John has mentioned the controversy between Mark Steyn and his National Review editor, Jason Lee Steorts. The matter centered around Steyn’s column of last Friday called “The Age of Intolerance.” Citing the experience of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, who came under attack from gay rights activists for expressing his view of homosexuality, Steyn argued that the forces of “tolerance” are so intolerant that they threaten to make ours a decidedly illiberal society.
Steyn led off his column with two old jokes about gays. The first, from Bob Hope, was, as Steyn said, “oddly profound” because it somehow foresaw the intolerance that Steyn attacks.
The second joke, from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, was stupid and unfunny. Steyn, though, wasn’t holding it out as an example of clever humor, but rather as an example of something one can no longer say on television. And, as usual, Steyn put the gag to clever use in his piece.
Steorts made two points in his criticism of Steyn’s piece. Presumably referring to the attack by gay activists on the Duck Dynasty guy, Steorts “argued that in principle the people have every right to make pariahs of whom they will, and to slug it out among themselves, so to speak, when they disagree.” He also complained that “the derogatory language in [Steyn's] column, and especially the slur in [the Rat Pack] joke, [is] both puerile in its own right and disappointing coming from a writer of such talent.”
Steorts’ first point, asserting the right to make pariahs of those one disagrees with, is beside the point. Gay activists may have the right to try to make a pariah out of the Duck Dynasty guy, but their efforts to do so are nauseating nonetheless. They should be deplored in the strongest terms, as Steorts seemed ultimately to agree.
As to the terms Steyn used, I understand Steorts’ point. I too would have liked the column better without the unfunny Rat Pack joke. And I agree with Steorts that courteous disagreement, devoid of insults, is usually preferable to lack of courtesy, even when one is disagreeing with the dangerous and the uncivil.
But Steyn doesn’t do “courteous” disagreement; he does wickedly funny, edgy disagreement to the enjoyment of a great many, including me. The column that offended Steorts was entirely in line with Steyn’s idiom. If we like Steyn’s work, we should not want him to pull his punches simply because this time his wrath is directed at gay activists.
Indeed, I would go one step further. Gay activists, once perhaps sympathetic civil rights advocates, are now a nasty, destructive force that aggressively threatens freedom of speech and religion. Accordingly, they are among the last groups we should want Steyn to treat more gently than is his custom.
Steyn is therefore correct to say that Steorts “does not grasp the stakes” in the Duck Dynasty dispute. The stakes consist of preserving a liberal society, in the classical sense. For, as Steyn grasps, “a society where lives are ruined over an aside because some identity-group don decides it must be so is ugly and profoundly illiberal.”