E Pluribus Umbrage

The long, happy life of America's anti-defamation industry.

The sexual abuse scandal of 2002 is arguably the gravest crisis in the history of the American Catholic Church. Sexual dysfunction, hypocrisy, institutional self-regard, Soviet-style secrecy, pathological hostility to plain dealing -- even the infamous 19th-century nativist fable The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk couldn't support so many anti-Catholic stereotypes.

In the midst of this emergency, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the nation's most prominent Catholic advocacy organization, alerted its 300,000 members to a grave threat to the faith: a King of the Hill episode in which cartoon housewife Peggy Hill impersonates a nun. Even for the perpetually outraged Catholic League, this was minor stuff. But it's the kind of distorted controversy found in a strange and often lucrative segment of the political economy.

Call it the anti-defamation industry, the anti-discrimination lobby, or maybe the umbrage market. From politically connected lobbying behemoths to one-man shoestring operations using a Kinko's fax machine, the United States hosts a Mad Monster Party of advocacy groups dedicated to rebutting every real and imagined racial or ethnic slur. It's a field that attracts the talented and the warped, passionate crusaders and transparent self-promoters. It creates media stars and villains.

And if the nit-picking interest group has become a cliché, anti-discrimination's capacity for driving legal and legislative agendas is no joke. Pandering to imagined Hibernian hypersensitivities has already resulted in the construction of an Irish Hunger Memorial on prime real estate in New York City's Battery Park and a gratuitous curriculum requirement that Empire State public schools teach the Irish famine as an attempted genocide by the British government. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'nai B'rith boasts that its model hate crimes legislation has inspired actual laws in Wisconsin and elsewhere. One of President Bush's first initiatives after the September 11 attacks was to get a series of photo ops with representatives of Arab and Muslim anti-discrimination groups.

It's hard to place a valuation on the anti-discrimination industry. The 89-year-old Anti-Defamation League is the trailblazer, with an annual take of more than $40 million and a $400,000 salary for storied director Abraham Foxman. The National Council of La Raza rakes in a cool $16 million per year, a combination of government grants, public support, and other revenues. The Polish American Congress pulls down more than $5 million -- despite its leader's habit of making wildly impolitic public statements (more on this later). The venerable Sons of Italy runs a nearly $200,000 Commission for Social Justice.

Tactics pioneered by the Anti-Defamation League are used by anti-discrimination groups that butt heads with the ADL itself. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee budgets "in the area of a million dollars," according to an official, as does James Zogby's Arab American Institute. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) describes its budget as between $2 million and $4 million. The Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition famously declines to disclose its finances at all.

All Against All

The number of unincorporated one- or two-person social justice advocacy operations out there is beyond count. If you've noticed an absence of "No Latvians Need Apply" notices at local businesses, you can thank either the Latvian Truth Fund, which defends "the legal and civil rights of persons born in Latvia or of Latvian descent," or the American Latvian Association, which "defends the interests of Latvian Americans." There are Indian-American groups combating misrepresentations of Ganesha, Italian-American committees who condemn Mickey Blue Eyes, and Irish organizations bent on eliminating Barry Fitzgerald-style stereotypes.

Funny though they may be, such groups turn honest (or dishonest) differences into pseudo-crusades and portray an America that, contrary to abundant evidence, has made no progress against the bigotries of the past. "These groups serve a vital function," says Robert Alan Goldberg, a University of Utah history professor and author of Enemies Within, a study of conspiracy theories in America, "but somebody has to sound the fire bell when they pour gasoline on the fire and get into thrust and counterthrust with other groups."

Virtually all anti-discriminationists describe themselves as opponents of bigotry in all its forms. But despite some areas of agreement, such as support for "hate crimes" legislation, the anti-discrimination industry is the Hobbesian nightmare in a nonprofit setting. Arab and Muslim groups struggle with the ADL for mind share in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Serbian Orthodox Church combats not only anti-Serb stereotypes in the entertainment industry but also the Hague War Crimes Tribunal and the de facto pro-Croat teachings of Our Lady of Medjugorje. The Polish American Congress alienates the Jewish community in Chicago. Italian Americans battle American Indians every Columbus Day.

Advocacy groups also come into conflict with people they putatively represent. The Anti-Defamation League is frequently criticized by liberal Jews. A recent Sports Illustrated poll suggested most Native Americans tolerate or even support the Indian team nicknames advocacy groups have fought for many years. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, battles his own church's liberals. Many or most Italian Americans regard Mafia films as, at worst, too abstracted from reality to cause much alarm.

Nevertheless, institutional logic demands eternal vigilance. "Simply said, there are careers, status, jobs and influence to be had as long as racism exists," writes Laird Wilcox in his 1998 book The Watchdogs, which details incidents of strong-arm tactics by anti-discrimination groups. An anti-discrimination group has little motive to report improvement, or even stasis, in cultural relations, because that would lessen the perceived need for the group.

Nor is there incentive to declare victory and go home, even when victory clearly has been won. The Polish American Congress is still operating decades after Mike Stivic endured his last Polish joke on All in the Family. Both the ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center are famous for fund raising letters warning of what the ADL calls "a rising tide of anti-Semitism here and around the world" and the Wiesenthal Center describes as "a frightening new wave of antisemitism and extremism -- often mixed with Holocaust denial." The Catholic League's Donohue defines anti-Catholicism as the "anti-Semitism of the elites" and asserts "there is a contempt for Christianity among our elites in this country that has no rival."

If this perpetually rising tide is troubling, it's useful in forming cultural identity, particularly where such identity is fading or never existed in the first place. Asian Americans of all backgrounds now attach themselves to the World War II�era internment of Japanese Americans. Large numbers of Irish Americans dwell on the relatively mild bigotry their ancestors endured two presidents and countless CEOs ago. "It's easy to pick on the Irish, since we're easily dismissed as a minority or ethnic grouping of no particular significance," writes the Richmond Times Dispatch's Tom Mullen. "You can say what you like about the Irish -- especially Irish Catholics -- but woe be unto you if you say anything critical about African-Americans or gays or any other group that has suffered from any kind of bigotry."

Even if we concede that historical suffering of a group confers political coherence on that group's descendents, few anti-discrimination groups have the serious historical roots of, say, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the American Indian Movement. Self-described ethnic groups whose experience of America has been almost entirely positive can get into the act. Don't talk to me about slavery; my ancestors were traumatized by The Katzenjammer Kids! This may explain why anti-discrimination is a growth industry even -- or especially -- while identity politics fades into history, more Americans decline to identify themselves by ethnicity, and actual discrimination is, by virtually all measures, at historically low levels.

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