The first time I encountered Doug Wilson was in the fall of 2000, in the basement of someone’s house. Wilson was reading an excerpt from a humorous book to a collection of admiring college students. It may have been written by P.G. Wodehouse; I frankly do not remember. I was 19 years old and was paying more attention to the other college students.
Over the next few years, I ran into him, on a public level, fairly often. He was generally known to be controversial, but, you know, quite the philosopher. I read his books and attended his talks, and found them to be less than intellectually brilliant, but I didn’t say much about this.
In 2003, the campus and town at large exploded with the Southern Slavery As It Was controversy. I was fairly high on the food chain at the school paper at the time, and I felt it was my job to be as neutral about the whole thing as possible. I knew people who just couldn’t understand why anyone would say Wilson was a racist when he was such good friends with black people; had even dated one once. I knew people who were ready to have a coronary after reading Wilson’s booklet and his less-than-humble follow-ups to it. I wrote an opinion piece urging everyone to try to get along and be nice to each other following a minor outbreak of vandalism against people who attended Wilson’s church. I went to a jam-packed CRF meeting in which Wilson tried to answer people’s questions on the subject. I took profuse notes, and, along with another girl, covered the contents of Wilson’s speech in the school paper. Wilson was much milder in person than he is on his blog — there were no insults. I am now really curious what the article said specifically, because I didn’t save a copy and the online archives have been pulled down. Apparently, someone on Wilson’s side thought it was accurate enough that we got public accolades.
In general, Wilson told everyone at the meeting that his intent was not to say slavery is good or preferred, but that instead he wanted to address a controversial aspect of the Bible. Because the Bible is not anti-slavery, and even lays out rules that say slaves need to obey their masters, Wilson needed to prove that slavery is not evil per se. Now, Wilson said, it is indeed evil to think that one race is superior to another, or even that masters are superior to their slaves. That is not true and it is not Biblical.
As far as I remember, Wilson didn’t do much to address his methods of scholarship or some of the booklet’s more questionable claims, such as that in the South before emancipation, the lives of blacks were better than they have ever been after.
What I do remember was coming away from it all thinking that Wilson wasn’t a racist, insofar that it was true that he didn’t think skin color determined what you were worth. What determined your worth was, first, your practice of religion, and second, your practice of culture. Actually, in his mind, these were almost the same thing, all tied up in a tidy bow of beefsteak, red wine, dark beer, pretty women in modest but fashionable garb, manly men in khakis, and happy evenings spent reading P.G. Wodehouse or singing hymns in four-part harmony. Wilson wasn’t a racist. He was a xenophobe, because he thought his culture was superior to all others. He categorically rejected everything else as worthless, from egalitarian Christianity to liberal high society to Dutch Armeniansm. Reformed patriarchal Christian culture prevented the world’s ills, and, yes, even transformed slavery into a system where savages could be taught the true gospel. I half-admired the man for following his doctrines to their logical conclusions.
Towards the end of my on-again off-again years in Moscow, it came to my attention that New Saint Andrews had been plied with its infamous zoning complaint. I thought this was dumb, not because zoning was dumb, but because I knew enough about the people who had filed it, ex-members of Wilson’s church, to suspect that at least some of those involved were doing it for the wrong reasons. Personal vendettas are something I dislike as a rule, so I encouraged the principle instigator to calm down and find a better way of dealing with his hatred for Wilson — or rather, not Wilson, but Wilson’s arrogance, as he parsed it out. He listened, the zoning complaint trailed off into a requirement for more parking spaces, and Wilson was apologized to personally. Wilson wanted the instigator to write a letter to editor, to be published in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, but this didn’t happen. I thought it was uncouth that Wilson deemed public recantation necessary for a personal grudge, because in every way other than his motive, the instigator was correct: New Saint Andrews was violating city code, and its use of downtown parking was a problem.
All of this is to note that any critique of Wilson is founded in many years of measured, and largely peaceful, observation. There have been any number of controversies surrounding the man, which I don’t think is entirely accidental. I think Wilson thrives in an environment of controversy. As I’ve mentioned before, controversy improves your ratings; in Wilson’s case, it’s practically his entire buisness model. Certainly, if Wilson didn’t like the attention, he wouldn’t consistently use such inflammatory language. His line of argument over the many years I have been observing him usually go something like this:
- Wilson says or does something that seems dishonest, sexist, racist, or illogical.
- Someone publicly objects.
- Wilson responds by saying the person is too dumb or delicate to understand. Or else the person is maliciously intent on being a liar by twisting Wilson’s words/actions.
- Someone points out that this is an ad hominem, not an actual logical refutation of the objection.
- Wilson, or one of his fans, steps in to ask why ad hominems should not be used, since they are used in the Bible.
- Someone replies that this is a very strange interpretation of Christianity.
- Wilson begins quoting Bible verses to prove that it isn’t. Wilson’s favorite retort seems to be that he is answering “a fool according to his folly.”
- The debate is thus completely re-cast to be about the Serrated Edge rather than the original thing that Wilson did or said. This will put Wilson on familiar ground and allow him ample room to show off his insult-hurling skillz.
Wilson usually claims that his approach is “satirical,” which proves nothing so much as that he doesn’t really understand the meaning of “satirical” any more than he understands Jesus’ treatment of the poor and the outcast. This is probably the most-quoted passage in The Serrated Edge, but I’ll quote it anyway just to enlighten my audience on how extreme Wilson’s view of Biblical “satire” is: “Jesus was not above using ethnic humor to make His point either. . . .This woman was not a Jew, and the Jews had problems with such people, considering them beneath contempt — in a word, dogs. Put in terms that we might be more familiar with, Jesus was white, and the disciples were white, and this black woman comes up seeking healing for her daughter. . . She comes up and beseeches Christ for healing. It’s not right, He says, to give perfectly good white folk food to ‘ni__ers.’ . . . If this understanding is right, then Jesus was using a racial insult to make a point. If it is not correct, then He was simply using a racial insult” (Wilson 43-44).
Following a quote like that, it’s hard to come up with anything that would even register as satire. But just to put you in a better mood, here’s a quick attempt at satire of Wilson’s own attempt at satire:
“It seems there’s been another stink raised about Wilson’s choice of words. Over at The Evil Yet Strikingly Ugly Feminist’s Blog — you know, the one with the appalling lavender background and the extra-black bold font to make sure we know she’s serious — Ms. Evil Yet Strikingly Ugly Feminist has gotten her granny panties in a twist and decided to see how many lies she can possibly fit into one sentence. Turns out, it’s a lot, especially if you like run-ons. We all know she’s lying, of course, by how black that extra-bold font is. Black is the color of evil, Ms. Evil. Perhaps you need to go back to Sunday School and re-learn that fact. But that would mean that you would need to get up off your couch, where you have been writing tripe like this for the past decade, supported by your drop-in lovers and welfare checks, and seriously examine your seared conscience.”
I should go on for pages in this vein, but I don’t have Wilson’s verve for creating and destroying straw men.