LGBT rights and the arts embargo

I’d been waiting for James Taylor to announce that he would not be going to Carolina…even in his mind–but Bruce Springsteen beat him to it. On April 8, Springsteen announced on his website that he was canceling his concert scheduled for last weekend:

As you, my fans, know I’m scheduled to play in Greensboro, North Carolina this Sunday. As we also know, North Carolina has just passed HB2, which the media are referring to as the “bathroom” law. HB2 — known officially as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act — dictates which bathrooms transgender people are permitted to use. Just as important, the law also attacks the rights of LGBT citizens to sue when their human rights are violated in the workplace. No other group of North Carolinians faces such a burden. To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress. Right now, there are many groups, businesses, and individuals in North Carolina working to oppose and overcome these negative developments. Taking all of this into account, I feel that this is a time for me and the band to show solidarity for those freedom fighters. As a result, and with deepest apologies to our dedicated fans in Greensboro, we have canceled our show scheduled for Sunday, April 10th. Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them. It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards.

Springsteen’s artistic boycott must be disappointing to Tar Heel fans of classic rock, but it’s also an economic blow against all those who would earn some money at the concert: sellers of tickets, snacks, t-shirts, drugs…. And Springsteen isn’t completely alone.  Bryan Adams canceled a show in Mississippi, which just passed a similar, but harsher, law. Ringo Starr also canceled a show in North Carolina. Springsteen, Adams, Starr–and everyone on their tours–are losing some money now–and may lose some more in negotiating exits from their contracts, but that’s not all. Disappointing your fans and generally dissing an area of the country is risky for any entertainer. The Dixie Chicks never quite recovered from coming out against George W. Bush years ago. There’s also an argument that engaging with people who disagree with you, by making a statement and or donating some money, is more powerful Students on the campus of Appalachian State held an anti-HB2 rally on Thursday afternoon. Photos by Ken Ketchie unless noted otherwisethan publicly opting out.

Not all the Tar Heels are happy about this. At least one Republican legislator in North Carolina called Springsteen a bully, and others have noted that the sites for these artists concerts, particularly internationally, don’t always live up to their standards. This may be a weak argument: To say: you played in Egypt, for example, and it’s even more oppressive than we are–concedes too much. Everyone makes political decisions based on what’s possible and promising at any moment.

The boycott is coercive, as Springsteen acknowledges. If not bullying, it’s at least Boss-y. The rock star is probably less consequential for now than the many businesses like PayPal, that promise to move as much of their operations as possible elsewhere. It was such direct economic pressure from big business that led Georgia Governor Nathan Deal to veto a similar bill, and Indiana to reform and weaken a religious freedom (to discriminate) bill last year.

But social and cultural pressure can matter as well. The artists who won’t work in states that allow discrimination are trying to highlight a strong moral conviction that many in ringo_starr_gty_1160.jpgtheir audiences may already share. This highlight signals allies in North Carolina to do more, maybe even that it’s not okay to do less. It also pressures other entertainers who cultivate similar audiences to consider joining in.

Three senior rockers opting out of parts of their Southern tours doesn’t mark for real cultural isolation and stigma, but that’s how such an isolation would start. The artistic boycott of South Africa in the 1980s, in conjunction with a sports embargo and economic pressure, all added up to a severe isolation that  helped end apartheid.Bryan Adams

Now, Southerners don’t have to get visas to travel elsewhere in the United States, and commerce generally continues, but the signals matter.

Most significantly, Republican governors like Pat McCrory and Phil Bryant have to work much harder to navigate the increasingly strained alliance between economic conservatives–who generally support business–and social conservatives–who want the state to express their values. Other conservatives in office will watch how they walk these tightropes, and mostly try to stay on the ground.

In the short haul, with gerrymandered America, most legislators are likely to be playing to the people who brought them into office.

But over the long haul, bet on business. The arc of the economic universe bends toward trade.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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