I’m usually against “boycotts”, mostly because they aren’t really boycotts. Most calls to boycott that I encounter have no objective in mind except to give the boycotter cause to feel morally superior. Most so-called boycotts are utterly useless in exerting pressure, and the targets are neither harmed nor seem to give a shit. For instance, the calls to boycott the Superbowl because of the Tim Tebow ad. What was that supposed to accomplish? CBS wasn’t quaking in their shoes. Most boycotts have no goals, no leadership, no real effect. When I asked people who were claiming to boycott Roman Polanski’s movies to punish him for raping a 13-year-old, I asked them if they really thought that Polanski was going to feel that and then....well do what, exactly? He can’t unrape her. He’s probably not going to stop fleeing from the authorities. The answer was usually, “Well, I just can’t allow myself to give money to him,” which is basically a moral argument about picking up a taint from engaging someone who did something wrong. Not that I’m criticizing that per se. I think there’s value in some kinds of moral repulsion, which is why most of us don’t want to kick around with rapists and murderers. But avoiding something because it repulses you isn’t a boycott.
Boycotts have to be targeted, specific, and wide-reaching to work. The Montgomery bus boycott is the reason people like the idea of boycotts, but you have to look at why it was effective. First of all, a specific goal for the action was outlined, which was ending the segregation policy on city buses in Montgomery. The organizers realized that to have a broad impact, they didn’t need broad action. Specificity wasn’t sacrificed to make a general statement. Second of all, the boycott created consequences for those with the power to change things. Surprisingly few calls for boycotts do this. Third, there was leadership and organization. The message of the boycott was very clear to those feeling the effects of it.
So yeah, I think that is mostly right. Many of my problems with the BDS movement against Israel track these problems: a huge swath of it does seem premised on the signaling of moral outrage more than in creating concrete consequences (I think I more leery of this sort of behavior than Marcotte is -- place me on the Nussbaum side of the Nussbaum/Kahan debate over whether disgust is a useful emotion for pressing progressive social change). The goals of the movement are neither unified nor generally specific -- I've heard the goals characterized as everything from forcing the dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state and its replacement by a single state (reasonably specific, but also morally bad), to boycotting until a negotiated settlement is reached (vague, and also not entirely in Israel's hands), to boycotting until Israel ceases violating international law (still vaguer, as international law is ambiguous, indefinite, and doesn't have any truly widely accepted adjudicators with the authority to make pronouncements), to boycotting until Israel becomes a "responsible global citizen" (vaguest of all).
So is Arizona different? Marcotte lays out the case.
This is why I think a broad boycott of Arizona has the potential to work. First of all, it’s specific. (Repeal this law immediately.) It links the consequences to the law, and the consequences have the potential to be strongly felt, as Rachel explains in the video. It’s widespread, with people from all walks of life and all angles providing leadership on this issue. And it’s organized behind a lot of leadership. You have celebrities speaking out, politicians joining the boycott, pundits encouraging it, even sports writers! It has legs, in other words. Plus, it’s very clear that this has nothing to do with hating on Arizona or some errant issues that are attached to it. Just as the bus boycotters weren’t saying that buses were bad, boycotters here are making it clear they love Arizona, but they will have nothing to do with it until they change their ways.
Not bad, but I'm still dubious. There are a couple of issues that still pull at me. Most notably, I'm not convinced at the ability of the boycott to maintain such a narrow target profile. The state just passed two more racially suspect ordinances, one prohibiting accented teachers from teaching English (my suspicion is that a Georgia drawl won't be targeted), the other barring ethnic studies programs. Are reversing these part of the boycott? What if we get one repealed, but not the other two? The problem is on both ends: maintaining cohesion, but also the ability to "call off the dogs" when Arizona does what it's putatively being asked to do.
Similarly, Arizona legislators met late last night and modified the immigration bill significantly, both clarifying that the police could only inquire into the immigration status of someone lawfully detained (so not someone asking a cop for directions), and also deleting "solely" from the provision purportedly restricting the use of race as grounds for immigration suspicion. Is that sufficient to make the law acceptable? Is that sufficient to get the boycott called off? Are these questions equivalent to each other? Presumably a boycott is not considered a justified response to any policy disagreement, but only the most outrageous deviations from moral conduct. A serious problem I have with boycotts is that once they get rolling, unless they are extremely disciplined with regards to the aims and organization, it becomes very tempting to try and use them as a brute force club to try and mold the target into the wielder's ideal utopia -- a far cry from the surgical, targeted use originally contemplated.
Moreover, one of the reasons boycotts tend to be high-risk strategies is that until they reach some critical mass, they almost always are counterproductive. Amanda is right as far as she goes that the boycott movement isn't motivated by hatred of Arizona. But that doesn't mean it won't be perceived that way. The Arizona legislation comes at the intersection of two heavily victim-oriented ideologies: White protestant American conservatism, which tends to see itself as perpetually besieged by smug outsider liberal elitists, and anti-immigration sentiment, which of course sees the entire nation as under attack by a wave of hostile immigration. Given the availability of those two mentalities, it is quite likely that the first response of Arizonans to a boycott will be to close ranks against the "assault". Of course, given enough momentum, a boycott could simply slam past that resistance, in which case it works anyway. But it is a calculated risk at best. And I think the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was intensely local and whose target was far narrower than an entire state, consequently had a far more reachable tipping point than the boycott Arizona folks.
So I do think that Amanda makes some solid points that make the Arizona case a closer call than most other boycott movements. But ultimately, I'm still very dubious, and prefer greatly that we allow the burgeoning legal challenges to take their course before resorting to the very blunt, high-risk, and difficult to control boycott process.