Whether justified or Kim Davis-ed, individualistic rage rarely outplays broader truths
In his 2011 book The War For Late Night, Bill Carter tells a story that really resonated with me. It's a private conversation between Conan O'Brien and a top NBC executive. The conversation took place after it was clear that Jay Leno was not really leaving his Tonight Show perch in Conan's hands, as had been promised, but during the short window thereafter, when NBC was still offering Conan some sort of a concession prize. This executive, who had worked with Conan for years, was advising his friend to take the network offer rather than leave in some angry blaze of glory. This executive's point was that NBC would always be NBC, and that they were going to come out the other side unscathed no matter what Conan did or how much public outcry he engendered. This executive conceded that Conan had been treated unfairly and would earn this kind of folk hero support, which he was already building at the time, but the executive further said this large scale, headline-grabbing goodwill would be unsustainable, and that Conan would ultimately lose.
I'm paraphrasing all this, but I remember the whole thing as not coming across in a gross, "we are your corporate overlords" way, but just in the manner of a friend speaking the gospel to another friend about a vast enterprise with a deep bench. He was telling Conan that all of the people who worked at NBC—himself, the late night host, and everyone else—were just players on a much bigger stage, and that the stage existed well before them all and would exist long after. It wasn't to dehumanize or dispirit the talented late night host, but rather to give him fair warning about a familiar script he'd seen play out before.
And this scenario is pretty much what came to pass. While Conan—who, I should say, I adore and who was my late night crush of the nineties—has gone on to his own success on TBS, NBC largely weathered the Tonight Show storm. Jimmy Fallon is rocking it in the ratings and with the critics. Newer fans, like my thirteen-year-old nephew who is downright enamored with Fallon, don't even realize that Conan ever hosted this show, much less that he hosted an NBC show for sixteen years before that. NBC has pretty much erased this long history, at least for the time being. While Conan's much ballyhooed exit is well documented in books and documentaries and interviews, it's now more of an interesting historical record than it is anything that will continue to hurt NBC. NBC remains bigger than any of its parts, missteps, or protestors.
Which brings me to Kim Davis. And Baronelle Stutzman. And that baker from Oregon. And the myriad other photographers and innkeepers and shop owners who the far-right has held up as martyrs for being defiant in the face of the law. These are all examples of people who glommed on to their "folk hero" status, sold to them by opportunistic activists and ridiculously agenda-driven "legal" outfits, and who seem to think that they will win if they keep on long enough.
But they never win. Every time any of these defiant individuals have gone to court, they have lost. Kim Davis is now sitting in a jail cell, while others have seen massive fines levied again them. They. Never. Win. They have to comply with nondiscrimination laws or alter their business. Their offices ultimately have to marry same-sex couples. They have to find new work if they can't operate within the parameters of law. Etcetera, and so on. This, even though groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom and the comparably more ghoulish Liberty Counsel promise them the world (to say nothing of the afterlife).
Sure, they get all kinds of acclaim from conserve-twitter and Fox News. And yes, some of them have hauled in some cash. But okay, whatever; that's not sustainable. Maybe they pay off some of the fines, but what good is that when you've forever connected your name to discrimination? And in many of these cases, I'm skeptical of how much the payday really ended up being. Even if it is, the fleeting burst of whatever does nothing to change the outcome when it comes to their business practices, the law, or the right-side-of-history's prevalence.
They don't win because the Constitution is bigger than them. They don't win because the truth ultimately wins out. They don't win because, try as they might, the destruction of the wall between church and state is not something that can buy with their insubordination. They don't win because are just human beings pining for the feel-good fifteen minutes and all that comes with it, while the network of carefully shaped, ably argued, duly contested, fairly enacted policies that they are challenging are in place for right and rational reasons that are far more important than the latest news cycle.
And what's truly ironic is that these anti-gay martyr stories, which pop up about every other month these days, are always built around the premise that the individual in the spotlight is serving a larger being. They pretend that the whole thing is about God and faith and eternity, not the individual. But every time—every. single. time.—they lose sight of the fact that there is, indeed, a mortal force here on the ground that is, in fact, bigger and stronger than them. They get so caught up in the whole charade that they seem to forget that they are earthlings who exist in a country with certain guidelines that have standards of challenge higher than simple stubbornness. They seem to forget that even if they believe they get to win in heaven, there is still a game that we all must play in our heart-thumping, blood-pumping years. They seem blind to the fact that their side never wins these rounds.
But lose they do. And long after they lose in court, after people stop hashtagging them, after Hannity bookers quit calling them, and after whatever cash streams they found in the exciting world of selling martyrdom on the conservative plain eventually dry up, the rule of law will remain the rule of law. It is bigger than them. It will weather whatever limited storms their bad facts and faith-driven truculence spiral-clouded its way. Even if some of these more high-profile cases become a record for historical study, they will not be the basis for anything that can continue to hurt LGBT people.
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