Friday, August 3, 2012

From Tea to Chicken

The Toronto Globe and Mail looks over the fence at the U.S.’s penchant for food fights.

In Boston, Mass., in 1773, colonial subjects tossed cases of tea into the city’s harbour in what, on the surface, was a taxation dispute. The current food-borne controversy involves the chicken-breast sandwiches at a fast-food empire called Chick-fil-A. As of this week, eating one places you on the anti-same-sex-marriage side of the American culture war over gay rights. How could this happen? Well, the president of the family-owned, privately held business, Dan Cathy, stated two weeks ago that he thinks “we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.’”

Since then, Mr. Cathy’s restaurant has been accused of selling “hate chicken.” Mayors in several large cities have denounced the chain and said they would block permits for the construction of new outlets. Supporters of traditional marriage flocked to existing outlets on Wednesday, resulting in record sales; supporters of gay marriage planned counterprotests inside and outside Chick-fil-A restaurants on Friday.

Odd as it seems, there is a shared underlying theme to these American food wars. For the British subjects of pre-revolutionary Boston, the issue was the right to be taxed only by their elected representatives, not by the Parliament across the sea. For people on both sides of the Chick-fil-A war, which may not achieve the historical resonance of the Boston Tea Party, the issue is the right to live your beliefs without fear of sanction or discrimination.

These are fundamental American values. Mr. Cathy is entitled to his views, gay-rights supporters are entitled to protest them, governments should find better things to do than monitor the views of fast-food purveyors, and observers need to look past the weirdness. Just don’t get us started about Freedom Fries.

We often let little or silly things stand in for the real issues, but in a way, it’s easier trying to explain the esoteric complexities of Constitutional law with fast-food sobriquets. Buying chicken for one day because of a political belief doesn’t change the world, and neither does kissing in the drive-thru. The only hope for progress is that we use them as the start of a discussion rather than the end of the argument.