Choosing Our Battles: A Chick-Fil-A Rant

This is an expanded version of a rant that I spontaneously posted on this blog’s Facebook page yesterday.

[Also, snark warning. Haven't used one of those in a while!]

I’m going to talk about Chick-Fil-A again because I just can’t stop.

I keep hearing arguments that go something like this: “Yes, they donate money to icky crap. Yes, LGBT people and allies are entitled to boycott them. But then why aren’t they boycotting every other company that does unethical crap? Like Apple? Like Nike? Like McDonalds? Like Walmart? HUH?! Hypocrites!”

First of all. I’m sorry, but I can’t boycott every company in the world. Not even the best activist can do that. I can boycott some, though, and that’s exactly what I do. One reason I boycott CFA is because it is easier for CFA to just stop sending millions of dollars to bullshit organizations than it is for Apple and Nike to restructure their entire labor practices. Do they need to do this? Yes, absolutely. But it would take years or decades of public campaigns and government regulations.

Now, I’m not a labor activist or a corporate watchdog by profession. I’m a 21-year-old student who works part-time, writes a little blog part-time, and hopes to become a therapist someday. I need to choose my fucking battles.

And yes, I’m only speaking for myself here. But I think many of us who are speaking out against CFA are in a similar position. I wish we could all be full-time activists. But we can’t. So we choose our battles.

Second, let me be clear. If Apple came out and said, “Guilty as charged!” when asked about their use of child labor, I can guarantee you that the amount of protest would skyrocket. Because the problem with Dan Cathy and CFA isn’t just what they do–it’s how disgustingly, unapologetically shameless they are about it.

Sure, you could argue that opposing gay rights isn’t “as bad” as using child labor (however you managed to determine which units to measure badness in). My response would be that, while time and money are finite resources, care and concern are not. We writers and activists are perfectly capable of caring both about gay rights and child labor, trust me.

Third, there is something fundamentally different between what CFA does and what Apple, Nike, and Walmart do. The difference is this: corporations cut costs. If possible, they cut costs using unethical, shady, and borderline-illegal methods. Sure, there are a few that don’t, but many do.

The fact that this is something we can naturally expect doesn’t make it acceptable, of course. This is why we need that dreaded government regulation everyone keeps waving their hands about. So until governments crack down on the crap that Apple, Nike, and Walmart do, we can reasonably expect it to continue, because that’s the economic system that we’ve designed for ourselves.

But CFA isn’t trying to cut costs. In fact, it’s giving away huge sums of its own money. This is not a business move. This is not an attempt to keep the shareholders happy, because CFA (unlike Apple, Nike, and Walmart) is a privately-owned company with no shareholders.

No. CFA’s donations are motivated solely by its owners’ desire to impose their religious views upon this country. Full stop. That is why we protest.

One last detour to cover another related argument: “But we’ve known about CFA’s stance on gay rights for years! Why now? HMM?” First of all, people who make this argument: I applaud you for your attention to current events, politics, and charitable donations of companies whose products you consume. I, too, have known about CFA’s stance on gay rights for years, which is why I haven’t set foot in there for years. But not everyone can be so well-informed. I read the goddamn news as a hobby.

Second, better late than never. If you’re seriously trying to suggest that people shouldn’t protest against CFA because they should’ve done it earlier, your argument is the biggest failure I have ever seen. People are protesting now because of Dan Cathy’s public statements. People are protesting now because the story went viral and blew up in every media outlet imaginable. People are protesting now because it’s election season. People are protesting now because gay marriage has been in the news these days like never before.

People are protesting now as opposed to years ago for all sorts of social and cultural reasons, and those reasons do not necessarily include that the protesters are Big Hypocrites.

Both of these arguments–”But what about the other companies” and “But why now”–are intellectually dishonest, and they’re attempts to derail the conversation. If you’re trying to argue that we’re not doing enough for our cause, you might want to ask yourself what you are doing for it.

So I’m not going to mince words here. If the best argument you can muster against boycotting/denouncing CFA is YEAH WELL WHAT ABOUT ALL THE OTHER TERRIBAD COMPANIES, then guess what, your argument fails. Because I don’t see you doing anything about any of them at all.

And it really doesn’t surprise me that nobody I have seen making this argument–online or in person–has been someone who particularly cares about gay rights. Don’t care? Fine. I can’t make you. But please, get out of my way.

Oh, and trust me. Someday when I have the time and money, I am absolutely going after as many of those companies as I can. Are you going to help me?

I guess we’ll find out.

P.S. inb4 BUT FREE SPEEEEECH

Agribusiness is Ruining Capitalism (Among Other Things)

Agribusiness is the reason we can’t have nice things.

The same industry that recently terrified consumers by including pink slime (or, euphemistically, “boneless lean beef trimmings”) in 70% of supermarket ground beef is now responsible for a new Iowa law that makes it a crime to misrepresent yourself in order to get a job at a farm. It had already been a crime in Iowa to record audio or video at a farm without the owner’s permission, but now that the organization Mercy for Animals has inconveniently shot footage of atrocious animal abuse at the Iowa egg farm Sparboe, lawmakers are upping the ante.

Oops, did I say lawmakers? I meant the lobbyists that have them on puppet strings.

The purpose of these “ag-gag” laws (as they’re being called) is obvious–it’s to make it harder for people to get access to farms and find out what’s really going on there. Agribusinesses may claim that these laws prevent them from being “misrepresented” and that the abuses filmed by activists were just a “one-time” thing, the truth is that if they had nothing to hide, they’d have no problem with people coming in and looking at their farms. As one hog farmer says, “We have a problem with a lot of undercover videos that go into livestock production facilities looking for things that might be out of ordinary and, I think many times, fabricating things that are not happening on regular basis.”
He does not specify how it is possible to “fabricate” something that, as he says, is simply “out of the ordinary.” (Which, of course, it isn’t.)

One might wonder why it would even be necessary to pretend to be someone else in order to get a job at a farm, or to film without the owner’s permission. Well, it’s because they won’t let you do it otherwise. All the books I’ve read about factory farming, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and the companion book to Food, Inc., mention how difficult it is to obtain access to these farms.

Even assuming that a journalist manages to enter the premises without hiding his/her identity or intentions, many states have laws that make it extremely dangerous to criticize agribusiness. Consider this passage from Fast Food Nation:

Having centralized American agriculture, the large agribusiness firms are now attempting, like Soviet commissars, to stifle criticism of their policies. Over the past decade, “veggie libel laws” backed by agribusiness have been passed in thirteen states. The laws make it illegal to criticize agricultural commodities in a matter inconsistent with “reasonable” scientific evidence. The whole concept of “veggie libel” is probably unconstitutional; nevertheless, these laws remain on the books. Oprah Winfrey, among others, has been sued for making disparaging remarks about food. In Texas, a man was sued by a sod company for criticizing the quality of its lawns. … In Colorado, violating the veggie libel law is now a criminal, not a civil, offense. Criticizing the Greeley slaughterhouse could put you behind bars. (pg. 266-67)

So, it’s not very surprising that activists now have to go undercover to tell the truth about what’s going on inside factory farms.

Iowa’s new law wouldn’t be so bad if these films didn’t have as huge an impact as they do. Four of Sparboe’s biggest clients–Target, McDonald’s, Sam’s Club, and Supervalu–have stopped doing business with the farm since seeing video that Mercy for Animals created. Similar results came about for other farms due to whistleblowing films (see the fifth paragraph of this article for some examples).

Ag-gag laws like Iowa’s are now pending in seven other states, including Illinois, where I attend school and where I will soon be writing to my district’s state representatives.

One may debate the importance of animal welfare (well, I wouldn’t debate it, but many people would), but here’s something that most Americans probably consider undebatable: consumers deserve to know the truth about the products they buy so that they can make informed decisions about their purchases. Companies that cannot make products that consumers want to buy should either change their business model or go out of business.

But laws that protect agribusiness from public scrutiny turn this model upside down. Now industrial farms can produce food (or, I should say, “food”) using whichever methods are cheapest and easiest for them, regardless of what consumers would actually buy if they knew the truth.

Of course, the notion of companies hiding their manufacturing methods from the public in order to cut costs without sacrificing consumer loyalty is neither new nor limited to the agriculture industry. Controversies over conditions at iPhone factories and the safety of pharmaceuticals, for instance, are old news by now.

However, agriculture is different for several reasons. First of all, the fact that certain states depend so heavily on it means that agribusiness lobbyists can more easily bend state lawmakers to their will. Second, the increasing pervasiveness of industrial farms means that, without regulation, it is becoming impossible for ethical farmers to compete (except by pandering to the sort of consumers who shop at Whole Foods). Third, unlike iPhones or Nike sneakers, food directly impacts people’s health, making it that much more urgent for people to know how their food is produced and to be able to make choices based on that knowledge. Finally, unlike most other industries, agriculture affects every single person who eats animal products of any kind. To avoid products from industrial farms, you would literally have to become a vegan–or, at the very least, dedicate your life to finding out exactly where all those free-range hens and cage-free eggs are actually coming from, since product labeling standards are pretty lax for these things.

A free market isn’t really free if basic information about products is kept from consumers. Most Americans probably wouldn’t want to eat eggs that come from hens whose beaks are burned off to keep them from pecking each other in overcrowded, filthy cages. They probably wouldn’t want to eat beef from cows that were literally bulldozed into the slaughterhouse because they were too sick to walk.

The legislators who pass laws allowing for these flagrant abuses to be kept secret from the American public ought to remember who they were elected to serve.

Here’s a hint: it’s not the agribusinesses.

Update (3/15/12): Et tu, Utah?