Browsing Free Speech

One advantage of being an old man, and there are few, is that you get to say you were there at the beginning of things – the cultural revolution of the sixties, for example, with the prefect alignment of that junior year in college and 1968, the year that changed everything. There are lots of books like 1968: The Year That Rocked the World – but it was another thing to have been there, even at the edges, as it happened, because there were no edges. Amazing things were happening, and issues were raised that are still driving half of America up the wall. We are still arguing over clever schemes to keep black people, and now brown people, and college kids, and the poor, and the elderly, from being able to vote. And last June the Supreme Court ruled that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 should just go away – a bit of law from the sixties that had always ticked off the folks on the right. Abortion may be legal now, but the Republican Party has decided that their new issue will be the moral evil of all forms of birth control – and it was “the pill” that started the sexual revolution of the sixties, such as it was, and made modem feminism possible. Women could have careers instead of babies, or both – but here the idea is to negate that part of the sixties on the grounds of religious freedom. Any employer can ignore one key part of the new standards for employee health plans and refuse to offer family-planning services and contraception coverage in their company’s health plan, if they think God will smite them for participating in what is deadly sin. The government, which is supposed to allow the free exercise of religion, cannot force them to sin – and that’s an inventive way to win a battle over sexual freedom and the proper role of the little woman that started back in the sixties. On the other hand, marijuana is now legal in two states, with many others allowing the “medical” use of marijuana, and we have a black president in his second term. Some things changed, although the right’s ongoing scorn for this particular president seems to be a bit of a sixties thing. The folks who hated all the civil rights crap, and thought Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was a waste of good money on bad people, and loved the War in Vietnam, and elected law-and-order Richard Nixon as the sixties ended, are still at it – the Silent Majority turned into the Tea Party. Some things never end, and some of us were there at the beginning.

It was the same with the eighties. You had to be there when the first desktop computers started popping up in offices. No one knew what to do with them at first – it was Wild West time. This was long before Windows and Mac operating systems, with a mouse of all things, when it was DOS, line by line, or nothing worked. And there were lots of word-processing applications to keep the business running too, each completely different, and a rebellion here and there when folks had to switch from WordPerfect to Microsoft Word. At least there was one in the Human Resources Depart of the giant aerospace company out here. You had to be there to see how angry the staff was – but things settled down when everyone ended up using Word, after Microsoft made sure it did everything everyone wanted, reasonable well. It was the same with spreadsheets – VisiCalc was abandoned for Lotus 1-2-3 which was abandoned for Excel – and for homegrown applications, dBase was abandoned for FoxBASE which was abandoned for Access – and bigger homegrown stuff is now done with Oracle. It was hard to keep up, and somewhere around here is that certificate about being a real honest-to-god official Novell Systems Administrator. There are none of those networks anymore. It was a wild time. Everything kept changing, and all of us made it up as we went along.

Then it all changed again with the internet. All the complicated line-by-line stuff was hidden and forgotten – everything was drag-and-drop and no one knew how it all worked, or cared – and everything could be connected to everything else, everywhere, pretty much instantly. That meant all the applications that do stuff became secondary. The only thing that mattered was the speed and elegant efficiency and snazzy new features of the web browser, and that it didn’t lock up or crash too often. On the Mac, it was a number of browsers, which worked fine, and in the PC world it was Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which they bundled with their operating system, Windows, for years. It was never very good – a memory hog that took up far too much disc space and wasn’t particularly stable – but Microsoft made sure nothing else on your computer would work unless you used it.

Antitrust laws here and in Europe eventually took care of that nonsense and everyone began to find alternatives to Internet Explorer, alternatives that did more things faster, and flawlessly, using far fewer resources. This felt familiar to us old folks who were there at the beginning – of the cultural revolution of the sixties, and then the computer revolution of the eighties. Things will settle down eventually, but at the moment, Internet Explorer is losing more and more market share every day. Google Chrome, free and simple, works just fine, but the guy who blew up Internet Explorer with a far better and amazing web browser was a guy from Pittsburgh by way of Silicon Valley, Brendan Eich – the guy created a new language, JavaScript, for Netscape Navigator, which eventually became Foxfire, the first and maybe still the best alternative to Microsoft’s smug corporate effort. Firefox was not one of those corporate things. Any programmer anywhere could modify and improve Firefox and the management of that was handled though the Mozilla Corporation, which Eich founded, where he served as the chief technical officer.

In short, the guy was a revolutionary of sorts, or at least a subversive. Anyone who lived through the late sixties can appreciate that – Power to the People, as they say. All Eich had to do was invent an entirely new computer language out of thin air, and a rudimentary web browser to use it, and invite everyone to come on over and play with it. Good things would happen, and they did. The corporate suits at Microsoft had no response to this. Eich stuck it to The Man.

What’s not to like about this guy? Everything should be free and open. Things are better that way. To some, he was a bit of a hero, and then it all fell apart:

Brendan Eich has chosen to step down as Mozilla’s CEO, a position to which he was appointed two weeks ago, following objections from both inside and outside the company. Eich is also leaving Mozilla for an indeterminate amount of time.

Eich’s appointment to helm Mozilla, known for its Firefox web browser and Firefox OS among other open-source projects, created a firestorm within the company and among the developer community upon which it depends. In 2008, Eich donated $1,000 in support of Proposition 8, a California law approved by voters that banned same-sex marriage and was subsequently found to be unconstitutional.

He didn’t think gay folks should be allowed to marry each other, and he put his money where his mouth was. He wasn’t as playfully subversive as everyone thought, and they punish him for it, hounding him out of office, or at least the top job at the home of everyone’s-welcome-here:

After being named CEO late last month, Eich took the opportunity to address doubts about his commitment to social equality and to express his “sorrow at having caused pain.” In a blog post last week, he promised to support equality, to engage with the LGBT community and its supporters, and to uphold Mozilla’s inclusive health benefits and its antidiscrimination policies.

But that failed to mollify critics. Last week, several Mozilla employees called via Twitter for Eich to step down, because they considered Eich’s donation to be inconsistent with Mozilla’s mission. The departure of three board members who did not support Eich’s candidacy – reportedly for reasons other than his support for Proposition 8 – further weakened his position.

Mozilla executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker announced Eich’s decision in a blog post and issued an apology for failing to uphold organizational standards and for fueling the discord through inaction.

Andrew Sullivan, conservative and gay and married to his partner, was none too happy with this:

Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.

That makes sense, and Josh Marshall offers this:

I would say first that people shouldn’t be run out of their jobs for having heterodox political views or heterodox views in general. That’s something basic to a free society. Not necessarily or really not at all as a matter of law but as a matter of the cultural norms of a free society.

But being a CEO isn’t just any job. And I think it has and should have fewer de facto and de jure rights than your regular run of the mill job. It’s in the essence of being a CEO that you’re the public face, the public representative of the organization or company you run.

It’s a very imperfect analogy but we would all find it unacceptable for a president to reach into the bowels of the civil service or even into his or her administration proper and can someone just because they held some unpopular view. But no one would think anything of it if a president fired a cabinet secretary for almost any reason. An imperfect analogy – but I think there’s a functional parallel.

Marshall also argues a bit of this is a matter of situational awareness:

Gay rights are at the forefront of our political consciousness and struggles today. And Mozilla lives at the heart of an industry and a part of the country where full equality for LGBT Americans is a near sacrosanct part of the culture. I doubt there’s any other industry or subculture (that is big time in economic terms) that has more advanced views on LGBT issues than tech. What’s more, Mozilla is a nonprofit – essentially an activist organization – built around open-source-ism and the distribution of information. Its values are at the core of its existence, not profit like a for-profit corporation.

But even if it weren’t a nonprofit, being a CEO is different. You represent the company. To a degree, you are the company. And there’s little doubt that having an apparently anti-gay rights CEO would be a bad thing for a tech company in terms of its market as well as in terms of the competition for programmers and engineers and more. I think most of us do or should agree that as a matter of political culture, if not strict political rights, you should be able to do your job and fulfill your responsibilities and not worry about being punished or fired because you have heterodox political views. But being a CEO or having other super prominent positions is a bit like being a celebrity or rock star. There’s no right to be famous – who you are, what you think and what you say are all part of the gig. Being a CEO of a major company is kind of the same, and largely for good reasons.

So none of this is surprising, especially given the broader American situation:

For many who believe in marriage equality, the Eich story is like finding out that someone in a key position donated money to re-segregate schools or take back blacks people’s right to vote. People who don’t support marriage equality or at least think it’s a subject over which reasonable people can still differ can note that as recently as 2008 this was the view of a majority of Californians. Indeed, it was at least notionally the position of the Democratic President of the United States as recently as two years ago. So how can it possibly be beyond the realm of acceptable political discourse on the level of finding out someone donated money to David Duke or is a member of Stormfront?

One key to answering this question is elucidated by the position of President Obama. I said this was “notionally” his position as recently as two years ago. And it was. Before his pre-election change, itself nudged forward a few months by Vice President Biden, the President said he did not support marriage rights for LGBT people. Everything but… but not marriage.

As with Obama, so with many:

Even many people who see themselves as strong supporters of LGBT rights – and certainly many who have no ill-will toward LGBT people – have come relatively late to fully accepting the idea that LGBT people should get the same marriage document as us heterosexual folks. At the same time, though, most people have had a pretty clear sense of the trajectory of history on this issue and made a pretty clear distinction in their minds (rightly, I think) on whether (or how quickly) you’re ready to push the envelope of rights forward and whether you’re ready to push them back.

That’s key and very real distinction, though it can get lost in being over-literal about what this or that person’s position was at a given time.

That’s why, if we’re honest with ourselves, being revealed not just as a supporter but a cash-contributor to Prop 8 really isn’t the same as… say, someone who back in 2008 supported civil unions but not full marriage. There’s been a ratchet-like dimension that is at the heart of the moral economy of this issue – some window for people at different places on the issue to disagree and accept each other’s disagreement but a very different view of anyone who wants to take active measures to turn back the clock wherever the clock might happen to be in any particular part of the country. That’s why even in 2008 you had a lot of people who were at least nominally not even in favor of gay marriage being opposed – often viscerally opposed – to Prop 8.

So let’s go back to the sixties:

The obvious parallel here is to the transformation of the Civil Rights movement from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, when support or acceptance of de jure segregation in the South went from being a live national issue to something that was outside the realm of acceptable political discourse in all but the most retrograde parts of the American South. Forty years on there are very few people alive, let alone still in political office, who really led adult political lives on both sides of that historical divide – one of the things that made Strom Thurmond’s bizarre longevity so uncanny. But through the seventies and eighties there were lots of politicians who were former segregationists who continued in politics. There was a mixture or agreed upon amnesia and certain steps one had to take to “cleanse” oneself, for lack of a better word, of this past.

That’s where Eich is now:

Part of the moral bargain of historical change should, I think, be a willingness of the victors to allow the losers to cleanse themselves, as it were, on relatively easy terms. I know lots of people who twenty years ago would have thought the idea of two men getting married was bizarre who get teary-eyed today seeing the rushes to the courthouse today when marriage becomes legal in yet another state. There are people who that applies to, if the number is five years, even two. Perhaps for some the epiphany is still more sudden.

Part of the rapid on-going collapse of opposition to gay marriage is rooted in the fact that there’s something about the pictures. People see the images of people marrying and get swept up in the YES, why not? Why was I ever opposed to this? (Of course, some people have a very different response. But the national poll numbers tell the tale.) This is part of why Barney Frank, though generally skeptical of major social change through court action, was happy with the original ruling in Massachusetts because he was confident that actually seeing marriage equality in action, most people would decide it just wasn’t a problem. He’s been proven right.

It comes down to this:

Eich found himself on the wrong side of this historical divide, though largely through choices of his own making. And, as I said, there’s no right to be CEO. It’s different from virtually every other job where we all deserve wide latitude in our own personal beliefs without having our livelihoods and well-being threatened. People change. Times change. Get used to it.

Marshall also offers the short form of all this:

It seems quite likely to me that the whole Eich story would have turned out very differently if Eich had simply said something to the effect of, “Yes, I did that in 2008. But like the rest of the country, my views have changed over the last five years. I was wrong and I’m sorry.” If he’d said that – sincerely or not – I suspect the whole crisis would have subsided and he’d still be on the job.

He was either too sincere in his belief, too maladroit in his ability to react to the crisis or too arrogant to do that. And thus we got the result that we did.

At his New Yorker blog, James Surowiecki suggests it’s just as well for Mozilla that we got this result:

Mozilla is not like most companies. It’s a wholly-owned subsidiary of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, and is just one part of the broader Mozilla community, which includes thousands of open-source software developers and other volunteers around the world. These people still do much of the work behind Mozilla’s products – contributing code, technical support, design improvements, and so on. This means that Mozilla depends on the goodwill of its supporters more than most corporations do; it relies on their willingness to donate their services in pursuit of the broader Mozilla project, which is all about keeping the Web transparent and accessible. If it alienates them, Mozilla’s entire mission will be at risk.

On the other hand, there’s Rush Limbaugh:

Brendan Eich, by the way, did not become an activist on gay marriage, or anti-gay marriage. He just gave ’em some money. He didn’t join any marches; he wasn’t out trying to raise money. He just donated $1,000 and it was discovered four years after the fact. …

Supporters of the initiative, which was approved by voters in November, had sought a preliminary injunction to hide the identities of those who contributed to their campaign, because they knew what was going to happen, that donors would be targeted and harassed and intimidated and threatened and scared. And that’s exactly what’s happened here in the case of this poor guy who didn’t ever do anything to anybody.

He gave $1,000 to supporters of Prop 8, which simply said “We believe marriage is that between a man and a woman,” and that has become hatred and anti-gay bigotry all of a sudden. …

But, you know, these people, they claim that all this is how they are inclusive and this is how they’re promoting diversity, and they’re not. They are exclusionary. There’s no diversity tolerated here. You’ve gotta be one way. There is no openness.

There is no kindness, there is no compassion, there’s no inclusiveness, and there certainly isn’t any diversity on the left. It’s just a bunch of brownshirts. And if you are not wearing one, you either soon will be, or you’re gonna be ruined. There is no dissent. They have no interest in debating anybody. They have no interest in discussing anything. If you disagree with them, you die. Figuratively. You’re dead. You don’t exist.

That’s part of his three thousand word rant, about liberal gay fascists, who want to shut down all free speech in America and have everyone who disagrees with them put to death, figuratively of course. On the other hand, this was actually a good business decision too, because, as Josh Marshall notes, the position of CEO is a PR position too. The CEO is the face of the corporation, and a CEO can’t get away with wearing funny hats either – depending on the corporation of course. And the guy didn’t want the job in the first place – maybe because he knew that.

Something else might be going on here. Eich has spent his career as the ultimate superbly brilliant subversive happy geek, and it may be, now that he’s also quite rich from all he’s done, he’s not all that heartbroken about all this. He may just shrug and create another entirely new computer language out of thin air, just for the fun of it, and send Rush Limbaugh a box of cigars. Why not? It’s a free country.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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