by Daniel A. Kaufman
Ideological do-goodism has infected American business – or at least some of American business – to the point that I find myself pining for rapacious capitalists.
Just this past April, my parents were visiting us, for Pesach, as well as for my daughter’s fourteenth birthday. (This year, the birthday and first-night Seder were just a few days apart.) I booked them at the Hilton, which is quite near to our house, with the idea that it would mean they would have to do less driving. My father is 88 and my mother 84. They always rent a car when they come, because they like to be able to go out and do stuff on their own (the secret to a good visit is not to spend too much time together), and it’s always an SUV, because my father’s knees are so bad that he can’t get in and out of a regular car.
After following them from the airport, we met in the hotel parking lot, where I was surprised to discover that every single available decent spot – i.e. every empty spot even remotely near the hotel doors – was “Reserved for Drivers of Hybrid Cars.” So, my parents had to park on the other side of the lot, forcing them to undergo a substantial hike, just to walk through the doors of the hotel in which they had paid money to stay, because they did not drive a hybrid. Once inside, I saw that this sort of green politics was being prominently featured, with all sorts of signs indicating what Hilton was doing about “climate change” and congratulating itself for it.
The experience elicited an interesting mixture of puzzlement and infuriation. I expect millennial hipsters to be confused about what a business is – after all, they’re the ones who gave us the artisanal-hobbyist-startup that is more concerned with being “socially conscious” than making money — but a massive, established corporation like Hilton? Punishing its own customers for driving normal cars? In the service industry? The mind reels. And the blood boils.
Let’s provide some clarity for the (obviously many) mixed-up folks across the land. A business has one purpose: to provide goods and/or services in exchange for money. That’s it. A business is not a charity. A business is not an environmentalist commune. A business is not a welfare-office for Social Justice Warriors. A business is a provider of goods and/or services to customers, in return for money. And if it’s a for-profit business, it is also supposed to be making – in the sense of netting – money, for providing those goods and services.
It seems odd to have to point out that one customer’s money is as good as another’s. If I owned a store, it would be incredibly stupid to implement a policy that would make customers who vote Republican stand at the back of the line, behind those who vote for Democrats. Why? Well, for one thing, the Republicans’ money has exactly the same value as the Democrats’ does, and for another, Republicans may make up a significant part of my clientele. (In this area of the country, they make up a sizeable majority.) Why would I want to piss them off, given that I am running a business, whose purpose, after all, is to … sell things for money?
But what if I think that it’s really important that people vote Democrat? That the country will devolve into anarchy and chaos, if Donald Trump is elected? That our lives depend on it? (I’ve heard many earnest – and not so earnest – liberals talk this way.) These are great reasons to start a Hillary (or Bernie) PAC. To man the barricades at anti-Trump protests. To campaign. To badger your family and friends. But they are not good reasons to make a Republican stand at the back of the line, in your store. Nor are they good reasons to make your paying customers park a half-mile away from the front doors of your hotel.
Of course, there is zero chance that Hilton is sincere about any of this. I very much doubt that the CEO of Hilton Worldwide is up at night, worrying about the well-being of the earth, no matter how many times the obviously environmentally committed and engaged Paris Hilton alerts him to the latest rise in CO2 levels. It’s a marketing ploy — sort of like CVS’s solemn announcement that they will no longer sell cigarettes and tobacco products, because it is “inconsistent with our purpose – helping people on their plan to better health.” (2) The difference, of course, is that CVS’s brave stand on tobacco comes after several decades of a wildly successful, society-wide effort to villainize smoking and smokers and at a point when they are already tremendously unpopular. The selfless company is thus rather late to the moral party, but it’s a cheap way of scoring extra marketing points and likely costs them very little.
Hilton’s move is more mystifying. Cars are not unpopular in the United States – quite the opposite – and electric cars, like the Toyota Prius, are only about 4% of the US car market. One gets the impression that the idea is to tap into the ineffable marketing power of “cool”; to seem to be “with it” and thus curry favor with elite opinion, media types, and the younger demographic. In this sense, Hilton is like a designer, who makes clothes for Americans who are a size 0 – a tiny number of people, but incredibly chic. Of course, if you ask who actually makes more money selling clothes, these designers or Wal-Mart, the answer is Wal-Mart – totally; completely; overwhelmingly. And unlike the people who buy clothes from top designers, who are fabulously wealthy and can afford thousands of dollars for shoes or cocktail dresses, the hipster, eco-obsessed population that might find Hilton’s screwing of regular car drivers appealing have no fucking money at all. There are a hell of a lot more people like me than like them, and I – and the rest of my family – will never stay at a Hilton again. And the more that companies act like this and try to bully their customers in this way, the less, not the more likely I am to buy a hybrid car. It’s precisely this sort of thing that is the reason why the internet is overflowing with anti-hybrid – and especially, anti-Prius – images and memes. Just as the incessant moral policing of every word that comes out of our mouths has made more and more people find the noxious rantings of Donald Trump appealing, this kind of relentless effort to force people to be moral in their car ownership just makes more and more people want to drive gas guzzling exhaust belchers. If the aim is to make more people environmentally conscious, I can’t imagine a worse way of going about it.
I live in one of the most rah-rah military! parts of the country, so I can’t go anywhere or watch or listen to anything without being barraged with pro-military messages. “Armed Forces Friday!” where the local radio station urges everyone to wear red, so as to “Support the Troops!” Advertisements for a local roofing company – pronounced ‘ruffing’, in these them here parts – in which roofing is never once mentioned, but in which the company’s owner tells us in soulful tones that when we see a veteran we should “give him a little salute,” in order to show our appreciation for his “defending our freedoms.” Even a mind-boggling roadside billboard, the left panel of which carries an anti-abortion message, featuring the obligatory precious baby, and the right panel of which is a Marine recruitment advertisement. Don’t abort your baby! Let him grow up, so we can kill him later!
Of course, this isn’t just going on here, but across the country – only not as much. On a flight to New York not too long ago – I can’t remember which airline — a perky stewardess announced over the PA that we had a number of military servicemen and women on board and asked us to give them a round of applause. When I failed to do so and asked somewhat loudly why we weren’t giving a round of applause to the hospice workers on the plane or the pre-school teachers, the looks I got made me feel like I had expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler or shouted Allahu Akbar! while sporting an explosive vest.
All of these sorts of experiences have been accumulating in the back of my mind for years, but I haven’t felt much need to speak out on the subject – it also seemed…well…safer not to – but a recent one pushed me over the edge. My daughter and I attended the high school graduation of a close friend, and at one point in the ceremony, the Principal called attention to the students who were enlisting in the Armed Forces and asked everyone to stand and give them a round of applause. Here we were, at a high school graduation ceremony, listening to a celebratory speech by the school’s top administrator – the guy, presumably, who has the greatest investment in the well-being of the young people over which he has exercised stewardship through their adolescence – and what he wants us to celebrate the most is the fact that a bunch of his students are going to go and get their arms and legs blown off in Afghanistan or Iraq or some other Third-World country we have no business being in. Not the students who are the top academic achievers and who are going off to America’s finest universities. (Actually, there aren’t any of those – we live in a place that is so ignorant and confused about education that it incentivizes its top students to go to local community colleges (the ridiculous “A-Plus” program)). Not the students who are going to devote their lives to service to the poor and vulnerable. No, what we should celebrate are the students who are going to go and get maimed and killed or maim and kill other people. This is what passes for aspiration for one’s children, in the buckle of the Bible Belt.
I am not a pacifist. War is sometimes necessary, and we need to be ready for it. But it’s a terrible, awful, tragic kind of necessity. The sort that one takes with the utmost seriousness and which is a cause for lament. It is not the kind of thing for which one cheerleads or celebrates. My father is a veteran of the Israeli War of Independence. He does not call himself a “warrior” – the most recent development in American rah-rah military lingo – he does not wear skull-emblazoned “Death From Above” ball-caps, and he does not walk around in clothes covered in military patches. He will tell you that war is miserable; that militaries are bureaucratic and brainless and unethical; and that people should thank God every day they don’t have to put on a uniform and take up a weapon. Americans used to know this – the great tradition of military humor from Bill Mauldin to M.A.S.H. testifies to it – but, lately, our attitudes on this subject seem to have become completely unhinged, redolent of some loser with a Soldier of Fortune subscription and a gun collection, rather than the noble – and wise – example of Willie and Joe.