Politics & Policy

The New Blacklist

Freedom of speech is still threatened even if law isn’t the instrument of intimidation.

I’m sorry to arrive late to this controversy — explanation forthcoming in a later posting — but my impression is that the word “blacklist” has not been mentioned much in the debate over the Robertson family, GLAAD, and the A&E channel. Or if it has been mentioned, it certainly hasn’t had the central role that it should have had in this row. For what GLAAD has been operating is a classic blacklist operation.

Its object is not to persuade those who disagree with it over the morality of same-sex relationships to change their minds. Nor is it principally intended to prevent such views being expressed publicly (though that is one of its purposes). Its main purpose is to drive those who hold such views out of their professions and to deprive them of their livelihoods unless they recant, promise not to offend in future, and remain within the boundaries of acceptable opinion laid down by the blacklist operators. And if that is done, it should make anyone think twice or three times before using his freedom of speech to express similar views.

As several people have pointed out (mainly those arguing that all this is no big deal), the First Amendment is not at issue here. That is because the government is not operating the blacklist. But freedom of speech is still threatened even if law and regulation are not the instruments of intimidation. The government was not operating the blacklist in post-war Hollywood either.

On that occasion the role of GLAAD was performed by the newsletter “Red Channels” which named (or sometimes merely hinted at) the writers, directors, and actors who had varying degrees of sympathy for Communism. The Hollywood studios — independent commercial media companies just like A&E — then fired them, generally in order to avoid controversy, in one or two cases from a patriotic objection to Communism.

For the record I am opposed to both blacklists. But they are not equal either in their targets or in their justifications. The target of the Hollywood blacklist was the small universe of Hollywood Communists; GLAAD’s target, as we shall see, is the much larger universe of traditional Christians. The justification of GLAAD’s blacklist is that Phil Robertson is a serious and hostile threat to gays; the justification of the Hollywood blacklist is that Communism was a serious and hostile threat to America.  

America in the 1940s and 1950s was engaged in a world struggle with a genocidal and aggressive Soviet Union that had conspiracies of ideological supporters in every country. Millions of people were still being murdered by Soviet Communism; millions more were being worked and starved to death in the Gulag. And we know beyond doubt from the Venona cables and other historical evidence that some American Communists inside and outside the U.S. government had betrayed their country, some of them (the atom-bomb spies, for instance) with serious consequences. There really was a Communist threat.

What threat of equal weight does Phil Robertson pose? GLAAD argues that he is guilty of hateful remarks about gays in that he equated homosexuality with bestiality. Of course, he did nothing of the sort.

He gave a partial list of those sexual activities — i.e., all sexual activities outside Christian marriage as traditionally understood — that according to the New Testament incur God’s condemnation. One of the items he listed was bestiality; another was homosexuality; a third was heterosexual promiscuity. He could have added masturbation if he had been answering a question in a Biblical quiz rather than one from a GQ interviewer. He did add a long list of non-sexual sins and sinners — drunkards, swindlers, the greedy, slanderers, etc., etc. — who are similarly risking damnation. But he also cited the usual qualifications about the mercy of God: We all deserve condemnation according to the Gospels but hopefully we won’t all get it. He even threw in the admission that he himself had been guilty of some of the sexual sins under condemnation. And Robertson, though repentant, might well admit that his career of sinning may not be definitively over. As the Devil (brilliantly played by Ray Milland in Alias Nick Beal) responds to a street preacher’s boast that he had wrestled Satan to the mat and pinned his shoulders to the floor: “He doesn’t know that it’s two falls out of three.”

In other words Robertson condemned everyone, including himself, as a sinner — which in a social context is the same as condemning no one. He certainly did not single out gays for criticism. It’s instructive that GQ’s good-humored interviewer, Drew Magary, was neither shocked nor horrified by what Robertson said. Though he self-identifies as a “milquetoast suburban WASP,” he clearly rather liked the Robertsons — which he would not have done if Phil Robertson had been a hater. (Don’t be deterred by the controversy from reading the GQ piece, incidentally; it’s highly entertaining.) Absolutely the most offensive thing about it is that Robertson does not disavow the traditional Christian teaching that homosexual acts are sinful. I can see that some gays might be upset by this, but they can hardly be surprised. Many have grown up in families holding exactly that conviction. We live in a society with different moral and religious traditions, and we must learn to live and let live.

But here is how the GLAAD spokesman characterized Robertson’s remarks “Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil’s lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe. . . . Phil’s decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors who now need to reexamine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT . . .  ”

You want offensive? This is truly offensive. It combines lies about what Robertson said, a ludicrous attempt to define “true” Christianity along lines prescribed by GLAAD, and appeals for Robertson’s livelihood to be cut off. It is a blacklist in operation, and it is an odious thing. It has worked before, though, and for a while it seemed to be working here. A&E “suspended” Robertson. But the public outcry is breaking heavily in Robertson’s favor: The Cracker Barrel chain of downhome southern restaurants has now apologized for its brief capitulation to GLAAD’s bullying; the Robertsons are rich and confident enough to tell A&E that they won’t appear without their patriarch; and it is now GLAAD that is on the ropes.

Phil Robertson can administer the coup de grâce by refusing to return to A&E until the media corporation apologizes and agrees to re-examine its ties to GLAAD. It’s time for some of these cowardly media executives to show a little courage in the face of the blacklist-mongers and the private-sector censors. Where is the Ed Murrow of today?

John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.


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