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. 

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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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