On November 09, 2013 I wrote an article at Stately McDaniel Manor titled “In the Company of Enemies: Dick Metcalf and Guns & Ammo.” The story was predictable: Metcalf, a long serving columnist for Guns & Ammo wrote an opinion piece calling into question fundamental liberties. Readers didn’t like that—really didn’t like it—and Metcalf was released to write for other publications and audiences more appreciative of his point of view. In fact, not only did Guns & Ammo’s Editor profusely apologize, he too resigned.
Many took advantage of this incident to cry “censorship,” and to suggest that all that support the Second Amendment are intolerant reactionaries unable to allow the slightest, inoffensive difference of opinion in their midst. As I’ll demonstrate in this follow up article, even some writers whose Second Amendment credentials are generally steady fail to appreciate why Metcalf’s article engendered such vehement opposition.
In the original article–which may be worth your time to review before reading this article–I wrote:
While Metcalf is technically correct about the notion that there is no such thing as an unlimited right, he committed four fundamental errors: one of history, one of tone, one of language and one of tactics.
In essence, not only was Metcalf wrong in his interpretation of the history and application of the Second Amendment, his writing invoked the tone, intent, and actual words of virulent anti-gun activists while also exactly reflecting their tactics. Others have raised at least some of the points made by Metcalf without giving such offense. Had he done it as they have done, many would likely have pointed out his historical errors and delivered a tongue-lashing, but demanded no more.
Some so incensed by Metcalf probably could not have precisely categorized his errors, but they unerringly recognized the intent and language of those that would steal liberty; they’ve heard it hundreds of times. A man of Metcalf’s experience should have known better. His editor should have known better.
Ultimately, both left the magazine because they displayed bad judgment in a way that did harm to the business that paid their salaries. Unlike in government, where bad judgment, even criminal behavior, often results in high paying positions in the IRS, the Department of Justice, or the White House, in the world of private business, bad judgment has immediate and lasting consequences.
Now, two months later, the New York Times is coming to Metcalf’s defense. Anyone concerned about individual liberty, and particularly Second Amendment issues, should consider having the NYT in their corner to be anything but comforting, but it would appear Metcalf is taking any port in a storm.
I’ve been vanished, disappeared,’ Mr. Metcalf, 67, said in an interview last month on his gun range here, about 100 miles north of St. Louis, surrounded by snow-blanketed fields and towering grain elevators. ‘Now you see him. Now you don’t.’
He is unsure of his next move, but fears he has become a pariah in the gun industry, to which, he said, he has devoted nearly his entire adult life.”
Let’s keep in mind that this is not a First Amendment issue. No one has a right to write for any publication, and censorship is not involved. Metcalf was not fired to prevent him from expressing his opinion; he has done that in a variety of publications, including the NYT, since leaving Guns & Ammo. His problem was stepping outside the boundaries of content his employer–and his readers–expected, and doing it in a way that called into question the gains in liberty decades of hard work have secured. Unsurprisingly, the NYT sees those boundaries a little differently:
“His experience sheds light on the close-knit world of gun journalism, where editors and reporters say there is little room for nuance in the debate over gun laws. Moderate voices that might broaden the discussion from within are silenced. When writers stray from the party line promoting an absolutist view of an unfettered right to bear arms, their publications — often under pressure from advertisers — excommunicate them.
‘We are locked in a struggle with powerful forces in this country who will do anything to destroy the Second Amendment,” said Richard Venola, a former editor of Guns & Ammo. ‘The time for ceding some rational points is gone.
This too is a substantial reason Metcalf ejected himself from a perfectly good publication airplane. In the battle over the Second Amendment, the enemies of freedom have shown themselves to be absolutely ruthless, willing to tell any lie and employ any tactic to deprive the law-abiding of their right to self-defense. They have attempted to portray those defending the one portion of the Bill of Rights that secures every other right as extremists, unreasonable zealots and dangerous mental defectives. In recent years, they have begun to call for “common sense,” “reasonable” bans and restrictions as well as calling for “dialogue.” Anyone foolish enough to engage in that “dialogue” have immediately discovered that “reasonable” means fully accepting the outrageously false and specious premises of the anti-freedom movement and surrendering essential liberty as an opening position, with far more freedom to be surrendered as the “dialogue” continues.
Notice that in appealing to the sensibilities of the NYT, Mr. Metcalf is embracing that kind of “reasonable” dialogue:
Mr. Metcalf said he invited a reporter to his home because he despairs that the debate over gun policy in America is so bitterly polarized and dominated by extreme voices. He says he is still contemplating how a self-described ‘Second Amendment fundamentalist’ who keeps a .38 snub-nose Smith & Wesson revolver within easy reach has been ostracized from his community.
‘Compromise is a bad word these days,’ he said. ‘People think it means giving up your principles.
Even Diane Feinstein has admitted she has a handgun. Does that make her a defender of the Second Amendment? Would she surrender her anti-gun principles? What would she be willing to compromise?
Where anti-gun forces are concerned, “people” are right. In the defense of a fundamental natural right, where is the room for compromise? Compromise entails both sides giving up something to obtain worthy goals acceptable to all. What part of the right to keep and bear arms can be surrendered without rendering it meaningless? And what will those seeking to infringe on the ability of the law-abiding to defend their very lives give up? They possess nothing of value, nothing that would help a single individual or society at large. They have nothing to give and seek only to take. Their schemes do not so much as inconvenience criminals and have no impact on crime. They cannot offer the innocent enhanced safety, and they contribute nothing to a better society. They seek only to negotiate the complete dismantling of the Constitution.
Metcalf apparently still doesn’t get it:
Mr. Metcalf says his only regret about the column is that it was too short. ‘Some topics you should never try and discuss too briefly because they can’t be dealt with like that,’ he said.
Again, he misses the point. His difficulties were caused far more by how he wrote and by his inaccuracies than by brevity. When you’re wrong on the history and interpretation of a fundamental right, adding length is unlikely to help. When you’ve adopted the tone, language and tactics of those that would destroy freedom, the issue is not that you’re failing to be sufficiently nuanced and verbose.
Surprisingly, even Charles C. Cooke at National Review, a rational voice on liberty as it relates to self-defense and firearms, misses the point. He carries the cross of censorship, going so far as to write:
Thus does the New York Times’ weekend piece on the crucifixion of Dick Metcalf serve as a salutary lesson to us all.
Cooke quotes John Stuart Mill on censorship:
If all mankind minus one were of one opinion,’ Mill contended, ‘and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.’
Although it is not expressed in legal terms — and it lacks the force of law — a similar principle obtains in civil society, too. After all, a country whose citizens explicitly protected the legality of speech but exhibited no private toleration of the heterodox would soon discover itself a severely dull sort of place. Dissenters, it seems, are vital — not only to shake up society at large but also to ensure that groups composed of similarly thinking members do not stagnate and atrophy. As much as anything, free expression is a cultural habit — and an indispensable one at that.
I wonder if Cooke simply fails to realize that as a staff writer for a conservative publication, he too has boundaries imposed by his own choices? Cooke’s writings are unquestionably conservative in philosophy, and he has chosen to write for a publication well known as conservative. While National Review upon occasion invites opposing voices for debates, its purpose, its reason for existing, is clear. Should Cooke write an opinion piece calling into question fundamental tenets of conservatism, misstating and misinterpreting the historical and philosophical basis of conservative thought, should he adopt the tone, language and tactics of progressives determined to eradicate conservatism and conservatives, does he really believe his employer would pat him on the back in the spirit of non-partisanship and laud his contribution to the broader culture?
Dissenters in society are indeed valuable, but there is no lack of very savvy, politically connected, and obscenely well financed advocates of abolishing the Second Amendment and criminalizing law-abiding gun owners. These people know that in any public debate they have the very real advantage of a willing and often deceptive media. In any electoral contest, they will have a substantial financial advantage. Those defending freedom always start the race 50 yards behind the starting blocks with their shoelaces tied together. One would have thought that Metcalf and his editor understood this. Both are, after all, experienced journalists, wise in the ways of such things–or not.
Cooke argues that Metcalf deserved some leeway to make his arguments, and spends a paragraph disparaging Guns & Ammo:
Guns & Ammo is a private outfit, and it can employ whom it wishes. There being no constitutional right to a platform, this is not a First Amendment issue, nor should it be. Nevertheless, it is a cultural issue — and an important one at that. If Guns & Ammo’s business model cannot sustain the publication of a column that mildly deviates from the hardline norm, then its business model is rotten. If the coalition that Guns & Ammo represents is so nervous that it cannot tolerate the expression of an opinion that until 25 years ago was normal even for hardliners, then it is rotten, too. Have it whichever way you like: Either the magazine has an editorial board that makes ugly decisions — firing a man for an article that it elected to publish — or its readers and advertisers are so trigger-happy that the board had no choice but to indulge them. Neither alternative is pretty, and conservatives considering the case might stop and ask themselves whether they are prepared to welcome only absolutists such as myself into their ranks.
I’m amazed that Cooke doesn’t understand much of the conservatism he claims to represent. Guns & Ammo’s business model has been successful for decades precisely because it well understands and serves its audience. This is how free enterprise in the publishing industry works. There are many publications that feature debate on consequential social and cultural issues. Guns & Ammo is not one of them. No one reads the magazine hoping to find persuasive argument for gun bans or watering down or repealing the Second Amendment.
This is not an issue of a “nervous” editorial board unable to brook dissenting opinions. They have no obligation to publish such opinions—it is generally counter to their editorial stance, the expectations of their audience, and profitability—and when they apparently forgot that there are consequences to betraying the expectations of their audience, an audience that cares very much about these issues and is extraordinarily well informed about them, that audience quickly reminded them.
Cooke, while claiming the cultural high ground, also ignores one glaring reality: dissent in a publication like Guns & Ammo is a matter reserved for editorial meetings, not publication. It is a matter of editorial policy. Those writing for that publication must understand their influence goes beyond the printed page into the realm of politics, politics that can affect the lives of millions of people. Metcalf made the mistake of taking those editorial discussions public, and he embraced not the audience of Guns & Ammo, but those who consider them missing-toothed, mentally defective, inbred, dangerous denizens of flyover country, people who cling to guns and religion.
Cooke did point out some of Metcalf’s more significant errors, but he ended by misrepresenting those that defend freedom, and likely, that read National Review:
Well, what those readers ‘want,’ apparently, is what so many want nowadays: They want never to be challenged; they want never to hear an opinion with which they disagree — even from a friend and an ally; they want never to hear anything that offends them. And that, I’m afraid, is a problem of national proportions.
Comparing Conservatives and Progressives, one quickly finds that it is not Conservatives that are afraid to engage in honest debate. They do it all the time with friends and others, publicly and privately. Surely Cooke understands this? What they do not want is to spend good money for a publication that is supposed to not only support political issues of great importance to them, but to fight for those issues while recognizing the nature and strategies of their enemies.
The editors and writers of any special interest periodical have an immediate, intimate and vital relationship with their readers. Failing to properly maintain that relationship can be quickly fatal to any publication. Guns & Ammo rightly recognized a serious injury and treated it to maintain the health of the magazine and its relationship with its readers who expect–and pay for–nothing less than the relationship both have established over decades.
If Mr. Metcalf wants to once again be a significant voice in the Second Amendment community, he has substantial fence mending to do. He should feel fortunate that conservatives are generally very understanding of human error and willing to allow second chances. However, absent evidence of genuine contrition, no second chance will be forthcoming. Embracing the NYT and bathing in commentary like Mr. Cooke’s will not be helpful. The fault is not the readers of Guns & Ammo or those that honor the Constitution, but remains Mr. Metcalf’s.
Mike’s Home blog is Stately McDaniel Manor.