Erik has already gotten in a few whacks at Kevin Williamson’s iteration of the “supporting civil rights is the real intolerance!” argument that has been recycled by umpteen generations of conservative hacks. Still, Williamson puts so many bad arguments against civil rights in one place I thought it was worth addressing some of them individually:
- “It is a mark of the moral illiteracy of our times that it even has to be argued that suffering the indignity of having a baker refuse to service your wedding because he holds ideas about marriage that were shared by…Barack Obama…until the day before yesterday, may be painful, even humiliating, but it is an experience that is not very much like being a member of a captive race that was held in slavery for centuries and then systematically subjugated for another century.” I’ll come back to the feeble Obama gotcha, but I will note that using past horrible discrimination (that conservatives at the National Review contemporaneously defended) as a reason not to do anything about current discrimination is a perennial of reactionary misdirection. (Cf. also “no worker can organize unless they can prove that no other worker somewhere is worse off.”) Let’s concede that gays and lesbians occupy a less oppressed position than African-Americans in 1950s Alabama. The latter isn’t the standard required for discrimination to be worthy of state action, and we need not ignore similarities between cases than are not similar in every respect.
- “having a baker…” Also note the strategic use of hypothetical anecdote — the whether the subject is race or sexual orientation, the entity being theoretically oppressed by civil rights legislation is always a mom-and-pop business (“won’t someone think of poor Pappy!“), although tiny entities where business and personal are fused are exempt from federal civil rights law and virtually always exempt from state civil rights law. (Yes, some local ordinances do apply to all businesses, but of all the busybody regulations passed by local governments these aren’t the ones I’d be most inclined to complain about.) The fact that arguments like Williamson’s never focus on the more typical cases is tells you what you need to know.
- “Imagine you are the gay owner of a restaurant in Chelsea, a member in good standing of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, rainbow flag flying out front — and the cretins from the Westboro Baptist Church decide that they want to rent your party room for their annual “God Hates Fags” Sunday brunch. Shouldn’t you have the right to refuse? There is in this sad world such a thing as a Ku Klux Klan wedding — should the management of Harlem’s famous Sylvia’s Restaurant be prosecuted under civil-rights law if the establishment should decline to cater such a wedding?” I concede the point — “hateful crackpot” and “white supremacist” shouldn’t be protected categories under civil rights law.
- “Barry Goldwater, who set the great precedent for Arizonans’ shocking liberal sensibilities, had been an instrumental figure in the Phoenix desegregation effort but opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964…” First of all, you have to love the “shocking liberal sensibilities” bit; it’s like Williamson is trying to cram every winger trope into one short piece. It’s also not surprising that Barry Goldwater makes an appearance, since he’s the one prominent conservative who opposed the CRA 1) without being either a public or private racist and 2) while actually supporting desegregation at the state and local level. People with this combination of preferences were, however, rarer than pieces of the True Cross for good reason: white supremacists understood the effects of federal non-intevention much better than Goldwater did.
- “The concept of “public accommodation” has been so inflated that as a practical matter no private sphere exists outside the home when the question of discrimination arises.” Strange, though, that Williamson can’t come up with even a random anecdote of a private club being forced to comply with federal or state civil rights laws. Maybe he’s too busy looking for a family farm lost because of the estate tax.
- “But religious traditionalists who do not wish to be involved in gay nuptials are not Bull Connor, and nobody said that hewing to a heterosexual model of marriage was the equivalent of Jim Crow when Barack Obama was the one making that case.” Well, first of all, you already used both of these arguments. To address the “Barack Obama nominally opposed same-sex marriage in 2008 nyuk-nyuk” one, aside from the general lameness of the argument it’s wrong even on its own terms. Personal opposition to same-sex marriage is morally wrong but it’s not comparable to Jim Crow. What is comparable to Jim Crow are laws explicitly permitting public accommodations and in some cases state officials to discriminate against same-sex couples. If you had evidence of Barack Obama supporting those kind of laws…well, you still wouldn’t actually have anything, because the correct responses would be “Barack Obama is wrong” and “Barack Obama, in the capacity of a state official or employer or manager of a public accommodation, should not be permitted to discriminate against gays and lesbians.” But it’s instructive that even when he nominally opposed same-sex marriage he didn’t support them. Williamson might like this argument so much he uses it twice, but it’s one of the worst poetic justice as fairness arguments ever.
- “There is, after all, an almost infinite gradation of moral distinction between the views of well-intentioned people who do not wish to cater a gay wedding because of religious considerations and the odious, malicious position of Westboro Baptist et al.” But this parsing of motivations misses the point of what civil rights laws are for and what they do. Again, when running a secular public accommodation or acting as an employer, people cannot discriminate for whatever reason. As private individuals, people are free to have hateful views along any point on the continuum from Fred Phelps to the National Review‘s more genteel version. In both cases, the distinctions Williamson believes the law can’t make aren’t actually relevant.
I give him credit, though — that’s an impressive number of terrible arguments for one column.