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More on Boycotting

August 20, 2009

Michael Strong, who co-founded a nonprofit with John Mackey, writes:

The most annoying aspect of the partisan lynch mob of John Mackey is the claim that he is a “heartless CEO” or, in the words of the Facebook “Boycott Whole Foods” page:

John Mackey, CEO and co-founder of Whole Foods wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on 8/12/09 quoting Margaret Thatcher and suggesting that healthcare is a commodity that only the rich, like him, deserve . . .. Whole Foods has the right to cheat and lie and be as hateful and selfish as the wanna be.

Other than the fact that John wrote an op-ed on 8/12/09 in which he quotes Thatcher, the rest of this is pure nonsense, pure lynch mob rhetoric.

Of course people are free to shop for groceries wherever they want. Why can’t some people understand that some of us believe that we should be just as free to shop for education, health care, and insurance as we are for food? Why does this make us “hateful and selfish”? Why not just say, “I disagree and therefore I will no longer shop at Whole Foods?”

Our instincts to support those in our tribal coalition, and punish those outside of it, are just as primitive as are our predilection to eat too much fat and sugar, or the male appetite for female visual stimuli. But today we do not believe it is honorable to over-indulge in fat and sugar, nor for men to ogle women, nor for whites to lynch blacks. How can those who stand for The Audacity of Hope believe that they are being honorable when describe Mackey as “hateful and selfish”?

Strong is quite right to suspect a “tribal coalition” mentality behind the “hateful and selfish” label attached to Mackey by his Facebook foes. The idea behind the boycotts, as far as I can make out, is that Mackey couldn’t at once harbor libertarian views and intend to “make the world a better place.” Boycotters, in other words, refuse to distinguish Mackey the Whole Foods CEO from Mackey the op-ed columnist.

The conflation of man and political viewpoint is where the tribalism comes in, and where boycotters go wrong. If it is acceptable to boycott Whole Foods because Mackey is a libertarian (and therefore “selfish and hateful”), it is presumably also acceptable for Co-op XYZ to refuse to hire a libertarian as a cashier on the basis that he is a libertarian. The boycotters, at least, give us no reason to refrain from such discrimination, apart from the obvious difference in stature between a CEO and cashier. Surely, employers are justified in preferring job candidates who are not “selfish and hateful.”

Suppose the boycotters claim that the cashier is to be tolerated on the basis that he lacks the ability to do harm on the scale a CEO does. Such a position is, I suppose, an improvement over a through-going tribalism in which a boycotter choses not to do business with anyone whose views differ from his own (an Evangelical barber who thinks he is going to hell, for example). Still, even with the added nuance, the boycotters’ position amounts to saying that, “I will tolerate someone who harbors views I consider abhorrent, provided that he is not in a position of power.”

Such toleration of the powerless is a long way from refusing to discriminate against people based on their creed, without exceptions. It is certainly a long way from the liberalism the boycotters purport to cherish.

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