Every Square Inch is a Demanding Taskmaster

Devin Wax is not so happy with the significance attached in the current cultural climate to ordinary choices like where to eat. He wishes a chicken filet sandwich were merely a chicken filet sandwich:

We’re witnessing a convergence of two developments.

Development #1: Consumerism as a Religion

The first development is the lifting up of our consumer choices to the level of religion.

In American society, we are more and more inclined to define ourselves by what and how we consume. We no longer buy things to meet our needs, but to become something, or to express who we are.

“Brands are the new religion,” says Douglas Atkin, writing about customer loyalty. People express their own identities through what they buy.

With an endless sea of choices, Skye Jethani says, “individuality is the new conformity.” Choice is a powerful factor in a consumer society, because more choices provide more ways for consumers to demonstrate their uniqueness.

Development #2: Politics as Religion

The second development is the lifting up of our political views to the level of religion.

In American society, we are more likely to see political views as non-negotiable aspects of our true selves. This is why recent research shows families having a harder time with a son or daughter who wants to marry someone from an opposing political party than from a different religion!

Tell me how Neo-Calvinism did not add momentum to this. When all of our choices have religious significance, how different is that from the “personal is political” that feminists and other politics of identity advocates taught us? Now Mr. Trax wants a cigar (okay, a bubble gum cigar) to be only a cigar?

If more New Calvinists had read 2kers more than Tim Keller, had understood that religion is different from common life, had been content with Reformed worship instead of transformed cities, had valued church officers more than every membered ministry, they might be able to eat tacos without the least concern for larger significance — political or religious.

Calling Jon Stewart's Bluff

I am a Jon Stewart fan even though I only occasionally see clips of the Daily Show. Stewart was Larry Sander’s permanent guest host on the Larry Sanders Show, which earns Stewart high marks in the Hart household, the Sanders Show being a brilliant homage and parody of the late night talk show genre. Stewart also makes a cameo appearance in Wordplay, a witty and charming documentary about the culture of New York Times crossword puzzles’ editors, designers, players, and competition. For these reasons I was heartened to see thanks to my headlines feed at Google Chrome that Stewart had poked fun at Democratic mayors for saying that Chick-Fil-A was unwelcome in their cities. Here is the clip.

Stewart, as you might expect, dishes it out both ways, which is fine since using a sandwich as a form of political identity does not exactly seem what the Greeks had in mind when thinking through representative government. But (spoiler alert!) when he concludes that Chick-Fil-A’s and gay marriage’s products are both good, I demur. For one, has Stewart really considered how healthy a fast-food fried chicken sandwich is? I’m sure that dressings, fat, and steroid drenched chicken breasts make such meals a challenge to good health. For another, how do we know that gay marriage is a positive social arrangement? In fact, one objection to this change in law is that we have no idea what the consequences — positive or negative — of such a change to millenia of legal arrangements and cultural expectations will be. Though we do have some data from social scientists on the benefits of regular marriage.
(For instance, we have enough time to say that the National League is superior to the American League because the former does not use the designated hitter.)

So maybe the way to resolve the kerfuffle over Chick-Fil-A is to be doubly contrarian. Both Chick-Fil-A and gay marriage are unhealthy for America.

Then again, has anyone noticed that homosexuals are among the leading defenders of marriage at a time when marriage is at an all time low in the United States? Could it be that folks who used to thrive on an anti-bourgeois, urban, and culturally and politically radical identity have now embraced a convention associated with white-bread, middle-class, suburban life? Or is gay marriage simply a way of flipping the bird at all those Chick-Fil-A eaters who made family values a political slogan? You want family? You got it.

Muslims Have Their Scarves, Christians Their Sandwiches

Political religion takes different forms. For political Islam, a women wearing a head scarf is a symbol of devotion and of defiance against western secularism. For American Christians, it looks like eating a chicken sandwich is a signal of a citizen’s belief, morality, and politics.

All of a sudden, biting into a fried chicken sandwich has become a political statement.

Chick-fil-A, the fast-food chain known for putting faith ahead of profits by closing on Sundays, is standing firm in its opposition to gay marriage after touching off a furor earlier this month.

Gay rights groups have called for a boycott, the Jim Henson Co. pulled its Muppet toys from kids’ meals, and politicians in Boston and Chicago told the chain it is not welcome there.

Across the Bible Belt, where most of the 1,600 restaurants are situated, Christian conservatives have thrown their support behind the Atlanta-based company, promising to buy chicken sandwiches and waffle fries next week on “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.”

The rest of the news story is here.

As theatrical as the controversy over Chick-fil-A may be (and the company may actually do well from the adverse publicity which is still publicity), one point stands out, though by now it may be a little stale. According to this news story, the mayors of Boston and Chicago have said that Chick-fil-A is unwelcome in those cities. According to Rahm Emanuel, “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values.” The mayor likely said this thinking that he was taking a courageous stand for diversity and tolerance. But he was also expressing great intolerance in the name of diversity and tolerance.

That may be the intellectual hobgoblin that haunts everyone living in a liberal democracy, though usually only libertarians see that tolerance means toleration even for groups or persons whose views are nutty or objectionable. But it is odd that bright people like Emanuel don’t see that they are erecting a form of intellectual orthodoxy that is just as inflexible as anything the Religious Right might construct.

What Emanuel also fails to see is truth that Thomas Jefferson recognized as basic to living in a free republic. The president’s line about the irrelevance of religion would seem to apply here: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Does Chick-fil-A actually hurt Emanuel or other residents of Chicago just because the owner objects to gay marriage? Ideas are supposed to be freely held in America, as long as they don’t hurt others. (Hurt feelings don’t count since we all face people, ideas, and acts in the United States that don’t empower and affirm us.) Since Chick-fil-A provides a service that many use, and creates jobs that produce tax-payers, why does Emanuel actually care about Dan Cathy’s ideas?

Yes, liberals can be hypocritical. But so are conservatives. What’s surprising is that liberals can be as dumb as (they think) their political opposition.

Postscript: Matthew Lee Anderson makes a good point when he distinguishes “tolerant” (i.e., liberal) from “intolerant” (i.e. Religious Right) consumer boycotts. The latter objects to specific products, the former to ideas. So it’s not the chicken sandwich that offends, but the ideas of the guy who makes it. Perfectionism lives.