The whole business of Brendan Eich having to step down as CEO of Mozilla because of a prior political contribution (and an unwillingness to renounce said contribution), is just a real tragedy.

As Marco Arment summarized: “Ten days ago, Brendan Eich was appointed Mozilla CEO. But Eich previously funded anti-gay bigotry, which caused a huge public uproar. Three members even quit Mozilla’s board. Today, he’s out.”

I remember first hearing about that contribution of Eich’s, and being disappointed. Not that the laws on the books in California care one way or the other, but I didn’t agree with his opinion then, and I still don’t now.

Arment continues, in another post:

A hundred years ago, saying that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote was a “political view”. Now, that would be a ridiculous and highly offensive opinion regardless of what any religion or political party said on the topic. Most discriminating “political views” of this sort eventually become widely recognized as unacceptable, barbaric bigotry with no place in civilized society — it’s just a matter of time.

As much as gay-rights opponents would like to believe otherwise, that time has come for their “political views”.

Which sounds fine, but at the time of Eich’s political contribution, it was a “political view”, by definition. So I wonder: where, on Arment’s timeline of “political view” eventually transitioning to “unacceptable, barbaric bigotry” does the statute of limitations kick in? Yes, Eich had ample opportunity now, in 2014, to recant and acknowledge this change, and he didn’t do it, so it could be argued he hasn’t changed his view.

But I just can’t read his post, Inclusiveness at Mozilla, written during his very brief tenure as CEO, without being impressed by someone who sure doesn’t sound like he’d turn the organization into a hate-mongering monster or the Chik-fil-A of Internet technologies.

I am committed to ensuring that Mozilla is, and will remain, a place that includes and supports everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, economic status, or religion.

You will see exemplary behavior from me toward everyone in our community, no matter who they are; and the same toward all those whom we hope will join, and for those who use our products.

You should read all of it, it isn’t long.

There are two things that I keep coming back to. One is a Cincinnati City Council election, many years ago, in which one of the candidates fell prey to a whisper campaign that she was a lesbian. It was a close race, which she lost. Whether questions about her sexual orientation substantively affected that outcome, I don’t really know. But I do remember wondering, and arguing, ‘who cares?!’ What possible impact could her orientation have on whether she can serve in the job she was standing for? None. Absolutely none. (Thankfully our society is getting to the point now where more people realize that, even deep in the heart of reddest Texas.)

The comparison, I hope, is obvious. The difference is that Eich would indeed have been in a position, as CEO, to affect the Mozilla organization with his exclusionary views. But that was very publicly known, acknowledged, and disavowed clearly by him. Mozilla is a public, non-profit corporation [edit: not publicly-traded, actually a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation with all profits reinvested into the Foundation], and you can bet your bottom dollar that the slightest “anti-gay” policy there would have been pounced upon (as it should be) by the board, by other employees, by the community. But we could have waited to see if and when that ever happened, rather than pre-judging, jumping to the conclusion that it definitely would happen.

The second thing to consider here is, this is Brendan frickin’ Eich we’re talking about here. The guy who created JavaScript (yes, warts and all, he’s long been the first to admit), a guy who helped create Mozilla in the first place. Kids today can use Chrome and take the state of the open web for granted, but this outcome was far from assured in the early 2000s. The guy has literally dedicated his career to foundational technologies that make modern-day life what it is. And not just in the past, but right up until his resignation: running Mozilla, speaking, working on ECMAScript 6, etc.

(An aside: with all due empathy (or as much as I can honestly claim from outside their experience), and I get the point he’s making, but for the guy at Rarebit, a company founded to make web apps for the Mozilla Marketplace, to say “He actively took steps to ensure that rarebit couldn’t exist!” goes beyond hyperbolic and into the realm of plain old asinine.)

Here’s how Marc Andreessen, co-author of Mosaic and cofounder of Netscape, put it on Twitter the other day:

Javascript in browser became BY FAR most widely used programming language in human history. Breathtaking achievement. Beyond amazing.

Years later, after Netscape/AOL and AOL/TimeWarner mergers, Brendan called me to see if I could help free Mozilla into a nonprofit.

I called Jim Barksdale who was on AOL-TW board; with Jim’s help, Mitchell Baker and Brendan successfully established Mozilla Foundation.

This was an unnatural act for a big company, could have easily not happened. Mitchell and Brendan made it happen, redefined web again.

So, if you like your browser, your Firefox, and/or your Javascript, whatever your political beliefs, you owe Brendan a debt of gratitude.

I’m not saying that influential or famous people should get a free pass on owning the consequences of their words or actions. But here are the two sides of the scales as I see them: on one side is a giant of the tech industry who has contributed so much in so many ways that it’s hard to even quantify, and who wants to increase his level of contribution even further. On the other side, there is one ultimately ineffective political contribution made six years ago.

But, wait. That’s not actually all that’s on the second side. There’s also the righteous indignation of OKCupid and a horde of other angry Internet villagers. Ultimately, inevitably, their weight was too much.

I’ll end with some words from the Andrew Sullivan post that really got me thinking about all this:

When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line. This is McCarthyism applied by civil actors. This is the definition of intolerance. If a socially conservative private entity fired someone because they discovered he had donated against Prop 8, how would you feel? It’s staggering to me that a minority long persecuted for holding unpopular views can now turn around and persecute others for the exact same reason. If we cannot live and work alongside people with whom we deeply disagree, we are finished as a liberal society.