Friday, April 22, 2005

Gay marriage, Microsoft, and The New York Times 

The New York Times reports today on its front page that a bill authorizing gay marriage has failed again to pass the Washington state legislature. Supporters of the bill blame its defeat on The Microsoft Corporation having withdrawn its support. They accuse Microsoft "of bowing to pressure from a prominent evangelical church in Redmond, Washington, located a few blocks from Microsoft's sprawling headquarters."

As I wrote more than a year ago, I support legalizing gay marriage [yeah, I know, "boo, hiss" - ed.] via action by legislatures (although not by courts). If I lived in Washington, I would have supported the defeated bill.

That having been said, the NYT's article is interesting for the assumptions that are embedded in it.

The fulcrum of the article is here:
The bill, or similar versions of it, has been introduced repeatedly over three decades; it failed by one vote Thursday in the State Senate. Gay rights advocates denounced Microsoft, which had supported the bill for the last two years, for abandoning their cause. Blogs and online chat rooms were buzzing on Thursday with accusations that the company, which has offered benefits to same-sex partners for years, had given in to the Christian right.

The story is not about the failure of the legislation, but about Microsoft refusing to support that legislation. Interestingly, neither the Times reporter nor any of the presumably left-of-center activists interviewed for the story had any problem with the idea that Microsoft would seek to influence the state legislature on a very high profile social issue largely unrelated to its business. Everybody actually quoted in the story seemed to think that Microsoft should try to influence the legislature. Is it really such a good idea for progressives to promote the idea that big corporations should involve themselves in these matters? If it is, does that mean that the left's objection to corporate contributions to political campaigns is cynical, rather than principled?

It is also revealing that the Times embraces the activists' argument that Microsoft's declaration of neutrality means that the company has "given in to the Christian right." There is no recognition that its previous position in support of the legislation was "giving in to the secular humanist left." If the Times is going to restate the position of the activists, it should also acknowledge that Microsoft had previously "given in" to gay-marriage activists.

The assymetry in this story is a very good example of the embedded liberal bias that infects so much of the mainstream media.

Microsoft of course denies having given in to anybody. The article, however, discusses the charge that Microsoft withdrew its support for the legislation only after meeting with the pastor of an evangelical church located near the Microsoft campus.
Microsoft officials denied any connection between their decision not to endorse the bill and the church's opposition, although they acknowledged meeting twice with the church minister, Ken Hutcherson.

Dr. Hutcherson, pastor of the Antioch Bible Church, who has organized several rallies opposing same-sex marriage here and in Washington, D.C., said he threatened in those meetings to organize a national boycott of Microsoft products.

After that, "they backed off," the pastor said Thursday in a telephone interview. "I told them I was going to give them something to be afraid of Christians about," he said.

Microsoft backed off because some minister threatened a boycott of its products? On this one, I believe Microsoft, not an anti-gay marriage evangelical who has an interest in looking powerful. For starters, that has to be the least credible threat since Maxwell Smart asked "would you believe...?" What are boycotting Christians going to do -- buy Apples? All switch to Word Perfect? I thought the whole lefty complaint about Microsoft was that there were no meaningful alternatives to its products. All of a sudden it is believable that Microsoft would give in to the demands of the "Christian right" because it is afraid of a boycott? The whole idea is ridiculous. It is fascinating, though, that the activists suddenly forget everything they have always believed about Microsoft if it enables them to ascribe demonic power to evangelicals.

Speaking as a corporate tool with a great many opinions that I do not channel through my company, Microsoft's explanation for its switch in position is far more credible than the activists' claim that Ken Hutcherson's boycott scared them:
"Our government affairs team made a decision before this legislative session that we would focus our energy on a limited number of issues that are directly related to our business," said Mark Murray, a company spokesman. "That decision was not influenced by external factors. It was driven by our desire to focus on a smaller number of issues in this short legislative session. We obviously have not done a very good job of communicating about this issue."

You scratch where it itches, and pissing off a bunch of conservative legislators is definitely not in the interests of Microsoft's lobbyists. Does anybody doubt that's the real reason?

The activists also seem deeply offended that Microsoft might have been taking the sentiments of its own employees into account:
But State Representative Ed Murray, an openly gay Democrat and a sponsor of the bill, said that in a conversation last month with Bradford L. Smith, Microsoft's senior vice president and general counsel, Mr. Smith made it clear to him that the company was under pressure from the church and the pastor and that he was also concerned about the reaction to company support of the bill among its Christian employees, the lawmaker said.

Mr. Smith would not comment for this article.

Representative Murray said that in a recent conversation with Mr. Smith, Mr. Smith said that the minister had demanded the company fire Microsoft employees who testified this year on behalf of the bill, but that Mr. Smith had refused. According to Representative Murray, Mr. Smith said "that while he did not do the many things that the minister had requested, including firing employees who had testified for the bill, he believed that Microsoft could not just respond to one group of employees, when there were other groups of employees who felt much different....

Representative Murray said the company's contention that the decision not to support the bill had nothing to do with the church was "an absolute lie."

Actually, Representative Murray's own account of his conversation with Bradford Smith proves that it is he, and not Smith, who is being misleading (assuming that the Times quoted Murray properly). Smith is clearly worried about upsetting his employees who do not agree that gay marriage should be lawful. Perhaps some of those employees attend Hutcherson's church, but a lot of them probably attend other churches. Most people who go to church regularly oppose legalizing gay marriage. It is far more credible that Smith was concerned about the morale of Microsoft's conservative employees than about threats from the Antioch Bible Church.

The thesis of the activists quoted in this story (and, by extension, the author of the story) is (1) that Microsoft should spend its money to manipulate state legislatures to pass laws on matters unrelated to its business, (2) that Microsoft's business is so susceptible to competition that the threat of a boycott by a single minister from a church down the road is enough to make it reverse its position, and (3) that it is far more likely that Microsoft bowed to pressure from the church than to the concerns of its own employees. That any of these ideas -- much less all of them -- should erupt from the mouths of Democratic politicians and gay activists is astonishing. It is difficult to know whether these people are utterly lacking in self-awareness or are being deliberately disingenuous. It is hard to imagine a third explanation.


By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Fri Apr 22, 10:35:00 AM:

One hudnred percent agreement, Hawk. It's as though the NYT suddenly wants corporations to control legislation.

I didn't know you were pro-freedom in regards to same-sex marriage. Good on ya.  

By Blogger Sluggo, at Fri Apr 22, 11:40:00 AM:

I knew if I kept coming here this would happen eventually. I agree with Screwy.

You analyzed this exceptionally well and layed it out with clarity.  

By Blogger ScurvyOaks, at Fri Apr 22, 02:02:00 PM:

Well done, TigerHawk! It certainly seems reasonable for Microsoft to stand down on an issue that (i) does not concern its business and (ii) has Microsoft employees on both sides of it.

What I wish someone would advocate is this: states would grant civil union licenses to both heterosexual and homosexual couples, and marriage licenses to nobody. Any couple who wanted to get married would do so through their house of worship. (I know this leaves out secularist couples, but would a lot of them would care about being "married" as opposed to "united?") This seems pretty even-handed, while reserving the right for people with views like mine on the authority of Scripture to say: "not in my denomination, please."  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Apr 29, 10:27:00 PM:

The bill in question was not about same-sex marriage. The bill, HB1515, was intended to protect gay and lesbian people from discrimination in matters of employment, housing, insurance etc., in effect adding "sexual orientation" to existing legislation that already protects against discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, gender, national origin, and mental or physical handicap. The original story in The Stranger makes this clear. I'm not sure how you got the idea that same-sex marriage was involved.  

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