Wednesday, May 22, 2013

You Don't Have to Be a Monster to Be a Bigot

My Right Wing Acquaintance Number One linked to a bizarre column by The New Republic's Michael Kinsley, "LGBT PC: Being against marriage equality doesn't make you a monster."  RWA1 commented, "I'm for gay marriage, but Kinsley is right about PC heresy-hunting in academia and elsewhere."

Kinsley was displeased because Dr. Benjamin Carson ran into some controversy when he made some ordinarily bigoted remarks about same-sex marriage on TV.
In March, Ben Carson appeared on Fox News’ “Hannity” show to talk about gay marriage. Carson is the latest Great Black Hope for the Republican Party, which is quickly running out of African American conservatives to make famous. But Carson’s appearance was not a success. He should have left bestiality out of it. And any reference to NAMBLA—the “North American Man / Boy Love Association”—is pretty good evidence that we have left the realm of rational discussion and entered radio talk-show territory. This alleged organization exists—if indeed it exists at all—for the sole purpose of being attacked by Republicans and conservatives on talk radio and television.
Carson repeated this performance on MSNBC a few days later, more mildly but a lot more incoherently:
“If you ask me for an apple, and I give you an orange, you would say, ‘That’s not an orange.’ And then I say, ‘That’s a banana.’ And that’s not an apple, either. Or there’s a peach, that’s not an apple, either. But it doesn’t mean that I’m equating the banana and the orange and the peach.” 
Despite one of those standard insincere apologies that public figures make when they've said something notably vicious, Carson suffered.
Carson was supposed to be the graduation speaker at Johns Hopkins Medical School. There was a fuss, and Carson decided to withdraw as speaker. The obviously relieved dean nevertheless criticized Carson for being “hurtful.” His analysis of the situation was that “the fundamental principle of freedom of expression has been placed in conflict with our core values of diversity, inclusion and respect.” My analysis is that, at a crucial moment, the dean failed to defend a real core value of the university: tolerance.
Kinsley's rationale rivals Carson's diatribe for incoherence:
Carson may qualify as a homophobe by today’s standards. But then they don’t make homophobes like they used to. Carson denies hating gay people, while your classic homophobe revels in it. He has apologized publicly “if I offended anyone.” He supports civil unions that would include all or almost all of the legal rights of marriage. In other words, he has views on gay rights somewhat more progressive than those of the average Democratic senator ten years ago. But as a devout Seventh Day Adventist, he just won’t give up the word “marriage.”
I don't agree that "your classic homophobe revels in" hating gay people.  Your classic homophobe generally insists that he or she has nothing against homosexuals, indeed he or she loves us and wants to help us win the struggle against unwanted homosexual desires.  I presume Kinsley has in mind someone like the Westboro Baptist Church, but they don't hate gay people either: they just report that God hates us, so that the world can escape his judgment.  I've said before that the worst thing about the WBC is that it represents an extreme compared to which other bigots can pretend to be moderate, and Kinsley's ramblings here probably are an example of that.  I've also pointed out another strategy of today's bigots: despite their reliance on the Jewish/Christian Bible for morality and the definition of marriage, they're oddly reluctant to endorse execution of sodomites, and protest their devotion to equal rights for everybody.  They may compare homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality, but they're very tolerant, and it grieves them when they're called bigots.  This is nothing new, of course: white American racists hid behind the Bible during the Civil Rights Era, and insisted that they loved the Negro, and it was because of this love that they wanted to shield him from a false equality for which he was un-equipped by his God-given nature.  Not only does sincere religious belief not justify bigotry, it has been the basis for most bigotry historically: the Catholics who burned Protestants, the Protestants who burned Catholics, all did so in humble obedience to their God.

Kinsley goes on (and on):
The university’s response was wrong for a variety of reasons. First, Carson isn’t just another gasbag. He is director of pediatric neurosurgery at Hopkins. Pediatric neurosurgery! He fixes children’s brains. How terrible can a person be who does that for a living? Yes, I know the flaw in this thinking: There is no necessary connection. As a character says in Mel Brooks’s movie The Producers: “der Führer vas a terrific dancer.” But Carson didn’t murder millions of people. All he did was say on television that he opposes same-sex marriage—an idea that even its biggest current supporters had never even heard of a couple of decades ago. Does that automatically make you a homophobe and cast you into the outer darkness? It shouldn’t. But in some American subcultures—Hollywood, academia, Democratic politics—it apparently does. 
"All he did was say on television that he opposes same-sex marriage" -- well, no, he said a bit more than that.  He also compared homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality.  And maybe he said more than that; I don't suppose Kinsley has reported everything Carson said.  But that comparison has nothing much to do with the question of same-sex marriage, as Kinsley actually concedes: Carson has left rational discussion behind, and is cavorting in la-la land.  Nor does the bestiality-pedophilia comparison follow from Carson's Christian beliefs; he could argue against homosexuality on Biblical grounds.  It's strange, really: plenty of antigay bigots have made exactly the same comparison, it's almost a cliche, and they always get attacked for it.  You'd think they'd learn that people who compare homosexuality to bestiality in public will take heat for it, but they're always taken totally by surprise, and hasten to explain that they never meant to offend anybody.  Then they do it again, and again.  (What would Carson, or Kinsley for that matter, say about a white person who compared people of African descent to monkeys, or interracial marriage to bestiality?  What would they say about the white guy in this story?  Would they defend him, denying furiously that he is racist?)

Citing Carson's good works as proof that he's not a "homophobe" seems wilfully off-the-mark; perverse, even.  Just about any adult can probably think of visibly good, civic-minded, charitable individuals who have nevertheless done terrible things: Nazi concentration camp commandants who loved Brahms and Beethoven and deplored gratuitous violence; Roman Catholic priests beloved in their parishes who raped numerous children; or a white policeman with a black fiancée, an exemplar of anti-racism on the force, who nevertheless sodomized a Haitian immigrant with a broomstick.  Carson isn't remotely in the same league as people like these, as far as I know; but if he were,* there would still be well-meaning people who'd leap to his defense and insist that he wasn't a monster, and shouldn't be cast into the outer darkness over a little lapse or two or two dozen.

I can't help wondering, though: would Kinsley argue that "tolerance" requires a university, private or public, not to withdraw an invitation to someone who is a monster by Kinsley's criteria, whatever they are?  And suppose that Carson hadn't withdrawn as commencement speaker.  Would Kinsley insist on the freedom of speech of students to protest and picket his appearance?  I doubt it; I know RWA1 wouldn't.  He'd consider them a bunch of fascist PC yahoos.  I can't remember any time RWA1 has criticized right-wing students or organizations for hunting "heresy" on campus or elsewhere.  When Ward Churchill was being attacked for some distinctly un-PC remarks a decade ago, and ultimately fired from the University of Colorado at Boulder, despite tenure and numerous awards for service and scholarship, RWA1 was silent, because Churchill violated right-wing Political Correctness.  Nor have I ever observed RWA1 criticizing the numerous right-wing organizations that try to monitor classrooms for liberal and left-wing thoughtcrime.  This, unfortunately, fits the normal American pattern: free speech for me, but not for thee.
In fact, the very idea of a “test of right thinking on gay issues” or any other kind of issues, is absurd. Gays, who know a thing or two about repression, ought to be the last people to want to destroy someone’s career because they disagree. In their moment of triumph, why can’t they laugh off nutty comments like Carson’s, rather than sending in the drones to take him out?
This is absurd.  Being disinvited as speaker to the Johns Hopkins commencement isn't going to "destroy [Carson]'s career."  Nor is it comparable to "sending in the drones to take him out."  I've spoken up for the free speech rights of bigots in the past myself, but nothing in the doctrine of freedom of speech requires people to say nothing when someone says something vicious.  Freedom of speech includes my freedom to criticize, and even to attack verbally, people who say bigoted things.  I don't want to destroy Ben Carson's career, but I do want him to know that if he says things about gay people that he'd surely object to if they were said about black people (and they were, in his lifetime), he will face criticism.  Patently insincere "apologies" won't suffice.  I know that Carson has opinions on other topics that are less than fully rational and open to question; he is evidently a fine neurosurgeon, but that doesn't mean his political opinions therefore command agreement.

Another curiosity about Kinsley's column.  He makes much of the relative recentness of same-sex marriage as a hot-button political issue, suggesting that people like Ben Carson can't be blamed because they haven't had time to get used to such a radical new idea yet.
The first known mention of gay marriage is an article (“Here Comes the Groom” by Andrew Sullivan) commissioned by me and published in this magazine in 1989. And I would bet that there is no one born before 1989, gay or straight, who didn’t, when he or she first heard the idea, go, whaaa? Many on reflection got used to the idea, and a majority of Americans now support it.
I've reread these sentences several times to make sure I didn't miss some qualification that would allow them to make sense.  Same-sex marriage was mentioned long before 1989.  Maybe it wasn't discussed in The New Republic, but radical gay activists were trying to get the issue before the public no later than the early 1970s, and it was discussed in gay and lesbian publications before that.  The heterosexual newsweekly Look magazine covered the struggle as early as 1971.  I'm sure it must have been mentioned in straight-but-hip newspapers like the Village Voice during the 70s and 80s too.  I presume Kinsley means that nobody who mattered mentioned gay marriage before 1989; but I'm not obliged to respond to such a claim by doing anything but pointing my finger and making rude derisive noises.

It's funny, because Andrew Sullivan is always claiming (falsely) that gay radicals have tried to erase the history of the gay movement before Stonewall; but here's Michael Kinsley trying to give himself and Sullivan credit for first mention of same-sex marriage in 1989.  Kinsley also seems to assume that opposition to same-sex marriage only comes from right-wing religious bigots, apparently unaware that such opposition also comes from "the left", from gay and feminist thinkers who can actually think about the issues involved.  But they, like anyone who mentioned same-sex marriage before 1989, aren't Very Serious People Who Matter, so they don't exist.  There are other ways to silence debate than overt censorship: if you have a platform like The New Republic, you can also rewrite history, and misrepresent the true range of opinions on an issue.

*The article linked here is from The Onion and therefore a parody, not to be taken at face value.  I think it's a great send-up of the kind of excuses Kinsley is making for Carson, Obama fans make for Obama, and Ted Koppel makes for Henry Kissinger.