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Why Calls for Boycotts Always Hurt The Wrong People

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The legendary Beverly Hills Hotel has seen a surge in cancellations of bookings and denouncements on social media, as Hollywood celebrities, moguls and others declare a boycott against the home of the famed Polo Lounge and its sister luxury hotel, the Bel Air, run by the Dorchester Collection.

The company is owned by the Sultan of Brunei, who recently announced that the country he rules would follow strict Sharia law regarding homosexuality and adultery, both punishable by death by stoning, as well as other crimes with harsh penalties. LGBT activists and advocates have called on Hollywood power-players, celebrities, moguls and the public to boycott the hotel, so as not to support the Sultan's repugnant announcement. Celebrities from Jay Leno to moguls like Richard Branson have organized protests or vowed not to solicit the hotels, and have called for public boycotts.

They're right to shout out about it. To Westerners, and even to many Muslims, the very strict interpretations of Sharia law such as stoning to death is abhorrent. If we've learned nothing else from the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, or the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks, or the genocide of half a million Sudanese in Darfur, we've surely learned the fatal danger of remaining silent against something we find universally horrifying. And certainly as Americans and promulgators of democratic values and the basic tenets of free speech, you could even say we have a responsibility to speak up for those who cannot protest themselves.

Boycotting a hotel, however, is very different from protesting its owner. Who are you hurting when you cancel events, or urge your clients, your fans, or employees not to do business at the hotel? You're hurting the workers, who are American, not Brunei citizens, have no say in the laws of a foreign ruler, and are just trying to make a living. They are the most vulnerable to the strings that get pulled by those more powerful than they are, whether it's their boss, their company owners, or well-meaning activists who can effectively put them out of their jobs.

Understand, the Sultan of Brunei is worth in excess of 20 billion dollars. That's billion, with a "b." Whether the Beverly Hills Hotel or the Bel Air stay open or shut or lose a few million dollars is completely immaterial to him. But it is of vital, life-altering importance to its combined 1000+ employees, who stand to lose $8 million in lost wages, let alone their jobs.

More than 100 of its workers recently protested against the Beverly Hills City Council's resolution calling on the Sultan to sell the hotel. Their very livelihoods are at stake, and with a California unemployment rate of over 8%, most of them are not likely to bounce back. I'm not as worried about Jay Leno or Ellen DeGeneres being kicked out of their homes or not paying their medical bills.

Boycotts of mid-sized establishments like the Beverly Hills Hotel inevitably hurt the innocent, and it's a pretty safe bet that most of those 1,000 workers didn't even know who owned their hotel until last week, let alone what a Sultan of Brunei was. So why punish them?

The hundreds of housekeepers, cooks, bartenders, and valets just wanted jobs, and especially the tips that supplemented them. Taking away some hotel bookings from a man who thinks nothing of covering his Rolls Royce in 24 karat gold isn't going to hurt him, but it sure is going to hurt them, and many might not ever recover.

If the celebrities and activists really want to hurt the Sultan and not his American workers, they can do a lot better than placing a fatwah on a hotel that's run and managed thousands of miles away from its owner, by people who can't afford to miss a day's work for a rally.

Instead of boycotting an innocent hotel, why not send a message via your protests, not just to Brunei but to similar countries with excessive penalties for non-violent crimes? Use the power of your social media, write articles, appear on talk shows, and educate yourself and the rest of us about what's also going on places like Abu Dhabi or Dubai, so we can make informed decisions about where to plant our money.

These United Arab Emirate countries are the new playgrounds of many of these same celebrity protesters who profess horror at these countries' treatment of gays, but are home to quite a few expensive Hollywood productions, like Mission Impossible and Fast & Furious. Gays in the UAE face up to 10 years imprisonment among other punishments if "caught." Mention that to the Twitter followers of J-Lo, who gave a Dubai concert in March or Justin Timberlake, who will perform this very week in Abu Dhabi and May 23 in Dubai.

American hotel workers are not highly paid to begin with, and they deserve a lot better than a bunch of celebrity reactionaries preventing them from doing their jobs. The Sultan says he's not selling, and the City Council probably can't legally make him, since he hasn't broken any American laws. But if Virgin Group founder and billionaire Richard Branson, who vowed not to let any of his employees stay at a Dorchester hotel, wants to permanently hire away the current 1000+ Dorchester workers, then we've got an effective protest. Sir Richard, we await your reply.