Resolved: It's ok to call John Edwards a faggot
The Ann Coulter remarks from Friday have created quite a to-do and resulted in some unfortunate confusion which I herewith intend to clear up.
Here is the exact quote from Ms. Coulter's address at CPAC:
I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word 'faggot.' So I'm kind of at an impasse, can't really talk about Edwards, so I think I'll just conclude here and take your questions.
First, some initial points that need to be made:
Let me state for the record that I do not recommend anyone use the word "faggot" under any circumstances. It upsets people such as the folks at Equality Loudoun, who became quite agitated and unwittingly added to the confusion by making a number of misinformed claims - such as that this was Ms. Coulter's biggest applause line of the afternoon, when in reality it was about 5th. Furthermore, "faggot" is inarguably a pointed epithet which can evoke strong negative emotions from listeners and, as a general rule, for the sake of one's well-being, it is prudent to avoid doing this in the course of everyday life. It is also goes without saying it is a VERY rude thing to say in reference to gay people, in the same class as the n-word, although as will be noted I think such usage is about as common as the n-word nowadays.
Also, it is important to note that Ms. Coulter did not call John Edwards a faggot. The sentence structure is a combination of the pluperfect and future subjunctive forms and yields a hypothetical statement regarding both Mr. Edwards and the term in question. There is no reason to assume she did not choose her words carefully, because regardless of whatever else one might say about Ann Coulter few accuse her of being a poor writer. Her actual statement concerned what happens if you use a particular word. Considering that the public response to her statement has precisely confirmed what she said, there is a simple factual accuracy to the remark. In addition, as John Hawkins observes in the course of denouncing the remark, she was without doubt referencing an incident several weeks ago in which an actor went into rehab after publicly using the word 'faggot'. Ms. Coulter simply took a joke that was already half-made and plugged herself and Mr. Edwards into it.
Finally, before the false idea that Ms. Coulter's remark was representative of the outlook of "conservatives" in any degree goes any further, it must be noted that the universal "conservative" reaction has been negative. As noted in both the New York Times and Washington Post, the major Republican candidates have denounced it. In addition to Hawkins, every major right-of-center blogger I've found to have commented on the remark has denounced it: See Michelle Malkin, Ace, Captain's Quarters, American Mind, Right Wing Nuthouse, American Spectator, The Corner. I spoke with several bloggers at the conference and to a person they also denounced it.
The contention of this essay is that Ms. Coulter's remark is undeserving of the degree of opprobrium that has been heaped upon it and that conservatives, such as they are, do not need to be sprinting away from Ms. Coulter with such knee-jerk haste. In order to prove this point, we will focus on the word in question, Mr. Edwards, Ms. Coulter, and the context in which the word was used.
Up until the mid-1980s, when they began putting "bad" words in the dictionary, the official definitions of "faggot" had to do with bundles of sticks, old women, and knots. Ironically, in my own East Coast, metropolitan milieu, by the time dictionaries defined faggot as "a homosexual man" that usage had become rare, if not passe. The reason was that homosexuality had become relatively unexceptional and epithets lose their salience as the objects become more commonplace. In addition, an increasing number of heterosexuals learned from direct experience that gay people could be decent and civil, and normal manners thereby made the old epithets "faggot," "queer" etc., seem less and less appropriate.
This is not to say the word disappeared from the lexicon (referring once again to my own milieu and, I am guessing, that of Ms. Coulter). Much like "gay," "weenie," "wuss" or "queerbait," "faggot" continued to occupy a hallowed position within the longstanding tradition of heterosexuals questioning a fellow heterosexual's "manliness" - a treasured battery of insults which heterosexual men, and some of the women they most love, have launched at each other since the beginning of time.
I can give some typical, real-life examples from personal experience over the past 25 years. One may likely be called a faggot by one's associates for: Not bringing enough beer on a fishing trip; having to leave the poker game early so as not to get in trouble with one's wife or girlfriend; having to do ANYTHING for reasons of one's wife or girlfriend; getting a tear in one's eye for any reason whatsoever; and the list, in my own case, unfortunately goes on and on. A more abstract usage, still in the sphere of joshing among friends, would be to express extreme dissatisfaction for any reason, i.e. "you just put your chair down on my foot, you faggot!"
Whereas, in the modern day circa post-1985, one could easily imagine the following exchange:
"You just put your chair down on my foot, you faggot!"
"Um, he's gay."
A less common usage is to insult another male who is deemed worthy of insult and incidentally provides an opening because of some nominally "unmanly" characteristic. Examples might be a sports figure "whining" excessively about a penalty or a guy driving a minivan or pink convertible making a dangerous move in traffic. Ms. Coulter's use of the word in the current case, I would argue, falls within this category (although, as noted above, Ms. Coulter's joke was one step removed from actually calling Mr. Edwards anything).
Much of the immediate negative reaction to Ms. Coulter's speech centered on the supposed use of "hate speech," exactly as if she had used the n-word. This, I contend, is bogus. The n-word is so out of bounds because its meaning is almost entirely racial and racist thinking has been completely delegitimized. While awareness of racial differences is real, the ideology of everyday life is becoming more and more race-neutral. Consequently, there are almost no areas of social life, no milieus, in which it would be considered remotely appropriate to use the n-word. One might suggest the narrow definition of "slave" or "servant" could leave open a usage such as "He shouldn't treat so-and-so as though he's his n----" but the window of propriety is a narrow one if it exists at all.
By contrast, gender-based thinking, and jokes based on gender-skepticism, are a long ways from being ruled out of order provided they are not directed at homosexuals - which Ms. Coulter's comment clearly was not. Epithets condemning homosexuals have no place in modern discourse. If she had attempted the same joke with, say, Andrew Sullivan as the object, she would have been comprehensively pilloried and the current controversy would have been over within hours. She'd be dead meat, career-wise. But she did not do anything of the sort and her later comments during the Q and A portion of her address made clear she bore no ill-will toward homosexuals. Jokes or insults based on gender-skepticism among heterosexuals will undoubtedly persist until such thinking is deemed forbidden in the same way that racist thinking is forbidden - in other words, until the day when ours is a nearly gender-neutral culture. That day is not imminent.
All that being said, there is a good reason that "faggot" and other terms once used to denigrate homosexuals are infrequently uttered in public discourse: They are crude, edgy, and constitute a type of profanity. If she had substituted "Bobby Brown" for "John Edwards" and "a--hole" for "faggot" the crudity of the remark would have been about the same. It's not everyday speech; for many people it would not be any-day speech. But Ms. Coulter is, among other roles, an entertainer, and the comment was made in an entertainment venue where taking potshots at public figures is hardly unexpected.
Mr. Edwards is inarguably a public figure. As a fellow human being who has done good things and suffered his share of difficulties, he deserves the same respect we'd accord anyone else. But as a public figure he has also said and done things that open the door to less kindly treatment. Any candidate for office who talks about "recreating hope" will evoke some degree of ridicule from the cynics among us, and one whose grooming proclivities have earned nicknames like Breck Girl is already an easy mark for jokes in the gender-skepticism genre.
Some might ask: "Just because the man is idealistic and supposedly on the 'pretty' side of 'good-looking' does he deserve to be the subject of crude jokes?"
I would argue that the game is hardball and Mr. Edwards threw the first pitch. Most will remember, during the 2004 presidential campaign, both Mr. Edwards and John Kerry made it a point to highlight the fact that Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter is a lesbian. Many people who watched the debates considered the references gratuitous and Mary Cheney herself called Mr. Edwards "total slime". But while some thought it inappropriate for a candidate for such a high office to make someone's sexuality an issue, my personal take was: This is the big leagues and this is how the game is played.
Much more recently, in an instance of almost poetic coincidence, Mr. Edwards specifically refused to fire from his campaign staff two bloggers (who later quit) who were found to have written a number of rather nasty and crude posts - which likely never would have merited news coverage if they'd merely contained the word "faggot." Although there was a fair amount of outrage that a candidate for the U.S. presidency would give tacit approval to such rude opinions, again I contend that at a certain level of popular debate, when a great deal is at stake, the gloves come off. Mr. Edwards was merely looking to gain every possible advantage and these two bloggers were deemed potential assets.
It should be no surprise whatsoever, then, that Ann Coulter would find in John Edwards a fat target.
Ms. Coulter is not a policy maker, Republican Party official or candidate for any office. She is an attorney, columnist, television commentator and author. At the Conservative Political Action Conference - and in some of her other guises - she is more than anything an entertainer. Many of her columns and large portions of her recent books read like a series of one-liners, and her reputation as a humorist is buttressed by the fact that in unscripted appearances - such as on television talk shows and in a generous segment of each typical public appearance - she delivers at least a-joke-a-minute. Much of what she says and writes is brilliant, and some of it is jaw-droppingly politically incorrect. My personal belief is that in the context in which she operates, viewed against all the other personalities from the far left to the far right, Ann Coulter is the best at what she does.
What does she do? During 25-minute appearances such as at CPAC primarily she skewers the opposition.
If they have any sense of proportion, those conservatives now arguing this singular one liner undoes the hard work of thousands probably ought to buck up on behalf of the thousands.
If the point of that half-hour session was to put a public face on the "conservative movement," such as it is, ACU could have done a right fine job by putting any number of economists or judicial experts at the podium. Heck, they likely could have had Michael Medved available to deliver that keynote at the drop of a hat. They could have brought good old Sam Brownback back to remind everyone about the core principles of conservatism and why cancer is bad. They probably could have found at least thirty more people running for president on a platform of "quoting Ronald Reagan and revealing the failures of the former GOP congressional majority."
Instead, ACU took the absolute nutso gamble that Ann Coulter would not don the persona of Alan Greenspan but would, shockingly, play herself once again.
All anyone with a heart can say is, how absolutely horrible this is for the thousands of grassroots conservative activists who now must bear the burden of Ann Coulter's thermonuclear remark. I will hazard a guess that, in living rooms across America, conservatives struggling to absorb the very concept of "if I said John Edwards was a faggot" are lining up to enroll their 3rd graders in sex-ed classes. This is how political movements die.
Now, if this entire discussion were taking place in the sitting area of the local Baptist church with tea and soda crackers, folks might have good reason to be troubled. No one ever says "faggot" in those parts, and those that do are usually either at one end or the other of a large caliber firearm.
But the present discussion is in fact taking place on the big stage, the national stage, where much is at stake and where they play nothing but hardball. This is, undoubtedly, John Edwards' territory.
What sort of minefield did Ms. Coulter wander into with her remarks? Is she like a drunken firebrand who has stumbled into a university lecture hall?
No, I think it is much more accurate to say she is a firebrand who has stormed onto a battlefield of firebrands.
Ms. Coulter's rhetoric should not be measured against that of the opposition's academic rhetoricians. It should be measured against the liberal yahoos. This makes all the difference.
It should be instructive that one of Ms. Coulter's premier liberal counterparts, a comedian and all around instigator, described a sitting U.S. senator as a "butt boy" for President Bush. This remark which invoked a negative homosexual caricature was not considered a big deal by the conservative intelligentsia - much less the liberal intelligentsia - on account of the fact that this is what firebrands do.
In another instance, a liberal firebrand created a Web site perpetuating a whispering campaign against a candidate for governor which highlighted said candidate's purported effeminate way of talking. "He sounds gay" was the basic message.
Tough stuff: But as I said, this is the major league playing field. Ann Coulter is no better or worse than the instigators on the other side of the ideological divide.
The mystery, to me, is that liberal bloggers did not run away from the firebrands in their own camp the way conservatives are running away from Ann Coulter. Oh well, I guess it is all relative at some level. Perhaps conservatives should hold themselves to a higher standard, eh?
Oh, one minor correction:The firebrand who called a sitting U.S. senator "butt boy" is not merely an entertainer, but is actually an announced Democratic candidate for U.S. senator. Al Franken, by name. Certainly, liberal bloggers will soon be lining up to condemn Mr. Franken for the remark made months ago.
Oh, and one other clarification: The whispering campaign which insinuated a Virginia candidate for governor was effeminate because of the way he talked was conducted against Virginia Republican candidate for governor Jerry Kilgore and included a Web page called Jerry the Duck, which was sponsored by the Tim Kaine for Governor campaign. Tim Kaine is the current Virginia governor. The Jerry the Duck Web site was taken down (but thanks to the magic of the Wayback Machine we can still view it).
Hey, this is the big leagues. Conservative commentators say tough things; liberal candidates and office-holders say equally tough things.
Both sides engage in similar hyperbole. As far as I've seen, only the conservatives are throwing their spokespeople to the wolves.
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