The Politics of Intimidation

When the fish die you know there’s something wrong with the water. When the bees disappear, it means the ecosystem is in trouble. When it’s the height of the election season, and there are hardly any signs on neighborhood lawns, you begin to suspect that something may be amiss this time around. The truth is that there aren’t many lawn signs or bumper stickers. My theory is that American citizens no longer feel safe about taking a public stand one way or the other. That’s because we’re witnessing the rise of the politics of intimidation.

Here’s a local case in point. Local San Diego businessman Douglas Manchester owns the Manchester Grand Hyatt, a huge downtown hotel next to the Convention Center. It came out in the news awhile back that he had made a major donation to the Vote Yes on Prop 8 campaign, which is a campaign to define marriage in the California constitution as an exclusively heterosexual union. Obviously not everyone in California will agree with Mr. Manchester’s position, but presumably he has every legal right to hold and promote his convictions in a free society like ours.

Immediately advocates of gay marriage began protesting in front of his hotel in a strong and persistent manner. The result has been an ongoing and undetermined loss of business for the hotel. As the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper has pointed out, this sent an intimidating message to any other local businesses that might consider supporting the Vote Yes on Prop 8 campaign.

The American Educational Research Association, a vast organization of scholars in the field of education, will be holding its annual convention in San Diego next March, long after the November ballot. This week they sent out a memo to their entire membership, explaining how hard they were trying to avoid using Mr. Manchester’s hotel for any of their needs. The rationale they offered was that the AERA is committed to diversity, and not to support gay marriage is implicitly intolerant. The memo expresses the AERA’s regret that the private actions of Mr. Manchester have “had such a wrenching effect on the lives of our GLBT members (and all members).”

This is what I mean by the politics of intimidation. If someone disagrees with you on a political issue, your strategy is to bankrupt them.

This is the problem in a nutshell. Democracy only works when every citizen knows that it is safe to express and advocate their convictions without being afraid of retaliatory actions and punishment. No wonder so many people are afraid to be honest these days even with pollsters.

I wish I could say that the other side has been squeaky clean. But just this morning the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that leaders of the campaign to outlaw same-sex marriages in California have been writing to businesses known to have donated to Equality California, the nonprofit organization helping lead the campaign against Proposition 8. In these letters they threaten to publicly identify such organizations unless—and here it begins to look like extortion—unless these businesses make comparably sized financial donations to the Vote Yes on Prop 8 campaign. This is just ugly.

Christians should be the first to protest against such strong-arm abuses from either side. We believe that every human being is an image-bearer of God, and part of being in the image of God is having the right to make free and unforced decisions and choices. Jesus stood for liberty, and his followers should be vigilant to protect it as well.

When the Christian Yellow Pages comes to my door, encouraging me to show favoritism toward fellow Christians in my business dealings, I throw it in the trash. My plumber is a Mormon, and he deserves my business because he does a good job at a fair price. Whether he is a Mormon, an evangelical Christian, a gay-rights advocate, or a Muslim is irrelevant. Let’s keep America a place where we respect the rights of all citizens to hold views with which we disagree. The survival of democracy requires this from all of us.

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