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They Still Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City

Et tu, Jimmy Buffett? Artists withhold art for political reasons, but deny right to other creatives

Back during the anti-apartheid era, there arose a boycott movement among performing artists to avoid Sun City, a South African resort. Little Steven (Van Zandt) organized a protest video, “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” to publicize the boycott.

So, now we are to understand that North Carolina and Mississippi are the latter-day equivalents of Sun City. Bruce Springsteen (whose guitarist Little Steven is) started it off by canceling his NC show to protest the new law there, and now Bryan Adams has done the same in Mississippi. Jimmy Buffett is going to keep his NC date, but says he’s seriously reconsidering anything else there. (Side note: Hey Jimmy, I guess you’re going to order your Margaritaville restaurants to implement unisex bathrooms then, or to otherwise make it clear that transgenders can use the bathroom of their choice. Right? If not, why not?)

This is going to become the thing now. 

And, of course, that is their right. I think they are making a stupid mistake, but I believe they have a right to withhold their creative labor because to perform under these conditions would violate their consciences. Why do they get to do this, but florists, photographers, and bakers do not? Nobody is saying that florists, photographers, and bakers have the right to refuse all service to gay customers. The protection is to keep whatever minority of Christians in those professions who object to participating in a same-sex wedding from having to do so. I guess that some artists are more equal than others.

Here’s what I don’t get: if you check out the map on the Human Rights Campaign’s website, you’ll see that most of the states in the US have basically the same laws that North Carolina and Mississippi just passed. So why aren’t these artists boycotting the rest of America? It’s bizarre. But then, you are going nowhere if you expect logic and reason to guide this debate.

The fact is, it’s impossible to come up with a clean, perfectly logical, neutral position on public accommodations. I tend to be more libertarian on these matters, and would rather have to live with people discriminating against others, including myself, rather than have the power of the state force them to violate their own conscience, no matter how malformed I judge their conscience to be. I really do believe that a lesbian bar should have the right to refuse male customers, for example. I believe that a gay florist should have the right to refuse to provide flowers for the wedding of a Republican politician who campaigned against gay rights. Me, I would not want to buy a custom-made cake from a baker who was being compelled to sell it to me against her conscience, in part because I would be afraid that she might spit in the thing.

Anyway, I know that if this approach to the law were universal, anybody could claim a conscience exemption from having to provide any goods or services to anybody. That would be unworkable. I don’t believe that a Muslim cab driver, for example, should have the right to refuse to transport a woman, or a passenger carrying an unopened bottle of wine. But is it possible to draft a universally applicable, content-neutral version of this law? I doubt it.

Peter Tatchell, probably the UK’s most famous gay marriage campaigner, published a piece earlier this year saying that he had been wrong to support a Northern Ireland court’s ruling penalizing a Christian baker who refused to bake a gay wedding cake. Tatchell wrote:

However, the court erred by ruling that Lee was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation and political opinions.

This finding of political discrimination against Lee sets a worrying precedent. Northern Ireland’s laws against discrimination on the grounds of political opinion were framed in the context of decades of conflict. They were designed to heal the sectarian divide by preventing the denial of jobs, housing and services to people because of their politics. There was never an intention that this law should compel people to promote political ideas with which they disagreed.

The judge concluded that service providers are required to facilitate any “lawful” message, even if they have a conscientious objection. This raises the question: should Muslim printers be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed? Or Jewish ones publish the words of a Holocaust denier? Or gay bakers accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? If the Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far-right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim opinions. It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes or print posters with bigoted messages.

In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas.

Question for the room: In 2008, a supermarket in New Jersey refused to make a birthday cake for a kid named Adolf Hitler Campbell, the toddler child of white supremacists. I think the store should have had that right. I would not have made that cake had I been a baker. What do you think? If you’re going to compel a conservative Christian baker to make a cake for a gay wedding, by what right do you defend the right of anti-Nazi bakers to withhold their creative labor on principle?

UPDATE: St. Louisan nails it:

The North Carolina law is focusing where things stand.

If like the baker in Oregon you don’t want to provide services for a same sex wedding due to your deeply held beliefs, you are breaking the law and morally reprehensible. But if like Bruce Springsteen you don’t want to provide services for people who share a state with legislators whose law you dislike due to your deeply held beliefs, you are merely exercising your rights of conscience and of running your own business.

Four legs good! Two legs baa-aaa-d!



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