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Jon Robin Baitz on Chick-fil-A politics

Steve Salbu, dean of the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has written an op-ed piece in The New York Times, and ever so slig

by Jon Robin Baitz
Tony-nominated playwright

Steve Salbu, dean of the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has written an op-ed piece in The New York Times, and ever so slightly missed the point behind a few local officials response to what Colin Corgan in The Guardian has cleverly dubbed “politics by chicken breast.”  The Chick-fil-A imbroglio may be a canard, but you cannot duck the actual issue at hand. (Sorry.) If all politics are local, then a city councilman or councilwoman (Christine Quinn for instance), has every right to return fire to a company whose CEO espouses bigotry and intolerance dressed up in the feathered robes of “family values.” Salbu is ‘troubled’ by Boston mayor Thomas Menio pointing out that “you can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population.” Why would that be troubling? Notwithstanding the fact that he knows and you know and the law knows he doesn’t have the actual power to do it. It’s better than municipal silence. He’s simply standing ground. And how is it more troubling than a company basically launching a high-fat culture war in the service of – what?  Selling poultry? You reap what you sow, and if a fried-chicken joint that likes to fire people for “sinful behavior” (it’s in their by-laws) wants to get into it, hey, great. Have at it. Yeah sure Chick- fil-A (It’s very hard to type that name over and over, can I please, dear reader, now refer to them as Chifa?) is free to spew an antediluvian reactionary creed in the name of ‘free speech’ well, it is equally appropriate to plant ones’ flag on behalf of the people in one’s constituency who have a higher stake in voicing their belief in the freedom to marry whomever they choose without being (sigh) dissed by a purveyor of deep-fried poultry.  

The odd part of the Op-ed is that Mr. Salbu, an openly gay man, and seemingly not a self-hating one (See under Log Cabin) utterly deplores the Chifa manifesto, and yet still puts free market ideology (albeit bundled in with legitimate first amendment concerns), before the ‘Actual’. (By which I mean, conditions On The Ground).  He is not alone, joined by Glenn Greenwald and the ACLU, both of whom I obviously agree with pretty much always. But here ‘The actual’ is that Chifa employs gay people, who are struggling under the burden of having to make a living in tanked economy on fewer than 15 bucks an hour, and Chifa does not speak for them. The Supreme Court may have perhaps concluded that corporations are people, but we all know they are not.  Not really.  So if a bigot at the top of the food chain-drapes himself in piety, and funnels corporate (not personal) profits into paying for a deeply discriminatory kind of anti-gay advocacy, which it does, I am not troubled but thrilled that elected officials tell them to shove it.   It’s theatre. It’s theatre.  Being gay is still “not easy,” especially in small town America, especially if you’re young and trying to come out, and live a full life without fear. Not too long ago, the Chifa affair would have been met by governmental silence. Not too long ago black people weren’t allowed to sit at the lunch counter. Not too long ago, if you were gay, you could not openly serve your country in the military. I find it heartening that espousals of bigotry (especially when the bible is absurdly invoked in its name) are no longer as quite as acceptable as they once were. Mr. Salbu is understandably caught up in the thorny, knotted problems of commerce and politics, and he’s right to be.  But elected officials are not simply elected just to make sure the potholes are filled and the trains are on time. Making people feel safe, making citizens know they are represented where they live and sleep and eat does not exclude denouncing the presence in their communities of a corporation steeped in public declarations of God’s wrath against the arrogance of gay attitudes.  It does not exclude the pushback.  Again, this is a sort of opera-buffa comedy with pictures of people of a certain size angrily gorging themselves on dry looking sandwiches.

I still am not sure of the larger narrative in this story, or even if it actually means anything, other than decorative distraction from where we are now. I am too worried about the chaotic nightmare that is the Middle East,  and our confused schizophrenic involvements there, drone strikes, who our next president is going to be, but most importantly writing my next play.  Which hopefully will sort of be about all of the above, including well-meaning academics derailing at the awful crossroads of ideology and real life.  It would, once upon a time, be a perfect Billy Wilder movie.

 Jon Robin Baitz's latest play, Other Desert Cities, just ended a season-long run on Broadway after moving from Lincoln Center Theatre, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Other plays include The Substance of Fire, Three Hotels, Mizlansky/Zilinsky,  and A Fair Country, which was also the finalist for the Pulitzer. He created the TV Drama Brothers & Sisters for ABC, and wrote the movie People I Know, starring Al Pacino.He teaches in the New School for Drama's MFA playwriting program as well as at SUNY Southampton.