America Returns to McCarthyism, With Hypocrisy to Boot

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Is there anybody out there who hasn't heard of a third-rate provider of unhealthy fast food called Chick-fil-A? I certainly hadn't, not until I'd heard that the president of the company had mouthed off about gay marriage -- and how a campaign was afoot to punish the company by banning its outlets.

Chick-fil-A President Dan T. Cathy is no dummy, and I'm sure he realized he would set off a furor when he told a Baptist journal that his company was "very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit." I have no doubt that he knew he would tick off gays, and delight fundamentalist Christians, when he said: "I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.' "

So I have no sympathy for Chick-fil-A, and hope it gets hurt in the pocketbook. People annoyed with this company are right to take their business elsewhere, and urge others to do so. There's already ample reason not to eat there -- the sale of allegedly carcinogenic products. So a boycott is a sensible expression of outrage, just as it makes sense not to patronize companies that pollute the Gulf of Mexico or cyberstalk their critics.

But I have a real problem with the rising tide of hysteria that has formed over Chick-fil-A. It's gone well beyond voting with one's feet, with politicians intervening to inflict real damage on the company, using their muscle to have Chick-fil-A franchises banned from their cities. The Washington Post notes that the mayors of Chicago, Boston and San Francisco have warned Chick-fil-A not to pursue new franchises in their cities, and to stay out if they aren't already there. San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee said on Twitter that the "Closest #ChickFilA to San Francisco is 40 miles away & I strongly recommend that they not try to come any closer."

This mounting tide of fury against Chick-fil-A is bad for several reasons, one of which is its resemblance to McCarthyism.

I'm reminded of what happened back in 1977, when Vanessa Redgrave was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the movie Julia. There was widespread outrage because Redgrave had made comments supporting Palestinians that had antagonized many Jews. Many refused to see Julia, which was understandable (and not just because its historical accuracy was dubious). Why patronize a movie if you strongly dislike one of its stars? It's the same with Chick-fil-A. Why patronize a salty-chicken store if you don't like the guy who runs it?

But the outrage against Redgrave didn't end there. There was a campaign to deny her the Best Actress Oscar.

Dore Schary, who headed the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, detested Redgrave. He wouldn't even sit in the same room with her. But he called the campaign to deny her an Oscar "ridiculous." Schary, a former MGM executive, said: "We went through a period years ago in this industry when people were barred for their political opinions. It would be awful if we did the same again."

That was a reference to the McCarthy era, when government, in the form of Congressional committees, ruined the careers of actors, writers and journalists because of their political views. Schary was one of the few studio execs to oppose the wave of hysteria that was sweeping Hollywood and the nation at the time.

The McCarthy era was notable not just for its meanness and griminess, but for its hypocrisy. And we're seeing that played out again with Chick-fil-A -- in spades. For politicians, Chic-fil-A has become a no-cost way of showing that you walk with the Gods, even if you are as much for sale as the fat-laden chicken sandwiches of you-know-what.

Probably the best example of that involves Christine Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council and a leading contender in the race for mayor next year. Quinn is famous for being in the pockets of real estate interests whose support she expects next year, kowtowing to New York's builders even when it means going against her own constituents. As a real estate trade magazine has pointed out, she is the "real state community's favorite for mayor."

Among other things, Quinn opposed the people of Greenwich Village, as expressed by the unanimous vote of the local community board, and supported an enormous expansion of the New York University campus that drew opposition from NYU faculty members and students as well as local residents.

This same Christine Quinn just wrote the president of NYU -- yep, the same NYU that is expanding like a cyclops in the Village -- to demand that he shut the only Chick-fil-A store in New York, which happens to be located on the NYU campus. What a coinky-dink!

For cynical politicians like Quinn, Chick-fil-A presents a glorious opportunity for no-cost posturing, while not discomfiting one bit the big-money boys who fund their campaigns. In a sense, they're operating out of the same playbook as Cathy, who sells a product that makes people fat at a time when obesity is being recognized as the nation's No. 1 health problem. His blatherings have showered an obscure chicken chain with millions of dollars in free publicity, and diverted attention from his products' waist-extending qualities.

You can bet that for every sale that Chick-fil-A loses in New York, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco, it will pick up 10 in the Bible Belt. The same goes for any franchises that may be forced to shut down thanks to pressure from "progressive" politicians. Everybody wins -- except the voters and chicken eaters of America.

Gary Weiss's most recent book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press.