Don’t Let the Right Fool You: They Invented Boycotts

Don’t Let the Right Fool You: They Invented Boycotts July 30, 2020

A few weeks ago, the head of Goya spoke at a Trump presser in the Rose Garden, praising Trump and his administration up and down. (Business executives should not be speaking at White House briefings to which their businesses bear no relevance.) Goya sells food marketed primarily to Latinx people. A number of prominent figures, including Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, responded to its CEOs’ actions along these lines:

The Right responded with outrage that anyone would dare boycott Goya. They accused boycotters of violating Goya’s first amendment rights. They connected AOC’s tweet to “cancel culture.” The president and his family did product placement ads for Goya. Right-wing media expressed outrage at alleged widespread Leftist boycott of Goya, which mostly primarily only in Right-wing pundits minds, as far as I can see.

Conservatives shared posts memes this:

The meme’s text reads:

“In my house we don’t ‘cancel’ anyone because we disagree with their opinion. We embrace diversity of thought and welcome an open dialogue. It’s a founding principle of our house and our nation. #cometothetable.”

The meme is shared with the comment “Amen, Pastor.” And, crucially, the words are set over an image of cans of Goya beans.

I have been flabbergasted at Right-wing claims to be against cancel culture, against censorship, and against boycotts. The Right has done all of these things in spades for decades now.

LGTBQ youth growing up in evangelical homes are very often “canceled” by their parents. As a young adult, I was “canceled” by my evangelical parents for switching from a young earth creationist to a theistic evolutionist (note the term theistic—I still believed God did it, but that didn’t seem to matter). Huge swaths of congregations “cancel” each other over small theological (or other) issues when they go through a “church split.” The Right has “canceled” the “MSM” for being liberal and “fake news.” Think back to far earlier, when Right-wing congressmen waged ruthless battles to identify and cancel “communists” in Hollywood.

The idea that conservatives don’t engage in “cancel culture” left right and center is bizarre. As far as I’m concerned, they might as well have invented cancel culture. I’m reminded of the following tweet:

So yeah, there’s that. Liberty University just dissolved their entire philosophy department over concerns that its professors were too liberal, or secular. Conservatives cancel people all the damn time. 

Conservatives didn’t just arguably invent cancel culture, they also arguably invented the modern commercial boycott. Let’s talk about the time evangelicals boycotted Kmart. In all of conservative outrage—outrage, I tell you!—over a few people on the Left saying they’re going to stop buying Goya, why has no one brought up Kmart?

Heck, the American Family Association took responsibility for tanking Kmart. No, really! They argued that they had boycotted Kmart so hard that the company was no longer profitable.

Have a look at this press release from 1994:

American Family Association says that its boycott of Kmart continues to cause the company major economic woes. Kmart recently reported that it expects to post its seventh consecutive quarterly profit decline in the fiscal third quarter ending October 26. In addition, Kmart recently reported that it will be closing 110 stores because of declining profits.

Yes, that’s right! Take that, Kmart!

So, what exactly did Kmart do?

Wildmon said the boycott began in the spring of 1990 when Waldenbooks, which is owned by Kmart, sued AFA. Waldenbooks sued the AFA because of AFA’s efforts against pornography. Kmart’s economic troubles began a few months after the AFA boycott began.

“We called for a boycott of Kmart because all the profits from Waldenbooks porn sales go to Kmart and because Kmart refused to take the porn out of their bookstores and refused to instruct Waldenbooks to drop their suit against AFA,” Wildmon said.

I had to turn to Wikipedia to figure out exactly what happened here.

In the 1980s, the American Family Association launched massive boycott campaigns against a variety of retailers in an effort to force these retailers to stop selling Playboy and Penthouse magazines, on the grounds that pornography is immoral. For reasons that remain unclear to me, they zeroed in on Kmart, which owned Waldenbooks, which sold Playboy and Penthouse in their magazines sections.

In a New York Times article, Wildmon explained as follows:

”Waldenbooks can sell anything they want to sell. But if they elect to carry pornography, we elect not to do business with them.

”We also elect to encourage people not to trade with them, through mailings and other means. We have a constitutional right to do that.”

In response to these boycotts, WaldenBooks sued the American Family Association under federal racketeering (RICO) statutes:

Waldenbooks … filed a lawsuit against the association’s Florida chapter in October in Federal District Court in Miami, contending that the association’s activities concerning its business amounts to racketeering.

”There are complaints from all of the country, and it seems to go beyond an organized effort,” Ms. Krug said.

Waldenbooks and the other plaintiffs are alleging that the American Family Association chapter in Florida has violated the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, by harassing stores and trying to prevent them from conducting business.

The AFA did more than boycott; they also picketed Kmart stores. This lawsuit was ultimately settled out of court. In the meantime, the AFA zoned in on Kmart and pulled out all stops in its promotion of a boycott.

From a 1991 AFA newsletter:

The 1994 AFA press release cited above boasted that:

[Wildmon] said that AFA has distributed over 20,000,000 “Boycott Kmart” cards, mailed approximately three million boycott packets, and promoted the boycott through 160,000 churches and over several hundred Christian radio stations.

As I say, I grew up in an evangelical home and I remember this boycott. As a child, I knew damn well that we didn’t shop at Kmart—and I knew why. Because they sold pornography. The American Family Association didn’t just launch an evangelical boycott of Kmart—they believed their boycott substantially hurt Kmart. The boycott only ended in 1995, after Kmart finally divested itself of Waldenbooks.

From the AFA’s 1995 newsletter:


As I said: evangelicals invented cancel culture. They invented the modern consumer boycott. This isn’t just ancient history, either. In 2016, the American Family Association launched a boycott of Target after Target announced that transgender people could use the bathroom that matched their gender identity. The Right also boycotted Nike in 2018 after they featured Colin Kaepernick in their advertising.

It is absurd that the Right is suddenly claiming that consumer boycotts are a violation of the rights of corporate executives. Utterly absurd. Boycotts are basically their go-to. They are the king and queen of cancel culture. Don’t let them steal the narrative here. They’re lying. I am sick and tired of dealing with people who are so disingenuous that their positions depend not on any underlying values or principles, but instead merely on the vicissitudes of the current political moment.

Note: The right did not actually invent the boycott; boycotts are actually woven into the fabric of our country. The United States as a country was founded on boycotts. Literally! On the eve of the America Revolution, the colonists chose to boycott goods that required tax stamps. I’ve read historical monographs arguing that these boycotts were the colonists’ way of exercising their right to free speech—via consumer products—and that it was this experience that gave them a taste of what they could do and led the colonists to demand more, declaring their independence from Great Britain. That’s right: our national roots go back to boycotts.

I don’t object to boycotts; I object to the Right’s claim that people are “canceling” Goya and that boycotting Goya is un-American or a violation of Goya’s free speech. That is balderdash. Boycotts are perhaps the most American expression of free speech that exists. 

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