Monday, December 23, 2013

The Extinction Of Conviction

I know that the Enemy [God] disapproves many of these causes. But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew. [C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters]

There are subjects it pains me terribly to write about. This is one of them.

Read this article very closely:

"We were flat out wrong."

That’s the message Cracker Barrel is sending to enraged customers after the restaurant chain removed Duck Dynasty items from its stores over fears it might offend people.

"Our intent was to avoid offending but that’s just what we've done," Cracker Barrel said in a statement posted on its Facebook page. "You told us we made a mistake. And, you weren't shy about it. You wrote, you called and you took to social media to express your thoughts and feelings."

Is it gratifying that Cracker Barrel has reversed its decision? Moderately so, I suppose. But what about the reasons for both the original removal and the reversal? How would you assess them? As statements of conviction, or as commercial minimaxery that eschews all such notions?

Imagine for just a moment that the GLAAD assault on Phil Robertson, which triggered A&E’s decision to "indefinitely suspend" the Duck Dynasty patriarch, had expressed the sentiments of a majority of Americans. Isn't it fairly easy to see what course Cracker Barrel would have followed? Would that have expressed a sincere conviction of any sort?

How I long for the sight of a Thomas Watson Sr. or a George Pullman: men whose convictions defied considerations of majority sentiment, and who operated their companies as they damned well pleased. These days, the last line of the quarterly report seems to possess ultra-hypnotic powers. At any rate, no corporate executive or Board of Directors seems willing to stand on principle...regardless of the principle in question or its soundness by any criteria.

Yes, yes, Gentle Reader. Fran's being an old fossil again. A dinosaur who just can't "get with it." What's all this nonsense about convictions? What relevance do they have to American enterprise in this scrambling-for-the-shekels / open twenty-four-seven /always on-always hot / fiber-optically-connected / happenin' age?

You might want to give it some thought.

Just now, what Phil Robertson said, which I accept as an expression of his sincere convictions, strikes me as less important than the vectors of reaction to it.

GLAAD did what homosexual mouthpiece groups always do: it went on the attack. It's succeeded in getting its way with that tactic many times to date. Perhaps this time it won't, but we shall see. There are more cards to be played -- and you can bet the rent money that every significant corporation in these United States will be watching closely until the table is bare of chips.

First question: Should the tide of popular sentiment remain overwhelmingly in Phil Robertson's favor, will GLAAD retract or modify its condemnation?

A&E did what a left-leaning media outlet might be expected to do. It's possible that the network's executives sincerely believe that Robertson expressed hateful, unacceptable sentiments, but I severely doubt it. They know their viewer demographic. It's pained them from the first that Duck Dynasty, a show with the same sort of intentions behind it as National Geographic's Preppers, should have elicited so much actual affection for its stars. Indeed, there's a strong possibility that they arranged for the GQ interview precisely to give them a reason to put the vice grips to this unacceptably Christian show.

Second question: Had there been no GLAAD reaction to Phil Robertson's statements, do you think A&E would have refrained from doing what it did?

The aftermath is well known to anyone who hasn't slept through the contretemps. Cracker Barrel isn't the only company that's been influenced by developments; it's just the first to reverse itself. But its statements are painfully poignant: to avoid giving offense, they took Duck Dynasty products out of their shops, and to avoid giving offense, they're putting them back! Clearly, all that matters is the preponderance of sentiment. Where the corporation's guiding lights actually stand is a matter for speculation alone.

Third and final question: Do you respect for Cracker Barrel for its original actions, for its reversal, or for both? Why and / or why not? Would you have more respect for its leaders had they stood fast on their initial decision? Please remember that respect is not the same as agreement or approbation.

Time was, we understood the concept of an "honorable enemy:" one who opposes you out of sincere conviction. We respected such enemies even as we fought them. We might have tried mightily to show them the error of their ways -- a course, if available, that's always preferable to outright combat -- but we fought them all the while...because we fought from sincere conviction as well.

Perhaps the professionally managed joint-stock corporation falls outside that paradigm. As Isabel Paterson has noted, "A corporation has neither a soul to be damned nor a body to be kicked." It's a purely appetite-driven machine with little or no ability to inhibit itself on moral grounds. All that matters to it is reward and punishment as expressed in dollars and cents. In that regard it falls below canis familiaris on the moral spectrum.

Today, most working Americans are employed by such a firm. Their well-being depends critically on the health of their company's balance sheet. Inevitably, they learn to "root" for whatever turn of events will fatten the bottom long as it doesn't include automation or layoffs, of course.

There's no room for conviction in any of that. Convictions about right and wrong are orthogonal to the quest for ever larger profits. Worse, they can get in the way -- and the more dominated by greed and fear are a company's masters, the larger will that prospect loom in their nightmares. Were it otherwise, do you think the 3% of Americans who are homosexual could successfully threaten a boycott that any company would take seriously?

Thus doth commerce make cowards of us all.


lelnet said...

"Do you respect for Cracker Barrel for its original actions, for its reversal, or for both?"

Neither. I respect them (or, rather, I don't) for the quality of their restaurants. I didn't eat there regularly before, I didn't intend to start during their temporary course away from the Robinsons, and I don't intend to start now that they've reversed that course.

Corporations don't have convictions, they have interests. Convictions are a feature of individual humans, not collective entities. Expecting otherwise is lunacy when our enemies do it, and it remains lunacy on the rather rarer occasions when our allies do it.

The closest we can realistically come, is to ensure that their interests are aligned with our convictions, and that they know this.

Those who work their way into positions of authority over business enterprises tend to be those who are tightly focused on the acquisition of money, just as those who work their way into authority over government enterprises tend to be those who are tightly focused on the acquisition of power. There is good news, however. Unlike in the case of government, where our interest (keeping politicians and bureaucrats as powerless as possible) is utterly inimical to and irreconcilable with their interest, in the case of business executives, we have no special interest in impoverishing business executives as a category.

This is why boycotts and similar measures are more effective in the commercial realm than democracy is in the government realm.

daniel_day said...

This is off topic from your point, but Donald Sensing pointed out in a comment at American Digest that all profits from "Duck Dynasty" products go to A&E, not to the Roberts family. Those who would like to kick a few more dollars to the Roberts should buy the brand Duck Commander.

Magnus said...

I can't fathom how they could have thought it was a good idea to begin with. Do they not know their customer base? If nothing else, this illustrates how corporate morons live in a bubble that is entirely separated from the common folk.