Saturday, April 5, 2014

In Defense of Mozilla

I’m no fan of JavaScript. It’s a language that has been pushed far beyond anything its creator could have envisioned, and it shows. But there’s still something to be said about a language that has become the foundation of the modern Internet. And there’s something to be said for having been the dude who invented the whole thing.

That’s why it was not at all surprising that Mozilla’a board recently appointed Brendan Eich, their long-time CTO and the inventor of JavaScript, as their CEO.


It was a bit more surprising that the same board then turned around and fired him only a few days later. The sin for which Brendan Eich was removed is that six years ago, he had made a donation to Proposition 8, the California ballot measure that defined – or rather, acknowledged the reality – of marriage as one man and one woman.

Now, there’s lots that ought to dismay us in this episode, none more worrisome than the fact that this decision was taken in the name of tolerance and diversity. In a blog post announcing this decision, Mozilla wrote:

Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness. We welcome contributions from everyone regardless of age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and religious views. Mozilla supports equality for all.

That’s an odd way to frame removing somebody because of his political and (presumably) religious views. On the contrary, this decision makes it abundantly clear that there are certain religious views – namely, those of any orthodox Jew, Muslim or Christian – which are not at all welcome at Mozilla. I'm still trying to understand how neither Mozilla’s board nor Eich’s detractors didn't see the irony there. Their blinders are more complete than I would have suspected.

This decision also raises concerns about the possibility of any real dialogue with folks on disparate sides of the issue. Mozilla’s logic would have made a certain sense if Brendan Eich had been a neo-Nazi or a member of the KKK, if his position had been so exclusionary and repellant that no quarter should be given, no compromise possible or desirable. This is apparently what Mozilla’s board believes, that opposition to gay marriage is a moral outrage, an evil so pernicious that it truly can be rejected in the name of diversity and tolerance.

That’s silly, of course. Even Barack Obama, until roughly a year ago, claimed the same perspective for which Brendan Eich was sacrificed. (Nobody believed him, but I don’t think that changes my point.) I don’t know what percentage of folks worldwide are opposed to same sex marriage, but I’m guessing that it’s well north of 75%. One may be forgiven for regarding dubiously any claim to universal tolerance and cosmopolitan diversity which rejects tout court three out of every four human beings on the planet. As Inigo Montoya said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 

In short, if you think a witch hunt, purge, or inquisition is in order, that’s your business. But have the guts to call it by its right name, and don't pretend you're being tolerant.

But there’s another part of this decision that we ought to respect.

Mozilla took these actions because they felt that, as a corporation, they needed to support a particular understanding of morality. It's a highly idiosyncratic and provincial understanding of morality, of very recent origin and dubious provenance. It is an understanding of morality that I do not share. They were disingenuous and hypocritical to wrap their decision in the language of diversity and inclusiveness. But I very much affirm their desire, as a private corporation, to take actions based on what they believe to be moral, just and right.

This is nothing new. That's precisely what folks on the left have been arguing for decades that companies need to do. Corporations need to act according to the precepts of basic morality. They need to treat employees with respect and pay them a living wage. They need to take proper care of the environment. They need to act, in other words, as if they had a moral obligation to society. Corporations are not - or should not be - amoral agents. They are moral actors, and need to act as such.

And I agree. Corporations do have an obligation to justice. They cannot be indifferent to concerns about human flourishing. They must be concerned with the environment and society in which they are placed, and must give due weight to these considerations, even when they may affect the bottom line.

But consider this. This is nothing more than what Hobby Lobby wants to do, the same Hobby Lobby who is routinely mocked by the left for its lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act. Hobby Lobby’s owners want their company to act in a way that they believe is moral, right and just, and reflects an appropriate concern for human flourishing. It’s entirely legitimate to argue that these beliefs do not, in fact, promote human flourishing. But it’s a very strange argument to hear from my friends on the left recently, that corporations cannot have beliefs about morality and should not act in a way that reflects moral concerns. That argument might make sense if these same people hadn't been making exactly the opposite argument right up until the moment Kathleen Sebelius decided that free birth control was more important than religious liberty.

To be clear, I don't always know, in any specific case, whether a given religious freedom claim should be allowed to prevail, whether the actor in question is a company or an individual. In general, though, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act - passed almost unanimously by both parties - provides a good framework for deciding these questions. It says, in effect, that the government can't impose a burden on the expression of religious beliefs (even in a religiously neutral law) unless it (a) has a damned good reason to do so, and (b) can't get the same result any other way. So the government can outlaw human sacrifice, even if it impinges on the free expression of Aztec religious beliefs. But it can't, say, outlaw the use of peyote in Indian religious ceremonies. (That last was the case that got RFRA passed.)

Now, clearly, if Hobby Lobby was claiming that they get to decide whether women can get birth control, that would be an overreach. But despite what you regularly hear from the left, they aren’t. Actually, (a) Hobby Lobby is perfectly fine with paying for contraception and already does, (b) the only "contraception" they have an issue with are drugs that probably work by causing abortions, and (c) Hobby Lobby's objection is not to women getting those drugs, but to Hobby Lobby being forced to pay for them. Well, that's a different matter, and I expect the Supreme Court to find rationally. Hobby Lobby - and the Green family - has a genuine religious interest, there's no compelling government interest, and even if there were, there are lots of other ways to accomplish it.

On the other hand, I would expect the courts to find very differently in a case involving Jehovah's Witnesses who objected to an insurance policy covering blood transfusions, or to a Christian Scientist who objected to paying for insurance policies at all. In those cases, there is a genuine religious interest - I don't want to deny that there isn't - but there is also a compelling governmental interest, and regrettably, there may not be any other way to accomplish it.

I’m not saying that any given First Amendment claim to religious freedom or to primacy of conscience should always prevail. I am saying that it should be considered, and given due weight, even if the entity making the claim is a for-profit corporation. This is exactly what the Mozilla Corporation believed it was doing; and that is why I want to affirm their desire to do so, even though (in this particular case) their actions were silly, dangerous and counter-productive, precisely on their own terms.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

That’s Gotta Hurt

David Jang’s community has been having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.

First there was the Guardian article which outlined the connections between David Jang and Newsweek, and then, in a fit of political correctness, tried to convince everyone – with daunting success – that Johnathan Davis’ opinions about gay reparative therapy were newsworthy.

This was followed, much more damningly, by a Mother Jones article which laid out some pretty solid reasons for being concerned about the cavalier attitude towards immigration and labor laws evinced by both IBTimes and Olivet University. And of course, these articles resulted in a great deal more chatter back and forth over the Interwebs, with responses ranging from thoughtful to inane and naive.

But the really bad news landed today. According to the Hudson Valley Reporter, Olivet University (or, I suppose more precisely, its management company, Olivet Management LLC) got hit with a $2.3MM fine from the Department of Labor for “exposing its employees to asbestos and lead during a renovation.”

Olivet Hit with $2.3M Fine for Exposing Workers to Asbestos During Wingdale Psychiatric Center Renovation



I have to imagine that Olivet is going to contest the fines – because from everything I’ve seen, Jang’s community tends to run their budgets pretty close to the red line, and only make it from month-to-month by depending heavily on donations from students and community members (and more troublingly, from community members’ families, who aren’t necessarily told the truth about how their money is going to be spent). Unless IBT and Newsweek are rolling in a lot more cash than you’d think online news publications are likely to throw off, it’s going to be difficult for Olivet to come up with the money to pay this fine.

This enforcement action also raises the interesting question of the precise relationship between Olivet Management, LLC, and Olivet University. For instance, if Olivet Management declares bankruptcy (which definitely seems within the realm of possibility) can the DOL go after Olivet University for the money? Some very expensive lawyers are probably coming up with some very expensive opinions on that topic right now.

If the concerns raised by the recent Mother Jones article have any merit (and I’ve seen independent evidence that suggests they do), this may not be the first time that David Jang’s community has played fast and loose with federal labor laws. Now that they have the attention of the Department of Labor, they may want to rethink that habit.


An independent journalist by the name of Ben Reeves posted a very interesting story today about his job writing articles for IBTimes, the proud new owners of Newsweek, and (I would guess) the primary revenue engine behind Olivet University’s recent expansions.

Compared to the recent Mother Jones piece, Ben’s story didn’t break much new ground, but it was interesting to read about his experiences. It’s been clear for a while that David Jang and Olivet and IBTimes were closely intertwined, and the documents Ben included in his story were further evidence of that. Similarly, the chats and emails he reproduces had some worthwhile details, including a – supposed – recent massive spike in revenues for Olivet University.

I was a bit mystified by this comment from his article:

Nevertheless, intimate connections between the founders of a company and a university run by an evangelical religious group aren’t a problem in and of themselves, however distasteful this may seem.

I’m glad he acknowledged that having well-educated Evangelical Christians running a business wasn’t necessarily a problem, but it was surprising to me that he assumed his readers would find the whole idea repugnant. If that really is how most folks view religiously committed folks these days – well, in the end, First Amendment protections are only as good as the society that values them.

But aside from that, the most interesting part of the article, I thought, was how Olivet responded when they found out that Reeves was working on the story. Reeves said that he initially sent them this list of questions:

1) Can you provide us with copies of your most recent student handbook and Ministry Practice Handbook?
2) Please describe the relationship between Olivet University and IBT since the company’s foundation in 2006.
3) What was Johnathan Davis’ role at the school?
4) How is Etienne Uzac connected to the school? What is his current role, and has he ever served as an officer of the university?
5) Your course catalogue states that one purpose of the journalism program is to teach students how to “apply Gospel values” to the news. What are Gospel values and how should they be incorporated into the news?
6) How do you define “ministry” with respect to internships?
7) What is the Ministry Practice Program and how does it work?
8) How long must students intern through the Ministry Practice Program?
9) What companies are students in the Ministry Practice Program authorized to intern at?
10) Were Olivet University students interning at IBT through the ministry practice program paid? What were their duties at the company?
11) What are the demographics of Olivet University’s student body? How many students are there, and where do they come from?

Olivet’s response was telling. Rather than trying to answer the questions, they immediately sent for their attorneys. Ben received this message a few days later:

Dear Mr. Reeves:

This firm serves as litigation counsel to Olivet University (“Olivet”). It has come to our attention that you intend to publish a news article about a supposed connection between Olivet University and International Business Times (“IBT”). It has further come to our attention that your news article will include false and defamatory statements about Olivet and false and defamatory statements about the supposed connection between Olivet and IBT, including insinuations that Olivet has used IBT for improper purposes and/or to further its own agenda. Any such false statements would be unlawful and would cause immediate and irreparable harm to Olivet.

Wow. That’s touchy. Olivet’s assumption is that any article published about them “will include false and defamatory statements”. If you didn’t know better, you’d almost think they had something to hide, and were desperately trying to use their lawyers to make sure the information didn’t get out.