The government of North Carolina is paying for its prejudice. The state government is opposed to LGBTQ people. The public has responded with a long-lasting boycott. Money flees from the state. This is heartening: although we talk about the North Carolina boycott in monetary terms, the implications run deeper. All of the popular actions of the last several years—the airport protests, the Carolina sanctions, the marches—hint at a future where the habits of resistance are increasingly in public practice. To quote Martha, that would be a good thing.
When summer begins, and screaming cats mate under the rotten-yellow moon, everything begins to live again, as it was in the time of our glorious forefathers. But a few things learn to die. And one of the decaying creatures is the North Carolina economy.
The AP published an article titled “Price tag of North Carolina’s LGBT law: $3.76B.” According to the Associated Press:
Despite Republican assurances that North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” isn’t hurting the economy, the law limiting LGBT protections will cost the state more than $3.76 billion in lost business over a dozen years, according to an Associated Press analysis.
The news is relevant to sports fans: “North Carolina could lose hundreds of millions more because the NCAA is avoiding the state, usually a favored host,” said the AP. “The group is set to announce sites for various championships through 2022, and North Carolina won’t be among them as long as the law is on the books. The NAACP also has initiated a national economic boycott.” Today (March 28) Scott Dupree, the Exec Director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, informed North Carolina that if they didn’t repeal HB2, they’d lose all the NCAA championship events for five years.
This is due to the state’s bathroom ban—which bars transgender persons from using the restroom of their preferred gender—and to North Carolina’s infamous Voter ID law, which penalized African-American voters. The Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act (House Bill 2, or HB2) has long been scorned as the most anti-LGBTQ statute on the books in America. The rain of mockery North Carolina’s government receives is entirely deserved. The Tar Heel legislature pushed the Public Facilities Act through in March 2016. The law defines access to particular public facilities based on gender. There’s lots of ways to describe the statute’s influence. Here’s the human cost, from the Charlotte Observer of April 2016:
Trans Lifeline posted on its website that calls “have doubled since NC law passed.” Co-founder and executive director Greta Martela says the service has received 27 calls from North Carolina since the law was passed last month. ... According to a study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute, 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide at some point in their lives – compared to just 4.6 percent of the general population.
True, there is no record of a transgender person attacking anyone in a bathroom. True, there are many reports of cisgender people attacking trans-folk—especially in bathrooms. But North Carolina’s government is far too enlightened and civilized to let dreary data interfere.
By the soberest reckonings, it will take roughly a thousand years for the Democratic Party to get its act together and run the Republicans out of the Legislature. There is nobody to oppose the NCGOP. Except the public. And they have.
The numbers we have, courtesy of the AP, include a PayPal facility (estimated $2.6 billion dollar revenue) and Ringo’s avoidance of the entire state (estimated $33,000 in revenue). Truly, the dollar ax has fallen wide and it has fallen freely across the body and breadth of the very butchy Old North State. And 3.6 billion is just the amount we can count on the balance sheet. Who knows how much the Tar Heels have lost through missed opportunities? As Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan put it:
“Companies are moving to other places because they don’t face an issue that they face here,” he told a World Affairs Council of Charlotte luncheon last month. “What’s going on that you don’t know about? What convention decided to take you off the list? What location for a distribution facility took you off the list? What corporate headquarters consideration for a foreign company — there’s a lot of them out there — just took you off the list because they just didn’t want to be bothered with the controversy? That’s what eats you up.”
“Bigotry” is the word the New York Times used to describe the ban, with editorials titled “North Carolina Pays a Price for Bigotry” and “North Carolina Doubles Down on Bigotry.”
The Trump era is a white-water rafting trip through rapids of climatic and political doom. It’s a downer for dozens of reasons. But it is also a season of big mega-hopes. There is a new fever for direct action.
The economic price being exerted on North Carolina—call it the Bigotry Tax—is not being applied by other parts of the government onto North Carolina. The Bigotry Tax is being applied by the public at large—by individuals, by political organizations, by companies large and small. It is remarkable to behold.
The bigotry tax, like the airport protests, is part of a larger phenomenon: public leadership. That’s the simplest term for it. The public—not charismatic figureheads—dictate the terms of policy, and the leadership plays catch-up.
Anybody who deals with the public on a professional basis understands how mass taste works. The public is the tastemaker. Always.
Let’s take fashion, usually thought of as a world of elite cool, where only a few smart people know what is tasteful. But that’s not how it works. In fashion, the audience is smarter than the crafters. The way it goes is simple: some part of the audience creates the taste, and then the larger crowd of onlookers picks it up. Repeat cycle. The job of fashion houses is to stand in the middle and sell taste from one part of the audience to the other. Malcolm Gladwell, in the New Yorker article that made his name, got it part-right:
What they [the coolhunters] have is what everybody seems to want these days, which is a window on the world of the street. Once, when fashion trends were set by the big couture houses-when cool was trickle- down-that wasn’t important. But sometime in the past few decades things got turned over, and fashion became trickle-up. It’s now about chase and flight-designers and retailers and the mass consumer giving chase to the elusive prey of street cool-and the rise of coolhunting as a profession shows how serious the chase has become.
Gladwell is right in the conclusion, wrong about his history. Fashion has always been a trickle-up phenomenon. Even when nobody but the aristocrats could afford cool, the manufacturers still took their cues from public, such as it was. Beau Brummel and his circle invented the necktie, not Saville Row (home of London fashion).
Malcolm gets closer to the point a few paragraphs later: “Ask a coolhunter where the baggy-jeans look came from, for example, and you might get any number of answers: urban black kids mimicking the jailhouse look, skateboarders looking for room to move, snowboarders trying not to look like skiers, or, alternatively, all three at once, in some grand concordance.”
Wash, rinse, and repeat. In entertainment, the audience is king; the cast and crew create a film or television show, and the public teaches them if what they’ve done is watchable or not. And in politics, wise progressives understand that the people are generally ahead of the government that serves them. When the public engages in direct action, this renders the normal machinery of politics sluggish by comparison. When the Democratic party proved to be centrist and ineffectual in opposing Trump, the public made their preferences known, and the party (sort of) moved in response.
Obviously, there has been public leadership in the past—such as when the government decides to conduct unjust wars and is protested. And we know mass opinion has been the final arbiter in all arts and sciences which cater to the majority of humanity. But this particular kind of mass opinion—public leadership—has become commonplace and daily now. Why?
Trump is the obvious catalyst, and he’s the usual answer. He is the immediate cause, but not the universal one. And Trump is confined to America. Public leadership is a global phenomenon. We have seen the effect of public leadership in Romania, and in other nations far from North America’s shores. Across the world, the public is on the march.
But why? The typical practice of journalism is to note a new trend, and then give the blame over to social media, as if digital tools had Agent-Oranged a new track for human nature through the forest of possibility. That’s one way of commenting on public leadership. The other is to make sweeping, general statements about decentralized networks, Tweet storms, Occupy Wall Street, etc.
I think this is all, frankly, bullshit. Giving credit to social media is ignorant and silly. It attributes to necessary sins the agency we should give to virtue.
“Tools change the world” is a familiar, suspect story. It’s the easy explanation, since gadgets are short and human nature long. What changes society are not devices but practice. Soft drinks didn’t bring about the Prohibition of hard booze. The temperance movement did that. They swooped in with a vengeance and shuttered the taverns for all of five historical minutes. The telephone brought people together, but it didn’t kill Jim Crow. Practice did: political action, and the deliberate changing of social norms. I see public leadership as the necessary consequence of large, powerful institutions failing the moral checks we apply to our neighbors.
The Bigotry Tax is not the first boycott, but it is unique in its breadth. It is a sanction applied not on behalf of one nation’s interest, but for the cause of simple human dignity. Most remarkable of all, it has happened during a time when the leadership of the country is AWOL on the issues which matter. We are told this is a divided nation. And yet the Bigotry Tax rolls on.
Although Americans fifty years ago had much more social capital than we do now—spent more time together—they didn’t oppose the Vietnam War until they had learned to. The people had to teach themselves how to oppose. The government was bombing Indochina for a decade before the first musters of mass opposition could be heard. That’s how long it took. It was learned behavior. We ought to learn a little more.