The damage was already done by the time Starbucks apologized.
With tails firmly tucked, the coffee giant’s executives were dispatched on Monday to Tempe, Arizona, to personally apologize to the city’s police department. On July 4, a group of local police officers stopped into a local Starbucks, but another Starbucks patron “did not feel safe” in their presence. The customer complained, and a barista asked the officers to either “move out of the customer’s line of sight or to leave.” They left.
The cycle is a familiar one by now. The incident exploded among the people who spenr their Fourth of July perusing the Internet for outrages. Tempe’s police union complained about the officers’ treatment. Twitter erupted in indignation, both in support of and against the coffee shop, and the story migrated up the chain from social media and onto cable news. It surely won’t be long before America’s political class is compelled to have an opinion on the matter. The question is: Why?
It is easily stipulated that it was unreasonable for one oversensitive Starbucks customer to be offended by the presence of peace officers, as it was for the accommodating barista to dismiss them from the premises. But who is to say what fate would have held in store if the hapless employee of a notoriously socially progressive brand had not erred on the side of controversy? This incident was a product of a political environment that encourages oversensitivity.
The same phenomenon seems to be at work radicalizing the American people against athletic footwear. Seven days ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Nike spokesman Colin Kaepernick had asked the shoemaker to withdraw from producing a shoe that would have featured the Betsy Ross Revolutionary War flag because it was offensive, and Nike consented. Forty-eight hours had not yet passed before Democratic presidential candidates including former HUD Sec. Julián Castro and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke agreed that the flag and the history it represents was painfully controversial. On MSNBC, Georgetown University Professor of Sociology Michael Eric Dyson likened the colonial-era flag to a cross burning or the Nazi swastika. This is a symbol that was not regarded as particularly controversial until a former NFL quarterback decided it was.
Republicans, too, dove into the outrage scrum. Arizona’s Republican Governor, Doug Ducey, pulled a state-sponsored financial incentive for the shoemaker. Sen. Ted Cruz announced his intention to boycott Nike. Sen. Mitch McConnell said he would purchase a pair of flag shoes wherever he could find them. Flag shoes!
Much of this may be attributable to the insularity afforded by social media, in which cloistered groups of neophytes affirm one another’s progressively more radical views, alienating moderating influences and compelling them to drop out of the conversation. But not all of it.
Some of this phenomenon can be seen in the reanimated controversy over forced school busing, a dead political issue until Sen. Kamala Harris exhumed it. Amid her attack on Sen. Joe Biden for praising the demeanor of the segregationist Democratic senators with whom he once worked as a member of the upper chamber of Congress, she appeared to affirm her support for a federal mandate that would re-impose busing on American schools. She has since backtracked from her support for the unpopular and counterproductive policy, and then backtracked from her backtrack. But that hasn’t stopped Americans from engaging with vigor in the renewed controversy.
Biden’s record as an opponent of this unloved policy is under a microscope, with memoirs scoured and video archives pored over to gauge proper historical context. Some conservatives have expressed irritation over the vetting the two-term vice president is only now receiving, but it’s understandable. Biden’s stance on busing has not been controversial at any point in this century, and it’s unlikely to be contentious a few weeks from now.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that cultural and political scandals erupt now even in the absence of a critical mass of offended parties. Indeed, the scandal often precedes the offense.