In July 2016, the North Carolina legislature passed the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act—more commonly known as House Bill 2—which forbids individuals from using bathrooms that do not match their birth gender. The bill, which was signed into law by governor Patrick McCrory on March 23, bans local governments from enacting anti-discrimination policies or setting their own minimum wage laws, but is best known for its stipulation regarding bathroom usage. According to McCrory, it was enacted to reinforce state authority over local government and defend standards of public decency, which he argues are under threat from a leftist “extreme agenda.” The passage of House Bill 2 provoked an immediate firestorm from media outlets, government offices, and corporate leaderships nationwide. Newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post voiced their disdain, protests erupted across North Carolina, and a nationwide debate commenced over the law’s legal legitimacy and whether, or to what extent, it was “anti-LGBT.” The governments of Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington state enacted bans on publicly funded travel to North Carolina, and a bevy of companies and organizations — including the NBA, Deutsche Bank, PayPal, and Apple — announced plans to either sue, relocate, or discontinue their activities in the state.
Yet there is deep irony in this pearl clutching. While on the surface it may appear that Apple, PayPal, and friends are mounting a sincere defense of transgender interests, the truth tells a much different story. The fact is that the overseas behavior of these companies—namely, their business operations in oppressive regimes across the world—makes nonsense of their ethical pretenses. By their actions, they are rendered far more condemnable—by their own standards—than the supposedly “antidemocratic” North Carolina Republicans they criticize. And more to this, as I hope to show in the course of this article, the reason for their false pretense lies at the heart of that grueling battle between leftism and traditionalism which so afflicts American society today.
Of all the offending companies and organizations, the National Basketball Association’s behavior is perhaps the most glaring. While the NBA was eager to relocate its All-Star game to New Orleans in protest of the bill, it went ahead with its 2016 “Global Games” season in China, a country where sweatshops, human rights violations, and a total lack of anti-discrimination laws are par for the course. Likewise, notwithstanding its outrage at the lawmakers in Raleigh, Deutsche Bank continues its multi-billion dollar operation in China as well. As of October 2016, there are even suggestions that the Chinese government should provide Deutsche Bank a bailout to help pay off the company’s $14 billion fine to the U.S. Department of Justice.
But PayPal’s behavior is just as egregious. While CEO Dan Schulman declared that his company would abandon its “planned expansion into Charlotte” because of North Carolina’s “atmosphere of discrimination,” PayPal has lobbied both the U.S. Treasury Department and the Cuban government to “help expedite” its expansion into that country. Even more strikingly, the company continues its operations in Malaysia, where under Section 377 of the Malaysian Penal Code, anyone convicted of homosexual conduct can be sentenced for up to 20 years in prison.
Always eager to virtue signal, Apple was also quick to rail against House Bill 2; but like its corporate counterparts, Tim Cook’s company seems chronically unable to follow its own advice. While Apple Inc. is one of the 68 companies that signed a Department of Justice amicus brief against North Carolina on July 8, and CEO Cook publically condemned what he described as North Carolina’s “discriminatory” bathroom law, the company continues its operations in Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is punished by decapitation. In spring 2016, CNS News contacted Apple to ask, in light of Cook’s stance against House Bill 2, if the company held similar views on anti-homosexuality laws outside the United States. They never received a response.
What, then, accounts for this inconsistency? It is, of course, a basic truth that many companies, regardless of how “liberal” they claim to be, benefit from serving the establishment, and care little for ethics if they stand to make a profit. However, this neither explains the media’s blindness, nor why Tim Cook, one of the most prominent gay people in the world, should show selective outrage over the treatment of LGBT people. Is it really acceptable for Saudi judges to execute homosexual people and Chinese magnates to run sweatshops, but wrong for Republicans to pass bathroom regulations? Why do these wealthy businesses support liberal causes in America, even at the cost of alienating potential allies (like pro-business Republicans), while quietly ignoring injustice overseas?
Both Tim Cook and Dan Schulman are known for their outspoken left-wing views. Perhaps, one might argue, they simply took advantage of House Bill 2 to attack the Republican Party; it would not be the first time corporate executives adopted such a strategy. As prominent liberals in the corporate establishment, they would stand to gain much by creating a fiasco for the Republicans at home, and would jump at a chance to buttress their left-wing credentials. Taking an ethical stand overseas, however, would threaten their wider business enterprises. While one might counter that the business boycott of North Carolina shows that these companies were willing to front a decrease in sales in the name of principle, this can be explained by the favorable impact such a boycott would have on their reputation across the rest of the country. If we are to take the posturing of corporate America at face value, and believe what they would have us believe, then the situation in North Carolina is so terrible as to warrant a full moratorium on business within its borders, but the law code of Saudi Arabia poses no obstacle to the establishment of Apple stores. Does the tired shibboleth, “We hold our own country to a higher standard” really excuse injustice overseas? Of course not, and it never will.
But besides such mercenary concerns, there is a deeper element to all this. While it is true that the average Democrat has as much to lose from corporate dishonesty as the average Republican, there is, it seems, a form of self-serving cooperation—whether premeditated or coincidental—between modern leftists and corporate interests (leaving aside, of course, the transgressions of right-wing corporate leaders for the purposes of this article). But why should this liaison exist at all?
The reason, I would contend, why a large segment of the American corporate world has become bedfellows with the American left has nothing to do with principles, but comes instead from the cold realization that the social trends fostered by the “regressive left” — the weakening of the ostensibly “patriarchal” family, and of traditional American culture, religion, and institutions — are the same trends which induce people to feed off the corporate trough and passively consume modern media. Likewise, without the fulfillment of culture and community, and especially with the advent of new digital technologies, people are more susceptible to the forces of mass advertising than ever before.
As economist Gene Callahan recently wrote in The American Conservative, “Corporations found out that without a healthy culture, people are not natural Marxists but natural couch potatoes.” It is this very relationship between cultural degregation and amoral capitalism that has engendered a lucrative—albeit in many cases, unintentional—alliance between big business and the radical left. I, like Callahan, would contend that anyone who believes, in every case, that these CEOs and corporate directors are acting out of pure devotion to Obama-era social values are simply falling for rhetoric. Apple’s tears of “social justice,” in the end, amount to little more than trickling refreshment for its Chinese sweatshop workers. But they splendidly humiliate the Republican Party, which has been known to attack the values of Silicon Valley.
In America, at least, the result of collusion between politics and corporate interests over the past quarter-century plus has not been, as thinkers like Marx imagined, the violent achievement of socialist ideals in the face of a bourgeois society; rather, it has been a stale liberal-corporate ascendancy and a despondent longing—among citizens from the Ohio rust belt to the counties of northern Maine—for the economic security and civic vitality of the not-so-distant past. Longstanding aspects of American life, from scouting organizations to community cohesion itself, are increasingly under assault. This is to the detriment of the common American, who sees his culture desiccating before his eyes, but to the benefit of radical leftists, who know that the dilapidation of traditional society allows liberal ideology to propagate more easily.
Alexis de Tocqueville believed that the atomization of American life and the corruption of American religion would inevitably lead to a deep illness within our society; he also discerned a direct relationship between obsession with private affairs and the general weakening of the body politic. As he wrote in Democracy in America in 1831, in a passage startlingly apt for our own time: “What frightens me most is the danger that, amid all the constant trivial preoccupations of private life…that human passions may grow gentler and at the same time baser, with the result that the progress of the body social may become daily quieter and less aspiring.” This development, in the minds of commentators like Mr. Callahan from American Conservative, also leaves the American people defenseless against the power of corporations. It also, I would add, further reinforces the power of the state over a glutted, disunited people.
In the end, Callahan believes that the ideal “modern human” which the “regressive left” wants to create—freed from ostensibly oppressive social norms, disdainful of his culture—is, at the same time, the ideal consumer. He is receptive to the suggestions of social media and, today more than ever, supremely self-interested.
All citizens, of whatever political persuasion, who value the preservation of America’s traditional institutions and civic vitality, and who are rightfully fearful of corporate-political intrigue, would do well to heed the prophetic words that President John F. Kennedy spoke to the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 27, 1961:
“Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it…Every newspaper now asks itself, with respect to every story: ‘Is it news?’ All I suggest is that you add the question: ‘Is it in the interest of the national security?’ And I hope that every group in America—unions and businessmen and public officials at every level—will ask the same question of their endeavors, and subject their actions to the same exacting tests.”
Without an honest and free press, and without honest and free businessmen and public officials, there can be no healthy society. Whether the issue is, as it was in Kennedy’s day, the spread of communism, or is, as in this case, the collusion between big business and radical politics, the answer is the same. If we are to have a nation worth living in, we must, all of us, ensure the survival of our traditions, keep our leaders accountable, and preserve our national security. The current fiasco about a few bathroom signs in North Carolina is only the symptom of a much deeper malaise.