I have a childhood friend whom I see about once a year. Her husband has joined racist Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and is running for Parliament in the UK. When I heard the news, I was aghast. A few weeks later, my friend wrote to ask if I was dropping her and to find out why I hadn’t written. In her note she let me know that she is “fine” with her husband’s move into politics. Now I am at a loss. Does etiquette dictate that we send reassuring notes to old friends whose husbands join far-right political groups?
Dear Awkwardly Antifascist,
Normally, this column advises protecting our personal relationships despite political differences. If her husband were just some ineffectual loser posting Farage memes on his Instagram to annoy her liberal friends, I’d perhaps advise letting it go. Why sacrifice our oldest ties to be pointlessly self-righteous? Besides, friend breakups may serve a developmental purpose in our youth, helping us figure out who we are and how much nonsense we can and cannot endure from others, but after a certain age, we’d all prefer to retire from that kind of drama.
But this is not a normal situation, as you know, Antifascist. Around the world, groups like the Brexit Party, led by such far-right demagogues as Farage, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, and Narendra Modi, are fomenting hate against immigrants and other minorities. Their brutal, racist policies have shored up a right-wing agenda that is anti-feminist, anti-worker, climate-change denying, and deeply friendly to the capitalist class. Given the global rise of such movements, we all have to help raise the cost of being a politically active fascist. People involved in such politics should not dine without rude interruption in nice restaurants or exclusive clubs, nor should they (or their partners) be accepted socially.
As for your friend’s letter, what an outrageously manipulative gambit on her part! She has some nerve. Rather than guilt-tripping her friends for avoiding her and expressing approval for her resident fascist, she should be apologizing for her husband’s awful role in politics. (If she acknowledged any shame or conflict in her letter or asked for your counsel on this unfortunate development in her marriage, my advice might be different.) Write to her and tell her that despite your long friendship, you can’t be in touch during this stage of her husband’s political career. If that seems like too much emotional work, don’t worry: Not writing back might send this message almost as clearly. Maybe if enough of her friends drop her over this, she’ll get divorced—or pressure her husband to abandon this cruel project.
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I recently found myself in the strange position of being fired from my job, even though I had quit several days before. Why would my employer do this, and do I have any recourse?
—Mystified in Manhattan
The answer to any question about why an employer does anything, labor lawyer Tim Sears tells me, is “because they can.” Most workers serve at the pleasure of the employer and can be fired for any reason—or for no reason at all. It’s part of “how capitalism is inherently unfair,” he says.
Your former employer may want to “show who’s boss,” Sears adds. If you’ve been critical of management or otherwise making trouble, the organization might want to make an example of you for other employees, making sure that you leave in as humiliating a way as possible instead of coasting, unpunished, to some other opportunity. The retroactive firing may be an effort to terrorize others and discredit any criticisms you made. The managers would like to make it look as if they intended to fire you all along and are perhaps hoping that your former colleagues will conclude, therefore, that the problem was you rather than the company.
Another possibility is just plain stinginess: You might be less entitled to some benefits (payment for unused vacation days, etc.) if you were fired than if you quit. On the other hand, you’re also sometimes eligible for unemployment when you’re fired and don’t have another job lined up, so it’s not even clear who benefits more here.
Knowing these people as you do, you might not be surprised to learn that there probably is no rational explanation. “The rational employer,” Sears says, “when a troublesome employee quits, will just breathe a sigh of relief.” Most likely, he adds, your former boss is mad at you for quitting and is “just being petty and vindictive.”
What worries me—and more troublingly, Sears, since he’s the expert here—is that, being vindictive, your ex-employer may wish to sabotage your job prospects. Even under the best of circumstances, he notes, employees’ vulnerability to whatever a boss wants to say about them to possible future employers is a huge problem. Most of us do think about it, and it often keeps us quiescent and submissive at work when we shouldn’t be. What’s scary in your situation is that you have no way of knowing whether management will tell people that it fired you, what reason it will give for your departure, or how damaging that reason might be. You could hire a lawyer now to write a letter to your former bosses, warning that if they defame you, you could sue. This is worth the money only if you suspect that they will say things that aren’t true and will prevent you from getting another job.
The problem is that even if you sue, such cases are difficult for workers to win because employer defamation is hard to prove. “It’s hard to know what one HR person is saying to another by phone. You never know what blackballed you,” Sears says. “The ruling class is a closed club.”
But enough hand-wringing. I’m hoping you left for another job, making the blackballing concerns less immediate. Let’s not lose sight of the most salient point: This spiteful, pointless move on the part of your former bosses underscores how right you were to quit. Good riddance, and enjoy being free of these jerks.
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