing Louisiana’s 5th Congressional district after a special election last year. Not surprisingly for a new member of the 435-member body, McAllister doesn’t have a national reputation. He did, however, gain some publicity when he invited Willie Robertson to the 2014 State of the Union. Willie stars on A&E’s Duck Dynasty. He’s also the son of Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the family who came under intense scrutiny last year after remarks he made during an interview with GQ that were widely interpreted as anti-gay. When asked what he saw as sinful, Robertson responded:
Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong. Sin becomes fine.
Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.
During his 2013 campaign, McAllister made a point of publicly endorsing the Robertsons during a brief standoff with A&E over Phil’s controversial remarks. In turn, Phil endorsed McAllister and Willie appeared in a campaign ad. McAllister argued that he was defending free speech, but his willingness to be conspicuously associated with the Robertsons would indicate that he was also participating in a long tradition of conservative politicians who frame their anti-gay stance in the language of “family values.”
Two days ago, McAllister joined another tradition when he was caught in an extra-marital affair with one of his staffers. The list of politicians who have railed against what they see as attacks on the traditional family while doing their level best to undermine their own families is long and depressing. Even the list of politicians who have railed against gay rights only to later be caught in homosexual liaisons isn’t terribly short. You might remember Larry Craig, a Republican Senator from Idaho, who was arrested in 2007 for soliciting sex from an undercover male police officer in a Minneapolis bathroom. During his political career, Craig had naturally taken a number of anti-gay stances.
At Fenway Park, the ground keepers mow the bluegrass to keep it from getting too tall; in politics, voters also like to cut the hypocrites down to size. Both sound like good policies.
But this week has also been a reminder of the difficulty of separating people’s private and public lives.
At one level, the argument against McAllister and Craig is easy to understand: they’re public figures who have based their political careers, at least in part, on espousing values that they don’t seem able or willing to live by. That leads to a huge loss of legitimacy.
On the other hand, many would argue, Brendan Eich is a private individual exercising his right to free speech. In a democracy, people shouldn’t be blacklisted for their political views. That could have a deleterious chilling effect.
In actuality, I think that gets it precisely backwards. Elected officials are, as the term indicates, elected to discharge the limited duties of their offices. What a politician does on his or her own time might be good reason for public condemnation, but it doesn’t have much bearing on the way that they’re actually empowered to affect our lives. McAllister and Craig’s votes carry as much weight whether they were taken in good faith or bad. Obsessing about their personal motivations instead of their public stances is oftentimes a costly distraction, one which politicians exploit in order to get us to focus on the personalities of politics rather than on the harder and more important domain of policy.
Couldn’t you say the same thing about Brendan Eich? Here, I think it’s more complicated. First, Brendan Eich did take a public action: he donated money to a campaign that ultimately changed the constitution of the state he lives in. That’s pretty far from a private act. Second, appeals to free speech seem to confuse the right to say what you want with the right not to be criticized for it. Eich’s detractors exercised their free speech when they criticized the actions of Mozilla’s most prominent employee. As a company with a broad target audience, Mozilla responded as any other company would when their brand is under attack: they moved to control the damage. This is how branding and the free market works: ultimately buyers, and not observers, get to decide what’s important to them.
Lastly, I worry that the appeal to free speech in these sort of kerfuffles is oftentimes deeply disingenuous. Advocates like to pretend that they’re not taking a position on the substance of the speech – just on your right to say what you want. But that’s not possibly true: if Eich had instead donated money to a white-supremacist group there would be a lot fewer people willing to defend him, and if he’d just donated to the Republican National Committee there would be a lot fewer people willing to attack him.
When the state’s ability to imprison you for what you say is at stake, Americans tend to take the position that what you’re saying has no bearing on your right to say it. That’s as it should be. But when we’re talking instead about what level of public condemnation is appropriate, then the substance of the speech makes all the difference. How could it not?
After all, as Louis Brandeis famously observed, the best cure to bad speech “is more speech, not enforced silence.” So by all means, say what you want – just don’t tell me not to criticize you for it.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
Want to help The Fog of Policy grow? Then take a minute and share this piece! Or let me know what you think in the comments section.
Have a question or suggestion for a new piece? Submit it through the Feedback form – and don’t forget to subscribe on the homepage to get posts and features automatically sent to your inbox.