Mr. Zimmerman, who was a film producer in New York when he wrote this article, is now a writer and historian, specializing in science and the history of space exploration. No further reproduction of this article is allowed without written permission of the author.
Though most of my adult life has been spent in the competitive freelance world of the film business, in recent years I have had the opportunity to observe firsthand the modern university culture, that seeming haven for Marxist extremists and the politically correct. Until I began teaching film at a large private university, the stories I heard about the lack of free thought on America’s college campuses seemed ridiculously exaggerated and hard to believe.
The film course I teach requires my students to make a short film together, with each student performing the specific functions of a movie crew. In last year’s spring semester, one of my students volunteered to do the production work, which included buying lunch for everyone else. To do this, Raquel passed around a sheet during one of the sessions so that her classmates could write down their sandwich orders.
Danny ordered a roast beef sandwich with a bottle of Snapple ice tea. When the class ended, Raquel immediately confronted Danny with information about a Snapple boycott. “Before you buy that Snapple drink, you should know about the boycott against them.”
Danny was already looking at his lunch order to consider changing it. “What boycott, Raquel?” I asked. “I haven’t heard of any boycott of Snapple.”
“Well, I was at the ILGO (Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization) demonstration on St. Patrick’s Day and was drinking a Snapple when someone came up to me and told me that I shouldn’t be drinking Snapple because they support the Christian Fundamentalist Group from the Republican National Convention.”
This sounded very interesting. “What Christian Fundamentalist Group?”
“The Christian Fundamentalist Group that was at the Republican National Convention.”
“Could you be more specific?”
“That’s all I know, and I thought Danny should know about the boycott before he bought a Snapple product.”
It was at this moment that I began to wonder whether I had been transported back in time to medieval Europe, and was trying to stop the burning of a witch by a crowd of angry and ignorant villagers. “You can’t advocate a boycott of a company on so little information. Religious fundamentalism could refer to the Moral Majority, the Evangelical movement, Presbyterians, the Branch Davidians, Orthodox Judaism, Shiite Muslims, and numerous other groups, believing many different things with many different goals. All are different, most are peaceful, and only a very, very few are extremists or violent. Which one does Snapple support, and why should we be against them for doing so?”
“Well, all I know is this guy at the ILGO demonstration gave me a hard time for drinking Snapple because they support such a group, and I wanted to let Danny know this before he bought Snapple for lunch.”
During this exchange, Danny had been sitting in his seat in uncomfortable silence, watching us like someone at a tennis match, his head going back and forth.
To me, Raquel’s answer was wholly unsatisfactory. “I cannot let such a position go by without protest. Boycotts hurt people. You are threatening the livelihood of thousands of men, women, and children who depend on the sale of this product. Before you can stand there and tell us not to buy it, you owe the people who work for Snapple a better explanation of why you want to deny them a way to make a living.”
To this Raquel could say nothing. “I don’t really know more than this.”
I looked at Danny. He shrugged. “Well, I have to agree with Mr. Zimmerman. You’ve got to tell me more before I can participate in this boycott.”
Despite Raquel’s willingness to admit that her knowledge of the boycott was limited if not non-existent, I still suspect that she continued to advocate the boycott, albeit out of my presence. And despite Denny’s public willingness to refuse to join the boycott when he saw how little she knew, I am also doubtful that others will either question her as I did, or resist as Danny eventually did.
In fact, I felt a very strong resentment from the several students present of my forthright questioning of Raquel. That I had exposed this so-called boycott as nothing more than a poisonous rumor did not seem to matter. Here was a cause, and I was interfering with the furtherance of this cause by my insistence on the truth.
It seems to me that we have too many boycotts today. You don’t like the way the people in Colorado voted? Boycott them! Idaho’s legislature did something you disagree with? Boycott them! Arizona won’t celebrate the holidays you believe in? Boycott them! Pretty soon there won’t be a habitable state in the Union.
None of these boycotts actually has anything to do with the problems of our time, nor with promoting a reasoned social debate so that we can find out the truth and try to solve our problems. Whether or not one agrees or disagrees with someone’s actions, this strident, incessant call for boycotts begins to look not like free speech and a form of advocacy but instead a form of extortion and the threat of persecution.
I have not found this to be an unusual occurrence on my college campus, or in the film and television business from which I make most of my living. Our cultural and intellectual community today is eager and willing to condemn and injure those that dare to disagree publicly with their orthodoxy. Without any information, Raquel had been willing to advocate the destructive use of a boycott, and no one but me seemed willing to question it.
What is even more appalling is how casually Raquel and her ILGO friend were willing to generalize the opinions, beliefs, and moral goals of the religious people within the Republican party into a single, hazy, and undefined entity called a “Christian Fundamentalist Group,” and how casually my other students were willing to accept this generalization as truth.
It seems to me that the number of religious groups that attended the Republican National Convention were quite various in their beliefs, and the political positions they advocated were as complicated and various as their number.
Yet, to Raquel and her unnamed ILGO friend, these groups were all part of “the Christian Fundamentalist Group.” And “Christian Fundamentalists” who attend the Republican National Convention are obviously the bad guys and must be stopped, by any means necessary.
The worst aspect of this little tale is that I know that I will be unable to convince my uninterested “liberal” friends and relatives that this kind of stereotypical and bigoted thinking is going on, and that within their own liberal community it is becoming acceptable to use force and coercion against those they disagree with. I myself had not believed the stories I had heard about political correctness and the growing intolerance on America’s college campuses. Yet, it has become my experience that Raquel will find encouragement and support for her boycott of Snapple from almost all the teachers, students, and friends she will come into contact with on campus.
Ship of Fools
In 1961 Stanley Kramer made “A Ship of Fools,” a film about a dozen or so people traveling by ship from South America to Germany in 1933. One of the characters is a good-natured Jewish salesman from Germany who never loses his temper, despite being ostracized during the voyage because of his religion. At one point someone asks the salesman why it doesn’t worry him that the Nazis have just gained control of the German government. He smiles, and says, “There are a million Jews in Germany. What are they going to do, kill us all?”
When the Nazis advocated the boycott of Jewish businesses because they didn’t like Jews, no one believed this could ever lead to wholesale genocide. Because the Nazis were crude, vicious, and didn’t care much for reasoned debate in search of the truth, a country as civilized as Germany would never allow them to do everything they wanted to do.
Yet, they eventually murdered millions of Jews.
Today, I find the never-ending calls for boycotts from the left against businesses, states, and religious groups they disagree with, often based upon rumor and hearsay, frighteningly reminiscent of Germany in the twenties. Raquel didn’t really care whether there was any reason or logic behind the Snapple boycott. Her friend at ILGO demanded she join it, and join it she did.
And once again, no one believes it possible that such thinking might lead to oppression. A country as civilized as America would never allow such a thing to happen.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I fear that we are on that road, and we travel down it at an ever-increasing speed because we refuse to read the road signs all around us.