Grifters Gotta Grift
As a rule, I don’t take conspiracy theories seriously. There is, however, a difference between a conspiracy and a relatively uncomplicated scam that rakes in big bucks. And in my business, you learn to be skeptical.
Remember Joe the Plumber?
Ahh, him. That typical incoherent vulgarian that modern conservatives identify with Real America (TM), who made a name for himself during the 2008 Fun Times with claims that he couldn’t operate a plumbing business because of all the taxes. Very soon after he came on the scene, details emerged (damn the Liberal Media (TM) with its “facts”!) that the real three reasons why he couldn’t own his own company were: (1) he was unlicensed, and therefore not even a plumber; (2) with his unlicensed junior plumber’s salary of $40K, he couldn’t in his wildest dreams afford to buy his boss’ half-a-million-dollar business; and (3) HE WAS FREAKIN’ UNLICENSED. None of this, however, stopped conservatives from ominously warning America of the impending clogged toilet apocalypse, because all the other unlicensed pseudo-plumbers, too stupid and low-skilled to pass the licensing exam, were on the verge of Going Galt (TM), and then we’d all be sorry. In Joe’s case, Going Galt (TM) (thanks, Obama!) consisted of butchering reason AND the English language by way of “writing” a “book”, and televised appearances during which he said pretty much the kinds of things that you’d expect a brutish, dim-witted yokel to say. I’m sure that beat the hell out of doing manual labor for a pittance, so even as the fickle public’s interest waned, Joe stayed the course, resorting to making inflammatory comments from time to time so as to momentarily draw attention to himself again. He appears to have made out okay.
Well. Memories Pizza of Walkerton, Indiana is aptly named, indeed, because this past week it provided us with a riveting walk down that very memory lane.
The controversy arose, of course, from Indiana’s brand new shiny law, which essentially legalized discrimination (against gays, sure, but in effect, against all other historically marginalized groups)*, thereby codifying the most sacred principle on which this great country was founded (according to conservatives): that while some animals are equal, religious animals are more equal than others; also, freedom is not free, and it’s only fair that objects of faith-based discrimination pay the price of religious “liberty”. This past Tuesday, a local reporter covering reactions to Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act asked the owner of Memories Pizza, Kevin O’Connor and his daughter Crystal if they would cater a gay wedding, and they said no, they would not, because Jesus and Freedom. What followed was a flood of irate reviews on Yelp, one confirmed threat on Facebook, lots of criticism in the media and one protester outside their shop carrying a sign that said “bigots”. By Thursday, the O’Connors closed up shop and a GoFundMe page was set up for or by them. As of this writing, the O’Connors are hinting that they may never reopen, while the donations to them are totaling half a million dollars and still pouring in.
Several things about this tickle my BS-detecting antennae. To wit:
1. It was weird that the reporter asked them if they would cater a wedding. Look, it’s not impossible that someone somewhere has catered a wedding with pizza, but this just isn’t a thing, not even in small-town America. Memories Pizza doesn’t do catering, and the chances of them being asked to deliver a bunch of pies to a wedding, of all things, are slim to none. WHY would a reporter ask such a ridiculous question of a person who operates a pizza parlor? That’s like asking a New York City cab driver about providing limo service for a prom.
2. The decision to close the shop was made awfully fast. Despite the dearth of actual threats, the cops beefing up security around Memories Pizza, and Yelp pledging to clean up their page, the O’Connors threw in the proverbial paper towel just like that. It’s remarkable that it took them only roughly twenty-four hours to give up on their business, presumably the center of their lives, without putting up any struggle. No attempt to let the police do their job, no appeal to their gun-fondling supporters, who I am sure would be only too happy to organize the Bundy Ranch II around their place. No, they announced themselves as bigots, got a momentary pushback and BOOM, they are done. No one in their right mind would do this — unless, of course, their business was circling the drain to begin with, in which case it would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
3. The GoFundMe appeal was set up around the same time as O’Connor’s announcement that he was closing the pizza parlor indefinitely — which is to say, it was done almost immediately after the initial controversy.
What I’m driving at is that I think this was a publicity stunt calculated to generate cash and enable the O’Connors to walk away from their (likely failing) pizza business. Now, it’s true, I don’t know for a fact if Memories Pizza was failing; no one knows that except the O’Connors and their creditors. I could be wrong — but it’s unlikely. The whole story has an unmistakable stench of fraud. Perhaps a fellow lawyer can relate to this. After enough cases where a 1990 Buick with six people in it slowly rams a 1992 Cutlass with five people in it, and all eleven of them go to the same doctor who diagnoses them with the same soft-tissue injuries, you learn to heed that nagging feeling that perhaps something isn’t kosher.
Anyway, congratulations to these newbie grifters on having made out like bandits right out the gate. I wish them the best of luck in the wonderful world of wingnut welfare. Perhaps one day they’ll run for office. In the nearer future, I’m sure we’ll be hearing from them on the conservative outrage circuit. Maybe Kevin O’Connor can get together with Duck Phillips on Fox News, and the two of them can wax homoerotic on Biblical Manhood and the need to bomb everybody. And maybe O’Connor’s mouthbreathing daughter can get a gig as Bristol Palin’s Dumpy Girlfriend on some crummy TV show. “Bristol and Crystal” does have a ring to it, doesn’t it? I, for one, would be thrilled to hear the two of them bloviating about personal responsibility.
I have actually read the text of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (before it was amended) to see if it was really as bad as everyone was saying — and discovered that it’s in fact much worse. Not only does it create a right to mistreat LGBT people, it in fact severely curtails the ability of the state and local governments to address mistreatment of any other group — religious minorities, women, people of color, you name it. In a nutshell, the law provides that the government may not “substantially burden” the exercise of religion, even for non-discriminatory reasons, unless the government can demonstrate a compelling public interest and narrowly tailored means — the highest level of scrutiny. The “substantial burden” bit, incidentally, is completely undone by the language to the effect that even peripheral aspects of religious observance may not be “substantially burdened”.
What does it mean in practical terms? In the case of actual pogroms or terrorism, I think the government would be able to demonstrate a compelling public interest in curtailing violence. It’s unlikely RFRA could be successfully invoked as a defense against charges of murder or assault. But spray-painting a mosque? That’s probably protected by RFRA, as long as the perpetrator claims he did it for religious reasons.
This also means that the amendment to the law, which bars discrimination, barely puts a dent in the statute’s horribleness. RFRA protects all kinds of nasty conduct motivated by religious hate, short of actual violence — and excluding discrimination eliminates only one category. Faith-based bullying, harassment, running roughshod over public health laws, against virtually any historically marginalized group — all this activity is now protected by RFRA, even if discrimination is off-limits.
UPDATE I continue to be fascinated by the cherry-picking nature of American fundamentalism. This particular case (no matter how much fundie conservatives blather about equality) presents an inescapable dilemma: if you define religious freedom as, simultaneously, freedom from coercion and freedom to impose one’s will on others, you are bound to create a privileged group with greater rights than all the others. So consider the following situation: you are a devout Catholic, and your boss is a Born-Again Christian. One day, he imposes a new rule: all employees must attend his prayer meetings. Now, under the rationale of RFRA, he should have the “freedom” to do that; you, for your part, are entitled not to be forced to follow another religion. It’s impossible to satisfy both, so who wins? Haha, you know the answer to that one; the RFRA was passed by a bunch of Republicans, so it’s not difficult to guess on whose side they come down. The RFRA contains an explicit provision stating that the new law does not create a cause of action against an employer. The goodly legislators couldn’t be bothered to at least include some language saying that RFRA was not to be interpreted as a carte blanche to perpetrate acts that would otherwise constitute felonies, but they did take the time to craft a provision that preserves an employer’s “right” to cram his religion down his employees’ throats (to use the Republican patois) and assures Walmart that it can force its associates to work on Easter Sunday, even if they are very religious and would like to go to church. Conservatives love religious “freedom” very much, yet even for them, there is a line — and that line is clearly drawn by Mammon.