Alec Baldwin and the gentrification of political debate

Alec Baldwin stars in a scene from the movie "Brooklyn Rules." (CNS photo/City Lights)

The actor and frequent talk-show guest Alec Baldwin has never run for political office, and he’ll probably never slake that obvious thirst now that he’s been defined as an Obama-loving homophobe — a demographic that, at best, is a majority on a few scattered streets on his native Long Island. Baldwin is an outspoken liberal who supports same-sex marriage and LGBT rights, but he’s been dogged by incidents in which he’s used anti-gay slurs in moments of anger. Andrew Sullivan has some particulars, including Baldwin’s use of the phrase “toxic little queen” and considerably more vulgar language in complaints about intrusive photographers. His outbursts helped to cost him a (low-rated) talk show on MSNBC; the head of the gay advocacy group GLAAD praised the network for its “message that anti-gay slurs carry consequences.”

Not one to let others have the last word (if only he and Chris Christie could have somehow run against each other for anything), Baldwin has dictated a rambling, self-pitying letter to the world, jotted down by New York magazine’s Joe Hagan. It’s headlined “Alec Baldwin: Good-bye, Public Life.” Baldwin could be standing for many, even most, politicians when he complains, “In the New Media culture, anything good you do is tossed in a pit, and you are measured by who you are on your worst day.” (See Rick Perry and his “oops” debate, which David Weigel points out was spoofed by Baldwin himself.)


Here is part of Baldwin’s defense:

Am I a homophobe? Look, I work in show business. I am awash in gay people, as colleagues and as friends. I’m doing Rock of Ages one day, making out with Russell Brand. Soon after that, I’m advocating with Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Cynthia Nixon for marriage equality. I’m officiating at a gay friend’s wedding. I’m not a homophobic person at all. But this is how the world now sees me.

I haven’t changed, but public life has.

It used to be you’d go into a restaurant and the owner would say, “Do you mind if I take a picture of you and put it on my wall?” Sweet and simple. Now, everyone has a camera in their pocket. Add to that predatory photographers and predatory videographers who want to taunt you and catch you doing embarrassing things. (Some proof of which I have provided.) You’re out there in a world where if you do make a mistake, it echoes in a digital canyon forever.

It’s evident that Baldwin is a hothead, and someone who chooses words to provoke rather than soothe. Beyond that, there is two ways of looking at the clash between his political stances and his insensitive language. One is that he’s a phony who mouths liberal platitudes but lets his real views out when he’s angry enough. The other is that he grew up in social circles we would now call unenlightened, and that he’s had to wrestle with some ugly thoughts before choosing tolerance and empathy. The latter theory is the more charitable and optimistic. Baldwin has no excuse for hateful language, but he does have a point that political and intellectual debate is not well-served by head-hunting and by the instantaneous demands (all over Facebook and Twitter) for dismissals, boycotts, etc. over ill-chosen remarks.

Since the Baldwin affair comes out of New York City, I’m reminded of complaints (not least from liberals) that the city has become too gentrified, commodified, and Disneyfied over the past few decades, with all its funkiness and edginess scrubbed away so as to not offend the tourists going to see Wicked. And with the changing of the guard in late-night TV, I’ve also seen complaints about how dull popular conversation has become since the days of Dick Cavett and even Johnny Carson welcoming intellectuals and political provocateurs to their couches. These complaints are incompatible with the urge to vilify talented provocateurs who are no more flawed than the rest of us.


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