Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


I’ve been intrigued by the forced resignation of Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla Corporation, on account of his donation of $1000 to the 2008 campaign to amend the California constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Some fascinating issues it brings up:
1. I’d forgotten that the last great political battle over same-sex marriage was fought in California. And the conservatives won it. How fascinating to be reminded that barely five years ago it was still possible to muster a majority for banning same-sex marriage in California of all places, and in the same year that Barack Obama was elected (also promising to oppose same-sex marriage). And after that Pyrrhic victory the conservatives basically fled the field, overwhelmed by an almost inexplicable tide of social change.

2. For me, personally, this is a rare issue on which I find I have strong feelings on both sides of the issue, and I suspect that I am not alone in that. On the one hand, I am very disturbed by the idea that people can be held accountable by their employers for their privately expressed political views, a view expressed with characteristically cogent rage by Andrew Sullivan here, and with characteristically trite sarcasm by William Saletan here. On the other hand, non-wealthy Americans already live in that world; maybe some states offer some protection, but by and large there is no prohibition in the US of employers firing their employees for their political views, or indeed, for no reason at all, as long as they don’t explicitly state one of a few prohibited reasons, like race or disability status. What is unusual here is merely that it is a prominent CEO rather than a minimum-wage peon who has been forced out. The argument for protecting all employees (not just CEOs, and not just conservatives) is well put by Jamelle Bouie in Slate.
3. Will Oremus has put forward the interesting argument, that the politics of the CEO are relevant for recruitment in a very competitive market, hence a valid consideration for the directors of a technology company. In one way, this seems like a slight modification of the contemptible old chestnut, “We have nothing against [Blacks/Women/Gays/etc.], but our workforce is old-fashioned, and they wouldn’t take orders from one of them.” On the other hand, now that the US Supreme Court is attributing to corporations political and religious views, which have real consequences for the lives of their employees and the wider community, there is naturally going to be a struggle among all the stakeholders to decide what that artificial person believes. And the political views of the CEO are going to be an emblem of that struggle.
4. Ultimately, this is going to strike a blow against openness of political donations. Back when people were first publicising the pro-Prop 8 donor list (with clickable maps), I ridiculed the privacy argument. Why shouldn’t people have to explain their political donations to the neighbours whose marriages they are seeking to have dissolved? But if people are being fired from their jobs in a post-facto witchhunt, that puts a different complexion on the matter. And regardless of the rights and wrongs, now that it’s a member of the ruling class losing his job, it won’t be long before the practice is stamped out.

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