As if we needed more evidence of America’s political polarization, last week Juan Williams gave the nation a Rorschach test. Williams said he gets scared when people in “Muslim garb” board a plane he’s on, and he promptly got (a) fired by NPR and (b) rewarded by Fox News with a big contract.
Suppose Williams had said something hurtful to gay people instead of to Muslims. Suppose he had said gay men give him the creeps because he fears they’ll make sexual advances. NPR might well have fired him, but would Fox News have chosen that moment to give him a $2-million pat on the back?
I don’t think so. Playing the homophobia card is costlier than playing the Islamophobia card. Or at least, the costs are more evenly spread across the political spectrum. In 2007, when Ann Coulter used a gay slur, she was denounced on the right as well as the left, and her stock dropped. Notably, her current self-promotion campaign stresses her newfound passion for gay rights.
Coulter’s comeuppance reflected sustained progress on the gay rights front. Only a few decades ago, you could tell an anti-gay joke on the Johnny Carson show — with Carson’s active participation — and no one would complain. (See postscript below for details.) The current “it gets better” campaign, designed to reassure gay teenagers that adulthood will be less oppressive than adolescence, amounts to a kind of double entrendre: things get better not just over an individual’s life but over the nation’s life.
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