Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Boycotts, Betrayal, and Business

Over the weekend, LA Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote about Margie Christofferson, the unfortunate longtime manager and hostess at El Coyote Café on Beverly. Following the instruction of her Mormon church, she donated $100 toward the Yes on 8 campaign. When her name was discovered on a donor list, a disproportionate barrage of gay outrage was directed at her and at El Coyote, leading to email and website calls to boycott the restaurant, and protest demonstrations outside the landmark venue. I have a variety of mixed feelings about this.

For one, I think it's clearly disproportionate. While any donation toward injustice is regrettable, a great many people gave much larger donations than Christofferson's $100, and few if any have received the same focused wrath. Moreover, her donation was personal and not made on behalf of El Coyote. True, she is the daughter of the owner, and the public face of the restaurant. But the restaurant, as Lopez notes, has 89 employees, many of them gay. A couple of other managers pooled together a several hundred dollar donation to Equality California, and the donations of other employees to No on 8 may well have outweighed Christofferson's $100 for Yes. Because business is down 30%, likely the result of the boycott, many employees have had their hours cut and may be laid off. So this boycott has unjustly caused harm much more widely than its intended target.

I can sympathize with those who are angry at El Coyote, and can understand why this particular donation incurred such wrath. A friend recently noted that there's a strong sense of betrayal, because for so many gay people, El Coyote has seemed to be a safe and welcoming place for us, a part of "our neighborhood". And El Coyote has certainly done a significant share of its business from its gay clientele. Thus, this particular donation came with a sense of betrayal. We expected people like Howard Ahmanson and Rick Warren to be donating heavily to Proposition 8, and donations from people in Kern and Orange counties were expected. But here, in a gay-friendly restaurant, in the gay-friendliest part of town, where we always thought we were among friends, even a modest donation was an unexpected betrayal. It was a violation of an unspoken trust, and shattered the feeling of comfort and safety that many gay people felt at El Coyote. And for gay people, that can hit especially hard. Many gay people have been estranged or kicked out of their natural homes and families, which makes their feeling of adopted "home" in gay-friendly neighborhoods and venues like El Coyote have much greater import. I don't think this justifies the harsh response, but I think it explains the emotional logic of it. It was a betrayal that cut especially deep and close to home.

On the other hand, Christofferson seems oblivious to the injustice she has helped to perpetrate. It's one thing for people who claim not to know anybody gay (or who disown those they know) to advocate such things. But these people, like Sarah Palin and apparently like Margie Christofferson, who claim to have gay friends, yet still advocate against our equal rights, that's just galling. How can you claim to be someone's friend, and then vote to infringe their rights? That's as nonsensical as saying "Oh, I have lots of black friends, but I just don't think they should be allowed to drink out of the same drinking fountain as white people." Sorry, Sarah, sorry Margie, but you're not our friend. We've gone on too long letting you get away with pretending that you are. Are we just supposed to roll over and say, "oh well, you helped pass the revocation of my civil rights, but let's let it go, and pour me another margarita?" I don't think so.

Philosophically, I have a bit of discomfort with the fairness of a boycott, given the asymmetry in our laws. In "libertopia", everyone would have unfettered choice about who they do business with. But here in America (and especially in California), we recognize the power of a majority to economically tyrannize a minority, and so we have created laws against discrimination in public accommodations. Businesses are generally not allowed to discriminate (at least based on a variety of protected classes like race, religion, etc.) in choosing their customers. But customers, on the other hand, are allowed to choose their businesses. For instance, while it would be illegal for a restaurant to refuse to serve black people, it is not illegal for black people to organize a boycott of a restaurant. There's just something asymmetrical and unfair about that. As evidenced by El Coyote's empty tables, boycotts can have a powerful effect. The freedom of businesses to serve or refuse to serve whoever they choose has been sacrificed for the good of keeping economic cudgels from pummeling unpopular minorities, thus preserving liberty across the board for a diverse society where it might otherwise be practically infringed. It would seem a fair bargain that organized consumers not pick up that same economic cudgel, for the same reasons. Obviously, there's no practical way to legislate such a thing. But it is a philosophical qualm I have about boycotts in general.

On the other hand, Christofferson made a choice that had obvious ramifications for the business that she manages (and that her mother owns). One of El Coyote's significant assets was the "good will" that it had cultivated over the years in the gay community. It would be impossible for Christofferson to be oblivious to the value of gay good will to her business, and foolish to think that her position on Prop 8 wouldn't put that asset in jeopardy. And any businessperson ought to understand the value and the fragility of that intangible asset. While she has every right to her own political views and donations, when her advocacy goes against a constituency prominent among the clientele of her business, she has no right not to be responsible for the consequences. She has the right to insult any customer she pleases, but not the right to expect that customer to come back.


KipEsquire said...

"Christofferson seems oblivious to the injustice she has helped to perpetrate."

Sorry, but at this point there must also be zero tolerance for obliviousness. If you want to be a politically illiterate dolt, then do so in the management of your own life and your own affairs. Leave me out of it.

I have no sympathy for her whatsoever.

jeffhersh said...

It's unfortunate that the gay community lacks reasonable means to hold more people who supported Prop. 8 accountable, and to educate them.

But my heart doesn't bleed for Christofferson or Coyote. Neither had any entitlement to continued patronage by swarms of gays -- gays didn't stop others from dining so much as they stopped going themselves.

The lesson that should be learned here is that one is responsible for choosing not only their religion, but how to apply their religious beliefs in secular society. I agree with KipEsquire that obliviousness is no excuse. Moreover, Christofferson made a conscious decision and took the trouble to send $100 to the Prop. 8 campaign, so her action was quite intentional.

That she harbors no disdain for gays, and hires many gay employees, and socializes with her gay patrons, makes her support of Prop. 8 particularly troubling. She economically benefits from gays eating at her restaurant, then summarily strips them of their civil rights as if gays are not fully human, but a lesser species such as the one for which her restaurant is named.