2 Theories of Racial Controversy at National Review

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Debating John Derbyshire's ouster, Mark Steyn argues for relativism, while Maggie Gallagher defends objective standards. 

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Should the right condemn bigoted excesses written or uttered by fellow conservatives? Or accept instances of racism, sexism, homophobia, or Islamophobia because to do otherwise would stifle public discourse and play into the hands of the left? Those are the respective visions being discussed at National Review by two longtime contributors. Consider their arguments. 

Maggie Gallagher's defense of objective standards: The stalwart opponent of same-sex marriage observes that a different set of rules apply when the subject is race, but says that's understandable:

Race is different from anything else. A whole race of people was enslaved in my country -- imported from other countries in order to systematically deny their basic human rights and American guarantees of civil rights, which stem from God not government," she writes. "When slavery was overthrown, a whole set of other barriers, formal and informal, to the exercise of basic human rights by African-Americans was created and imposed to sustain a racist legal and social order, a system which lasted roughly 100 years after slavery. Dismantling this government-imposed and encouraged racism was a gargantuan undertaking. Social taboos against racist language or genuinely racist ideas were part of this process.

She goes on to argue that these desirable taboos unfortunately but unavoidably lead to some abuses:

Because taboo-setting on racist speech became a pathway to power, including the power to exclude and marginalize the taboo-breaker as racist -- the inevitable incessant temptation concerning this taboo is to politicize it, to use its power to exclude and marginalize not those who are genuinely racists, but just one's political opponents. Because power corrupts, I do not see any way around this temptation except to honestly attempt to draw and sustain an important moral line. And to resist efforts to politicize it, or worse, to expand it to ever new categories of victims. The story of race in this country is sui generis.

Her conclusion:

The conservative movement I joined is profoundly pro-individual, pro-human rights, and ideologically opposed to racism. For NR to kowtow to outside pressure would be weak, but drawing the moral lines we are willing to stand on as a movement is leadership... Who are we as a movement? Does the U.S. conservative movement include genuine honest racism, openly (however politely) expressed? That's the question. Not us vs. them, but who are we? Only we can answer that.

Mark Steyn's call for ethical relativism: The prolific writer and occasional Rush Limbaugh guest host disputes the notion that conservatives should set standards based on who they are or what is right, arguing that the behavior of the left should inform how the right reacts to racial controversy. After affirming that he "didn't like" Derbyshire's controversial piece, Steyn went on to write:

Derb's wife is Chinese and his children are biracial. And I can see why, in a world in which a four-time mayor of America's capital city can disparage your own family's race ("these Asians coming in ... those dirty shops ... they ought to go") and pay no price, a chap might come to resent the way polite society's indulgence of racism is so highly selective.

Though Steyn is misinformed when he says that Barry's racism was indulged, he is suggesting that racist behavior isn't as bad if a) your family has been the object of racism; b) a member of the targeted racial group has gotten away with racism in the past. Steyn proceeds to broaden his argument:

The Left is pretty clear about its objectives on everything from climate change to immigration to gay marriage: Rather than win the debate, they'd just as soon shut it down. They've had great success in shrinking the bounds of public discourse, and rendering whole areas of public policy all but undiscussable. In such a climate, my default position is that I'd rather put up with whatever racist/sexist/homophobic/Islamophobic/whateverphobic excess everybody's got the vapors about this week than accept ever tighter constraints on "acceptable" opinion. The latter kills everything, not least the writing skills of the ideologically conformist: Note how cringe-makingly limp the Derbyshire "satires" are, even in the marquee publications.

To summarize, Steyn says racist, sexist, homophobic, and Islamophobic excesses should be tolerated as long as people on the left are trying to narrow the bounds of public discourse. His notion of appropriate conservative behavior is determined by the way that he perceives the left to be behaving. 

His conclusion:

The net result of Derb's summary execution by NR will be further to shrivel the parameters, and confine debate in this area to ever more unreal fatuities. He knew that mentioning the Great Unmentionables would sooner or later do him in, and, in an age when shrieking "That's totally racist!" is totally gay, he at least has the rare satisfaction of having earned his colors... NR shouldn't be rewarding those who want to play this game. The more sacrifices you offer up, the more ravenously the volcano belches.

As I see it, Gallagher's standard would serve conservatism reasonably well (and is by all appearances more widely held among conservative commentators, including at National Review), whereas Steyn's standard could only result in a corrupt movement that openly tolerated all manner of bigotry*. To cede to your least-moral foes the power to determine your behavior is cowardly, depraved, and probably hypocritical, for I find it hard to imagine Steyn defending a black liberal's anti-white racism by observing that, after all, some white conservatives are as bad.

A better antagonist for Gallagher is Noah Millman, who is less inclined than she is to accept the necessity of racial taboos. "Is Derbyshire's piece racist? Of course it's racist. His whole point is that it is both rational and morally right for his children to treat black people significantly differently from white people, and to fear them," Millman writes. "But 'racist' is a descriptive term, not a moral one. The 'race realist' crowd is strongly convinced of the accuracy of Derbyshire's major premises, and they are not going to be argued out of that conviction by the assertion such conviction is 'racist' -- nor, honestly, should they be. For that reason, I feel it's important to argue that Derbyshire's conclusions do not follow simply from those premises, and are, in fact, morally incorrect even if those premises are granted for the sake of argument." As someone who places a high value on both robust public discourse and the fact that racism is now taboo, I won't even try to mediate between these two except to say that elsewhere in his piece Millman does a service by articulating why, beyond being racist, Derbyshire's piece was wrongheaded.

__

*His case is further weakened by the lack of precision with which he describes his ideological adversaries. Most obviously, he talks about "the left" as if it's a monolith. He's too smart a man to lazily caricature a whole side of the political spectrum. And yet. As noted, he inaccurately characterizes the reaction to Marion Barry's bigoted comments. And his "woe are conservatives" account of what one can and can't talk about in America is hyperbole bordering on hysteria. If climate change, immigration, and gay marriage are "all but undiscussable" what explains the hundreds of people who oppose the liberal consensus on those issues and nevertheless make their livings as pundits? Steyn guest hosts for one of them. He's a multimillionaire. The fact that overzealous political correctness exists in America hasn't somehow rendered fraught subjects beyond arguing about in theory or in observable fact, as Steyn well knows. He can perhaps be forgiven a bit of hyper-awareness on this front given his experience before one of Canada's absurd speech-policing panels. Our First Amendment really is a vital safeguard against censors of all stripes. His characterizations are nevertheless wrong. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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