Collateral damage: Of boycotting and leaving in an age of insanity

So, a few days ago, this happened:

Such a picture, I believe, is odious and repulsive at face value. Others who share that belief are urging dramatic action.

Actor George Takei is one of them. As he put it in an MSNBC blog post: “I have called for a boycott of Indiana by companies, conventions and tourists, not only to send a clear message to Indiana, but also to help stop the further erosion of our core civil values in other parts of this country.”

Takei compared the situation to a previous boycott, which had rolled back a similar “Religious Freedom Bill” in Arizona in 2014: “But thanks to pressures upon the governor’s office in days before she was set to sign the law, and in the face of a boycott of the state by tourists and the NFL, which threatened to move the Super Bowl to Pasadena, Gov. Jan Brewer ultimately decided to veto the law. Tolerance and equality won out that day.” 

Yes, Takei is right. Something must be done. Maybe that was the way to do it in Arizona. But maybe, as Melissa McEwan writes at Model View Culture, it is not the way to do it in Indiana.

McEwan explains that Indiana is a heavily gerrymandered state. In such a state, the political and economic will of the people need not mean much: “A majority of Hoosiers opposed the same-sex marriage ban, but the state legislature passed it anyway.”

Meanwhile, much of Indiana is already scorched earth: “Northwest Indiana, the part of the state in which I live, has never recovered from the decimation of the steel industry under Reaganomics. Jobs are scarce. And so are resources to fight to change any of this.”

I know. I live next to Northwest Indiana. I have family in Crown Point and Cedar Lake. When I attend concerts at a casino in Northwest Indiana–gambling, it may be said, is now a bastion of the local economy, hot on the heels of the vanished steel industry–I find the commute is an experience in itself:

We drove through the business zones expected of rust-belt towns that have suffered and gone sour. I saw odd hybrids like the New Age Tobacco and Shirt Store. A full-service mart offered not only “Food” and “Liquor,” but “T-Mobile” and “Cash For Gold.” Stores advertised their acceptance of electronic benefits transfer cards, the way other places enticed patronage with “buy one, get one free” or “local organic ingredients.”

But back to McEwan. The part of her piece that hits me the hardest is this:

The truth is, progressives with resources have been boycotting Indiana for decades. That’s actually why we’re in this situation. If you want to know what a boycott would really look like, what result institutional neglect will really have, this is it. This legislation—it’s the result of Indiana having been de facto boycotted for years, written off as a place unworthy of investment by people who could help….

What a generalized boycott of Indiana would do is harm working people—among whom are queer business owners, as well as queer employees of inclusive and supportive employers, and also queer employees of discriminatory employers, because that’s the only job they can get in a state with far too few jobs.

*****

As someone who is primarily a theologian and religion writer, I return again and again to the photo in the tweet, in which smiling clergy and religious surround the governor of Indiana. To me, that’s the worst part. It is also the part that suggests my overall response.

Let us be clear. There are those who support such “Religious Freedom Bills” as God’s holy work. They are in my church. They have the support of the highest levels of the church. For all the “Francis effect,” not much has changed in terms of policy or substance since the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, nor should we expect otherwise: the church’s political machine transcends the sitting pope, whatever his predilections. It often seems logical to pick up and leave, to deny the church my resources of time, talent, and treasure.

But I also know, as the Jesuit Fr. L. Patrick Carroll wrote in his contribution to the 1992 anthology Jesuits in Profile: “Though the Church as an institution can often be an embarrassment, a burden more than a help, it will not be better without me.”

I know, too, as I knew when I tipped in my ten dollars for the 2015 annual appeal by the archdiocese of Chicago, that by withholding from the coffers of the official church, I withhold from many folks who depend on the church for food, clothing, shelter, and counsel.

And finally, I know that if I withdraw my physical presence from my parish and my diocese, I thereby concede my privileges of voice and head-count to those who have very different ideas about what is Good News.

Through this Catholic prism, I see the state of Indiana. Boycotting does not punish the personal pockets of the governor, any more than I punish the individual religious leaders in the photo by spending my Sundays at home. Boycotting and leaving, in these particular instances, punishes many vulnerable others. It creates, in that infamous term, “collateral damage.”

I suggest that we need to question our first, righteous instincts to divest and run away. We must try being counter-intuitive. We ought to invest and stay in. Yes, it’s a slow, hard slog. It will never hashtag as easily as #BoycottIndiana did.

But then, real change never does.

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2 thoughts on “Collateral damage: Of boycotting and leaving in an age of insanity

  1. Justin — Thank you for a challenging piece amid the Indiana mess. Your writing, especially the closing section about the ‘boycotting’ church, gave me pause. It is after that reflection I offer two thoughts:

    1. At least for me, and I imagine for others advocating boycott, these acts are not punitive against Hoosiers, even Governor Pence and the anti-gay legislators. Instead, I see the use of economic power as an underutilized tool that can bring about change when other leverage points aren’t effective or available. The clarifications — (imperfect but precedent setting) class protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity — would likely have never come about without the almost immediate backlash from major industries, NCAA, celebrities, etc. Setting aside the moral questions momentarily, #BoycottIndiana was effective.

    2. Having said that, I do wonder about the application of economic pressure — is it just? in what situations is it so? is it nonviolent? is it a violent act justifiable as part of resistance? should corporations have so much power in social movements? are we simply buying into neoliberal ideals when this is the go to form of change making? For me, there are questions in this case about whether the #BoycottIndiana movement was too preemptive or appropriately differentiated who/what was to be boycotted so as to uphold a preferential option for the economically disadvantaged. I have no answers, but just offer these as an initial response.

    Thanks.

    • Hi Bob,

      Thanks for writing. I always value your input.

      Perhaps I would feel better if what I’ll call the “weight” of the boycott came from within Indiana itself, with Hoosiers initiating and leading strategic efforts against carefully-chosen targets. But as best I could tell, these economic sanctions, were, on the whole, applied from outside (as you say: “major industries, NCAA, celebrities, etc.”). These folks do not necessarily have intimate knowledge of the people or conditions of Indiana, let alone the webs of relationships among these people or conditions.

      I keep coming back to McEwan’s point that a kind of informal and very thorough boycott has long been underway. Mid-America used to be a progressive vanguard once upon a time: abolitionists, radical farmers, union organizers, populist third parties, and masses of voters who went for FDR and Truman. That’s no longer true. We need to ask why that is. I suspect that a lot of progressives left, for whatever reasons; that their subsequent efforts to influence policy have often been “outsider” attempts; that such attempts have often been seen, and resented, as such; and that, even if attempts to influence policy work initially, the resulting resentment plants the seeds of backfire and backlash.

      To return to the church part of it: the Catholic Church desperately needs reform. But such reform ultimately depends on the investment of Catholics like you and me. It ought not be initiated or directed by folks who don’t identify as Catholic. So many things could be misunderstood or misapplied, things they can’t imagine from their vantage point (nor should anyone expect them to; it would be unfair).

      Finally, a personal note. I live now in the same area where I grew up, a town south of Chicago that, while accessible to the city, is culturally very different from it. (I have neighbors who fly Confederate flags.) For some time, I aspired to move away to somewhere more superficially congenial (my two main choices were the North Side of Chicago and Boston), there to work and write for change. Recently, I’ve begun to see how prevalent is this dynamic among people I’ve known and worked with, this story of progressives who grow up in the heartland and move away somewhere else to plot the reforms they wish they saw back home. Something about such a pattern seems increasingly wrong to me. Moreover, I see this pattern interlocking with aspects of #BoycottIndiana. I feel a call to do something different, and to suggest something different to others.

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