The New Blacklisting

Nearly two hundred years ago, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States in a political anthropological expedition (though he would not have used such a description) to understand and document how this new form of government — a geographically large and diverse republic — was able to function. Europe had experience with hierarchical governments but the American experiment, based on assent-by-the-governed, was still very new. What kind of people could manage to rule themselves? What did the act of self-rule do to the character of a people? How could a free people avoid the religious, political, and ethnic conflicts that plagued other countries?

One of de Tocqueville’s observations was that in daily activities Americans tended to make economic self-calculations that trumped other considerations. He wrote. “In no other country in the world is the love of property keener or more alert than in the United States, and nowhere else does the majority display less inclination toward doctrines which in any way threaten the way property is owned” In other words, what difference does it make what particular religious doctrines or political views a person adheres to so long as those views do not interfere that person providing fair value in a transaction. In this way, Americans of different religions could manage to live relatively peacefully, a condition that Europeans of the time had difficulty achieving.

The natural tendency for the needs of commerce to overwhelm other concerns is part of the reason that the Jim Crow laws in the South of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were enacted. Given natural commercial tendencies, many people would be tempted to provide accommodations and other services for Americans of all races. If they would not be so tempted, there would have been no need for the Jim Crow laws. People would have segregated themselves without the need for specific legislation. It took government to ensure that races were separated.

A more recent example of racial feelings yielding to commercial ones is Marge Schott. She was the former president and CEO of baseball’s Cincinnati Reds. Schott was infamous for her racially insensitive statements. Many were convinced that she harbored racists feelings. Nonetheless, she was willing to pay black baseball players millions of dollars because they provided important value to her baseball team. Commerce trumped other, baser feelings.

It is only when governments or monopolistic industries get involved that the natural disposition to overlook personal characteristics in favor of commerce can be overwhelmed. In the 1940s and 1950s, Americans the entertainment industry who were or suspected of being sympathetic to the American Communist Party where blacklisted in Hollywood. Governmental and public pressure made it difficult for these people to work. If only the quality of their work was at issue, blacklisting would never have been effective.

In the 1950’s, the chief public sin, real or imagined, was being a Communist. Today, the gravest mortal sin, real or imagined, is being a racist. The recent charge of racism on the part of Rush Limbaugh, at least partially based on what is now acknowledged as falsified quotes, caused him withdrawal his name from a group of investors attempting to purchase the National Football League’s St. Louis Rams. His presence as a potential owner would have undermined  the group’s chances.

Limbaugh was effectively blacklisted from the NFL. Many of those involved in opposition to Limbaugh whom would be aghast if their actions were characterized this way, but it is accurate. Unlike most other businesses, the competitors of the Rams, the other football teams must approve potential owners of the Rams. Opposing Limbaugh was an easy way to win popular acclaim without the cost of a missed commercial opportunity. The peculiar nature of the NFL contributes to the ability to blacklist.

The NFL and entertainment industry are private entities that can do business with whomever they wish. But it should be remembered that both Hollywood (pressured by government) and football (largely pressured by other owners) blacklist people with great impunity because of the monopolistic or public character of their enterprise. Free enterprise smooths over differences in society. By contrast, governments and other large institutions can sometimes aggravate them.

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