Left Discovers Right to Work

by Tim Cavanaugh
Thought leaders are cheering the Invisible Hand in Brendan Eich’s dismissal.

A straw man is haunting the establishment media, the straw man of Censorship. All the powers of old media have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this straw man: Post and Times, Hiltzik and Scalzi, workplace busybodies and tolerance zealots.

“There was something self-evidently odd about the pairing of Eich’s rhetorical support for diversity with his financial support for denying legal rights to gay people,” writes James Surowiecki in The New Yorker, in an extended defense of Mozilla’s right to fire CEO Brendan Eich after it was discovered that he had given $1,000 in circa-2008 greenbacks to California’s Proposition 8. “More important, while his views may be in sync with those of Mozillians in Indonesia, they were obviously out of step with the views of many of the most influential Mozillians — as well out of step with Silicon Valley, which is where the entire project was born.”

The Guardian’s Mary Hamilton draws a careful distinction between Mozilla’s right to fire and Eich’s right to free speech:

Eich clearly could not lead Mozilla in the way Mozilla needs and wants to be led. I’m sure he will have many other opportunities elsewhere, and I wish him well. I also hope he never again has the opportunity to actively assist in the oppression of LGBT people, and that if he does have it, he decides, this time, that the consequences just aren’t worth it.

Michael Hiltzik, the Los Angeles Times columnist best known for sock-puppeting some online comments, impatiently dismisses the “foolish” arguments of Eich’s defenders:

To begin with, Eich’s resignation, which obviously came under pressure, wasn’t a question of his 1st Amendment or even his free speech rights. Mozilla isn’t a government agency, so by definition it can’t abrogate Eich’s 1st Amendment rights.

What about free speech rights? Eich still has those; he’s still free to express his viewpoint opposing gay marriage, which was the specific subject of Proposition 8. . . . 

What about Eich’s right to be CEO of Mozilla? He doesn’t have that right, and never did. And that’s where the discussion should be focused.

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wants to focus that discussion even more tightly, on what he describes as a brutally dangerous workplace for the average employee, who apparently must exercise nearly East German paranoia about expressing personal opinions:

Simply put, if conservatives are frustrated by the treatment of Eich for his role in Proposition 8, then they should be outraged by the treatment of ordinary people at the hands of the people who employ them.

The science-fiction writer John Scalzi applauded the free-market solution to Eich’s apostasy:

So, the board of a private company appoints someone as CEO, many of the stakeholders of the company (employees, outside developers, companies whose products are accessed by the other company’s products) object and decide to act in their own personal or private capacity to complain and/or boycott, and ultimately as a result — and without governmental intervention at any level — the CEO decides his presence in the position is not in the interest of the success and welfare of the private company and chooses to resign.

What’s the problem here?

What indeed? It’s unclear who exactly is making those broad claims about infringement of Eich’s free-speech rights or, for that matter, about the predations of employers, to which these folks are valiantly responding. But we should not quibble. It’s good to see, for once, the Left acknowledge that a relatively free market delivered a result the Left considered acceptable. Maybe next time Bouie enjoys a delicious meal at a reasonable price, or Hamilton avoids a traffic jam with the help of her phone, they’ll spare a kind thought for Adam Smith.

But the strictly voluntary solution outlined above — a company heeds a public outcry and acts in its own interest — is one that American culture has spent many decades damning in another context. As Hiltzik’s Los Angeles Times colleague Michael McGough notes in a Facebook post praising Hiltzik’s column, applause for Eich’s departure from Mozilla does not tell us “how you distinguish this argument from the argument of Red-baiters in the 1950s that movie studios and TV networks [had] a right not to hire Communist or lefty performers/screenwriters because those companies and their customers were anti-Communist.”

How about we don’t make that distinction? Let’s instead concede that the same forces that cost CPUSA members their movie-industry meal tickets cost Eich his job. That association may shadow the triumph of Eich’s opponents, but it is right in plain sight.

The Hollywood blacklist period, generally considered to have lasted from 1947 through 1960, took in a wide range of movie and television professionals. Of the filmmakers who made up the original Hollywood Ten, several (such as the colossally dull textbook Marxist John Howard Lawson) were rabid Communists, and (according to director Billy Wilder) only three were actually talented. These men were denied work by the studios after being found in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about Communist activity in Tinseltown. The blacklist grew from there, taking in such talents as the screenwriters Bernard Gordon and Ben Barzman.

Leaving aside Wilder’s judgment, it’s clear that the blacklistees ended up becoming the heroes of the story in part because they were good at telling the story. The ideological context of the list (which, lest we forget, led to such broad-daylight artistic crimes as the blacklistee-written films Tender Comrade and Mission to Moscow) was carefully edited out; the role of overweening government in exposing American citizens to public opprobrium on the basis of their political views (remember that members of the Hollywood Ten did actual jail time) was deemphasized; Hollywood anti-Communists like Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan were vilified; the unlovableness of Jack Warner and other studio moguls was set center stage.

That’s all fair, just as it’s fair for Eich’s defenders to point up the unhinged rhetoric that helped get him involuntarily resigned from an attractive high-tech job. There were certainly sympathetic figures in the blacklist. Bernard Gordon’s catalogue of official and pseudonymous credits makes for a very compelling movie career, and his memoir Hollywood Exile is a great tale of career survival during both the blacklist and the first era of runaway production. (I particularly recommend Horror Express, Gordon’s outing as a writer-producer, which pits Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Telly Savalas against an ancient shapeshifting monster on the trans-Siberian railroad — and which thanks to heartless capitalism you can watch in its entirety on YouTube.)

But none of those people had a right to be Hollywood professionals in the post-war period, or at any other time. Enlightened opinion — which shifts so quickly that nobody these days even bothers to mention how Prop 8, the proximate cause of Eich’s downfall, was approved by a solid majority of California voters just six years ago — may be catching up with that basic truth of life on our planet. If so, it’s been a long time coming.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.