by Paul Deines
This month, we were treated to an astonishing piece of writing in New York Magazine, an act of professional self-immolation unlike anything I’ve read in a mainstream publication. Or anything, really, short of a Bukowski poem or a Mamet tirade. I’m referring to Alec Baldwin’s …essay? Op-ed? Stream of consciousness mini-memoir?
Who knows what this 5,000 word cover story - related by Joe Hagan - was, except a well-aimed kerosene spray on the brazier burning away all of the embattled actor’s good will. He was taking the Spalding Gray route, I guess: attempting to link his personal narrative to a larger social critique. The confessional portion broaches his many public meltdowns, from a verbally excoriating his daughter in a voicemail to allegedly shouting an anti-gay epithet at a photographer. His larger message is the death of polite society and degradation of the public dialogue, both artistic and political. In Baldwin’s view, his lapses can be explained as a reasonable response to constant harassment from nosy photographers, a canceled MSNBC talk show, and a foreshortened Broadway production. Said response manifests as outbursts of blind rage, described in New York with blasé dismissiveness:
“… do people really, really believe that, when I shouted at that guy, I called him a ‘faggot’ on camera?”
“I chased him down the block and said, ‘Cocksucking motherfucker’ or whatever (when I have some volatile interaction with these people, I don’t pull out a pen and take notes on what I said)…”
“In my rage, I called him a ‘toxic little queen’…”
“I get angry, and I’ve said all sorts of things in anger …”
Baldwin is stunned by accusations of homophobia in the wake of these outbursts. Never mind that he’s said some spectacularly insensitively things (he off-handedly refers to one of his pals as an “F-to-M tranny” in the article); he’s in the arts! After all, he points out, he’s kissed Russell Brand in a movie and (has this argument ever worked?) many of his friends are gay. He’s been a champion of many left-wing causes, including marriage equality. And truthfully, Alec Baldwin doesn’t come off as homophobic in the article: he comes off as a singular asshole with a serious anger management problem.
Baldwin's conclusion, though, is that the only wronged party here is Baldwin. If only photographers wouldn’t try to photograph him, he could live in peace. If Shia LaBeouf hadn’t given him shit about not knowing his lines in Orphans, the play would have been a success. If MSNBC’s Phil Griffin had just treated him like new Dick Cavett, his talk show would still be on. If Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow were cooler about his using words like ‘queen’ and ‘faggot’ (cause he’s allowed to, because of arts) his Roundabout Theatre friends would still like him. If smart phones hadn’t been invented (this is totally in the piece) people would still respect public figures and meekly ask for their autographs.
The Alec Baldwin of this piece is God’s lonely man, abused by a sick society he can no longer comprehend. I don’t blame New York for running it; it’s a mesmerizing stream of bile masquerading as social critique, and it’s just the latest example of the chosen tactic for everyone with an agenda: umbrage.
It seems every demagogue, pundit, taste-maker, and public personage is speaking not from a position of authority but from the vantage of the beleaguered underdog. It’s a smart tactic, presenting one’s ideas as if they were endangered: it whips up the rank and file and inspires a storm-the-barricades type of fervor. It also requires individuals and groups with immense power to adopt the language of the marginalized.
The Daily Show has made regular sport of this false victimhood of Fox News’ annual War on Christmas segments.
The notion that this country is on the cusp of reclassing late December as some sort of disassociated pagan tree rite or pseudo-Kwanza festival of lights is more than a tad far-fetched, but it gets the reactionary Christian blood up. Suddenly, we can loop commercialism, atheism and “politically correct” multiculturalism together into one globule called national decline.
Particularly since the election of Barack Obama, the Christian right has adopted umbrage-taking as its go-to stance. Consider all the sturm and drang surrounding the contraception provision of Obamacare. Even after the fix shifting cost for family planning coverage from employers to insurers, entities with faithful leadership, from a North Carolina Catholic college to Hobby Lobby, have protested what they consider an infringement on their religious liberties. Taking aside whether a non-church corporation (churches have been exempted from the contraception provision from day one) can be considered capable of religious beliefs like a human being is, you have to wonder whether restricting coverage for an employee’s family planning decisions (when such a restriction is in violation of US law) is an innate right.
This type of ash-and-hair-shirt wailing has become S.O.P. for religious entities and the politicians and pundits that advocate for them. The last month has seen the fast adoption and near-immediate abandonment of so-called religious liberty bills in Kansas and Arizona, among other places. The hew and cry here is doubly tenuous. See, they are supposed to address the infringement on the rights of business-owner believers who deny services to potential customers whose lifestyles they (the business owners) disagree with on genuine religious grounds. The oft-cited example is a Christian wedding photographer who refuses to photograph a gay wedding. This comes from one court case in New Mexico; hardly an epidemic and piddling compared to decades of systemic anti-gay discrimination. Still, even in the event that these suits were widespread, they’d be mostly meaningless. And why? Because in most states – Arizona and Kansas among them – homosexuals are not a legally protected group. You can, for example, totally fire an employee for being gay in these states without running afoul of state or federal anti-discrimination laws.
The religious right is hardly the only group to assert defiant victimhood while holding a virtual cultural hegemony. Last year, I discussed the staggering number of shooting deaths we see each year and how even innocuous regulation is swatted down by a well-funded, well-organized series of trade groups. Today, we find ourselves amid the most surreal bit of fearmongering in recent memory: a coordinated campaign to derail Barack Obama’s nominee for Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, because of the nominee’s personal support for sensible gun control. Bear in mind that the Surgeon General’s has no delineated power over firearms policy or law enforcement. Still, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam stated that they feared that in an Obama presidency, the purview would somehow expand to these areas.
Consider now that Arulanandam is a spokesman for a trade group that flooded the elections market with $15 million in 2012. Still, they are speaking today from a position of cowering fear, apparently terrified that this potential head of the National Health Service will begin an Orwellian conspiracy movement to disarm America. And it’s working. Vulnerable Democratic senators like Mark Begich are openly opposing the otherwise uncontroversial nominee, effectively halting the vote.
The last six years – really, since the financial collapse that nearly sank the US economy – we’ve been treated to the spectacle of our wealthiest citizens complaining that they’ve been demonized by us. It’s astonishing, because as millionaires like Tom Perkins and Jack Welch and their media surrogates like the always-charming John Sununu stand up to be counted, their complaints about onerous government bailouts, limits on bonuses, and the deathly income tax increase boil down to something simpler: they’re being demonized for their success. This bitching from the 1% reached its apotheosis when the 2012 Republican presidential nominee was one of their own, and after winning the New Hampshire primary, he coined the sour grapes rationalization of “the bitter politics of envy” (5:05 in the video below).
We’ve now entered the conniption-inducing phase when the beleaguered rich begin threatening to leave tax-heavy cities like New York. This response is comparable to that most insufferable of lefty standbys: the threat to move to Canada. This type of extreme reaction is laughable because it implies that the appeal of the US or a major metropolitan area is limited enough that they can be negated by a Republican president or a slight hike in the capital gains tax rate. The contention is ridiculous: Sean Penn isn’t moving to France, and Dick Fuld and Bud Konheim aren’t pulling a Depardieu anytime soon. And all this whining by the social elite becomes more ridiculous, since it often requires them to fane fealty with the genuinely downtrodden. At the 2013 CPAC, we have Senator Ted Cruz comparing Obamacare with the US’s promises to this continent’s indigenous tribes, and last year we had Sarah Palin comparing Obama’s economic policies to slavery. In 2012 we had doctorate-holding Rick Santorum explaining to a crowd in Troy, Michigan that the president was a snob for wanting them to get post-high-school education.
So, yes: the irony can run pretty thick.
Still, the actual serious issue with this is that there are groups in this world that are subjugated, disenfranchised, and marginalized, often by serial umbrage-takers mentioned about. Those Arizonan and Kansan legislators lamenting the hypothetical religious discrimination were plotting the denial of services of their LGBT citizens.
This dumb-show offense also devalues those who work to bring about change and awareness in the world. The gun debate is a perfect example. We are the best-armed nation on earth, but groups like the NRA are running a perpetual publicity campaign alleging widespread curtailing of 2nd amendment rights. Meanwhile, if a gun control advocate tries to speak out in the wake of a shooting, he is accused of politicizing a tragedy.
And as it turns out, when you become known for shouting homophobic epithets while you repeated assault people, you liberal stock declines, and when you rant aimlessly in a glossy publication that gave you several pages to plead your case, the world doesn’t immediately forgive. I only wish we as a culture would give as much scrutiny to other privileged, powerful, disingenuous crybabies as we do to Alex Baldwin.