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.
"We are not humorless," says Ajay Shah. "There are things that are clearly humorous, and you have to be willing to take a joke." Shah, convener of American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD), is speaking of Apu, the Indian Quik-E-Mart owner on The Simpsons. Shah occasionally has been called upon to object to this characterization of a penny-pinching subcontinental; he sees Apu as a creation more of affection than calumny. "I get two or three incidents reported every month," he says. "You have to make a judgment whether it's worth pursuing or just trivial."
In the anti-discrimination economy, AHAD is a penny stock, with no paid staff, office, or telephone. AHAD convenes on a case-by-case basis. Its targets have included an Aerosmith album cover depicting a disfigured Krishna, Sanskrit shlokas in an orgy scene in the movie Eyes Wide Shut, and, most famously, a Seattle design shop selling toilet covers with pictures of Ganesha and Kali. In all these cases, AHAD's strategy of engagement with offenders, backed up by e-mail campaigns and the hint of boycotts, resulted in removal of the offending images.
"In all of our protests we have never asked for monetary compensation," says Shah, "because if we can educate people, we'll become a major organization whom they'll come to before they start a project."
AHAD has come under fire from both left and right. In a screed for the Indian Web site Rediff.com, writer Varsha Bhosle attacks Shah's "ingrained Hindu obsequiousness," which allowed the Seattle designer to escape "without a scratch." In Bhosle's view, AHAD is a lily-livered Gandhian group that deserves "a nice Islamic-style whipping."
Liberals, on the other hand, condemn AHAD's affiliations with both the million-dollar advocacy outfit Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, which has ties to India's ruling BJP party, and the nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose mission includes "strengthening the [Hindu] society by emphasizing and inculcating a spirit of unity, so that no one can dare challenge it." Both groups supported the demolition of the Ayodha mosque and say attacks on Christian missionaries result from "anger of patriotic Hindu youth against anti-national forces."
"The issues we pick have no political overtones," counters Shah. "We take up issues offensive to Hindus…once people denigrate your symbols, it's a matter of time before they say, 'If people worship these symbols, they're worth ridiculing.'" Shah notes that his group participates in pluralism efforts and meets with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Hindus are very liberal," he says. "We see nothing wrong with people choosing their own lifestyles. If there is a libertarian religion, it's Hinduism."
Upping the Anti
This easygoing spirit is a rarity among anti-discrimination groups. "The issue," Wilcox writes in The Watchdogs, "is the abominable record…with respect to individual rights…misrepresentations and lies, exploitation of normal human sympathy for the underdog, flagrant double standards, hidden agendas, unprincipled methods, and unconscionable use of law enforcement to advance their own ends."
Not surprisingly, the 9/11 attacks pushed these tendencies to the forefront while giving urgency to anti-discrimination efforts. CAIR tallies anti-Muslim incidents, which it says tripled in the last year. The group issues news alerts with headlines that are witty ("Ann Coulter Attacks, Dates Muslims"), breathless ("House Leader Calls for Ethnic Cleansing of Palestinians"), or mendacious ("First Lady Says She Can't Empathize With Palestinian Mothers").
The post-9/11 backlash, the Afghan war, endless intifadas, and the Bush administration's hysterical terrorist threat warnings have inspired an unbroken string of columns, speeches, and television appearances from CAIR, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), and the Arab American Institute (AAI). The rising profile of these groups never goes unchallenged. The ADL's Foxman, who accuses the AAI's Zogby of "crude anti-Semitism," campaigned to get Zogby's son ousted from a position in the Clinton State Department. Leaders of other Arab and Muslim groups have been subject to similar attacks.
"They're saying don't let me on television because I'm bad," says ADC spokesman Hussein Ibish. "Pipes and Emerson rehash a version of anti-Semitism: 'There is a plot out there to destroy our Christian way of life; they may look like us, but they worship a hostile and alien god.' This is political anti-Semitism, recast against another Semitic group to exclude that group from the political process."
Ibish is referring to Middle East expert Daniel Pipes, head of the Middle East Forum, and Steven Emerson, self-dramatizing MSNBC terrorism expert. The dustup between Pipes and his Saracen adversaries is one of the oddest offshoots of the war on terrorism. Pipes has condemned CAIR as "'moderate' friends of terror." AAI founder Zogby has been the subject of a rant in Pipes' Middle East Quarterly. Ibish, Pipes writes, is "Anti-American, anti-Semitic, inaccurate and immoral."
Pipes' Web site carries exposés about CAIR. CAIR shoots back with a special "Who Is Daniel Pipes?" feature on its own site. Like all pissing contests, it ends with everybody getting wet. Pipes mass e-mails alerts about his run-ins with various interlocutors ("Pipes on 'Hardball' -- hits one back to the pitcher," "Pipes on O'Reilly Factor, dukes it out with host," "Pipes vs. Zakaria on MSNBC's 'Hardball'"). His enemies are even more energetic. Here is how Mohammed Alo, a young writer at toledomuslims.com, describes a Pipes appearance on the defunct talk show Politically Incorrect:
"Host Bill Maher and the other guests quickly argued that Pipes is the one that needs to be controlled and kept out of the public stage. Even they noticed his outright hatred and anti-Muslim sentiments. You could faintly hear an audience member shout out 'Pipe down Pipes!'
"Pipes was humiliated. His plans were foiled once again. Bigotry was on display, but failed to reign supreme. Hooray for America. Pipes will forever remain in the garbage bin of history, and rightfully so."
Needless to say, very little of this has to do with fighting discrimination. "We're a civil rights organization, but much of what we do is devoted to foreign policy," says Ibish. "Much of the discrimination Arab Americans face stems from disagreements between Arab Americans and the rest of society over our policies toward the Middle East. Until we can create a more reasonable foreign policy, we'll face defamation in the form of films, television, discrimination in the workplace…I believe this absolutely."
Nevertheless, Arab-American leaders concede that animosity toward their ethnicity may be less than advertised. "Is there a generalized antagonism?" says Zogby. "No. Was there a problem immediately after 9/11? Yes…the country doesn't have much tolerance for hearing Arabs whine. There are people who try to make politics out of whining. I choose not to be a professional victim, because I don't think it's true and because people don't have much tolerance for it."
Victimization politics also holds tactical disadvantages. Anti-Semitism remains a concept with much more punch than such recently diagnosed maladies as "Anti-Arabism" or "Islamophobia." Reference to the Holocaust is still sufficient to shout down any discussion about the plight of Arab Americans. "I don't think anything in the Arab experience can resonate similarly, because I don't think anything in the Arab experience is similar," admits Ibish. "But since we can't counter that emotional appeal honestly, we can question its relevance to the Arab-Israeli conflict."
Big Trouble in Little Poland
For an odder case of emotional appeal turned into political ordnance, consider the City of Big Shoulders, where the slow-motion implosion of the Polish American Congress (PAC) mirrors the political decline of Chicago's Polish community.
Since 1996 PAC President Edward Moskal has been making statements that can charitably be called ill-considered. "The spilled blood of those Jews, however torrential it may have been, cannot wash away the blood of their Christian neighbors," Moskal wrote in a 1996 article that defended a commemorative cross at Auschwitz. (Elsewhere in the piece, he averred that Jews collaborated with Poland's Soviet occupiers.) He dismisses evidence of Polish collaboration with the Germans as "twisted history," an assault on Polish sovereignty. Moskal ridicules attempts by Poland's leadership to offer restitution to Jews and implies Jan Nowak-Jezioranski, generally considered a resistance hero, was a Nazi collaborator.
Moskal's impatience with talk of Polish guilt is partly understandable.
"[Poles] see themselves as victims, which they were," says Guy Billauer, director of the National Polish-American-Jewish-American Council, which broke with PAC in 1996. "They have a right to think that way. But [the Moskal controversy] has opened our eyes. We believe it's hard to reform somebody who holds these views. It's like mending fences with Arafat."
"I think people should welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues with somebody who speaks his mind," counters PAC spokesman T. Ron Jasinski-Herbert, "rather than saying the right things and thinking all the bullshit inside." Whatever Moskal's true feelings may be (he did not consent to an interview for this article), his comments have diminished both membership and clout for PAC, an umbrella group for 3,000 religious, fraternal, and political orders.
The situation came to a head during this year's Democratic primary in the 5th Congressional District, which pitted former state legislator Nancy Kaszak against combative Clinton administration apparatchik Rahm Emanuel. Because of demographic changes and redistricting in Chicago's 30th Ward, the Polish-American voting bloc is declining. "We do have a valid gripe," says Jasinski-Herbert. "If we lose this one we have no more Polish representatives from the largest Polish community outside Poland."
But it may not have helped when, a few weeks before the election, Moskal gave Kaszak a contribution and then denounced Emanuel as a "millionaire carpetbagger" with divided U.S.-Israeli loyalties, accusing Emanuel's Polish supporters of accepting "30 pieces of silver to betray Polonia." "The country from which Poles come struggled for democracy," Moskal said. "While the country…to which [Emanuel] gave his allegiance defiles the Polish homeland."
Kaszak publicly rejected Moskal's endorsement. Emanuel insisted that Kaszak go further and order Moskal to "cease and desist." The incident received wide media play, and in the weeks after Moskal's comments Emanuel closed an eight-point deficit in polls to win the primary. The loss of Polish-American political clout turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But what is ethnic cleansing or the Holocaust compared to the scourge of stage Irishmen? For Ultan O'Broin, founder of San Francisco's Celtic Tiger Anti-Defamation League, the great issues of the day include Angela's Ashes, Fighting Fitzgeralds, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, and presumably the Star Trek episode wherein Kirk beats the stuffing out of an arch-rival tellingly named Finnegan.
O'Broin, an Irishman working in Silicon Valley, publishes articles excoriating "Oirish" stereotypes and ridiculing the dumb Americans who fall for them. "In the last decade, the Republic of Ireland has undergone a sea change," he writes, noting that "Ireland has the highest per capita ownership of Mercedes-Benz automobiles in Europe." Yet "stereotyping continues in the United States." His proposed solution -- one of them, anyway -- is simple: "Americans (and Irish Americans) need to go to Ireland to see for themselves. They should protest the negative stereotyping. Then they might be more than welcome to celebrate what it really means to be Irish today."
The Celtic Tiger Anti-Defamation League (CTADL) claims to have attracted 150 members, and the group's proposals for anti-stereotype legislation have been given a sympathetic hearing by San Francisco's mayor and legislators. As with soccer and Islam, the CTADL's small base alone may qualify it as one of America's fastest-growing organizations.
But the politics of Hibernian equality are thorny, even among Hibernians. Consider the sad case of Francis Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Boyle, described by legendary activist Philip Berrigan as "a lawyer of the quality of Thomas More or Gandhi…the most competent and impassioned advocate of international law in the U.S.," claims he experienced discrimination when he objected to the bar crawls graduate students hold every St. Patrick's Day. "A bar crawl 'in honor' of St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, and one of the great figures of Western Judeo-Christian Civilization, is completely sacrilegious," he says.
Boyle's objections, he says, made him a target. "It's clearly a hostile work environment for me," he says. "I've been subject to ridicule by students and student organizations. This is a hostile environment based on my race -- I'm of Irish nationality and a citizen of the Irish Republic -- and on my religion -- I'm Catholic."
Indeed, Boyle claims the harassment got so bad that he complained to the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, noting that "it doesn't cost me anything" to have the government investigate his claims. Yet when pressed for details, Boyle becomes as vague as Van Morrison lyrics. "I got nasty e-mails," the professor says, giving no hint of their contents. "They ridiculed me for being Catholic and ridiculed Catholicism. Two years ago, they even made a T-shirt ridiculing me." Was this ridicule based on religion or ethnicity, or do Boyle's students and colleagues just dislike him? Without examples, it's impossible to say.
It's also hard to see a legal case, given that "Irish" is nowhere recognized as a racial category. Sacrilege is an even tougher case, since nothing in Catholic canon law prohibits getting loaded on St. Patrick's Day. Boyle is having none of this. "My secretary, who has a high school education, and isn't even Catholic, understands this," he snaps, abruptly ending the interview.
Perhaps a professor who claims discrimination while offhandedly insulting his secretary is not the ideal client, but shouldn't Boyle and the Celtic Tigers be able to find common ground? Alas, the professor's claim to Irish citizenship is based on Ireland's notorious grandparent loophole -- a practice to which the Tigers, who loathe Irish Americans, strongly object. "This citizen stuff is complete nonsense," says CTADL spokesman William O'Herlihy. "Why not grant American citizenship to anyone in Ireland who has an American grandchild?" Thus even apparent allies cannot escape the anxiety of small differences.
The Irish are not the only long-assimilated European im-migrant group that still has it tough. "I'm a lawyer, but my dad was a shoemaker," says Ted Grippo, the chatty and amiable founder of Chicago's American-Italian Defense Association (AIDA). "Since 1930, we've had over 800 Mafia-type movies. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked if I'm connected." Fed up, Grippo is taking aim at Tony Soprano and the gang at the Bada-Bing -- who themselves comically raised the issue of defamation in a recent episode about Columbus Day protests organized by Native Americans.
Grippo's familiarity with HBO's hit series would surprise the show's most ardent fans. "In The Sopranos, there are two groups of Italians: the mob guys and the other people. Of that second group -- Dr. Cusamano, the parish priest, the restaurant owner, the kids, the wife, Dr. Melfi -- they're all a bunch of slobs. Compare that to when Carmela met the Jewish psychiatrist or the African priest. Both of them were noble people, full of conscientious advice." As Grippo describes the subtlest details of Sopranos plots, you suspect he may be a secret fan, but the show's ethnic dynamic trumps everything for him.
Last year, Grippo brought legal action against Time Warner, citing a clause in the Illinois constitution that condemns "communications that portray criminality, depravity or lack of virtue in…a person or group of persons by reference to religious, racial, ethnic, national or regional affiliation." While the suit was dismissed, AIDA attracted 160 members. Grippo expects to have 200 or 300 members "pretty quickly. We're edging toward a paid staff. Within the next year we'll have some permanent staff."
Italian-American anti-discrimination has a long pedigree and one great event: the rise of Joe Colombo's Italian-American Civil Rights League (IACRL). Colombo, who gave his name to the reputed "Colombo Crime Family," formed the group in 1970, after son Joe Jr. was charged with melting down $500,000 in U.S. coins for their silver content. Within a year the IACRL attracted 100,000 members, boasting a multimillion-dollar budget and a five-room office suite on Madison Avenue. Pop culture Goliaths such as Alka-Seltzer's "Mamma mia, datsa somma spicy meat-a-balls" slogan and Macy's "Godfather Game" fell to the group's wrath. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell attended a "Unity Day Rally" at Columbus Circle. Thanks to the IACRL, the terms Mafia and Cosa Nostra are never uttered in the film version of The Godfather. Colombo's vision grew to include an IACRL-run hospital and rehab center and Camp Unity, a 250-acre retreat for underprivileged kids. In early 1971 he attained that benchmark of Nixon-era success, an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.
The dream ended just as quickly after Colombo was fatally shot at the second Unity Day Rally in 1971; the league did not outlive him. Mob fans speculate the assassination was ordered by either Colombo rival Joe Gallo or boss Carlo Gambino, who feared the league's potential for drawing attention to discreet Gambino activities.
Richard Capozzola, a retired Florida high school teacher who worked for the IACRL, disputes both theories. "In the two years I was with the League, I worked closely with Joe; I never saw any criminal actions or heard so much as a profanity," he says. "There is no other group that has a label pinned to its people…Michael Milken, Marc Rich, Allie Tannenbaum, Crazy Eddie Antar -- those were all criminals. But if you want to get your backside kicked, write about them and call them the Kosher Nostra."
At his site ItalianInfo.net, Capozzola publishes a 3,000-word essay defending the legacy of Colombo and the IACRL (whose "accomplishments overshadowed what all national Italian American organizations had tried to do for over SIXTY YEARS"). He speculates that Colombo's assassination was ordered by the government as part of its long-term project to denigrate Italian Americans. "The assassination of Joe Colombo, in my view, was a capstone to the unjust and unethical treatment that Italian Americans are subject to in everyday life."
Capozzola still speaks out against "Uncle Tomassos" like Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, and Sopranos creator David Chase. "I love my country, but I sure don't love Hollywood," he says. His hope is that there might someday be an organization that weeds out anti-Italian slurs as assertively as the Anti-Defamation League obliterates anti-Semitism.
Hate for Sale
Anti-discrimination efforts do not occur in a vacuum. Even hypochondriacs get sick, and the anti-discrimination lobby exists in part because real discrimination exists. If the ADL's picture of an anti-Semitic Arab lobby is vivid, that's because pro-Arab sentiments frequently do slide into hoary anti-Jewish tropes, a fact the more honest Arab advocates, such as the ADC's Ibish, acknowledge.
To the surprise (if not disappointment) of Arab-American advocates, the post-9/11 backlash against Arabs and Muslims was more scattered and restrained than ubiquitous talk about internment camps and midnight roundups had led us to expect. But it would take a true Pollyanna to dismiss the troubles of Muslims in America when citizen and non-citizen alike are being deprived of such fancy Western niceties as the right to legal counsel.
Moreover, hate crime is often real crime. American Hindus Against Defamation is part of a political awakening that followed the murder of 30-year-old Navroze Mody by the Jersey City "Dotbusters" gang; agitation from the Indian community clearly helped push that case to a successful prosecution. (On the other hand, prominent civil rights advocate Helen Zia formed American Citizens for Justice after the murder at a strip club of 27-year-old Vincent Chin in 1982 -- a crime now widely described as a racially motivated killing, though the circumstances are murkier than advocates admit.)
But does a crime become worse because it's a hate crime? Are Americans too dumb to recognize bigotry unless a professional identifies it? Do anti-discrimination organizations actually make any difference?
Anti-discrimination groups are untroubled by such airy-fairy questions. Virtually all support broader federal hate crime laws. Ted Grippo's lawsuit against The Sopranos is amusing but not uncommon. Even the Celtic Tiger ADL, which seems at first like a Swiftian hoax, is dead serious about expansive hate crime laws.
"We would like to see local legislation or guidelines enacted to prevent negative stereotyping in the local media and at officially sanctioned events or by anyone in receipt of public contracts," says CTADL spokesman O'Herlihy. "If 24 Hour Fitness can draw the wrath of the oversized persons lobby…then I don't see why those that are offended by the negative stereotyping of their culture shouldn't be given serious thought too."
Nonlegislative strong-arming is even more common. The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith pressures Internet service providers that don't police bulletin boards and libraries that display objectionable books. It once attempted to ban a textbook that "[leaned] over backward to provide a flattering portrait of Islamic civilization."
Laird Wilcox, a civil rights activist who fell out with ADL while researching fringe groups, devotes more than a quarter of The Watchdogs to ADL abuses. Among other things, he claims a documentary he worked on in the 1980s was faked by ADL staffers posing, with fake names and mustaches, as white supremacists.
The ADL's public record is daunting enough. In 1993 the group was fined for employing an off-duty San Francisco police officer to spy on other civil rights groups. Last year the ADL was fined nearly $10 million for defaming a Colorado couple with baseless charges of anti-Semitism. The organization defends its copyright on the word anti-defamation, taking action against groups such as the Anarchists Anti-Defamation League and Russell Means' American Indian Anti-Defamation Council.
Other civil rights groups, Wilcox contends, might behave similarly with a $40 million budget. "They're not hesitant to suppress free speech when they don't agree with it," he says, "but on the whole they're no worse and probably better than the ADL."
A League of Their Own
The endearing thing about Bill Donohue is that he genuinely seems to enjoy hurting people. The president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights peppers his press releases with blistering jabs at luminaries who stumble into anti-Catholic offense: "LARA FLYNN BOYLE ADMITS TO HER STUPIDITY…HEATHER GRAHAM'S SEXUAL HANG-UPS…Yo, Sly, ever think about getting out of the ring once and for all?" (The last is a reference to Sylvester Stallone's canceled series Father Lefty.)
Donohue specializes in invidious comparisons of the "If they said the same thing about blacks/Jews…" type. Some samples:
"Sadly, there is also a market for Jew-bashing cards. Millions of people hate gays. Ditto for Muslims. White racists abound. But there are no cards, thank God, that attack these groups. Just Catholics."
"If a group of white anti-black bigots dressed up as Al Jolson and mocked African Americans, no one would excuse them…."
"For starters, would [the Brooklyn Museum of Art] include a photograph of Jewish slave masters sodomizing their obsequious black slaves?"
In an interview for this story, Donohue is energetic, engaging, and unapologetic about his aggressive personal style. "We're not located in Kansas City," he says (a dig at the liberal National Catholic Reporter, which is headquartered there). "New York is a rough town. The people I debate are smart, quick, and tough. I'm not some pious little bluenose, backwoods kid."
Invoking the image of sodomite Jewish slave masters is, in Donohue's view, fair play. "Why is that an invidious comparison?" he says. "Why isn't it analogous? I want a level playing field."
The Catholic League was formed in 1973 and turned over to Donohue's leadership 20 years later. Donohue's genius was to change the terms of the discussion, to present the Catholic League not as a socially conservative group but as the champion of an abused religious sect in a relentlessly bigoted environment. Everywhere the Catholic League looks -- art museum, multiplex, TV set -- an abyss of nearly Elizabethan Catholic bashing gazes back; the league fights back with press releases, letter writing campaigns, boycott threats, and an annual "Index of Anti-Catholicism."
This strategy invites a good deal of media mockery of the "wait 'til the Catholic League gets a load of this" variety. "When any other group complains, they're against discrimination," Donohue says. "When Bill Donohue leads a protest, it's censorship. He's against free speech." This charge clearly rankles Donohue, who insists -- against considerable evidence -- that he opposes governmental decency policing. "I don't want the government to be the agent of resolution," Donohue says. "I'd rather see somebody bashing my religion than see the government exercising censorship."
This last claim should not be taken at face value. Donohue's opposition to government intervention is such that when WNEW's Opie and Anthony radio show staged a live sex act in St. Patrick's Cathedral this August, Donohue's first action was to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), demanding that WNEW's license be revoked. The Catholic League has in the past filed FCC protests against a San Diego radio station and a WB Network quiz show; in 1998 Donohue went after the FCC itself, when a subscriber to the commission's e-mail digest posted "a joke that poked fun at nuns." As is often the case, government intervention is in the eye of the beholder.
But these were minor dustups compared to this year's revelations that Boston's Archdiocese housed a de facto pederasty ring that was protected by the church hierarchy. Suddenly the Catholic League was in an odd position. While the rest of the country was talking about child-abusing priests and their accomplices in the bishopric, the Catholic League was still denouncing harmless chestnuts about high-strung nuns and wacky confessional mixups.
"When this happened in Boston, I thought carefully, do I want to get involved in this thing?" says Donohue, who acknowledges having waited out the early stages of the controversy. "The reason we talk more about it now is that this thing blew up. And I wanted to have a voice of somebody who loves the church, who hates the abuse that's going on in the church, and will oppose the efforts of the left and the right -- especially the left -- to impose an agenda."
Donohue decisively inserted himself into the debate in March, briefly becoming a ubiquitous presence on talk shows and managing partly to direct the battle back toward a familiar enemy: Catholic liberals. He has become one of the major proponents of the thesis that the root of the problem was excessive tolerance for gays in the priesthood.
This, however, doesn't address a main cause of public outrage: not just that child abuse occurred but that a self-interested church hierarchy was willing to act as an accomplice. In April a widely publicized Vatican meeting of U.S. cardinals produced a lawyerly and mealy-mouthed set of proposals; at a June meeting, America's bishops, who had already emerged as the villains in the public mind, produced "zero tolerance" guidelines that made no mention of their own responsibility. It doesn't take a Catholic basher to be struck by the fact that a church uniquely confident in its opposition to stem cell research, condom use, and war in Iraq is somehow unable to take a strong stand against raping children.
Despite promises that he would not "defend the indefensible" or "carry water for the church," Donohue inevitably has had to speak carefully about Church pusillanimity and promise that real reform is on the way. Damage control is an uncomfortable job for him. In his element, Bill Donohue is a happy warrior, not an apologist. Witness a telling exchange with James Carville on CNN's Crossfire:
Donohue: "Most of the damage was done in the 1970s and the early 1980s. The cultural and sexual revolution that this country went through in the '60s, '70s, and early '80s had negative consequences all over. I'm not excusing it. I'm giving you…."
Carville: "I know. But I lived through the cultural revolution. And I didn't fondle no Boy Scout."
The fight has not gone out of Bill Donohue; he just wasn't born to be somebody else's straight man. Donohue promises, however, that if and when the scandal settles down, "I am gonna say to people: 'It's not OK to beat up on us just because we created our own problems.'"
Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom
One thing you can say for anti-discrimination groups: By their very existence, they negate the idea of America as a homogeneous, or even harmonious, society. This alone constitutes a public service. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, for example, keeps close track of the war on terrorism's erosion of civil liberties, if only because its constituents are directly impacted. Between the tyranny of common interest and the tyranny of special interests, at least you still have the freedom to name your poison.
"We like these groups," says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Cambridge, Massachusetts?based Political Research Associates. "It's a good question why a person who is sensible would like these groups, but it's because we don't think it's that annoying to ask whether people are being treated fairly -- and to be able to do that without people running into a corner and ignoring each other. I want people to find a way to speak out in a way that is civil."
It's hard, though, to see how accusations of bigotry, sniping over political agendas, or appeals to courts and legislatures help promote civility. Anti-discrimination groups may in fact be most valuable when they are most combative, most obdurate, most willing to give up phony abstractions about equality for all and openly fight each other for crumbs of public attention.
Your meaningless cacophony could be somebody else's Whitmanesque symphony. It would also be somebody else's highly remunerative business, providing gainful employment for executives, clerks, and boards of directors. In this sluggish economy, isn't that enough? Even when there's little to gripe about, Americans from all walks of life can still come together and complain. We may be one nation after all.