I think that there is a time when even corporations ought to show a bit of courage.
Lowe's is a cowardly company. Until recently it purchased advertising on TLC's "All-American Muslim," a reality TV show about middle-class Arabs in Dearborn, Michigan. The show attracted the ire of the Florida Family Association, a group of conservative evangelical Christians, who objected to its portrayal of boring Americans living rather boring lives. Fearing negative publicity, Lowe's pulled its adverting dollars.
Consider first the objection of the Florida activists. According to them, the TLC show is deceptive because it does not portray Muslims as violent and dangerous fundamentalists, thereby obscuring the "true" nature of Islam. I confess to never having seen the show, but I have known many Muslims, none of whom were violent or dangerous fundamentalists.
The reality is that Islam has more than 1.3 billion adherents. In a group so large there is inevitably vast diversity, and it is a mistake to believe that the most extreme and violent versions of a religion represent its true core, while more moderate and functional adherents somehow obscure its real nature.
The protesters, however, are not simply confused about Islam. They are also confused about America. Over the course of its history, the United States has prospered when our national identity has been defined by the legal formalities of citizenship and the acceptance of certain basic political ideals.
The darker moments in our history — such as the legacy of racial segregation — have come when we've tried to define American identity as membership in a particular ethnic or religious tribe. The success of the American model is abundantly on display among American Muslims. Compare the peaceful Arab-American burghers of Dearborn with the dispossessed Arab youth that rioted through the banlieus of Paris in 2005.
Which brings us to Lowe's. By and large corporations are a cowardly lot. To be sure, they fight with tooth and claw against regulations that burden them and in favor of those that burden their competition. On the whole, however, corporations are usually uninterested in the kinds of crusades that motivate the Florida Family Association's ire at TLC's boring Muslim families.
On the whole, this cowardice is a good thing. Our society is a far more peaceful, tolerant, and decent place precisely because our most ubiquitous institutions — commercial corporations — are uninterested in tribal wars or ideological Strum und Drang. Indeed, for all of the political rhetoric of tolerance and unity, one is far more likely to see merchants with sharply differing beliefs working together than to see opposing politicians or activists cooperating.
There is thus a sense in which I appreciate and even applaud Lowe's instinct to not stand to principle and retreat from the ideological fight. In the end, however, I think that there is a time when even corporations ought to show a bit of courage.
Lowe's thrives because America is a tolerant, commercial republic more interested in business than tribal war. Lowe's — like other successful corporations — is ultimately a creature of the bazaar and the market, the place where people of sharply differing religious and ethnic backgrounds come together to trade. It gains nothing from turning the market into a battleground of competing tribes. Such a move is bad for business.
It is also a betrayal, a betrayal of much of what is best about American identity. Furthermore, it is a betrayal of the world that nurtures Lowe's and the commerce on which it thrives. By giving into the ideological bullies from Florida, it struck against American Muslims and thereby against much of what is so very good and decent about the banal world of business.
Shame on Lowe's.
Nathan B. Oman is an associate professor of law at The College of William & Mary in Virginia.