Pat Buchanan is Not a First Amendment Martyr

Last week, MSNBC announced that it was dropping Pat Buchanan from its stable of "contributors," a position which consists of being paid to come on the air and give one's opinions, something the network has no shortage of people to do for free. The network didn't hide the fact that it had finally decided that Buchanan's views (which we'll get to in a moment) were just too extreme and distasteful for them, so they decided to disassociate themselves from him. Buchanan responded with a post titled "Blacklisted, But Not Beaten," in which he rails against those who done him in: "I know these blacklisters. They operate behind closed doors, with phone calls, mailed threats, and off-the-record meetings. They work in the dark because, as Al Smith said, nothing un-American can live in the sunlight." To which one's initial response is, pity the poor oppressed Buchanan, left only with a hundred other forums in which to pass on his ideas!

But does he have a point? Andrew Sullivan thinks so, writing, "let me say something in his defense: however repellent some of his views, he is intellectually honest. Yes, publicly bigoted, sometimes outrageous, a flame-thrower, a reactionary who flirted at times with what only can be called neo-fascism. But here's another thing he has always been: true to his own ideas and a gifted writer. He truly believes what he says and has read and researched a huge amount and has thought carefully about his extreme out-of-the-mainstream views. He is a serious figure in that respect."

I find this unpersuasive. Sure, Buchanan may be more intellectually consistent than your average pundit, and that's a good thing. But it only goes so far. One intellectual virtue doesn't necessarily make up for a set of intellectual shortcomings. Presumably, Andrew would agree that there is some point at which even an intellectually consistent pundit's views become so repugnant that a responsible network would choose not to have him on its airwaves. For instance, if the pundit were an advocate of genocide, or pedophilia, or honor killings, no one would say, "Well, he's smart and intellectually consistent, so we should keep him on." The question, then, is whether Buchanan's beliefs are so vile that they cross that line. I would argue that they are.

The straw that broke the camel's back was the publication of Buchanan's latest book, Suicide of a Superpower, in which he laments all the societal changes that irk angry old white men across our land, like uppity blacks and the invasion of the brown horde from south of the border (you can read some of the more colorful quotes here). This is just the latest in a long history of extreme and, many would argue, hateful rhetoric from Buchanan, which includes a variety of sexist, racist and anti-gay statements, not to mention some rather complimentary stuff about Hitler and flirtations with Holocaust denial (see here for more on that). So it wasn't like Buchanan, in a momentary brain fart, blurted out something he'd rather take back, and for which he could easily be forgiven. This was about a pattern of appalling spoken and written statements over many years. 

Buchanan has enjoyed a lucrative career as a pundit for the last couple of decades because he's articulate and passionate, and his abominable opinions make for good TV. He does indeed say things other people are afraid to say, not so much because he has courage others lack, but because those things are, well, awful. He has every right to speak his mind in any way he likes, but no one has a First Amendment right to a slot on the MSNBC payroll. Furthermore, he's not being "blacklisted," he got fired from one corporation. Blacklisting is a decision by a group of employers meant to ensure that you can't get work anywhere. When screenwriters got blacklisted from Hollywood studios in the '50s, it meant that they couldn't ply their trade anywhere in the industry. Pat Buchanan's voice isn't being silenced.

It's always good in situations like this to ask how you'd feel if it was someone on your side, and it has happened to liberals before. For instance, just after the September 11 attacks, Bill Maher's show Politically Incorrect was cancelled after he took issue with the fact that so many people were rushing to call the terrorists "cowards," saying, "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." So isn't this the same situation? No. The reason is that the cancellation of Maher's show wasn't problematic because of the injustice done to Bill Maher as an individual. He did fine, just as Buchanan will. The problem was that it was indicative of a larger atmosphere of fear and censorship, in which any view that deviated from a rapidly constructed rhetorical consensus about how to understand and talk about the attacks was swiftly suppressed and punished. That atmosphere had consequences for our national life; for instance, it greatly assisted the Bush administration in making their deceptive case for invading Iraq, one of the most disastrous policy decisions in our country's history. If someone wants to argue that Buchanan's departure from MSNBC is a tragedy because it means there won't be enough people sticking it to dark-skinned immigrants and advocating for oppressed white people on television, well, I guess you could try to make that case. But don't cry for Pat.

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