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Why Such Hysterical Reactions By Andrew Sullivan and the Pundit Class to Mozilla CEO Stepping Down Because of His Anti-Gay Position?

Are they overreacting?
 
 
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You would have thought some terrible crime had been committed given the moral outrage offered by a gaggle of mainstream white male pundits about the resignation of the newly appointed CEO Brendan Eich, of the non-profit Mozilla, creator of the Firefox browser.
 
For quick background, Mozilla is a fairly unique American technology entity which  columnist Farhad Manjoo described as "not a normal company.... It is an activist organization. Mozilla’s primary mission isn’t to make money but to spread open-source code across the globe in the eventual hope of promoting ‘the development of the Internet as a public resource.’"
 
The chorus of pundit concern on behalf of the badly treated Eich included an array of misinformation, straw men and flights of logic that makes one wonder why the pundits got so worked up. Headlines like the "New Gay Orthodoxy," "The Backlash Against Eich Crossed a Line," "The Gay Mafia," etc., put one in mind of Hamlet's observation, "Thou doth protest too much. "
 
Much of the controversy was provoked or motivated by conservative Catholic gay blogger and intellectual, Andrew Sullivan, who said that the Mozilla chief was "scalped by some gay activists." Sullivan's highly flammable statements were quoted in such repetition by critics defending Eich, it's almost as if Sullivan was the only gay person with a worthwhile opinion. Most oft quoted was what Sullivan   wrote on his blog: "Will he (Eich) now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me—as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today—hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else—then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us."
 
Wow. 
 
Perhaps to top Sullivan, the always provocative Bill Maher added fuel to the fire: "I think there is a gay mafia, and if you cross them, you get whacked," even though the situation at Mozilla had little to do with national gay groups or leaders, but rather an uproar from employees, users and customers, with the dating site OkCupid given a lot of credit with crystalizing the message that the community thought it was a bad idea to make Eich CEO. 
 
Sanity from the New Yorker's Surowiecki
 
It was the reliably  wise James Surowiecki of theNew Yorker who put the whole contretemps into full perspective: 

"When Brendan Eich stepped down as the C.E.O. of Mozilla, on Thursday ... it was perhaps the least surprising C.E.O. departure ever ... Eich was well known for his opposition to gay marriage: in 2008, he donated a thousand dollars to support Proposition 8, the California ballot measure that sought to ban same-sex marriage. The initial revelation of that donation, back in 2012, led to a welter of criticism that eventually died down. But, by elevating Eich to C.E.O., the Mozilla board brought his past to the forefront once again. ... The real mystery here, then, is not why Eich stepped down but why he ever got hired in the first place ... this was a candidate who divided the board, who had already been controversial, and whose promotion was guaranteed to generate reams of bad publicity."

Surowiecki adds: 
"At this point, a tech company having a C.E.O. who opposes gay marriage is not all that different from a company in 1973 having a C.E.O. who donated money to fight interracial marriage: even if there were plenty of Americans who felt the same way at the time, the C.E.O. would still have been on the wrong side of history. And since the role of a C.E.O. as a public face of an organization is more important than ever these days, Eich’s personal views were inevitably going to shape his ability to run the company."

So what is with the hysterical overreaction to what seemed like a predictable and modest marketplace victory for people who view public and dogged opponents of gay marriage as bigots? A key point is that according  to the  New York Times, "Throughout the controversy, Mr. Eich... refused to repudiate his donation, even after being asked personally to do so in a meeting with two prominent software developers who said they would no longer create apps for Firefox." 
 
Why did a number of "liberal pundits"—Frank Bruni at the New York Times, Will Saletan at  Slate, Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic, and Tony Bradley of  Forbes—all cry so loudly and at times seemingly illogically? Why was Andrew Sullivan so central to the story, in effect making himself a secondary story? And why, if he was trying to encourage understanding, did Sullivan roil the waters in such a flammable way? 
 
Perhaps if one thinks exercising some muscle on behalf of gay rights is progressive — the right wing and its idiotic talking heads on Fox, like Donald Trump are still trying to undermine gay marriage—then we might gather, as New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio has quickly discovered, that much of the moneyed establishment and corporate-elected officials don't like progressives exercising any muscle. As so many know from history, rights are only gained by the exercise of power, and many, including the New York Times and the establishment blogosphere, don't particularly seem to like others exercising power: they seem to prefer, in this case, that wealthy bigots keep their jobs in the name of diversity and free speech.
 
But let me try out another theory. Punditry and opinion on the web is very different than for newspapers and magazines—not that papers and mags don't like lots of web traffic, they do, but it is much more of a team operation. In key ways—e.g. at the New Yorker, and the LA and NY Times, the paper edition is still the more important product. And there are hundreds of contributors. But on the web, pundits for websites are much more dependent on eyeballs for their success and livelihood. And pundit and opinion web traffic comes from two things: controversy and links.  
 
It would be an understatement to say that Andrew Sullivan's success is highly dependent on controversy, traffic and links. He took the major step of going on his own with his blog, choosing not to be part of a media company. This also makes him dependent on support from his pundit friends, who by highlighting and linking to his writing, support his business. Every eyeball to Sullivan's blog is monetized. Saletan, at Slate, is wholly dependent on web traffic, and Friedersdorf, at the Atlantic, needs to produce traffic too, as the monthly magazine has taken somewhat of a back seat to the web enterprise. So like-minded establishment web pundits and writers are codependent. They all are trying to keep their traffic burning.  
 
So sure, you say, everyone gives business and does favors for their friends and allies. So do I. But when it comes to flammable topics of journalistic importance like human rights, we should keep in mind that there are incentives at play that could shape how debates evolve. We had e.g. predictable, understandable and justifiable events in the Eich/Mozilla situation, turned into high controversy,  from the conservatives. of course, but also from the "liberals." Why did that happen? Now, obviously this theory can't be wrapped up in a neat ribbon. I cannot be in the heads or hearts of those involved. But how things work on the web is something to keep in mind. 
 
What follows are some of the arguments made by some of the pro-Sullivan pundits.
 
Will Saletan @  Slate 
 
Answering the Andrew Sullivan call, and leading the way for the pundits was Will Saletan, of  Slate who essentially called the  push to oust Eich  a "witch hunt," and that Eich's personal views shouldn't matter. Michael Hiltzik, a business writer at the  LA Times demolishes Saletan's  logic of: "why not purge every corporate employee anywhere who did the same? "  Saletan called disapproval of support for Proposition 8 a "new standard" and wrote, "perhaps we should put down the pitchforks."  But for Hiltzik, "that's a foolish take on this case. The CEO of a company isn't just any employee; he or she is the face of the company, the standard-bearer and very much the standard-setter. As CEO, Eich had the power to heavily influence corporate policy at Mozilla, and although he publicly stated that he would uphold Mozilla's existing standards of inclusiveness and equal treatment in human relations, plainly these were at odds with his personal views."
 
Saletan trots out some older cases of when gays were discriminated in the work place  to suggest that Eich got the same treatment, when in fact he is not just any employee, but the star developer, whose bias was already well known, and much anger had already been expressed about it.  But of course after his contribution came to light in 2012, he  continued to work at Mozilla in a leadership position -- he was not tossed out because of his views. Only when he  was going to be the leader of the entire enterprise, was he so forcefully challenged.
 
Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic Monthly
 
Friedersdorf frames his take on Eich's departure as " Mozilla's Gay-Marriage Litmus Test Violates Liberal Values." And then suggests that "The forced resignation of Brendan Eich will have a chilling effect on political discourse." 
 
This is a favorite trick of turning the value tables on its head, topsy-turvey style. A person, who arguably takes a bigoted position, totally out of sync with the community he is supposed to lead, and refuses—presumably on principle, which of course is his right—to change his mind or position, represents " liberal values." Obviously no one is taking Eich's voice away, and now he has a much bigger platform to express his anti-gay marriage position.
 
One of the ironies here—like segregation and civil rights, and women's rights before it, the courts have overturned Prop 8 as an example of impermissible discrimination. Does Friedersdorf think that a segregationist should be a CEO, or someone against interracial marriage? And that speaking out against their positions will have a chilling effect on public discourse? It's as if Freidersdorf has decided what political discourse should be like, and that challenging people on some bigoted views is too problematic or messy. 
 
Frank Bruni at the New York Times 
 
Friedersdorf argues that at the time of Eich's contribution, a majority of Californians and an even bigger majority of Americans, including Barack Obama, the commander-in-chief who "evolved" to end the ban on gays and lesbians in the military, believed that gay marriage ought to be illegal. And much of  Frank Bruni's NY Times column (titled strangely, "the New Gay Orthodoxy"—what was the old orthodoxy, that gays wanted anti-gays to be in charge?) travels the same history that Obama and Clinton didn't "formally"  support marriage equality. But really, they weren't remotely against gay marriage in the same way Eich is still against it today. 
 
The truth is that Obama,  during his 2008 presidential campaign announced his opposition to Prop 8, and the divisive and discriminatory efforts to amend the California condition. Obama, Hillary Clinton and other moderate Democrats were not necessarily against gay marriage, they were just not willing to be for it in public, but all have made the change. Eich has not.   
 
Bruni, to his credit, seems to be taken aback by Andrew Sullivan's outrage. But he can't get away from the history of the change in law was too recent, seemingly as an excuse for the fact that Eich still hasn't changed his attitude. The old adage that you are either on the side of change, or you are standing in the way seems to ring true here. Still Bruni writes: "It’s vital to remember how very recently so many of equality’s promoters, like Obama and Clinton, have come around and how relatively new this conversation remains. ... Sullivan is right to raise concerns about the public flogging of someone like Eich. Such vilification won’t accelerate the timetable of victory, which is certain. And it doesn’t reflect well on the victors."
 
The Bruni take seems judgmental in reverse. Doesn't it positively reflect on the victors that they said they didn't like where Eich stood, it was against their values, and in fact the law in California, and they were going to express their opinions and organize? That seems the essence of working within the system for change. 
 
Tony Bradley at Forbes
 
Bradley's logic fundamentally escapes me. He asserts contretemps that "Brendan Eich and Mozilla are two separate things…. It makes no sense to choose the companies you do business with—or don’t do business with as the case may be—based on the personal beliefs and ideologies of individual employees. ... Besides, why stop at the CEO? If we’re going to demonize entire corporations based on the personal beliefs and ideologies of individual employees, why not also boycott  Boeing, or Walgreens, or  Intel, or  Google, or the State of California itself—all of which had employees who donated $1,000 in support of Proposition 8 just as Brendan Eich did?"
 
Huh? Millions of people make decisions about where they bring their business every day. Millions would never shop at Walmart, but might go out of their way to go to Trader Joes. Millions don't buy the Koch brothers Brawny paper towels, hate Starbucks, go to Peets and on and on. We have published dozens of article about companies that have been successfully boycotted because of bad behavior from the CEO. These companies have often changed their ways, or at least said they would. Then on the other hand Bradley suggests that if a minor person in a giant company with thousands of employees gives $1,000 to a cause, it should be boycotted. Eich was the CEO, the leader, the public face and top banana of Mozilla.

Bradley also posits that "The Constitution and the Bill of Rights do, however, apply to every individual citizen of the United States. That means that Brendan Eich is entitled to his beliefs, whether we agree with him or not. He is entitled to support the causes that are important to him, no matter how objectionable they may be to you."

 
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