Last week, outdoor gear retailer REI became the latest business to pledge its fealty to the raging culture war against wrongthink. It's a high-stakes move that's unlikely to end well for the activists pushing the effort.
"We believe that it is the job of companies that manufacture and sell guns and ammunition to work towards common sense solutions that prevent the type of violence that happened in Florida last month," REI announced with regard to its relationship with supplier Vista Outdoor. "This morning we learned that Vista does not plan to make a public statement that outlines a clear plan of action. As a result, we have decided to place a hold on future orders of products that Vista sells through REI while we assess how Vista proceeds."
But "REI does not sell guns," as the firm itself announced. Instead, it sells products—including Camelbak hydration gear—made by companies that are owned by Vista Outdoor, which also owns Savage Arms, which does sell guns. REI's announcement, then, is a test of its economic leverage to compel a company with which it has no direct relationship to embrace a specific set of firearms policy preferences. (REI's Canadian counterpart, MEC, made a similar move.)
"It may seem a little bit like internet slacktivism," Slate senior business correspondent Jordan Weissmann concedes of the focus on isolating and inconveniencing the National Rifle Association and gun owners. "But it does send a message that the organization is no longer politically mainstream, which might ultimately matter to some politicians."
There's a lot of this going around, and while it's currently framed most commonly around gun policy, it looks a lot like part of a larger effort to delegitimize cultural and ideological enemies and force everybody to pick a side—preferably, the "right" side, from the point of view of the folks doing the pushing.
"Progressives could be on the verge of delegitimizing their foes, on guns, but also on much else, rendering them untouchable for anybody who wants to stay in polite society," cautions David Brooks of the New York Times. He adds that "progressives are getting better and better at silencing dissenting behavior."
In that light, it's worth noting the pounding that Marvel Comics took when a company executive suggested that efforts to diversify characters were meeting with limited enthusiasm among readers. Even though Senior Vice President David Gabriel mourned that the situation "was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out," he and the company took a public beating. Simply trying to process sales figures and analyze feedback from customers was deemed unacceptable.
Then there's the recent proliferation in the book industry of "sensitivity readers" who make sure that works slated for publication espouse only approved positions on race, religion, gender, sexuality, culture, and the like. Kirkus Reviews actually yanked a positive review of the young adult novel American Heart because some critics claimed it was "culturally insensitive"—an inherently ideological objection.
"Behind the scenes," reports the Seattle Times, "these readers are having a profound impact on children's literature, reshaping stories in big and small ways before they reach young audiences."
And, while YouTube claimed that February's temporary muzzling of a number of right-leaning channels was an error resulting from new hires botching efforts to enforce content guidelines, the disparate impact on part of the political spectrum inevitably resulted in fears of an ideological purge. Amazon, Apple, and YouTube remain under pressure from activists and celebrities to drop the NRA's video service in a direct effort to silence the gun-rights group's voice.
"The NRA is so engrained in the American culture now because of their very successful messaging of, 'Don't take away my gun' or 'You're infringing on my Second Amendment rights,'" actress Alyssa Milano told an interviewer about the push to get NRATV dropped. "What a campaign like this allows is for a cultural hack."
This sounds awfully familiar, like what former Harvard University president Larry Summers calls "creeping totalitarianism in terms of what kind of ideas are acceptable and are debatable on college campuses."
"All sorts of formerly legitimate opinions have now been deemed beyond the pale on elite campuses," David Brooks agrees. "The boundaries are being redrawn across society."
Warning that "we all live on campus now," Andrew Sullivan argues, "If voicing an 'incorrect' opinion can end your career, or mark you for instant social ostracism, you tend to keep quiet. This silence on any controversial social issue is endemic on college campuses, but it's now everywhere."
It's now everywhere, but the silence is allowed only with regard to "wrong" opinions. Enthusiastic endorsement of approved views is increasingly encouraged and expected.
And yes, the right can play at culture war, too. Some conservatives are champing at the bit for open conflict (hey Kurt Schlichter, the next civil war wants to know if it has time to finish its coffee). When Delta Air Lines distanced its business from the NRA, Georgia lawmakers punished the company by dumping a $50 million tax break. But that was a response to an already political action. This with-us-or-against-us absolutism has almost entirely been a tool of the progressive left.
By insisting that everybody pick a side and name themselves as friend or foe, activists who anticipate victory as the prize for hollowing out the middle and leaving no neutral ground are taking a hell of a risk.
"The NRA has spent years convincing its members that their way of life is under threat from coastal elites who want to take away their cherished freedom to tote 30-round magazines," acknowledges Slate's Weissmann. "When a bunch of corporations cut ties to the group in response to a celebrity-backed Twitter campaign, it reinforces that message pretty neatly."
The effort may already be proving counterproductive. "A majority (56% strongly and somewhat support combined) of voters want to support their constitutional right to bear arms when they hear Hollywood actors and actresses speak out about gun control," reports Zogby Analytics in poll results published just days ago. Tellingly, the reaction in favor of gun rights in response to hectoring by celebrities is strongest among younger respondents (65 percent among 18-29, and 58 percent among 18-24) who progressives often assume are theirs for the taking. "According to the data," notes Zogby, "Hollywood interjecting itself into the debate makes even the Democratic base want to bear arms."
That the cultural war may be doing even wider political damage is suggested by Zogby findings that "voters aged 18-29 (50 percent approve/48 percent disapprove) were more likely to approve of President Trump's job as commander in chief compared to older voters aged 65+ (44 percent approve/56 percent disapprove)." It seems unlikely that the president's recent incoherence on gun rights will ultimately prove attractive to voters supportive of the Second Amendment, but his critics apparently face a credibility gap of their own.
David Brooks sees the danger of a reaction, warning that "illiberalism breeds illiberalism." He suggests that progressives risk a "political backlash that could make Donald Trump look like Adlai Stevenson."
That would be quite the booby prize if progressives manage to pull it off. Instead of achieving their moment of triumph by forcing people and businesses to declare loyalty to the cause, partisans playing at heavy-handed speech and thought police might instead reap the whirlwind (and so will we all).
And if any progressives really care about the gun issue, they should consider that vilifying gun owners, demanding professions of fealty, and attempting to silence dissent guarantee that few if any ideological opponents would ever disarm. In an all-or-nothing political environment, they'd have to be suicidal to even consider the idea.