Friday, April 3, 2015

Practically Powerless

This entire debacle over Indiana's RFRA looks like it's leading this year's category for dumbest and most extreme overreaction in the media, and thus in the population at large. You might already suspect that there are a lot of people in this country desperate to relive the Civil Rights era in a last-ditch ploy to delude themselves into thinking their lives have meaning. But for a culture to lose its collective mind over a piece of legislation so innocuous shows a next-level uproar factory in operation. I'm surprised despite myself.

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about what this chaos means. And ignore for a little while that we just got word today that the law is being changed. I want you to know just what was so heinous that it sparked this reaction.

There are differences between the Indiana law and other RFRA's in other states, two or three of them, depending on your interpretation. And interpretation is key here. Sane articles have been written on this, so it's not a complete echo chamber. But then there's the article from The Atlantic, which has over 35,000 shares, 13,000 comments, and the most hardcore rhetoric of the bunch. It's damned instructive.

The Atlantic article claims that the Indiana RFRA and all those other RFRA's are hugely different, and they break this down in two and a half points:

  • The law allows for a business or corporation, a for-profit, to claim religious issues the same way an individual or church might. Two states exclude for-profit businesses from RFRA protection in their versions of the bill, the rest say nothing and thus leave the possibility open.
  • The protections of the law can be cited in the case of private party lawsuits. Thus, a business could hypothetically claim religious grounds for not serving an individual. If this is unique, it would imply that RFRA legislation elsewhere would be irrelevant in civil cases. Basically, so long as you weren't with the government, you could claim discrimination without respect to religious belief of the accused. Indiana's RFRA says that it matters in civil court, too.

The half-point is simply that the government need not be a part of the lawsuit for a party to make the claim, which is redundant and obvious, but which the Atlantic thought important because a suit in New Mexico was dismissed based on that technicality. 

Let's get the obvious shit out of the way here. Yes, this law was created by conservatives, and it has a lot to do with the Hobby Lobby decision. The Hobby Lobby decision - which Hobby Lobby won except in the court of public opinion - was fairly unique in that you had a big business with closely held ownership by a religious family. The revulsion that activists have towards it is not just a matter of women's rights, any more than the RFRA fracas is exclusively about gay rights. It has just as much to do with a perspective on business, which is repeatedly demonstrated in the Atlantic article.

There is a palpable disgust for businessmen running through the piece. That side refuses to accept that a business could be made up of people with a perspective of their own that demands legal protection for the law to have any kind of consistency. One would think that working for a living should yield some kind of privileges. Quite the opposite, what the article implies is that the second you set up anything more permanent than a Craigslist ad in order to make money, you simply lose your rights.

The left points at the Hobby Lobby case a lot because you're talking not just about Christian businesspeople, but RICH Christian businesspeople. Thing are tougher if you're talking about flower shops or pizza parlors owned by relatively poor people. It's actually possible to empathize with them. So given that this is an issue where logic is far less relevant than appearances in the media, some people don't buy it, even on their own side. 

The conversation is not over.

Everything in the RFRA law is meant to continue that conversation. It doesn't simply allow businesses the right to refuse service to gays at will, but sets up a framework for future lawsuits where an argument can at least be made at trial. Judges are expected to operate in a gray area between recognizing discrimination and recognizing religious objections on a case-by-case basis. That's how it works in every other state where there is an RFRA, with burdens measured on the particulars.

The difference? Indiana is daring to suggest that you can have non-leftist principles and make money at the same time, albeit with the caveat that your principles must be supported by some form of religious dogma. You can at least try to present yourself as a person. Sure, if you're talking about a big corporation or some business that has a big cultural footprint, you can expect to lose, as a judge is supposed to sniff out insincere claims and prevent discriminating behavior from becoming widespread. But if, say, you're a sole proprietorship or an S corporation with a united point of view, you might have a case.

Given the news coverage, you would think the RFRA was a slippery slope towards allowing people who run businesses to follow their own conscience. Don't worry. It's not.

The Enemy You Deserve

This entire conversation is supposed to be over, if you're on the left. It was supposed to be over with the passage of the Civil Rights act half a century ago. If you run a business, and you won't serve everyone or treat everyone the same, then you can't serve anyone.

I was, at one time, under the assumption that property rights were legitimate sources of authority, that if you owned something, you could generally decide on how it would be used, and that you could deal with others on your own prerogative. Mutual consent is fundamental. There will be laws governing certain acts, particularly where externalities are concerned, because it's not a perfect system. You might even call it amoral, because it doesn't necessarily define right from wrong, but instead creates a platform where your decisions on the matter can meet with approval or disapproval from others. 99% of the time, it facilitates and incentivizes interaction and creates clear consequences for anti-social behavior.

What we see here doesn't make these assumptions. Left wing people have this narrative of institutional business, religion, and government being controlled by a powerful minority that would divide and conquer the populace and destroy their natural state of all-encompassing love, and that's what we see here. The thought that businesspeople might end up with real power in their hands again terrifies them.

Obviously, there's nothing to fear. Almost every major business in the state of Indiana feels it necessary to criticize the new law and threaten to leave, with nary a peep out of any of them that they might use it to defend their interests. Again: they just objected to a law that would expand their own power, at least in theory. The leftists have what they want. These businesses are squarely on the left wing side, and are using their market power to scare the right wing elements of their state into changing a relatively good law that was just passed.

They are practically powerless on a cultural level. As it stands, the vast majority of the rich people in this country are unprincipled salesmen who are evidently happy to direct money and management towards production of stuff and have their money taxed for redistribution so useless people can buy that stuff, and to say that they think this is right and just. They either want to be popular or they want to live in a gated community where no one bothers them. It's a liberal wet dream.

The same is true of politicians, who have no spine whatsoever, assuming they have principles which might require a spine. They are scapegoats at best. We expect them to act as empty vessels for our conflicting and contradictory ideals, and to crush those who disagree with those ideals.

The same is true of the majority of clergy, although in the case of Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, they can easily argue that they are staying in line with their beliefs on most subjects. Protestant Christianity is the wellspring of most of these beliefs anyway, and the general spirit has never gone away, only the loyalty to the institution of the church. Although saying that they are simply following culture's lead is damning to their self-perception as leaders of communities, it is also very obviously true, and so it has been since before anyone currently alive was born.

And finally, it is also true of fathers. Deep down, no male today believes that their prerogative to raise their children as they think best is actually respected by society.

They've all been cowed. And they have become the perfect enemies for SJW's. Their power is just symbolic. They stand up for themselves rarely, and when they do, they shrink back into the darkness at the first sign of real trouble. They pretend to be dignified, even when reversing their own statements. Their higher aspirations are nothing more than pure utilitarian welfare and freedom of consumerist choice for all. They don't punish you or tell you it's your fault. And they will never tell you about what you can't do, even when you obviously can't. They're here for your self-esteem.

The left says they want serious vision, character, strength from their leaders. Please. I am tempted to think that this was planned, that they have systematically created a culture where anyone with the slightest bit of integrity knows to avoid formal power. But I don't think they understand the situation well enough to pull off something like that. They've built their perfect enemies by accident.

As someone who now owns a business, this annoys the hell out of me. I am incredibly selective about who I employ, and while I'll serve any customer that will pay, there's a part of my mind that wonders when the nutcases will get around to saying I have no right to discriminate against customers who happen to have no money. Applied consistently and rigorously, nondiscrimination means that anyone who does business fundamentally loses control of how they do business.

If we don't have real control over it, we shouldn't be responsible for it, either.

The original civil rights act was meant to address pervasive, culture wide discrimination based on race, one in which people were barred from entry into businesses or told to use segregated facilities because the mainstream culture they were operating in wanted nothing to do with them. It was unpopular legislation meant to force the issue, particularly in the South. Anyone who compares that situation with what's going on now should be declared insane.

Addendum: The Atlantic published an article tempering the earlier rhetoric in favor of tolerating nonessential small businesses with religious objections. That's small businesses, not big ones, so no Christian CEO's, please. They will never tolerate that. It occurs to me that this entire fracas could be avoided by simply declaring that all these nondiscrimination rules not apply to businesses that make less than a couple hundred thousand a year, have less than ten employees or so, and don't do anything that could be considered critically important. Liberals would go along with that, allowing diverse points of view, so long as they don't actually have any power.