Taking the Low Road
Are Boycotts Still an Effective Strategy?
If you own a business, particularly a small start-up venture with little in the way of cash reserves, the threat of a boycott can be rather frightening. You may be operating under the burden of debt, but sales are good and you think that if you can hang on for a few more months. With a few lucky breaks here and there, things might just work out and you could be one of the lucky ones that survive. Then, out of the blue, some do-good organization that you probably never even heard of decides they don't like your politics. Next thing you know, the group is pressuring your customers and your business associates, telling them they really ought to rethink the company they keep and the dollars they spend. All of a sudden, the promise of survival seems pretty remote.
In the last few days, Kathy Delaney, 24, has felt these kinds of emotions. Delaney and Shannon O'Neil, 23, co-own a business called Ditto Headquarters. The store measures about 10' x 10' and is tucked away in a somewhat remote corner of San Antonio's River Center Mall. Named after the greeting that characterizes his fans, Ditto Headquarters is a small shrine to the wit and wisdom of Rush Limbaugh. It sells books, bumper stickers, videotapes, and various other merchandise, all bearing the likeness of the popular right-wing talk show host. Delaney says the best-selling items are T-shirts, some of which relate to Limbaugh while others display assorted conservative slogans.
Inspired by their conservative beliefs and their entrepreneurial zeal, Delaney and O'Neil opened Ditto Headquarters about a year ago. So far, business has been pretty good. Delaney, who speaks with a confidence far beyond her years, characterizes San Antonio as a traditionally Democratic town, but feels Ditto Headquarters has benefited greatly from the city's gradual move towards more conservative values. While the store retains only a few employees in addition to its two owners, demand was high enough during the Christmas season that they opened a temporary branch at the San Marcos Outlet Mall. And their success has not gone unnoticed. Delaney and O'Neil are now weighing offers to franchise their concept to malls across Texas and possibly across the nation.
But a slight bump in the road now hinders Ditto Headquarters' progress. Liberal activists have called upon their ranks to force the store to close. Two weeks ago, a small article appeared in a statewide newspaper under the heading "Put Rush Limbaugh Store Out of Business." The text below this headline implored readers to "shut this one down... Limbaugh has a history of demeaning minorities, including people with AIDS. [On his program, he once read a death toll from AIDS while the song `I Know I'll Never Love This Way Again' was played in the background.] When visiting the River Center Mall, make it a point to stop in at the mall management office to voice your opinion about the store... Let them know that such divisive stores in their mall have an effect on where you do your shopping and spending."
Delaney reacts angrily to this ambush, an ambush that could force her to close her business simply because of her long-held beliefs. She contends that Ditto Headquarters has always steered away from carrying material they deemed too offensive. "Lots of vendors have tried to get us to sell stuff that we thought was divisive and we have always refused to stock it," she remarks. Their approach is tasteful, she insists, and they have never displayed materials that would offend any minorities. Moreover, Delaney wonders why someone who objects so passionately to Ditto Headquarters couldn't simply call her on the phone to discuss the matter, as opposed to broadcasting their objections through the press.
Her feelings are much the same as those experienced at an Austin-based business which has faced the same kind of attacks in recent weeks. A weekly paper that serves the Lone Star state's gay and lesbian community, the Texas Triangle has come under intense fire by Wyatt Roberts and the American Family Association. Roberts, who hosts a one-hour call-in show on local religious radio station KIXL, has sent letters to Triangle advertisers, threatening boycotts if they continue to support this paper and its so-called homosexual agenda. His efforts, however, have largely backfired. Amidst an incredible flood of local, national, and international media attention on this controversy, the tabloid has picked up several new advertising clients who are adamant to support them in their struggle against ignorant, homophobic intolerance.
Of course, the amazing irony of this episode is that the article calling for a boycott against Ditto Headquarters appeared in none other than the January 5 edition of the Texas Triangle. In fact, the article was placed on a page directly opposite a report bemoaning the narrow-mindedness of the American Family Association. When queried on this amazing juxtaposition, Kay Longcope, editor and publisher of the three-year-old publication, describes it as an oversight and seems to disavow responsibility on the matter: "Let me say that that was an outside and unsolicited manuscript. In our `Instant Activist' column in which that appeared, we run items that come in largely from outside these offices and that was one of them." Yes, the piece may well have come from outside, but the paper ran it and they shouldn't back down from the questions it raises. Or the difficulties it invokes.
Of all the rights ensured by our Founding Fathers, freedom of speech is clearly the most challenging. Well-intentioned intellectuals inevitably fall into the trap of promoting their rights of expression while denying the same privileges to others. But the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) has come up with an alternative to counter such negative strategies. At a press conference on Tuesday, the coalition of community and religious leaders announced a "buy-in" campaign to support the Triangle's advertisers by encouraging the public to patronize the businesses targeted by the AFA boycott.
Progressives speak of the dire effects of right-wing talk radio, saddling it with everything from the rise of militias to the proliferation of mindless hate crimes. Unfortunately, aiming our anger at this obvious target solves little. The bigotry of Wyatt Roberts and Rush Limbaugh should be fought with knowledge and compassion, with better education, with programs that teach a respect for diversity, "buy-ins," and a thousand other like strategies. Countering intolerance with intolerance accomplishes absolutely nothing.