God and Man at Chick-fil-A

I admire Chick-fil-A.  In fact, I positively like it.

I don’t mean to say that I enjoy its food, for I have never tasted it.  In my travels I have never encountered the Georgia-based fast food chain, and my general aversion to deep-fried sludge would likely preclude me from patronizing such an establishment in any case.

No, what has smitten me to the poultry-packing corporate giant is its peculiar and rather unique adherence to its founding principles, even at its own expense.  Rarely in the United States today does one find a major business that is not interested merely in the bottom line, that fashions itself as a sort of religious missionary, operating under a values system that is genuine and (on a good day) coherent.

For the uninitiated:  Chick-fil-A was founded in 1946 by a man named S. Truett Cathy, who still serves as chairman.  His son, Dan Cathy, is president and chief operating officer.  The family is Southern Baptist and pledges in the company’s statement of corporate purpose, “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.”

In conjunction with its public religiosity, the Cathy clan adheres to “the biblical definition of the family unit,” Dan Cathy recently asserted, continuing, “We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives […] We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families.”

For Cathy, this particular form of family-strengthening (as you might have guessed) requires weakening families anchored by same-sex couples, and Chick-fil-A has donated very heavily to organizations such as Focus on the Family and Eagle Forum, which oppose same-sex marriage and lobby against efforts to legalize it.

In recent days, Mayors Thomas Menino of Boston and Rahm Emanuel of Chicago—strident supporters of gay marriage rights—vowed to prevent Chick-fil-A from opening branches in their respective cities.  Menino wrote Cathy, “There is no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it.”  Emanuel similarly asserted, “The values expressed [by Cathy] are not Chicago values.”

The mayors’ comments, in turn, won them scores of fans across social networks, but also a phalanx of opposition from both the usual suspects—Mike Huckabee declared Wednesday, August 1, “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day”—and the otherwise-friendly—the Boston Globe wrote in an editorial, “which part of the First Amendment does Menino not understand?”

In my role as spectator in this kerfuffle, I can merrily engage in one of my favorite pastimes:  Defending an organization whose views I find repulsive.

As something of a First Amendment enthusiast, I take it as my first-order duty to affirm that the Globe is correct:  Preventing a private business from setting up shop because the mayor disagrees with the COO’s political or religious views is spectacularly unconstitutional—a point both Menino and Emanuel have since acknowledged.

I admire, as I wrote at the top, Chick-fil-A’s steadfastness in sticking to its principles.  The outfit’s longest-running practice—unrelated to this current brouhaha—is to be closed on Sundays, a tradition that emerged, the elder Cathy says, as “our way of honoring God and of directing our attention to things that mattered more than our business.”  Call me a sucker, call me old-fashioned, but that is a beautiful sentence from someone who calls himself “chief executive officer.”  Declaring oneself more dedicated to God than profit and engaging in business practices that prove it?  Bravo.

I hasten to add (having gotten that out of my system) that I feel no hesitation whatever in joining the throngs of my fellow 20-somethings who find Chick-fil-A’s association with anti-gay groups disgusting, its very presence in a political debate bizarre and its COO’s citation of a “biblical definition of a family unit” laughable.

What is most important, it seems to me, is that the cards are on the table.  The president of a corporation, with every incentive to play nice and steer clear of controversy, has opted to publicly condemn a sizable chunk of potential customers as “prideful” and “arrogant” for no reason except that he truly believes it, and for that he warrants respect.

For those who wish to object:  Object.  Raise holy heck.  Stage boycotts.  Donate to gay rights groups.  Eat vegan.  Tell everyone you know to do the same.  Defeat your opponents in the marketplace of ideas; that’s what America is all about.  What are you…chicken?

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Men as Monuments

Writing in the August 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, architecture critic Paul Goldberger offers an illuminating synopsis of the controversy surrounding the newest edition to the Mall in Washington, D.C.:  A proposed memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, America’s distinguished World War II general and 34th president.

The controversy centers upon a private-turned-public fight about the memorial’s design.  In one corner are two of the general’s granddaughters, Susan and Anne Eisenhower; in the other, the memorial’s architect, Frank Gehry.  Ike’s heirs’ beef, in short, is that Gehry’s vision does not present their grandfather’s life, accomplishments and character in the way they would prefer.

In his reporting, titled, “A Monumental Conflict,” Goldberger raises many excellent questions—first about the proposed Eisenhower memorial specifically, and second about Washington’s myriad memorials and monuments in general.  As he reminds us, this current spat over how to properly represent an important piece of the American story along the National Mall (or anywhere) is very much an old phenomenon, and a frightfully crucial one at that.

These considerations range from the economical—what level of funding, if any, should the government provide?—to the artistic—should the designer, once chosen, maintain total creative control?—to the philosophical nitty-gritty—in this case, how to represent a man who, as Goldberger gently notes, “evokes few intense feelings,” whose “measured eloquence and quiet, focused achievement weren’t stirring” in the manner of, say, a Lincoln, a Jefferson or an FDR.

Goldberger’s probing approaches, but does not quite reach, the subject’s most important query of all:  Should the United States be in the monument-building business in the first place?

Lest we forget, America was founded as a nation of laws and not men.  The great implied insight in our creed, “all men are created equal,” is that finally no person is better or greater than any other.  Although some men and women naturally are more intelligent and accomplished than others, we are all equally human and equally bound both by the laws of men and nature.  United States history contains no superheroes and no gods.

I submit, then, that we might do well not to treat certain individuals as if they were.

Asked by Charlie Rose if he has any heroes, satirist P.J. O’Rourke recalled an observation by Harry S Truman, that one should be careful in erecting a monument to a living man:  You never know what he might do before he checks out.  In light of the Penn State fiasco, where a statue of the recently-tainted late coach Joe Paterno was unceremoniously hauled off-stage, we might add a corollary that you never know what he might already have done.

Beyond the potential embarrassment involved, going the extra step of literally and figuratively casting our role models in bronze, effectively enshrining sainthood, carries other deleterious effects.  For one, it makes arguing over their legacies into a far less even playing field.

In the 1990s, for instance, when allegations of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings first met with DNA evidence, the primary defense against the charge—by high-ranking historians and biographers in particular—was that Jefferson’s status as a founding father rendered him morally incapable of carrying on such an affair.  (As if the small matter of his slave-holding itself were somehow less of a stain on his character.)  A healthier, more measured view of Jefferson would recognize that, yes, even the author of our Declaration of Independence could be driven by emotional and sexual stimuli.

The fact is, America is a land of hero worship.  It’s an obsession of ours that infects politics today as much as it infects Hollywood, sports and the music industry (see Obama, Barack, c. 2008).  In a way, so deifying political leaders is the worst kind of hero worship, since these are creatures elected by, representative of and answerable to us, the people.  Once elected, they are prone to all the power-tripping and ego-boosting Washington instills in its officials, and we do ourselves no favors by encouraging this unseemly behavior by acting as if they deserve it.

General Eisenhower was a great leader and an exceptional man.  Must we muddy the Potomac by making it official?

Bloomberg, Soda Jerk

As you probably know, the City of New York is currently in the midst of one of its periodical tussles about the so-called “nanny state,” this time in response to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initiative, announced at the end of May, to prohibit the sale of certain sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces at public venues such as restaurants, movie theaters and sports arenas.

The casus belli for this, more or less, is that New Yorkers are so endemically fat that it has become necessary and proper for the government to nudge them away from the major sources of their ill health.

The “nanny state” debate Mayor Bloomberg has resurrected is a fascinating one, harkening back to the earliest days of the republic.  Beneath all its specifics, the question it begs is simply this:  Is the liberty and autonomy of an individual person more important than promoting the general welfare of the public at large?  It is a clash of competing American values that might never be resolved—the only type of fight worth having.

Helpfully, Mayor Bloomberg’s philosophy about the role of government is crystal clear:  It exists to help citizens make healthy lifestyle choices.  “Obesity is a nationwide problem,” he recently intoned, asserting, “New York City is not about wringing your hands; it’s about doing something.  I think that’s what the public wants the mayor to do.”

A necessary question we might ask, then, is when—if ever—does it become necessary for government to actually make such health-based decisions for you?  What should the “doing something” entail?  Should New York have the responsibility or authority to legislate healthy behavior?

The libertarian wing in this argument says no, and I am nominally tempted to agree.  Indeed, the philosophical case against a soda ban essentially writes itself:  America is a land of liberty, and its citizens are free to consume anything their hearts desire, including products that will cause those hearts irreparable harm.  Freedom of choice means nothing if it does not include the freedom to make choices that are wrong, unhealthy or stupid.

Past public health initiatives in America’s largest city—prohibitions on trans fats and smoking in public places, to name two—held libertarians in a bind, as one could (and did) argue that the substances in question harmed innocent bystanders, and therefore were fair game for regulation.

Such an argument seems considerably less tenable here.  “Think about the children” is probably the strongest case one can make along these lines, since childhood obesity—undoubtedly aided by excessive quantities of high fructose corn syrup—is a uniquely challenging epidemic that may well require intervention by forces greater than mom and dad.

For his part, Bloomberg (with his supporters) has taken pains to insist this current proposed ban does not qualify as the kind of intrusive, liberty-smashing, government strong arm-ism his accusers fear.  You could, he points out, simply purchase two 16-ounce beverages instead of one, and voila!  Like beer-swilling at a ballgame, Coke-swilling at a movie house would become a simple art of double-fisting.  (Presumably while balancing a hot dog and bag of popcorn on your head.)

In intent, this proposal might properly be called behavioral engineering.  The idea, after all, is precisely to make the act of supersizing one’s Coke fix so cumbersome, such a pain in the patootie, that most people will decide it isn’t worth the effort and stick with 16 ounces or (God forbid) order a Diet Coke instead.

For not particularly hiding or finessing this evilly ingenious scheme— “[W]e’re forcing you to understand that you have to make the conscious decision to go from one cup to another,” he put it to MSNBC—Bloomberg deserves a modicum of credit.  To make this baldly paternalistic appeal, knowing the great number of citizens who find it insufferable, requires a gravitas and intellectual honesty other leaders might do well to adopt.

In the meantime, New York is left with an inconvenient new restriction on its drinking habits (should the proposition pass, as it likely will), which we can only hope will achieve its desired ends.  The only thing worse than a dumb idea is a dumb idea that doesn’t work.

How I Came to Be This Way

I always did bat for the other team.

I was born in Boston, enmeshed in a multi-generational family of Red Sox and Patriots-supporting New Englanders, yet I spent my formative adolescent years in metropolitan New York, surrounded on all sides by Yankees, Giants and Jets.  True to my roots, I strutted into school every day of my life in Boston-based sports attire of one kind or another, perennially subjecting myself to my classmates’ vigorous and merciless ire.

I was an outcast in primis, and I wore it squarely and stubbornly on my chest as a mark of pride and self-identity, the Red Sox fan in a sea of pinstripes.  In fact, I was never closer to becoming a Yankee supporter myself than upon moving back to my place of origin on the occasion of entering college.  All those years in the Empire State had the effect not of conversion, but of attracting me, instinctively, to cheer on the visitors.

Whether in concert or by accident, I came to approach government and politics in a strikingly similar fashion.  A square peg poking at a round hole.  Independent with a lowercase “I.”

In high school it was simple:  Democrats were good, Republicans were bad, George W. Bush was an idiot.  In my little bubble, there was no arguing such basic and elementary “facts,” in part because there were so few people in the neighborhood to argue them with.  Historians refer to this phenomenon as “consensus,” and in a free society, few states of affairs are more poisonous or more boring.

College is supposed to make you more liberal.  It made me more conservative.

I employ the terms “liberal” and “conservative” with extreme trepidation—for reasons that, in the fullness of time, will become abundantly clear—but I very much spent my days at university in a perpetual state of flux with regards to what I thought I knew about the world.  As one of my favorite clichés asserts, the primary function of college is to let you know how much you don’t know, to teach you not so much what to think, but rather how.

If college failed me in every other respect, it at least flung me into the world with a greater sense of uncertainty and inadequacy on questions of war and peace than I had ever experienced before.  For that, I shall be ever grateful.

What my particular political views currently are, I will leave for future posts.  Suffice to say, I do not find myself at home in either of the major political parties, and if I did I still would not formally register with one or the other.  At the inception of this great experiment of ours—a public affairs blog founded on the principle of nonpartisanship—I wish only to emphasize my strong distaste for the rigid, for the predicable, for the ignorant, for the dishonest, for the unfunny and for the unprincipled.

Searching for a personal credo, it is hard to top the late, estimable Christopher Hitchens, who wrote at the close of his book Letters to a Young Contrarian, “One should strive to combine the maximum of impatience with the maximum of skepticism, the maximum hatred of injustice and irrationality with the maximum of ironic self-criticism.”

The ironic self-criticism perhaps most of all.  Show me a man devoid of self-awareness and introspection, and I’ll show you a man who never went to school in the wrong team’s shirt.