The ‘Vigilance’ Vigilantes
By Mark Steyn
He who controls the language shapes the debate: In the same week the Associated Press announced that it would no longer describe illegal immigrants as “illegal immigrants,” the star columnist of the New York Times fretted that the Supreme Court seemed to have misplaced the style book on another fashionable minority. “I am worried,” wrote Maureen Dowd, “about how the justices can properly debate same-sex marriage when some don’t even seem to realize that most Americans use the word ‘gay’ now instead of ‘homosexual.’” She quoted her friend Max Mutchnick, creator of Will & Grace:
“Scalia uses the word ‘homosexual’ the way George Wallace used the word ‘Negro.’ There’s a tone to it. It’s humiliating and hurtful. I don’t think I’m being overly sensitive, merely vigilant.”
For younger readers, George Wallace was a powerful segregationist Democrat. Whoa, don’t be overly sensitive. There’s no “tone” to my use of the word “Democrat”; I don’t mean to be humiliating and hurtful: It’s just what, in pre-sensitive times, we used to call a “fact.” Likewise, I didn’t detect any “tone” in the way Justice Scalia used the word “homosexual.” He may have thought this was an appropriately neutral term, judiciously poised midway between “gay” and “Godless sodomite.” Who knows? He’s supposed to be a judge, and a certain inscrutability used to be part of what we regarded as a judicial temperament. By comparison, back in 1986, the year Scalia joined the Supreme Court, the chief justice, Warren Burger, declared “there is no such thing as a fundamental right to commit homosexual sodomy.” I don’t want to be overly sensitive, but I think even I, if I rewound the cassette often enough, might be able to detect a certain tone to that.
Nonetheless, Max Mutchnick’s “vigilance” is a revealing glimpse of where we’re headed. Canada, being far more enlightened than the hotbed of homophobes to its south, has had gay marriage coast to coast for a decade. Statistically speaking, one-third of 1 percent of all Canadian nuptials are same-sex, and, of that nought-point-three-three, many this last decade have been American gays heading north for a marriage license they’re denied in their own country. So gay marriage will provide an important legal recognition for an extremely small number of persons who do not currently enjoy it. But, putting aside arguments over the nature of marital union, the legalization of gay marriage will empower a lot more “vigilance” from all the right-thinking people over everybody else.
Mr. Mutchnick’s comparison of the word “homosexual” with “Negro” gives the game away: Just as everything any conservative says about anything is racist, so now it will also be homophobic. It will not be enough to be clinically neutral (“homosexual”) on the subject — or tolerant, bored, mildly amused, utterly indifferent. The other day, Jeremy Irons found himself musing to a reporter on whether (if the issue is unequal legal treatment) a father should be allowed to marry his son for the purpose of avoiding inheritance taxes. The vigilance vigilantes swung into action:
“Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons has sparked outrage,” reported the Independent in London, “by suggesting that same sex marriage could lead to incest between fathers and sons.”
Outrageous! That isn’t exactly what he said, but, once sparked, the outrage inferno was soon blazing merrily:
“Jeremy Irons’ strange anti-gay rant,” read the headline in Salon.
I wouldn’t say he was ranting. He was languidly drawling, as is his snooty Brit wont, and fighting vainly the old ennui, as if he would rather be doing anything than another tedious media interview. Indeed, he even took the precaution of averring that he didn’t “have a strong feeling either way.”
You sick bigot theocrat hater! Not having a strong feeling is no longer permitted. The Diversity Celebrators have their exquisitely sensitive antennae attuned for anything less than enthusiastic approval. Very quickly, traditional religious teaching on homosexuality will be penned up within church sanctuaries, and “faith-based” ancillary institutions will be crowbarred into submission. What’s that? I’m “scaremongering”? Well, it’s now routine in Canada, where Catholic schools in Ontario are obligated by law to set up Gay-Straight Alliance groups, where a Knights of Columbus hall in British Columbia was forced to pay compensation for declining a lesbian wedding reception, and where the Reverend Stephen Boisson wrote to his local paper objecting to various aspects of “the homosexual agenda” and was given a lifetime speech ban by the Alberta “Human Rights” Tribunal ordering him never to utter anything “disparaging” about homosexuals ever again, even in private. Although his conviction was eventually overturned by the Court of Queen’s Bench after a mere seven-and-a-half years of costly legal battle, no Canadian newspaper would ever publish such a letter today. The words of Chief Justice Burger would now attract a hate-crime prosecution in Canada, as the Supreme Court in Ottawa confirmed only last month.
Of course, if you belong to certain approved identity groups, none of this will make any difference. The Reverend Al Sharpton, who famously observed that Africans of the ancient world had made more contributions to philosophy and mathematics than all “them Greek homos,” need not zip his lips — any more than Bilal Philips, the Toronto Islamic scholar who argues that homosexuals should be put to death, need fear the attention of Canada’s “human rights” commissions. But for the generality of the population this will be one more subject around which one has to tiptoe on ever thinner eggshells.
I can see why gays might dislike Scalia’s tone, or be hurt by Irons’ “lack of strong feelings.” But the alternative — that there is only one approved tone, that one must fake strong feelings — is creepy and totalitarian and deeply threatening to any healthy society. Irons is learning, as Carrie Prejean learned a while back, that “liberals” aren’t interested in your opinion, or even your sincere support, but only that you understand that there’s one single, acceptable answer. We don’t teach kids to memorize historic dates or great poetry any more, but we do insist they memorize correct attitudes and regurgitate them correctly when required to do so in public.
Speaking of actors from across the pond, I had the good fortune of meeting at the end of his life Hilton Edwards, the founder of Ireland’s Gate Theatre. Hilton and the love of his life, Micháel MacLiammóir, were for many years the most famously gay couple in Dublin. At MacLiammóir’s funeral in 1978, the Taoiseach and half the Irish cabinet attended, and at the end they went up to Edwards, shook hands, and expressed their condolences — in other words, publicly acknowledging him as “the widow.” This in a state where homosexuality was illegal, and where few people suggested that it should be otherwise. The Irish officials at the funeral treated MacLiammóir’s relict humanely and decently, not because they had to but because they wished to. I miss that kind of civilized tolerance of the other, and I wish, a mere four decades on, the victors in the culture wars might consider extending it to the losers.
Instead, the relentless propagandizing grows ever more heavy-handed: The tolerance enforcers will not tolerate dissent; the diversity celebrators demand a ruthless homogeneity. Much of the progressive agenda — on marriage, immigration, and much else — involves not winning the argument but ruling any debate out of bounds. Perhaps like Jeremy Irons you don’t have “strong feelings” on this or that, but, if you do, enjoy them while you can.
— Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is the author of After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. © 2013 Mark Steyn