Yeah, Alec Baldwin Really Is a Bigot

"Bigot" isn't a "global" judgement of someone's character. It's a description of how they choose to act.
More
Reuters

Responding to Andrew Sullivan's argument, and my own, that Alec Baldwin is—in fact—kind of a bigot, Wes Alwan offers the following defense:

For calling a photographer a “cocksucking fag” in a blowup caught on video, and another journalist a “fucking little bitch” and “toxic queen” on twitter, Baldwin has been roundly condemned as a “bigot” and “homophobe,” despite the fact that he has been a vocal supporter of gay rights. ...

These condemnations are grounded in a number of highly implausible theses that amount to a very flimsy moral psychology. The first is the extremely inhumane idea that we ought to make global judgments about people’s characters based on their worst moments, when they are least in control of themselves: that what people do or say when they’re most angry or incited reveals a kind of essential truth about them. The second is that we are to condemn human beings merely for having certain impulses, regardless of their behaviors and beliefs. The third is that people’s darkest and most irrational thoughts and feelings trump their considered beliefs: Baldwin can’t possibly really believe in gay rights, according to Coates, if he has any negative feelings about homosexuality whatsoever. The fourth, implied premise here – one that comes out in the comical comments section following Coates’ post – is that we are to take no account whatsoever of the possibility of psychological conflict. We refuse to allow ourselves to imagine that a single human being might have a whole host of conflicted thoughts and feelings about homosexuality: that they might be both attracted to it and repelled by it....

It is just as ludicrous to condemn people for being afraid of or repulsed by homosexuality as it is to condemn them for having violent impulses. Freud thought that homophobia and same sex attraction (which is not the same thing as homosexuality per se) were universal and mutually implicating (a man, for instance, might be both repelled by and fascinated by homosexuality because he associates it with the both terrifying and thrilling prospect of submitting and being penetrated). Whether or not you like such associations or agree with Freud, you cannot condemn people merely for being afraid of something, or for having certain feelings or associations: what counts are their considered thoughts and behaviors. The bigot who gets on TV to tell you that homosexuality ought to be against the law does not belong in the same category as a vocal advocate of gay rights who has not purified himself entirely of negative feelings about homosexuality. Homophobic feelings are no more of a choice than homosexuality itself...

Before I offer a rebuttal, I think it's important that we take an account of the evidence.Two years ago, Baldwin—hounded by paparazzi—Baldwin reacted as follows

It seems Alec finally had enough ... This time, Alec -- clutching a pink stuffed animal -- approached one of the photogs who was hanging out in front of his apartment building and lashed out, "I want you to shut the f**k up ... leave my neighbor alone ... get outta here."

At one point, at the beginning of the confrontation, It sounds like Alec says to the photog, "I know you got raped by a priest or something."

Then, in an effort to assert his dominance, Alec got right in the pap's face ... and in a menacing tone said, "You little girl."

You should watch the video in the hyperlink to get the full effect of this.

A few months ago, offended by something a reporter—who is gay—had written, Baldwin said the following:

George Stark, you lying little bitch. I am gonna fuck you up … I want all of my followers and beyond to straighten out this fucking little bitch, George Stark. @MailOnline … My wife and I attend a funeral to pay our respects to an old friend, and some toxic Brit writes this fucking trash … If put my foot up your fucking ass, George Stark, but I’m sure you’d dig it too much … I’m gonna find you, George Stark, you toxic little queen, and I’m gonna fuck….you….up.

Then two weeks ago Baldwin, again hounded by paparazzi, pursued the cameraman and once they'd back off called one a "cock-sucking fag." Baldwin claimed that he'd actually said "cock-sucking fathead." He also added that he was unaware that "cock-sucker" was a derogatory term for gay men.

Yesterday, it came out that Alec Baldwin will no longer have a show on MSNBC. Baldwin offered the following commentary on his cancellation:

But you've got the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy—Rich Ferraro and Andrew Sullivan—they're out there, they've got you. Rich Ferraro, this is probably one of his greatest triumphs. They killed my show.

Baldwin didn't blame his own repeated use of anti-gaydare I say bigotedslurs. He blamed "the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy." 

My way of understanding this is simple. If I were to be found to, in anger, repeatedly employ anti-Hispanic slurs, to refer to my enemies as "wetbacks" or "illegals," if I were found to address an actual Latino journalist with the term and threaten to say "kick his ass back across the border," and then having lost my job here at The Atlantic blame "the fundamentalist wing of La Raza," I think you would be justified in calling me a bigot. I don't think my support for, say, the DREAM Act, or my horror at Arizona's immigration laws would save me

And I don't think it would save many other people, besides Alec Baldwin. I don't think if Jesse Jackson, or Al Sharpton, shared Baldwin's record of threatening actual gay men, and threatening people period with anti-gay slurs, that this would be a debate. I don't believe their record of support for marriage rights would save them. Alec Baldwin a rich, handsome, white guy from the liberal Mecca of the Upper West Side of New York. He enjoys the full weight of our credulity

Alwan believes that we shouldn't, "make global judgments about people’s characters based on their worst moments, when they are least in control of themselves." I reject the notion that "bigot" is a "global judgement." Aside from Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, no single white person may be more responsible for the destruction of slavery than William Sherman. But Uncle Billy was—even in his own time—a reconstructed bigot and white supremacist. This is neither shocking nor particularly complicated. There is no reason why one could not, on the one hand believe,  that slavery should have ended, and also believed that black people were inferior and worthy of a lesser place in society. "Bigot" is not a polite way of saying "child-molester" or "serial killer" or "genocidal maniac"  or even asshole. And it does not automatically blot out one's other qualities such as "caring father," "good husband," "charitable giver," or "supporter of marriage equality."

Black people—who have spent much of the history living around, working for, or working with actual bigots but have not had the luxury of dismissing them "globally"—understand this. I suspect that women—who have, for some time, had to live around, work with, and work for sexists and misogynists, but have not had the luxury of "globally" dismissing them—understand this too. And I suspect the LGBT community, where people must function in families with other people who believe their lifestyle to be a sin, understand this as well. If you are gay your father or mother could be a "homophobic bigot," but you might well love him all the same. For a significant period of American history it was common for black people to have fathers who were white supremacists. Some of us hated our fathers. But for many of us, the feeling was somehow more complicated.

The ability to "globally" label anyone is a privilege that people who live with a boot on their neck don't really enjoy. We see people as complicated, because we must, because your tormentor one moment might be your liberator the next.  This is not theoretical. In 1863, General James Longstreet led an Army that kidnapped free black people and sold them into slavery. Ten years later, Longstreet was leading black soldiers in a courageous, if doomed, campaign against white terrorists in Louisiana. 

And if we are honest with ourselves, as the president would say, we know this isn't theoretical, because we know ourselves. 

The most telling—and bizarre—portion of Alwan's essay is the idea that "homophobic feelings are no more of a choice than homosexuality itself." This is a really terrible thing to write, but more importantly it's false.  And I know it's false because I was once a homophobic bigot. When I was a teenager, my anger almost certainly manifested itself in the same way as Baldwin's. Calling someone towards whom you meant violence a "faggot" was what you did. The fact that it was what "you did" doesn't make it any less bigoted. It means that bigotry was that much more pervasive. "Faggot" littered our understanding of English. Crews who were worthy of beat-downs were "faggot-ass niggas"; when our friends were behaving in weird ways they were "acting like fags"; when a boy shook a man's hand and it was weak, he was told to not "shake hands like a faggot."

I have often thought back on those days. How many gay men were actually around, silently watching all of this, fearfully keeping their peace? I never bullied anyone for being gay. But that isn't because I wasn't bigoted, it's because I was an active agent in a world that made it dangerous to be yourself. The couple of kids who tried, who were bravely game, hung out with girls and were the subject of snickers. Those snickers were mine, too. And who knows what else they were subject to that I simply never witnessed?

The only thing that changed in my life was that, as an adult, I was forced to confront gay men on an equal plane. Sometimes it wasn't even equal. One of my most influential editors was gay. I was 21. He was a great editor. What values did I hold that would allow me to see him as weak? What right had I to be disgusted by anyone? I was kid who'd seen West Baltimore and little else. What did I know about anything?

Being confronted by actual humans is a dangerous business. It leaves you with questions, and things that you think are natural—homophobia for instance—you discover to be less natural than you presumed. I say this because I know it: You can be repulsed by gay sex one day, and then repulsed by the fact that you were ever so low as to be repulsed in the first place. You can discover that your repulsion is actually built on a series of unstated beliefs—what you think about the world, what you think about women, and ultimately, what you think about yourself. 

It is to my shame and discredit to have to write this. This was supposed to be a rebuttal. It's turned (again) into rambling memoir. I wish I had been a better young man. I hope the next generation of young men are better. I hope that they are smart enough to never equate their learned hatreds with someone's very identity. 

Jump to comments
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In