Dahlia Lithwick is a little too subtle when she asks the question “What happens to our civic life when we’re all too scared to participate?”
In the wake of Prop 8′s passage, activists publicized the names of individual donors to Yes on 8 and encouraged boycotts. To find tactics she calls “inexcusable and genuinely threatening”, Lithwick links to an editorial by the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page editor, who writes:
Protesters have shouted insults at people headed to worship; temples and churches have been defaced. “Blacklists” of donors who contributed to Yes on 8 are circulating on the Internet, and even small-time donors are being confronted. A Palo Alto dentist lost two patients as a result of his $1,000 donation. The artistic director of the California Musical Theatre resigned to spare the organization from a fast-developing boycott. Scott Eckern, the artistic director of the Sacramento theater group and a Mormon, had given $1,000 to Yes on 8.
Not quite Mississippi Burning. Let’s break it down: “People headed to worship” presumably means in the Mormon church, which raised $40 million to pass Prop 8. It makes me happy to know that people are shouting insults at them. Existing laws prohibit defacing temples and churches; I bravely submit that they should be enforced. If I found out that the money I was spending on my dentist was going to defeat marriage rights, I would find a new dentist and I would thank the person who told me.
I personally feel ambivalent about using a boycott of an organization to drive an individual with repellent views from his job. I might question it as a tactic. But there’s no question that people have the right to not direct their funds where they will be used to hurt them politically. I think the Prop 8 donors who cry scared are genuinely surprised that they don’t have a right to be liked. I think they’re surprised that people take it personally when they prevent them from marrying.
I think they’re scared in part by their own empathy — the yawp of rage that sounded after Prop 8 won made them feel, for the first time, just how bad gay people felt at being told they couldn’t marry. Knowing for a moment that anger, it scared them to know that someone else had it towards them.
Justice Scalia, mirabile dictu, gets it right. Lithwick:
While he acknowledged that threats of violence and hate mail can be scary and should be addressed by other legal means, Justice Antonin Scalia dismissed Bopp’s concern that one’s political opponents are just a mouse-click away from hunting you down as “touchy-feely, oh-so-sensitive.” An exasperated Scalia warned at oral argument that “you can’t run a democracy this way, with everybody being afraid of having his political positions known.”
The United States has a robust avenue for anonymous political participation. Besides your blog. I speak of the vaunted secret ballot. If you want to anonymously support a cause, do so on election day. Otherwise, if you put your money where your mouth is, be prepared that others may do so as well.
Yesterday, several dozen people in my Facebook feed changed their status updates to read:
No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, please post this as your status for the next 24 hours.
Because I’m an asshole, I changed mine to read “No one should die, etc.” My favorite variation was “Everybody should get sick go broke die,” and J.H.P. babelfished in with “Nobody must die because they cannot allow well-taken care of doctor, and nobody must break because patients obtain. If you agree, you satisfy fix this like its state for the rest of the day.” In Soviet Russia, Facebook updates you!
What have we really done when we “donate” our status update to a cause? While certainly tempting, I think it’s wrong to say we’ve done nothing — at the very least, we’ve taken a public stand, we’ve added our number to a count — and yet it’s very hard to pin exactly what the something we’ve done is.
It’s a question, I think, that takes us to the heart of digital identity. What is at stake in this sort of signaling behavior? What status does your status update have?
It’s easy to be crabby about this sort of thing. My friend V. complained that “if you care so deeply about the health care issue you should do something more than put a blurb on your FB page about it”, to which one of her friends responded:
Because the politicians seem to have forgotten their promises (as usual) at a critical moment in the debate, any action that helps remind people this is a topic worthy of attention and solidarity is one I consider worth pursuing.
This is a typical defense of decentralized activism: any little thing helps. I heard it a lot in response to my Whole Foods boycott-bashing. And I was guilty of it myself in this blog’s very comments. Let’s be clear about at least one thing: there’s plenty of things you can do on your own that, while nice, aren’t the slightest bit helpful. And the vague hope that one action will beget another, while not wrong, is almost always unfalsifiable. So let’s evaluate digital activism for what it is, not for what it might inspire.
Additionally, though it’s hard to make an argument that slacktivism will change the world, the arguments in favor of more accepted forms of politics, such as voting, aren’t a hell of a lot stronger. Short of owning an insurance company, a news network, or a United States Senator, there’s no guaranteed method for effective participation in politics. So why not take this one seriously?
I’ve noticed that liberal-sentimented people of a certain caste get unbearably twitchy around collective action. Raised on 1984 and Brave New World, we’re reflexively suspicious of lock-step action and automatic agreement. We overestimate our own agency and indulge in a fatuous civics of individuality. As a result, we can be very bad at politics.
So status-update “signaling” resists that tendency (though it also brings it out in assholes like me). It’s less than collective action, but I think it can be understood as cultivating solidarity, a precondition for successful collective action. It’s an emotional warm-up.
It still leaves the question, “what is to be done?” But by allowing it to be asked in (otherwise creepy) unison, I think it makes the question less academic.
Libertarian, anti-union body-purity obsessive Whole Foods founder John Mackey, who has laughed himself all the way to the bank on the endive cash of soi-disant liberals, announced his opposition to health care reform in the Wall Street Journal this week. His article has prompted a convulsion of “Boycott Whole Foods!” across my Facebook feed, and blog posts like Why a Whole Foods Boycott Might Actually Work to Spur Real Health Care Reform at OpenLeft. I take the rousing keywords “Might” and “Actually” to mean that author doesn’t, at heart, think anyone should take this idea too seriously. The rest of the post is in keeping with this, with a lot of “my impression is” and “if such a plan works”.
This enthusiasm will soon wash away into the great ocean of ADD outrage, but since such a boycott has been encouraged by people who ought to know better, like the great Russell Mokhiber, I’ll address some of its flaws.
A successful boycott isn’t just a punishment for a transgression. It requires a clear goal. The Forever 21 boycott, organized by immigrant-rights advocates in Los Angeles, sought the payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages to workers who made their products. The fair-trade Nike and Starbucks boycotts of the mid-to-late 90′s resulted in monitoring regimes and improved conditions for many of those companies’ suppliers in Southeast Asia and Central America.
A successful boycott needs to be run by an organization with resources to devote to it. The Forever 21 boycott was run out of the Garment Workers Center by labor organizers, immigrant advocates, student activists and the workers themselves. Famously, the grape boycott was run by the United FoodFarm Workers. A great deal of momentum was added by neighbor-to-neighbor conversations, but it wasn’t started by them.
What would be the goal of a health care reform Whole Foods boycott? To get John Mackey to renounce his editorial? Put down the Ayn Rand? Quit blogging? All are worthy as idle hopes. None would move health care reform a day closer.
What organization would run it? Please believe me when I tell you that Whole Foods is not afraid of your Twitter feed, especially because half of the retweeters will feel that they’ve done their part by spreading the news so it’s all right if they duck in for a quick Odawalla. You’ll need to plan direct actions, picket lines in the parking lot, leaflet drops. Is this how Organizing for America should spend its resources? Is it how you should spend yours?
There are plenty of reasons not to shop at Whole Foods, and I encourage everyone to choose not to shop there out of pique or thrift. There are plenty of good reasons to boycott Whole Foods, and if you want to help your local Whole Foods employees join the United Food and Commercial Workers, have at it!
But if health care reform is your goal, take a page from the crazies. They’re not showing up at meetings of the leading health care reform bloggers. They’re not boycotting Wal-Mart, even though that company has nominally joined the side of reform. They’re bring direct pressure on the decision-makers: their elected representatives.
Bonus: the trailer for Made In L.A., a documentary film about the Garment Workers Center and Forever 21.
Rather than confront the extreme right wing of the Republican Party — which is who constitutes the crowds at these town hall events — it might be more useful to target protests at the giant insurance companies and the huge campaign contributions they are handing out , especially to moderate Democrats. Compare the insurance companies’ big profits and outrageous corporate compensation to the tens of millions of Americans who can’t afford health insurance, who can’t get insurance because of pre-existing conditions, or who have policies that don’t cover the things they need. Then challenge the waffling blue-dog Democrats to answer a simple question: which side are you on?