Because a jury in central Florida acquitted George Zimmerman of murder, Stevie Wonder may strike Detroit and other Michigan cities from his future concert tours.
Huh? you may be asking. Why would Stevie punish Detroiters for something that happened in Florida?
“Until the stand-your-ground law is abolished in Florida, I will never perform there again,” Wonder told a Quebec City audience the night after Zimmerman was cleared of criminal liability in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
But in the next breath, he vowed to extend his boycott to more than a dozen other states that have adopted similar statutes empowering civilians who feel threatened to use lethal force, even when it might be more prudent to run away. “Wherever I find that law exists,” Wonder said, “I will not perform in that state.”
Hence the likelihood that we will not be seeing Stevie in Michigan, whose legislators adopted a stand-your-ground statute remarkably similar to Florida’s in 2006.
Wonder is an international superstar whose previous boycotts have targeted South Africa (apartheid) and Arizona (until it recognized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday).
But his impulse to shun venues where the powers-that-be have embraced policies he finds abhorrent is quintessentially American.
If citizens of our splintered republic have anything in common anymore, it’s the conviction that they want nothing to do with states, cities, companies, civic organizations or other Americans who support things they themselves reject.
Ostracizing those with whom one disagrees is hardly new; religious sects have shunned wayward members of their flocks for generations without the aid of computers. But search engines and social networking have made it easier than ever to identify (and quickly banish from our lives) those whose heresies might otherwise escape our notice.
Oppose same-sex marriage? You can Google “states that permit same-sex marriage” to narrow your weekend-getaway options. Had it up to here with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell? A dozen websites will tell you which big-box retailers are directly and indirectly bankrolling the Kentucky Republican’s re-election campaign, allowing you to direct your consumer dollars to competitors whose politics are not so obviously incompatible with your own.
Even meeting space can be a potent weapon. Witness the number of churches that closed their basements to their local Boy Scout troops when the Boy Scouts’ parent organization reversed its policy barring openly gay scouts from membership.
Boycotts are pretty effective if all you expect for your participation is the satisfaction of knowing you are not inadvertently subsidizing your political enemies. But the boycott that succeeds in forcing targeted groups or individuals to change their stripes is rare.
The likelier result of any boycott is to extend the fault lines that run through our political lives into other spheres of activity. In addition to red and blue states, we increasingly watch red and blue television, attend red and blue churches, dine at red and blue restaurants and listen to red and blue music. The less we rub elbows with those with whom we disagree politically, the less we are at risk at discovering that we have anything in common with them.
Yet this is exactly the opposite of the way groups that succeed in reversing the tide of opinion on important matters of public policy behave. Effective change-agents are invariably missionaries, seeking skeptics out where they live and pressing their arguments in venues where their political opponents are most comfortable.
Consider how filmmaker Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar in 2009 for “Milk,” a film about the life of gay activist Harvey Milk, responded when he was asked to boycott a forthcoming movie written by an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage.
“No way I am boycotting,” Black said, noting that public support for gay marriage rights has risen steadily in recent years. “We haven’t been getting the numbers we’ve seen,” he observed, “by disengaging.”
Black has put his finger on something important. There’s comfort in withdrawing into the company of those with whom we feel simpatico, but it’s no way to spread the gospel.
Mormon missionaries understand this. Is it too much to hope that Stevie Wonder will write a song about it?