Belmont Club

The Chicken Disses the Hat

The refusal of the Chick-fil-A issue to leave the headlines and its tendency to embrace more and more facets of the culture wars mean it will become increasingly about something other than what it started as: an attempt by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to strong-arm a business into parroting the Chicago line.

Chick-fil-A is now being denied permission to open a branch in Mountain View, CA, because of “zoning restrictions.” Maybe it is about zoning restrictions, and maybe it isn’t. It’s hard to tell anymore, since it has become the symbol of so much.

For Joe Ozersky of Time, who initially supported Chick-fil-A against Rahm Emanuel, the controversy has become symbolic of an excessive intrusiveness of private belief into a “nonfundamentalist real world.” Now he thinks Chick-fil-A must be taught that being religiously intrusive is beyond the pale:

Today is National Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, at least according to Mike Huckabee. The evangelical minister and former presidential candidate — along with Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin and a host of other Christianist culture warriors — is mounting a counteroffensive after big-city mayors tried to shoo the Southern chicken chain from their borders, the Jim Henson Co. pulled its toys from Chick-fil-A’s kids’ meals, and the fast-food company has become a flash point for the whole LGBT community and all their sympathizers in the nonfundamentalist real world. …

The problem with Chick-fil-A goes beyond LBGT issues. A former worker recently filed a lawsuit against the parent company in which she claims that a franchise owner of a Chick-fil-A in Georgia fired her so she could be a stay-at-home mom. The corporate culture embraces an overt religiosity, from prayer meetings at business retreats to asking people who apply for an operator license to disclose their marital status and number of dependents.

I respect Chick-fil-A’s owners for taking a love-it-or-leave-it stance in regard to their religion; and, like a lot of people, I am choosing to leave it.

One man’s religion is another man’s ideology. Chick-fil-A is probably as tolerant, if not more so, of intellectual diversity than a publicly funded university or Time. But just who between the conservatives and the liberals are the Borg we will leave for another day. Suffice it to say, there’s a difference of opinion. In that context Ozersky is within his rights to choose to oppose Chick-fil-A. But also, for that matter, are people who’d like to express their view of Time’s religiosity — excuse me, ideology — by never buying that magazine.

That may be taking things too far, but it’s already halfway there.

I believe Ozersky is wrong when he thinks that the surge in Chick-fil-A’s patronage is due to the machinations of “Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, and a host of other Christianist culture warriors.”  The personages he mentioned were riding the wave, not creating it. That wave was largely the spontaneous reaction of a large segment of a public aroused because Emanuel’s action touched a nerve. History is like that. Great fires start from small sparks, as often happens when there is enough dry tinder on the ground.

The incident that marked the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” for example, was the event of “a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation that he reported was inflicted on him by a municipal official and her aides. His act became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring, inciting demonstrations and riots throughout Tunisia in protest of social and political issues in the country.”  Hundreds of vendors had been humiliated by the city hall before. But there’s always the one too many.

The Boston Tea Party is another historical parallel that comes to mind. The transformation of the 13 colonies from the king’s most loyal subjects to his most implacable enemies happened in a comparative blink of the eye. But the most instructive of all past emergent events is probably the curious affair of William Tell and the Landburger Gessler’s Hat:

The legend as told by Tschudi (ca. 1570) goes as follows: William Tell, who originally came from Bürglen, was known as a strong man and an expert shot with the crossbow. In his time, the Habsburg emperors of Austria were seeking to dominate Uri. Albrecht (or Hermann) Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian Vogt of Altdorf, raised a pole in the village’s central square, hung his hat on top of it, and demanded that all the townsfolk bow before the hat. On 18 November 1307, Tell visited Altdorf with his young son and passed by the hat, publicly refusing to bow to it, and so was arrested. Gessler — intrigued by Tell’s famed marksmanship, yet resentful of his defiance — devised a cruel punishment: Tell and his son would be executed, but he could redeem his life by shooting an apple off the head of his son, Walter, in a single attempt. Tell split the apple with a bolt from his crossbow.

And the rest, as they say, is history. What is remarkable about Gessler’s Hat is that it was about anything except the hat. It’s very insignificance as an object of forced respect showed that it was all about arbitrary domination. Gessler had made his hat holy, as Caligula had made his horse a consul, and everyone was expected to acknowledge it. Thus it was above all about power, made all the more manifest by its exercise in the most capricious and petty ways, for most any king can command a respect for his person. But only a tyrant can demand the veneration of his underwear.

Rahm Emanuel’s insistence that Chick-fil-A bow to the icon of gay marriage had that effect, at least upon some. Chick-fil-A is not about gay marriage or Christianity at all, any more than the incident of William Tell was about a hat. It’s about power. It is morphing into an overt test of whether the cultural elite can have its way. The problem with National Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day is that it constitutes an act of open defiance by manifesting all too publicly the contempt that a fairly large segment of the population has for shibboleths of political correctness.

Nobody’s going to start a pogrom against homosexuals at a fast-food outlet. But events in the most ridiculous places can start a revolution, and that is precisely the problem. And then they won’t be singing the chicken song but something else.

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