Comment: Are we too quick to scream homophobia?
Ben Leung, himself a member of an ethnic minority, considers the seriousness of last week’s racist and homophobic outbursts from prominent right-wingers in Britain and the US.
I’ve been contributing to this website for a few months now, and have always tried to remain as politically neutral as possible.
However, events in the last week on both sides of the Atlantic have made me wonder whether I am as unbiased as I’d like to think I am.
I should hope so, but I’ll let you be the judge here. By the end of this, I won’t be surprised if you think I’m tilting to the right.
The reason I wrote this particular disclaimer is that I have decided to defend the seemingly indefensible – a ‘homophobic’ American right-wing commentator, and a ‘racist’ Conservative MP.
Ann Coulter, the polemicist and one of the most influential voices of republicanism, caused outrage amongst liberals and conservatives a week ago by using the word ‘faggot’ in a speech.
She was referring to former (and possibly future) presidential candidate, John Edwards, at a conservative rally.
On this side of the Atlantic, Conservative leader David Cameron sacked his homeland security front-bencher Patrick Mercer when he used the words ‘black bastards’ during an interview with The Times.
For Coulter, the reaction to her ‘homophobic’ remark was particularly shocking.
Long regarded as the queen bee of the American right, she was immediately disowned by advertisers on her website, as well as some of her closest allies.
Prominent right-wing politicians – in particular those with an eye on the White House (Romney, Giuliani, McCain) – were quick to condemn the 45-year-old.
Rupert Murdoch’s ultra-conservative Fox News Channel has been unrelenting in its reporting of the incident – with the exception of the equally right-wing Sean Hannity – most of which has been surprisingly negative towards Coulter.
Meanwhile, nearer to home former army officer Mercer faces the possibility of years in the political wilderness just because of those ‘racist’ comments.
Now, I don’t condone either of these remarks. However, I find it difficult to accept the furore surrounding both of these incidents.
Sure, I have never met either of these people, so I can’t say for certain whether Coulter is homophobic, or if Mercer is a racist.
However, by listening and reading to their respective interviews on C-SPAN and The Times, it is blindingly obvious that neither of these were personal remarks.
Both Coulter and Mercer were merely making observations of the world around them – observations which do not outwardly reflect their inner-thoughts.
Yes, public figures like them should know better: they should have watched their mouths more carefully, since both have a history of putting their foot in it.
Coulter, in particular, often does it deliberately to draw publicity to her books and celebrity status.
But in this instance, accusations of homophobia and racism simply don’t add up.
Mercer courted controversy when he recounted from his days in the army how some soldiers from ethnic minority would use racism as an excuse to skive off, and that shouts of “ginger bastards, fat bastards and black bastards” were commonly used on someone who was “slow on the assault course.”
What we have here is a decorated war hero whose military record and undisputed fairness have been praised by those who knew him well – black officers who served alongside him in Kosovo and Northern Ireland – and they insist that Mercer is not a racist.
If you read his remarks again – freely available on the BBC and Times websites – you can see the most controversial parts of his interview were said in quotation marks.
He only got the sack because former PR man David Cameron is eager not to drag this controversy out.
Besides, it’s important for voters to see his party as an all-inclusive outfit, right?
Mercer’s sacrifice is probably the right thing to do in order to preserve the positive image that Cameron has built up since becoming leader.
But anyone with a brain can see right through the party politics and know it has nothing to do with moral outrage and everything to do with winning over the electorate.
Similarly, Coulter’s treatment by her own supporters is also politically motivated.
With the 2008 presidential campaign already underway, it is only natural that anyone – Republican or Democrat – who wants to run for president should condemn this woman – regardless of what she actually said.
Coulter’s use of the word ‘faggot’ during the Conservative Political Action Conference was as a reference to what she viewed as the over-the-top punishment of Grey’s Anatomy actor Isaiah Washington’s alleged use of the same word towards his co-star, TR Knight last year.
As a result, Washington got a slap on the wrist by his bosses at ABC, and was ordered to go into rehab to seek ‘counselling for homophobia.’
That, in Coulter’s opinion, was political correctness gone crazy. As she told her conservative right audience:
“I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I’m – so, kind of at an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards, so I think I’ll just conclude here and take your questions.”
Now, Coulter’s never liked Edwards: she loathes his ‘unpatriotic stance’ on the war on terror. She also thinks Edwards is ‘morally corrupt’ and has long regarded him as a wimp.
It’s safe to assume that as a hardcore Republican, she would naturally despise anyone who opposes the current Bush administration and its handling of the war in Iraq. That, in her eyes, is a ‘treasonable’ act.
Indeed, in her 2003 publication, ‘Treason’, she listed the ‘various treasonable Liberal causes from the Cold War to the present day’s war on terror’, having also once described all liberals as “having a preternatural gift for striking a position on the side of treason.”
So it isn’t a huge surprise to anyone that she would use a conservative rally to ridicule Senator Edwards.
However, there was nothing homophobic in her remarks about Edwards.
She may come across as a quasi-Nazi sado-masochist, but she wanted to call Edwards a ‘faggot’ not for any homophobic reasons, but because the word – in its original form – meant ‘a wuss’ or ‘a wimp’.
More importantly, she said the word ‘faggot’ in quotation marks. She also said that the remark was in no way a veiled reference to Edwards’s sexuality, which she later described as “unequivocally heterosexual with four children.”
Therefore, in my opinion, her comments had nothing to do with homophobia.
She wanted to say something nasty about Edwards, thought she could kill two birds with one stone over her anger at the Grey’s Anatomy incident, plumped for the ‘f’ word and misjudged the furore it would cause.
What was meant to be a playground taunt thus turned into a massive political row – picked up by the liberal media who would print anything to discredit her, and condemned by those in the conservative right for fear of alienating the electorate.
She remains unrepentant, of course, and rightly so.
Personally, this ill-judged insult was flimsy compared to what she has said in the past, not least when she labelled Arabs as ‘towel heads’ and described certain Islamic regimes as ‘Islamofascists’.
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In my opinion, however, the most disgraceful thing she has ever said – and it’s a pretty long list – is by describing some 9/11 widows as the ‘Jersey Girls’ – wallowing in the grief for their dead husbands, whilst making millions from public sympathies and numerous television appearances.
Nor will I defend her comments on MSNBC last June when she suggested Bill Clinton as ‘showing some levels of latent homosexuality’, or the time when she called Al Gore ‘a total fag’.
She could be the world’s biggest homophobe for all I know. Similarly, Mr Mercer might really have something against other ethnic minorities.
But here, these claims just don’t add up.
Call me naïve, but in this day and age when we are swamped with information from so many different sources, it really helps if people could just read between the lines, look beyond the spin and take a few steps back before making their judgements (Cameron, Giuliani, Romney, McCain, Edwards etc).
Mind you, the same rule should probably apply to both Ann Coulter and Patrick Mercer too.