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The National Review’s Handy Compendium of Terrible Arguments Against Civil Rights Laws

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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.

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  • Bitter Scribe

    I bet all those white supremacists who are clamoring to go to Harlem and hold their wedding receptions at Sylvia’s are going to be really disappointed.

    • Origami Isopod

      In all fairness, the motherfuckin’ iced tea there is said to be really good.

  • Malaclypse

    Protip for conservatives: when you have the urge to mention Sylvia’s, just shut up.

    • Manny Kant

      You’re assuming they want to avoid being called out for clueless racism. I assume that’s kind of a feature.

      • Timb

        I’m pretty sure Williamson gets these pieces because he is African-American

  • LeeEsq

    This is the worse Compendium produced for Dungeons and Dragons ever.

    • Anonymous

      paulscape: torment
      mythstara: red state campaign expansion
      rubinloft: the gilded earth gazetteer
      monstrous compendium: spilljabber appendix II
      forgotten realms: waterdeepthroat and o. north
      ad&d: unearth snarkana
      the will and the may: columnists of athas

      • LeeEsq

        +1, good person.

  • I’m beyond sick of the argument that a Walmart employee who refuses to take an order for a wedding cake isn’t as bad as a skinhead hitting people with a baseball bat therefore everyone should shut up about anything that isn’t a baseball bat to the face.

    See also – I’m not wearing Klan drag and standing next to a burning cross, therefore I am not a racist!

    • Scott Lemieux

      “How can civil rights laws apply to me? I didn’t shoot Medgar Evers!”

    • DrDick

      I wonder if they would agree that I have the right not to teach (or to automatically flunk) creationists, fetal fetishists, and racists?

      • Nichole

        +1

      • UserGoogol

        Well there’s probably a non-trivial number of conservatives who would be happy to bite that bullet, at least to a point. The more separatist strain of conservatism (which this article isn’t an example of, but it’s certainly out there) is quite comfortable with the idea of just completely splitting off from all those liberal hippies. And even conservatives who aren’t trying to build a bunker away from liberal corruption might respond to your specific example by stressing the importance of having schools which are affirmatively in favor of conservative values.

        • DrDick

          I understand that there are such institutions in existence. They are mostly unaccredited and no sane and knowledgeable person takes their degrees seriously, but they are there.

    • Grace O’Malley

      And the feminist version: We let chicks drive, so what’s the problem?

      • STH

        Whoops, that was me. (Grace would likely be pissed off about it, too, though.)

      • Brandon

        Dear Muslima,

  • Thrax

    It gets even funnier when you consider that these are the same people complaining that their “religious liberty” is being infringed by having to serve LGBT folk (or, in another context, by having to sign a form that will lead to someone getting contraception four or five causal links down the chain). Would you say that this is the same level of oppression as, say, minority Christians in the Arab world? You wouldn’t? Well, since we’re not going to remedy any injustice that isn’t the worst conceivable example of its type, you can shut up now.

    • Karen

      Thank you! I get the corollary about feminism constantly. It goes “you shouldn’t complain about misogyny in the US because the Taliban exists and child brides are sold in Yemen.” I intend to use your variation frequently.

    • Sly

      Would you say that this is the same level of oppression as, say, minority Christians in the Arab world? You wouldn’t? Well, since we’re not going to remedy any injustice that isn’t the worst conceivable example of its type, you can shut up now.

      Christians haven’t been burned alive and their entrails thrown to packs of hungry dogs since the reign of Diocletian, so even minority Christians in the Arab world have nothing to complain about.

      • cpinva

        “Christians haven’t been burned alive and their entrails thrown to packs of hungry dogs since the reign of Diocletian, so even minority Christians in the Arab world have nothing to complain about.”

        I’ve always been a tad confused by this: were their entrails thrown to packs of hungry dogs, then they were burned alive? or, was it the other way around? it seems like it would have to be one way or the other, and not both.

        also to, if you do find a “family farm”, or “small family business”, that was forced to be sold, to pay estate taxes, do let me know. I will pass that on to chief counsel’s office, because I’m pretty certain they’d want to hear about it, since it would be a first.

        • I’ve always been a tad confused by this: were their entrails thrown to packs of hungry dogs, then they were burned alive? or, was it the other way around? it seems like it would have to be one way or the other, and not both.

          Diocletian’s dogs preferred their meat well-done.

  • sharculese

    Would you say that this is the same level of oppression as, say, minority Christians in the Arab world? You wouldn’t?

    they so would, tho

    • sharculese

      reply fail :(

  • Mark Field

    Maybe he’s too busy looking for a family farm lost because of the estate tax.

    Or someone actually harmed by the ACA.

  • rea

    “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.”

    Nothing could be more pernicious than turning civil rights into some sort of atrocity victim competition among oppressed minorities. At the same time, there needs to be some recognition that the historic oppression of gays was not trivial–there is a very large pile of dead bodies . . .

    • Conservatives do try to create this sort of division. However, their habit of comparing things like legal abortion and welfare to slavery and then getting angry when challenged, clashes with their attempts to be outraged on behalf of African-Americans.

      And being big huge racists doesn’t help, either. (Even he can’t resist placing systematic oppression in the past.)

      • Brandon

        At the same time, they’ll all rush to defend a guy who says Jim Crow-era Louisiana wasn’t bad at all for the negros

        • MAJeff

          And slaves in the antebellum South got to sing songs and eat gruel!

          • Over to you, Rep. J. Hubbard!

            “… the institution of slavery that the black race has long believed to be an abomination upon its people may actually have been a blessing in disguise. The blacks who could endure those conditions and circumstances would someday be rewarded with citizenship in the greatest nation ever established upon the face of the Earth.”

            You don’t even need to make up this shit.

            • MAJeff

              And there’s a more recent example:

              “Apart from that one thing [violation of the non-aggression principle], slavery was innocuous: you could pick cotton in the healthy outdoors, sing songs, they would give you gruel, etc.,” Block wrote.

              This man is currently a Professor of Economics at Loyola University in New Orleans.

              • Lead paragraph is wonderful:

                A libertarian economist is trying to raise money or find an attorney willing to represent him for free in a libel suit against the New York Times.

                • MAJeff

                  Yes. And the links go back to LewRockwell. White supremacists all the way down.

                • He needs a maker to finance his taker lawsuit.

              • DrS

                I had an econ prof that, at least in passing, talked about the notion that slavery was *just about* to go away.

      • cpinva

        “And being big huge racists doesn’t help, either. (Even he can’t resist placing systematic oppression in the past.)”

        wait, do mean to tell me we aren’t living in a “post-racial” age? when did that memo go out, and why wasn’t I cc’d?

  • It actually shows their obsession with Obama that they use him rather than Clinton, who actually signed DOMA and ran ads bragging about it on the radio. He’s a much better example of a Democrat who supported marriage discrimination.

  • 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.

    Eh…I think this gets way oversold in the effort to find a non-racist conservative. Barry Goldwater knew exactly what he was doing when he hooked up with Strom Thurmond and went down to South Carolina to say, in front of a crowd of 3,200 people singing Dixie and waving Confederate flags, that “freedom to associate meant freedom to not associate.” (NYT, 11/1/1964)

    • wengler

      I think he had some idea that he was going to get his ass kicked in ’64. The only way he’d ever have a chance of running again was to create a cult of Goldwater.

      • And the way that he wanted to start his cult was to cultivate politically-organized racists?

        • PhedUp

          A tradition proudly carried on by the GOP to this day.

  • pete

    Am I the only one who initially read “Arizona’s shocking liberal sensibilities” as suggesting that Goldwater was “shockingly liberal”?

    • sharculese

      you’re not. it’s not just creepy and pathological, it’s also just a poorly constructed thought.

      • DrDick

        Creepy and pathological sort of defines the National Review.

    • Rigby Reardon

      I had to read it a few times to make any sense out of it at all, and I’m usually more efficient than that.

      • DrS

        I find that a fresh head wound helps me understand these folks better.

        • cpinva

          yeah, but truth be told, it doesn’t feel that good, after I stop beating my head against a wall!

  • wengler

    Ah yes the conservative argument that civil rights is a two-way street, since hate groups and gay people are two sides of the same coin. I’m fairly certain that law allows you to refuse to serve people that threaten you, but it shouldn’t protect you from refusing to serve people whose existence threatens your worldview.

  • 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.

    That’s the teensiest almost-infinity I ever saw.

    • DocAmazing

      We reserve the right to serve refuse to anyone.

    • MAJeff

      I’m still not sure what the NRO-style cons disagree with Westboro on. They surely hate us as much, just wish Westboro were a bit more “Minnesota nice” with their hatred?

      • Hogan

        Bless your heart.

        • MAJeff

          Ah, so not Minnesota nice, but southern saccharine.

      • Left_Wing_Fox

        Dead soldiers get caught in the crossfire.

        It’s one of those “no-one punches my baby sister but me” things…

      • KmCO

        They recognize a PR need to distance themselves from such flagrant hate. Substance-wise, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of disagreement with Westboro, though.

        • Agreed. What is “God hates f4gs!” but the shorter of “Homosexuality is immoral and violates Biblical teaching”?

          • MAJeff

            There’s always that whole “Hate the sin, Love the Sinner” bullshit. So far as I know, NRO don’t go for that hippie-Jebus shit, tho.

            • jefft452

              “Hate the sin, Love the Sinner”

              isn’t that backwards?
              They love the sin, it’s the sinners they cant stand

            • KmCO

              Actually, a fair number of evangelical Christians do hold up this rather flimsy distinction between themselves (We don’t hate gays! We just hate the gay lifestyle!) and the likes of Westboro Baptist Church. Somehow I doubt that such an excuse would hold in their own eyes were someone to turn around and say, “I don’t hate conservative Christians, I just hate conservative Christianity.”

      • Bobby Thomson

        NRO disagrees only with Westboro’s targeting funerals of straight people. If they stuck to picketing dead gay soldiers you wouldn’t hear any criticism from conservatives (and probably wouldn’t see bikers showing up to counter protest).

        • MAJeff

          I wonder if they had anything to say about Westboro showing up at Matthew Shepard’s funeral.

      • UserGoogol

        Let’s not conflate things. It’s pretty much the stance of the Westboro Baptist Church that God hates pretty much everything, with homosexuality just being the main trigger to this omnicidal rage. That’s really not the NRO’s theology at all.

        • There may be no one National Review theology. The National Review is after all a broad-minded groupe of people who span the gulf between godless greed and prayerful greed.

        • Hogan

          They’re more a “Jesus loves me but he can’t stand you” kind of sect.

  • DrDick

    The National Review has a long history of terrible arguments against civil rights legislation, but the quality of the writing has definitely declined (though no the quality of the logic or arguments, they were already in the seventh subbasement of hell).

  • David M. Nieporent

    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.

    That is not remotely correct. “Tiny entities” are often exempt from employment discrimination requirements by virtue of their size; they are not exempt from public accommodations discrimination requirements.

    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.

    Roberts v. Jaycees. New York State Club Association, Inc. v. City
    of New York. Frank v. Ivy Club & TI. Wright v. Salisbury Club. New York v. Ocean Club. Boy Scouts v. Dale, until the Supreme Court stepped in, in a 5-4 decision. (Of course, the catch is that people will simply relabel any club to which they wish to apply these laws as not “private clubs,” in a No True Scotsman approach.)

    Maybe he’s too busy looking for a family farm lost because of the estate tax.

    Wouldn’t be too hard, as long as one doesn’t rely on transparently hacky hacks for one’s information.

    • sharculese

      Boy Scouts v. Dale, until the Supreme Court stepped in, in a 5-4 decision.

      well, at least your honest enough to admit you’re being patently dishonest. that’s… something…

    • MAJeff

      Ignore the upcoming annual SCOTUS-validated exclusion of LGBT groups from St. Patrick’s Day Parades in NYC and Boston….

      • sharculese

        ignore. beat off to.

        tomato. tomahto.

      • rea

        One can always count on Mr. Nieporent to step forward with a principled defense of racism and bigotry.

        • sharculese

          i suppose hyper-literalism and self-reverence are types of principles

          • sharculese

            italics were meant to go on types, obviously

          • DrDick

            Certainly the only ones Davey holds.

        • Timb

          See, era, it’s all about the freedom.

          The freedom of the powerful to avoid the less powerful. David has his feudal lords to think of.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      A well-managed farm will handle succession issues in a way that the estate tax doesn’t affect the continuing operation of the farm. In the my experience, farms that get sold after a death get sold because a) there is already a heavy debt load
      b) the off farm heirs want their share *now*
      c)the survivor just doesn’t want to keep going
      and d) any combination or all of the above

      • DrDick

        Pretty much. Grew up in Oklahoma and live in Montana and do not think I have ever heard of any other reason.

        • sparks

          Lots of businesses close or change hands for just that reason, why should farms be any different?

          • Because Jefferson something something yeoman farmers something something real ‘murka.

          • DrDick

            A lot of family farms and businesses go out of business long before the current owner dies for these same reasons. It is a normal and routine part of the business cycle.

    • witless chum

      CBO website appears to be down at the moment, but alleged hacky hack Krugman links to a Brookings Institution/Urban study that estimates the owners of 40 small businesses or farms paid estate taxes in 2011, with a total receipt of $10 million.

    • DrS

      Oh Davey…that CBO report is from July 2005.

      • Hogan

        And it analyzes tax returns from 1999 and 2000.

        • DrS

          And even with all that, it still doesn’t even come close to indicating what Davey thinks it does about family farms lost to the estate tax under previous tax methodology.

          • Timb

            1.5 million = small

  • mds

    It’s a shame, because Williamson actually had the germ of a valid point buried in amongst all the stuff and nonsense.

    It is a mark of the moral illiteracy of our times

    Put that under the National Review header, add a full stop at the end, and there you go.

  • politicalfootball

    It’s remarkable that Williamson can write this in one paragraph:

    And while it may be the case that the American legacy is no worse than the legacy of many other countries in that respect and far better than a great many of them, “no worse than Saudi Arabia” is not the American creed.

    And then come back with this in the immediate following paragraph:

    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, among others, 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.

    So “better than Saudi Arabia” isn’t the American Way, but “better than slavery” is.

  • pseudalicious

    “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.”

    1. As if one end of the spectrum doesn’t lead to the other.

    2. I remember when only queer people knew about the Phelps. Even during the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s murder, they weren’t household names. Bigots like this guy don’t get to pull the, “Oh, but of COURSE we all hate the PHELPSES” card.

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