A Few Thoughts on Brendan Eich

Brendan Eich
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A week ago I’d never heard the name Brendan Eich. If you’ve missed the story, he was recently appointed to be the CEO of Mozilla, the organization that creates the Firefox web browser, an organization he’d been a key part of since its inception. However, despite the fact that he’d apparently never given any particular sign of a position on the issue one way or another, it was discovered about a year ago that he’d donated $1000 to the Prop 8 campaign in California in 2008. That was the successful voter referendum, ruled unconstitutional in 2013, which overturned marriage equality in California. After holding on for a week or so in the face of a rising boycott, he gave in and resigned and quit the organization entirely.

In most parts of the web where I travel (and probably where you do too) this has been treated as an unquestionably good thing. Andrew Sullivan, meanwhile, who tends to be heterodox on these matters but has a lot of room to do so because of his own pioneering role in the fight for marriage equality, says it’s a black eye for the gay rights movement and says the hounding out of Eich “disgusts” him.

As a general matter, I’m not particularly concerned about the travails of fabulously wealthy people gaining or losing jobs. So I can’t say I have a particularly strong opinion one way or another about whether or not he gets to be CEO of Mozilla. But the subject raises a bunch of interesting and complicated questions that I thought I would share a few thoughts about.

Before getting to that, a bit about Eich separate from this controversy. I mentioned before that I don’t think I’d ever even heard the name before this controversy, which is a weird blind spot for me because I’ve been reasonably deep into the web and informed web policy and web architecture since the mid-90s. (I ran a one-man web design consultancy in the 90s to support myself while I was in graduate school.) One thing that immediately caught my eye is that apart from various other key roles in the history of the web, Eich created “Javascript”. Himself. When he was one of the early employees of Netscape.

For those who aren’t familiar with these things, I think probably anyone who really knows the fundamental architecture of the Internet today would say that makes Eich one of the Founding Fathers (an archaic phrase itself) of the modern web. Javascript has nothing to do with the ‘backbone’ of the Internet and nothing or little to do with the ‘back end’ of the websites you visit. But it has a huge, huge role in the front end of countless sites – in other words, what you actually experience as an individual website and indeed much of the web.

That’s neither here nor there in terms of this controversy. But I found it fascinating and worth noting.

So is Eich’s departure a good or bad thing?

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.

Gay rights is 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.

Right or wrong, I don’t think this turn of events is terribly surprising. And as I wrote, I can’t get terribly up in arms on the topic either way. What interests me though is the light it puts on how quickly this political issue has moved over recent years and how that affects the story.

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.

I don’t want to make this wholly about President Obama because that confuses the issue. And obviously there’s a whole separate story behind his ‘evolution’ on the issue. But I think there’s one part of it that does shed light on the issue.

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 others 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.

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 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.

I remember once hearing Hodding Carter, a chief aide to Jimmy Carter, describing how as a young man he’d gone from being a ‘moderate’ segregationist to a ‘moderate’ integrationist and supporter of the civil rights movement. Of course, from the vantage point of the early 21st century the whole idea of a ‘moderate’ segregationist seems ridiculous. And yet in a time and a place, such a thing existed – or at least such a designation could seem like a logical construct to many people at a certain place and time.

This transformation, this cleansing – or white-washing from another perspective – is a whole ‘nother story and one I’ve been fascinated with for years. What makes the current situation so fascinating and different is the rapidity of change. Like Paul spoke of the on-rush of the Kingdom of God, you can virtually see the future bleeding into, pushing up into the present. Over the last two or three years the future pushed its way into the present, leaving all sorts of oddities with the two often coexisting at the same time.

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.

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 a wide latitude in our own personal beliefs without having our livelihoods and well-being threatened. People change. Times change. Get used to it.

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