To the surprise of liberals and conservatives alike, one of the most caustic opponents of the left came to the defense of Ellen DeGeneres against a small (but disproportionately vocal) conservative group that had called not only for a boycott of J.C. Penny but for the termination of the company’s partnership with her. But the left’s embrace of O’Reilly’s defense fails to notice that despite appearances O’Reilly remains no friend and that the grounds for his defense are contrary to many of the basic principles of liberal criticism. (I see this fact as symptomatic of the left’s tendency toward consensus and coalition as the only available options when the only political motivator available to it is the ethics of consequentialism.) Lest the left fall into the same incoherence in its ideology as the right—O’Reilly’s comments are actually, admirably, a directly rigorous consequence of this incoherence—we should pause to wonder how this unlikely alliance is forming (let’s not forget what happened at Yalta).
Notice that, like Paul, nowhere did O’Reilly say “it’s not a bad thing to be gay” or “it’s not ok for you to think being gay is a bad choice”. In fact, his exact words were, addressing the conservative group, “you don’t believe the message that they’re sending by hiring Ellen is a good message, more power to you. That is your decision and your right as an American”. It is on this point that the far right and the neoliberals are indistinguishable but also precisely where they must be obliged to differ the most: every viewpoint is equally legitimate and the right of a private citizen is to do whatever she wishes from her beliefs. As a private citizen, so the claim goes, my belief that being gay is synonymous with pedophilia is perfectly justified and I am free to be as bigoted as I want. It is in this respect that the left has confused tolerance with relativism: considered properly, there is simply no paradox to the problem of “not tolerating intolerance”. The left must have the courage to say that bigotry is simply not a right.
But O’Reilly’s point, of course, was not that individuals should have the right to think whatever they want. Nor is it clear that such a position is immune from a tacit acceptance of bigotry (when Paul was forced, for example, to acknowledge that the government cannot make a priori distinctions about domestic life and yet refuses to use the bathroom in a gay family’s house, one wonders just how enlightened he really is). His essential point was that J.C. Penny is not obliged to “fire a spokesperson who has done nothing legally wrong” (emphasis added). This is the curious point, for he continued to draw parallels to the McCarthy hearings. Here is the fundamental incoherence: like others on the right, O’Reilly is necessarily committed to a rigorous distinction between the ethical and the political. I might think being gay is sinful but I am legally obliged not to discriminate against you, provided that my state has legal protections against such discrimination. But the now standard objection to the McCarthy hearings is that the relevant priority is the good over state sanction (or, simply, just because something is legal does not make it good, which is just a variation of the Euthyphro problem). As I have argued elsewhere, the neoliberal and libertarian distinction between the ethical and the political, if held rigorously, is ultimately untenable. The left simply reduces to the right if its only argument for why J.C. Penny is not obliged to fire DeGeneres for being gay is not that there is nothing wrong with being gay but because it is not yet illegal to be gay.