Politics & Policy

Alec Baldwin’s Comeuppance

Yes, he’s a jerk, but conservatives should not rush to condemn people for their speech.

Alec Baldwin has quite the talent for insults. Among his recent contributions to the genre are “right-wing trash bag,” which was aimed at an aide to New York mayoral hopeful Joe Lhota; “thoughtless little pig,” which he threw wildly at his own daughter during a voicemail tirade; and a pair of aspersions that I consider to be his best work, “f***ing little bitch” and “toxic little queen,” both of which were delivered to a British gossip columnist who had provoked his ire. You’ll note the consistent rhythm of the last three: de-de-de-de-DA. Beautiful. Musical, even. The man can talk.

Baldwin certainly isn’t subtle, but when he is on form he really connects, spitting his invective in perfectly metered chunks. What Paul McCartney is to the three-minute pop song, Alec Baldwin is to the slur. Alas, his latest, the rather disappointing “c***sucking fag,” is not up to snuff. With its hard “G,” the epithet boasts the satisfying ending to which we’ve become so accustomed (“bag,” “pig”), but it doesn’t really scan properly, and, more significantly, it lacks the invention of his other work. If one is going to play on the sexuality of the victim, the ambiguous but acid “toxic little queen” is a doozy. “C***sucking fag” on the other hand? Too standard, and much more difficult to wriggle out of afterwards — as Baldwin’s astonishingly lame attempt demonstrated.

As sequels go, this was the last-ditch effort that even the most generous of critics couldn’t excuse. Among the notable public figures who felt compelled finally to leave his side were the American-British writer Andrew Sullivan and GLAAD’s own Rich Ferraro. Sullivan, who has evidently decided that Baldwin “cannot be defended any longer,” contended that Baldwin’s instincts under pressure “reveal who he actually is” and that what he “actually is” is a “raging, violent bigot.” Ferraro simply lamented that Baldwin had declined to turn his shouting into a learning opportunity. As a reward for their troubles, Sullivan and Ferraro were termed by Baldwin as part of “the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy” and accused of “killing” his show.

The latter part of this is possibly true: Baldwin has certainly lost his act, and the signals that Sullivan and Ferraro sent presumably had no small part in opening the floodgates to the condemnation that poured down. But the claim that he was undone by extremists? No, he wasn’t. In truth, he was undone by a movement of which he is a fully paid-up member. I agree wholeheartedly with The Partially Examined Life’s Wes Alwan, who resisted the hive mind last week and postulated that judging individuals by their outbursts is unwise. But I am not sure that this is the most important point here, which is instead this: Those who live by the sword must watch out lest they die by it, too. Alec Baldwin is an outspoken progressive who as recently as last week was referring derisively to “libertarian trash” and who flies off the handle at the slightest misrepresentation of his private life. He himself has promised to end countless careers. To expect to be treated differently than he treats others is naïve and entitled.

Also hypocritical here is MSNBC. Reasonably, conservatives raised eyebrows when, having screamed abuse at all and sundry for years, Baldwin was awarded his own show on the network. MSNBC, as those happy few who watch it can attest, is a channel whose hosts are so brilliantly attuned to “hateful speech” that they could find racism in the instruction manual of a toaster. Indeed, so finely developed are the palates over at 30 Rock that, in 2012, Lawrence O’Donnell, one of the most unhinged of the cast, spotted something that nobody else could: Mitch McConnell, he said, had pointed out that Barack Obama played a lot of golf only in order to link him with the unchecked sexual appetite of Tiger Woods. With such levels of detection in-house, one has to ask: For how long did Baldwin really expect to get a pass?

For a TV station such as this to have given Baldwin a job after his long history of such outbursts was stunning in and of itself, and it served primarily to remind all who were paying attention of the sad truth that the Left’s willingness to scrutinize a person’s output is entirely contingent upon that person’s politics. Amusingly, Baldwin, having been ejected from the smart set, seems to have noticed at last that there is no real standard at play. Asking rhetorically why he had been singled out for punishment, he noted that “Martin Bashir’s on the air, and he made his comment on the air!” Yes, Alec, he did. But he joked about Sarah Palin, and your friends don’t like her.

As Tim Carney rather deliciously pointed out to Chris Hayes last week during a discussion of Obamacare’s intrusive contraception mandate, MSNBC is a private business that is free to make whatever staffing decisions it considers necessary. In other words, as the First Amendment is a check only on government, there is no “free speech” issue at stake here. If Baldwin’s behavior outside of work is deemed unacceptable by his employer, he can be fired; if he is a rude and unpleasant person in the studio (as has been alleged), then he can be fired; indeed, as far as I’m concerned, if Baldwin happens to so much as wear a pair of trousers that MSNBC’s head honchos don’t like, they would, contract permitting, have every right to fire him. It’s really not my call.

Nevertheless, we can all react to these things, and how we react matters. However tempting it might be for the Right to celebrate when one of their antagonists is canned, it should take a deep breath and resist. One does not beat the would-be arbiters of speech by joining them, nor does one persuade people that a reflex is wrong by indulging in it when the other side is on the hook. As a rule, the Right has long prided itself on its disinclination to call for scalps, on the eminently reasonable grounds that such a precedent merely opens the door for all sorts of witch-hunting and leaves anyone even remotely controversial at the mercy of rapidly changing fashions. As a rule, it has recently been conservatives who have led the fight against speech codes, against political correctness, and against trying to punish people for what they believe. Why stop now?

Andrew Sullivan is correct to observe that, because Baldwin is simpatico with the progressive agenda, doyens of the professional Left have long given him “a pass when they would never dream of doing so with anyone who was conservative or Republican.” He is also correct to say that this represents “a glaring double standard” and one that “cannot stand any more.” Still, there are two ways of ending a double standard. And, in a country that puts a premium on open discourse, it is infinitely preferable to insist that passes be handed out to everybody equally than to request that they be taken away from progressives — the one political group that, however unfairly, still enjoys their protection.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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