When the Personal Becomes Political

The slogan of the feminist movement in the 1970s, adopted to some degree by others on the left, was 'the personal is the political.' In other words, those things that had previously been considered private affairs, off limits to government and the political process, were now to be considered fair game for politics. No longer was government to confine itself to keeping the peace and defending the country from outside attack. Now it was to serve as the policeman of all manners, relationships, human interactions, and thoughts.

During the time period when the personal was becoming the political, mainstream conservatives were among those properly opposing the notion. They argued that, historically and constitutionally speaking, the government had no business involving itself in private matters except where those private matters resulted in violations of property rights. They correctly understood that making everything into a political football would lead to intrusive, tyrannical, unrestrained government; continual violations of property rights; and a poisoning of all human interactions. While libertarians and anarchists would certainly have gone further in restraining government than the conservatives, in general it was safe to say that we were all on the same side and could work together to keep the personal from becoming political.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, mainstream conservatism began to drift leftward, accepting the propositions of the Left while still attempting, often only halfheartedly, to keep government in check. Perhaps it is the result of the very nature of conservatism, which seeks merely to conserve the existing order rather than attempt a radical restructuring of the order to return to those things worthy of conservation. As time went on and the ideas of the Left became more mainstream, conservatives began to accept them as part of the existing order, as if that were the way everyone had always thought, and began to resist rolling back the results of these ideas'and perish the thought that we actually subject these ideas to rigorous scrutiny and find that they need to be banished from our minds!

Eventually conservatives, too, assented to the idea that the personal is the political. Rather than aiming to prevent and roll back intrusive regulations, their goal became to persuade the government to regulate those private matters that they deemed worthy of regulation, in the way they deemed them worthy, and to keep the government from regulating in ways that they did not deem appropriate. At that point, the conservative movement became something less than an ally to the hard Right. At best, conservatives were a useless nuisance, muddying the waters rather than taking bold, stark positions at odds with the Left; at worst, they could be outright enemies of freedom.

Case in point: Recently Pizza Hut fired a delivery driver who shot and killed a man (with a legal weapon and concealed carry permit) who was attempting to rob him at gunpoint because Pizza Hut's policy is that its employees shall not be armed while on the job. One wouldn't expect anyone on the Left, which hates guns in the hands of private citizens, to argue with this policy; but one would expect that conservatives, while perhaps deploring the policy because it makes drivers less safe, would understand that a private business has every right to set the conditions of employment and fire any employee who refuses to abide by them. After all, conservatism is supposed to be about limiting the reach of politics and government.

One would, however, be incorrect to assume that, for the wall separating the personal from the political has long since been torn down in the minds of conservatives as well as liberals. WorldNetDaily, one of the most popular conservative sites on the Web, took a poll of its readers about this very news item. The question was: 'What do you think of Pizza Hut's policy prohibiting delivery persons from carrying guns?' Out of 6,929 people who responded to the poll, 59% answered 'Keeping and bearing arms is a constitutional right'period.' Um . . . I hate to be the one to break this to you 'conservatives,' but the Second Amendment has nothing to say about whether a private employer may or may not prohibit its employees from carrying guns, any more than the First Amendment's 'freedom of the press' clause forces a newspaper editor to run an article he doesn't like. The Constitution is supposed to restrict government, not private citizens and businesses.

Our conservative friends at FreeRepublic.com contributed similar sentiments:

  • - 'This guy had, and has, a God-given inalienable right to defend his life. He exercised it, and now Pizza Hut is firing him for it . . . . Until the right to keep and bear arms and right to self-defense routinely bring out howling harpies like us . . . , those of us who support the Second Amendment and the [right to keep and bear arms] will remain second-class citizens. Quislings who side with Pizza Hut on this one are no friends of liberty.'

  • - 'The use of private regulations is the way the Second Amendment will be made useless.'

  • - 'The company should not have the ability to infringe on a constitutional right of the employee.'

This, my friends, is the kind of conservatism you get when conservatives accept the Left's premise that everything is political. They can no longer distinguish between restrictions on government and restrictions on private businesses.

Even worse than the assumption that the Constitution restricts employers from setting conditions of employment, though, is the further belief by some conservatives that terminating an employee who exercises his Second Amendment rights in violation of company policy is a form of discrimination which, probably, ought to be prohibited by law. The WorldNetDaily article approvingly quotes an Indianapolis attorney, Rick Whitham, who says Pizza Hut's firing of the driver is 'clear discrimination against those who choose to lawfully exercise a legal, heavily regulated right.'

The Freepers, while including many who understood the right of an employer to fire someone who disobeys company policy, nevertheless contributed some more enlightened, 'conservative' comments to the debate.

'Well he can have lots of fun and sue . . . Pizza Hut for firing him when he only defended himself in a robbery,' said one.

Another, responding to a previous poster who correctly noted that the guy was rightfully fired for breaking company policy, added in his two cents' worth: 'What if the company policy said 'no blacks' or 'no women' or 'no senior citizens.' Screw 'company policy.''

Well, now, what if Pizza Hut really did prohibit blacks, women, or senior citizens from working there? The Freeper's obvious implication is that everyone would recognize that Pizza Hut has no right to do this, but we're all willing to bend when it comes to its prohibition on guns.

Actually, though, a properly conservative response would be: 'I don't like Pizza Hut's rules, but as a private company, their rules are a private matter, not subject to the whims of politics.' Think about it: No law tells Pizza Hut how many of each variety of tomato they have to buy for their sauce, regardless of the proportion of each variety produced. Why should any law tell them how many of each variety of human to hire? Why should any law tell them they must or must not hire humans of the gun-toting variety? Pizza Hut is spending its own money to purchase labor, a commodity just like tomatoes. Thus, as a matter of course'of keeping the personal from becoming the political and thereby preserving property rights'conservatives ought to support Pizza Hut's right to prohibit blacks, women, senior citizens, drunks, boa constrictors, Martians, and sidearm wielders from working for their company, whether or not conservatives agree with the policy.

Back in 1964, National Review was on the leading edge of opposition to the Civil Rights Act, primarily on solid constitutional grounds but also on the basis that antidiscrimination laws (a) violate property rights and (b) necessarily result in racial quotas since there is no way to get into the mind of those making hiring and firing decisions to determine whether they discriminate in ways that the enlightened in Washington do not believe they should.

Barry Goldwater, in The Conscience of a Conservative, wrote:

I believe that the problem of race relations, like all social and cultural problems, is best handled by the people directly concerned. Social and cultural change, however desirable, should not be effected by the engines of national power. . . Any other course enthrones tyrants and dooms freedom.

What is the mainstream conservative position today? Essentially, it runs along these lines: Discrimination is bad and should be legally prohibited, but it must not be prohibited in ways that result in quotas (as if this were possible), and it must only be prohibited against those groups we deem worthy of legal protection. In other words, whereas the Left wants to make the personal political so as to grant special privileges to, say, homosexuals or the 'transgendered,' the Right wants to make the personal political so as to grant special privileges to, for example, blacks (since they really deserve it after all those years of slavery) and Christians.

Ward Connerly, who is doing some fine work in attempting to get states and state colleges and universities to stop employing racial preferences, nevertheless says that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 'breathed life into that declaration of our ideals [i.e., the Declaration of Independence] and the constitutional principle of equal treatment.' Writing in the very same publication that opposed the act, he adds that racial preferences need to stop, not because they are always and everywhere a bad idea but because they're no longer needed: 'This is not 1963 . . . there is no governor blocking the school house door . . . there is no Sheriff Bull Connor with snarling dogs straining to attack black people.'

In the wake of Trent Lott's resignation as Senate Majority Leader following his kind words for Strom Thurmond, John Fonte reminded all of NR's readers that, in fact, it was Republicans who had provided, in percentage terms, the strongest support for the Civil Rights Act (while, he notes, 'conservative writers' opposed it, without naming any conservative writers in particular). He does mention Goldwater's observation, which resulted in his 'nay' vote on the bill, that 'in the future the federal government might 'require people to discriminate on the basis of color or race or religion.'' This fails to sway Fonte in his attempt to portray the supporters of the act, especially Republicans, as the good guys in his fight. As far as Fonte is concerned, the negative consequences of the act, which Goldwater correctly predicted, are merely the result of 'judicial activism' and not of the law itself.

So conservatives these days are apparently happy with government's intrusions into the private matters of hiring and firing employees, renting apartments, giving out loans, and so on. Well, sort of. It all depends on whose 'right' to protection from discrimination is being upheld.

Kyle Williams, writing for WorldNetDaily, worried that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2002 would force employers to hire gays and lesbians. Williams found this 'disturbing' not because forcing an employer to hire someone he doesn't wish to hire is necessarily wrong but because '[h]omosexuality is a behavior'not something they are born with, such as race.'

In a similar vein, Jonah Goldberg, protesting the Clinton administration's assault on the Boy Scouts due to their refusal to allow homosexual scout masters, says that he is 'confident' that discrimination on the basis of skin color and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation are 'very different things.' He then goes on to ask:

But why does the analogy always have to be with blacks? Is it hateful bigotry that deaf people can't be Scout Leaders? Or is it simply discrimination devoid of moral content? Maybe there's some legitimate moral rationale to barring gays from the Scouts ' on both sides of the question ' but not enough to trump the constitutional right of groups to associate freely. The freedom of gays is important, but so is the freedom of thousands of young men and their parents who want to join the Scouts the way it is.

So, on the one hand, the Scouts ought to be forced to admit blacks, even though that might infringe on 'the freedom of thousands of young men and their parents' who might prefer an all-white troop, but they ought not be forced to accept gays because that infringes on 'the freedom of thousands of young men and their parents' who don't want gays sleeping in the same tents as their charges. I see your logic, Jonah. I don't follow it, but I see it.

Even Christians'who, of all people, ought to be wary of government after having been persecuted by so many governments down through the centuries'have gotten into the act.

The 'conservative' Jay Alan Sekulow, in his book Taking Back Our Religious Liberties: a Handbook, has an essay explaining how Christians can get the federal government to take their employers to the cleaners if they believe they have been victims of 'religious discrimination.' Writes Sekulow:

When the government has set up an agency such as the EEOC to protect our rights, we should utilize that tool to benefit the Gospel. For the same reason we go into the courtroom and ask a judge to grant us the rights we have been guaranteed under the United States Constitution, we must go to the EEOC and ask them to protect us against discrimination when it occurs. When Paul stood before the rulers in Jerusalem , he demanded his rights as a Roman citizen; he demanded to be brought before Caesar. When we enter a courtroom or petition the EEOC, we are responding like the apostle Paul.

Of course, the apostle Paul appealed to Caesar when he was a victim of government discrimination (beatings and imprisonment, actually), a far different animal from private 'discrimination.' It is unthinkable that Paul, a tentmaker by trade, would have appealed to Caesar if someone had refused to buy a tent from him because he was a Christian, and it is just as unthinkable that Caesar would have seen fit to force the person to buy Paul's tent.

The Left told us that the personal is the political, and now even the mainstream Right believes it; and once someone has bought into this idea, he is useless in the fight against intrusive, all-encompassing government. Both sides of the political spectrum are only now beginning to discover that the weapon they used yesterday against personal and private choices of which they disapprove can be turned on them today in ways they never imagined it could. We know the Left is never going to give up its love of the Total State . We can, however, hope that the Right will see the error of its ways and rejoin us in the effort to get the political out of the personal.

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Michael Tennant's picture
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Michael Tennant is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.