Jennifer Say is a former Olympic gymnast who pivoted into fashion. After working for Levi jeans for twenty years, most recently as its global brand president, Say has been forced to quit the company. She refused the $1 million severance so as to have freedom to say (no pun intended) what led to her departure.
I don’t think I’m mischaracterising Say when I describe her as a typical California liberal – she backed Elizabeth Warren in Democrat primaries, and is a proud Pride attendee and a BLM supporter. All that, however, did not save her from the corporate fury of her bosses and co-workers. The bridge too far for the woke brigade was Say’s very public stance against school closures during COVID. “I was condemned for speaking out”, writes Say. “I was called a racist—a strange accusation given that I have two black sons—a eugenicist, and a QAnon conspiracy theorist.” But the proverbial really hit the fan when Say appeared on the Laura Ingraham show on Fox:
That appearance was the last straw. The comments from Levi’s employees picked up—about me being anti-science; about me being anti-fat (I’d retweeted a study showing a correlation between obesity and poor health outcomes); about me being anti-trans (I’d tweeted that we shouldn’t ditch Mother’s Day for Birthing People’s Day because it left out adoptive and step moms); and about me being racist, because San Francisco’s public school system was filled with black and brown kids, and, apparently, I didn’t care if they died. They also castigated me for my husband’s Covid views—as if I, as his wife, were responsible for the things he said on social media.
Soon things took a decidedly Cultural Revolution turn: “The Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the company asked that I do an ‘apology tour.’ I was told that the main complaint against me was that ‘I was not a friend of the Black community at Levi’s.’ I was told to say that ‘I am an imperfect ally.’ (I refused.)” (“The head of HR told me personally that even though I was right about the schools, that it was classist and racist that public schools stayed shut while private schools were open, and that I was probably right about everything else, I still shouldn’t say so.”)
Anonymous trolls on Twitter, some with nearly half a million followers, said people should boycott Levi’s until I’d been fired. So did some of my old gymnastics fans. They called the company ethics hotline and sent emails.
Every day, a dossier of my tweets and all of my online interactions were sent to the CEO by the head of corporate communications. At one meeting of the executive leadership team, the CEO made an off-hand remark that I was “acting like Donald Trump.” I felt embarrassed, and turned my camera off to collect myself.
In the last month, the CEO told me that it was “untenable” for me to stay. I was offered a $1 million severance package, but I knew I’d have to sign a nondisclosure agreement about why I’d been pushed out.
The money would be very nice. But I just can’t do it. Sorry, Levi’s.
What struck Say, and perhaps hurt her the most, is the silence of the lambs:
In my more than two decades at the company, I took my role as manager most seriously. I helped mentor and guide promising young employees who went on to become executives. In the end, no one stood with me. Not one person publicly said they agreed with me, or even that they didn’t agree with me, but supported my right to say what I believe anyway.
I like to think that many of my now-former colleagues know that this is wrong. I like to think that they stayed silent because they feared losing their standing at work or incurring the wrath of the mob. I hope, in time, they’ll acknowledge as much.
Say’s piece, published on Bari Weiss’s Substack, has been widely shared around the social media over the past few days. It elicited the usual outrage from the usual quarters about the cancel culture, wokeness and freedom of speech. My first reaction was boo-hoo. These are your people, Jennifer. I’m sorry you missed out on being the next CEO at Levi, but your politics have ultimately led to your current predicament. Now the children of the revolution are eating their elders. It’s a bit like watching Stalin’s purges, but with Wi-Fi and 280 characters.
Years ago, then still a conservative David Brooks wrote an entertaining book about what he called “Bobos” or bourgeoise bohemians: the Boomers who over the years climbed the greasy pole, became respectable and made money, but still retained their 60s’ social consciences and sensibilities. Essentially, they turned into that most insufferable of all creatures: well-off leftie wanker. But if that was bad enough twenty years ago, things are much worse now, in large part to the Boomers’ much more extreme children. Big business is now run and managed by people who are by and large economic capitalists (at least as far as their company and their paychecks are concerned) and cultural Marxists. All our major institutions too are now in the hands of cultural Marxists and fellow travelers, without any redeeming capitalist instincts. In practice this means that the allowable and respectable public discourse across the commanding heights of the economy as well as the centres of cultural and intellectual production is restricted to carefully curated centre-left pieties of minority politics and environment. Say ticked just about every box of the officially approved identities and viewpoints, yet that did not save her in the end. Presumably not all her colleagues in this multinational company agree with her inquisitors and vocal critics, but they have all been coved into silence, fearing their reputations and jobs.
But if you are crying over how respectable moderate lefties are now being treated by the Jacobins and Cultural Revolutionaries who dominate business and institutions, if not numerically then certainly vocally and in terms of influence, spare a thought for the majority of our society who are either right of centre or centrists. Mainstream views held by either majorities or pluralities are now beyond pale. You’re of course free to have whatever beliefs you want, you just can’t express them aloud if you care about your livelihood. A well positioned and loud minority has succeeded in de facto outlawing their ideaological opposition. Just like under communism I grew up under, you can end your career and lose your job for unwisely expressing an unacceptable view. Unlike under communism, this regime is now enforced by the private and non-government sectors (as well as bureaucracies) rather than the government and the state apparatus. This is not the West I escaped to in search for freedom thirty-five years ago.
If you think I’m being overly dramatic, let me tell you of my recent experience with an entity I shall call X. X is a sizeable operation, employing several thousand people and juggling 10-figure sums of money. There briefly emerged an opportunity for a relatively minor professional engagement between X and I. Briefly, because after some research and reflection within X, I was informed that my easily found writings (i.e. my blog and posts republished elsewhere) make me unemployable. It was not a question of me ceasing to write or make public pronouncements while in employment, which has been a pretty standard industrial practice (although again, it applies to one set of beliefs more than others), but of my previous work being perceived as contrary to X’s corporate values. Essentially, every deviation from and questioning of the current orthodoxies can be and is automatically branded as bigoted, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic and so on, and therefore unacceptable. It does not matter whether it objectively is or not, because no business or institution wants internal problems and external reputational and commercial consequences of someone somewhere taking an offence. This is assuming that business and institution in question is not actually run by the very same people who are likely to take offence. If you disagree with us you are a Nazi, and who would want to employ a Nazi?
Needless to say, were I instead inclined to wave a rainbow flag, take a knee, agitate against carbon, or posture in favour of increased immigration there would not be an issue. No business or institution will decline to hire or fire somebody who vocally and actively subscribes to the approved and correct position (though as Say discovered it’s all or nothing). My problem – and that of many many others – is that not only we are not “imperfect allies”, we’re not allies at all. We’re the enemies of all that is good and noble and so there is no place for us in a polite, respectable company. No wonder there is such an affinity between our elites and the Chinese communists, being that they share the love of making money while tightly regulating what the masses can think and do. Karl Marx might be spinning in hell, but Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School are laughing through the flames. When asked about the impact of the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai is said to have replied “It’s too early to tell”. Apparently so now with “Who won the Cold War?” We are very much still at war, but the barbarians are not just inside the walls; they’re everywhere through the city.