While never having felt any previous urge to dine in the Berkshire town of Reading, I now find myself trying to secure a table at the Oracle Shopping Centre. Should any Spectator reader wish to join me there over the next week, I can ask Chick-fil-A to make it a table for two.
There we can dine on any number of foodstuffs. We could start with a chicken sandwich and then progress to either eight or 12 chicken nuggets as our main course. Or we could do the same in reverse order, treating the nuggets as an amuse-bouche before the main event. All washed down with one of those sugary, non-alcoholic drinks that cause the locals to get into fights.
If that doesn’t sound like a good night out then you may just have to accept that the war for liberty involves sacrifice. It isn’t all about the admiration of your peers and acceptance speeches at awards ceremonies. Sometimes it involves ordering a chicken tortilla soup with a mac-and-cheese side before making sure you don’t miss the last train out.
Anyone who is lost should know that America’s third-largest restaurant chain opened its first British outlet earlier this month. But after not much more than a week the Oracle Shopping Centre announced that it was not intending to renew Chick-fil-A’s lease past its present six-month trial period. A local paper slightly histrionically claimed that the restaurant’s opening had ‘bitterly divided’ the people of Berkshire. In fact all that happened was that some local gay rights groups including Reading Pride announced that they were going to demonstrate outside the shop some time this week. Right around the time I was hoping to do my cholesterol stress-test at the joint.
For anyone who doesn’t follow the American culture wars very closely, all this might come as a surprise. But in recent years Chick-fil-A has become part of that trend of our times: the politicization of absolutely everything. Specifically Chick-fil-A has become one of those tests of political virtue in America. At the start of this decade the owners of the business were found to have made a set of donations to ‘family values’ organizations in the US. These included the Salvation Army and other groups who were accused of harboring opposition to gay marriage.
The family owners of the Chick-fil-A franchise are Christian and run their business as a Christian business, paying workers roughly twice the national average, giving to Christian causes and remaining closed on Sundays. They also say in their corporate mission statement that Chick-fil-A’s intention is ‘to glorify God’. And if you cannot see how the production of chicken nuggets is either here or there to the creator of the universe then we’ll just have to put that into the bucket marked ‘things that other people think that we may not think ourselves’.
Unfortunately this last attitude has become increasingly unpopular in modern America. And as is so often the case, a bad American idea rarely stays within American borders, instead bursting out and becoming the norm everywhere else. So the idea has spread that you cannot give business to people who do not precisely share 100 percent of your own views. A trend exacerbated by the fact that whereas it used to be quite hard to find out whether a particular business was entirely aligned with your own ideological world view, today the necessary shaming can be done by absolutely anyone.
In August it was discovered that Stephen Ross, the chairman of the parent company of the high-end Equinox Fitness gyms, had held a fundraiser for Donald Trump. Of course Trump is the President of the United States and one of only two people likely to be running in the next American presidential election. Meaning that quite a lot of people must like him, vote for him and raise money for his campaigns.
But accepting that this may be the case offers no opportunity for grand-standing or bullying. So after the Equinox revelation, a range of celebrities and others announced that they could not possibly push weights or fall off a yoga ball in a gym whose parent company was chaired by someone not in alignment with their own political positions.
That episode once again showed how vulnerable even the smallest form of intimidation makes companies in an age whose interconnection was meant to make us more free. Within no time Harvey Spevak, the executive chairman of Equinox, was firing off emails to all members of what he inevitably called ‘our Equinox community’ stressing how insignificant Mr Ross was to a company which had always been about ‘values’ and ‘respect’ and had partnered with the ‘House Ballroom Community comprised of sexual and gender minority people of color (LGBTQ and gender non-conforming).’ A corporate donation of a million dollars to the ‘House Ballroom Community’ and other charities was also announced. You’ll recognize that sound. It is the sound of a modern corporate begging for its life.
As though it could appease anyone, Chick-fil-A tried a little of this over the past decade. It never said it had been wrong all along and actually loved gay marriage. So far as I know it never gave a donation to any minority ethnic transgendered dance community. But it did regularly and generously donate not just to the usual food banks and other charities but to LGBT film festivals and a ‘Pride picnic’ in Iowa. It didn’t exactly beg for its corporate life, but it did suggest that it would be nice if it could have one.
Well, in Britain at any rate it was not to be. The preening intolerance of America’s organized gays spilt out all the way to Berkshire — and in the process all those lessons about boots and other feet and magnanimity in victory got lost. So the lights will go out and last orders called not long after the first ones in Chick-fil-A Reading. Confirming what some of us had been worrying about for a while: which is that tolerance is becoming a one-way street and the street is global.