Notebook

Ed West: Welcome to the Reformation 2.0

One of the curious trends of recent years has been the rise of “the Radical Rich” – billionaires devoted to progressive social movements, whether it’s same-sex marriage or open borders. A recent example is the effort to punish North Carolina for passing a law saying that anatomically male people who identify as female cannot use women’s toilets.

I try to imagine what my feminist grandmother in the 1920s would have said had she been told that the cutting-edge social cause in a century’s time would be the right of men to use women’s loos. “LOL,” probably.

First the soft drinks manufacturer Pepsi demanded that the state repeal the law. Then Bruce Springsteen cancelled a gig there, followed by Ringo Starr. Various large, sharp-elbowed corporations have since piled in to protest, and Deutsche Bank has cancelled plans to expand its office in the state; this is a company that has a large office in Saudi Arabia, where women aren’t even allowed to drive, let alone choose which loo to use.

Are executives really that heated up about this great toilet injustice, or is it that big businesses love social justice causes which distract from economic injustice and annoying questions about tax avoidance, low wages and predatory practices? This process, known as “pinkwashing”, has become particularly noticeable since our culture became dominated by northern California some 20 years ago. Silicon Valley, the epicentre of 21st-century politics, is painfully right-on when it comes to social issues but chillaxed about ruthless capitalism. Or as the Puritans used to say of the proto-leftist Quakers in colonial America: “They pray for you one day a week and prey on you the other six.”

Take Uber, the app that allows people to hire very cheap taxis, driven by random people in their own cars, at the touch of a button. Since its foundation six years ago Uber has sold itself as promoting women’s rights and racial justice, with adverts carrying catchphrases such as “employing women globally” and “While taxis often refuse people in minority neighbourhoods, Uber is there”. It also “pays” its drivers (in actual fact freelancers) a relative pittance, and in so doing undercuts traditional black cabs.

Similarly, Airbnb, the website through which people rent out their homes, has run campaigns celebrating America’s immigrant history at Ellis Island. Airbnb is to hotels what Uber is to taxi drivers, but it’s especially interesting because, unlike hotels or B&Bs, Airbnb providers are in practice able to ignore discrimination laws; if you don’t like the look of a person, you can refuse their request. To me, its business model seems to be based on the reality that house-swapping works very effectively if people are allowed to follow their own instincts (ie, prejudices). Airbnb admits it faces “significant challenges” with the issue.

Then there is Starbucks, which last year tried to get on the bandwagon by encouraging customers to talk about racism and social injustice with its baristas. The stunt backfired – could anything be more awkward? – and attention soon turned on the company’s own lack of diversity in its higher ranks (always a tricky issue).

As for the achingly liberal Facebook, I have to admit to rather hating the site, largely because it’s just too much like other people’s happiness shoved in my face. Using it is like being at the wedding of a contemporary whose life seems to been perfect. I know they’re all dying inside, of course, but one doesn’t see that. Yet it makes it easier to hate the likes of Facebook when large corporations become insufferably righteous.

Mark Zuckerberg, the website’s billionaire owner, has repeatedly campaigned for looser immigration controls that just happen to make it easier for him to attract cheaper software programmers. Last week he made a speech criticising “fearful voices calling for building walls”. I wonder whether his neighbours agree with him: they previously complained to the newspapers about construction work on his $10 million mansion in San Francisco, which is – you guessed it – surrounded by a huge wall.

Facebook is against the North Carolina law, and issued a statement attacking it and saying that “as a company, Facebook is
an open and vocal supporter of equality”. Of course it is – in fact, it offers users 71 different choices for gender, including “gender neutral”, “intersex person”, “polygender”, “pangender” and “two-spirit”.

Last month it was claimed that the company was paying out £280 million in share bonuses to staff in order to save vast amounts on the tax it had to pay in Britain. Yet had a senior figure at the company stated that he opposed same-sex marriage, as a soon-to-be-ex executive at Mozilla did a couple of years ago, the media fallout would have been far larger.

It is often asked why so many very rich people are left-wing. While it is true that leftish ideas – open borders, the struggle against transphobia etc – no longer hurt the wallet, it is also the case that left-liberalism has become the prestige faith, associated with high-status individuals. Asking why a billionaire is liberal today is like asking why a rich man in 16th-century England would have been Protestant; it’s the faith of the new Establishment. And as in the Reformation, the public is prepared to forgive people pretty much anything as long as they conform to the new religion.

Ed West is associate director of the think tank UK 2020