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Freedom of expression under fire in America

by Ted Rall

Now that the controversy over Mozilla’s firing of CEO Brendan Eich over his antigay politics has subsided (and before something similar happens again, and 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 while it’s making headlines — are condemned to the endless purgatory of idiocracy.

McCarthyism, also known as the 20th century’s second Red Scare, took on several forms in the 1950s. Today, however, let’s focus on blackballing. Blackballing, also 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 President 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 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.

Hey, if someone offs this turbulent priest, it’s no skin off my ass.

“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?

Ted Rall is a political cartoonist and writer. © 2014 Ted Rall

  • Demosthenes

    You sort of have a point, Ted. But I think you’re taking the straw man’s position a little here. Saying he was fired for a “political” opinion is bit misleading. The examples you list, like Charlie Chaplin, are clearly politically motivated. But in this instance I am unconvinced. Homosexuality can be an abstract political position – but it is also a very emotionally raw, and very personal issue for many people . I think this was a market related decision for Mozilla, in the way that racisim or bigotry by public figures is very bad for business. Mozilla didn’t want to risk alienating their customer base over this CEO’s views. I don’t know if their decision was overkill, but they are entitled to choose whoever they want to represent their company. It doesn’t matter how good his skills as a CEO were – skills, in this instance, were not the deciding factor in their decision. Telling a business that they cannot fire someone because their views could be detrimental to their business, is even an more oppresive idea, I think.

  • Fortyplus

    Its just more of the nonsense thats holding the U.S. back, while China is rapidly taking the #1 spot. We criticize Japan for its state secrecy laws, and anything we feel is undemocratic, then we fire people for tweets, private conversations illegally taped, and other stuff when the U.S. should be less restrictive on all areas of business and doing everything it can to help anybody start a business.

  • Leon Ashbrook
  • midnightbrewer

    “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.”

    Except that time he donated a thousand dollars to support the passage of a law which would have denied gay Mozilla employees the same rights as everyone else.

    The premise of this article is based on a logical fallacy (that of hasty generalization, not a straw man). Expressing your political views is something that should be protected by the first amendment. Imposing your views on others through legalized segregation should not.