The Breakfast Table

Is D.C. Anti-Catholic?

Dear Liza:

Good morning. I woke up to a piece of local news that–bear with me here, Beltway-bashing Slate letter-writers–I believe has some implications beyond my grocery-shopping convenience. It seems the wise and worthy southern Republican congressman who oversees the nation’s capital has accused Washington’s Democratic City Council of practicing … anti-Catholic bigotry. Now, where have I heard those words before? Ah, yes, it all comes streaming back: South Carolina … Confederate flags fly … George W. Bush embraces hillbilly preachers … obscure Rome-baiting by obscure allies are dredged up … urban sophisticates giggle mightily at Bush’s troubles.

Now, though, the shoe’s on the other foot. And the twinge of awkwardness I felt last winter–when erstwhile Bush foes picked up the Defender of the Church banner and waved it against actual bigots and mere theological adversaries alike–has been vindicated. Because if you thought labeling someone an anti-Catholic bigot was effective against some Bible-thumping rightist, just watch it get used against some liberal. Here, then, is the D.C. Council’s sin: Following the lead of many states, they have passed a bill requiring employers to include contraceptive coverage in employee health plans. And they rejected a “conscience clause” amendment that would have exempted any religious employer from the requirement. During the debate, a council member who previously spent 15 years running the city’s biggest AIDS clinic warned against “deferring to Rome” on political and medical issues. That did it. As reported in both of our papers this morning, the reaction from Oklahoma Rep. Ernest Istook (whose committee gets to OK how district voters choose to spend even their local tax dollars) sounded as if the city were proposing to expropriate church property, ban masses, and guillotine clerics along Pennsylvania Avenue.

So, is a politician now a bigot for merely disagreeing with the local diocese? For simply insisting that the church (which runs lots of big bureaucratic institutions, like hospitals, that have little to do with teaching dogma) treat its employees the same as everyone else? I’ve always thought of bigotry as centrally involving a prejudice against a people. But when you’re dealing with something like the church–which refers to a huge population of citizens against whom bigotry has been used, but also to a specific institution, to a defined leadership, and to a particular theology–it’s an awfully complicated concept. And we need to be vigilant about where disagreement ends and actual prejudice begins. If we dumb that down, and especially if we dumb that down in order to extract a little blood from Southern conservative types, liberals of the pro-public-school, pro-choice, pro-gay-rights stripe wind up losing.

Heavens. So early in the morning, and such a high horse I’m on! But thank you for sending me that AP item about the youth baseball coach arrest–you anti-Sports Dad bigot, you. Wanna make a bet about when the first piece of legislation meant to respond to this “crisis” will be proposed? I can just see it now: the Family Sports Preservation Act of 2001, with the death penalty for any assault by a spectator over age 35 at an athletic event.

I am fascinated with the news accounts of William Cohen’s visit to China, where he has asked the media to quit being so negative about the United States. To believe the WTO advocates, their papers were supposed to become so crowded with Coca-Cola ads and mutual fund tips that there’d be no room for, um, anti-American bigotry. And so we are reduced to having our defense secretary ask them to please not be so mean to us. Which, given that the press is state-controlled, seems appropriate–and probably more effective than a letter to the editor. But it also seems somehow embarrassing. Did we ask Pravda to quit picking on us?

On the other hand, without any trade liberalization, a much more effectively hysterical organ of totalitarian thought seems to have reformed itself. Much to my dismay, I report that the Korean Central News Agency Web site, the daily dispatch from Pyongyang that may be my favorite site on the Web, is now only mildly inflammatory. Once upon a time, to read their pages, the oppressed southerners were perpetually revolting, solidarity groups in distant African nations were always standing against Yankee colonialism on the Korean peninsula, and news of their leaders always involved quotes around the word “government.” (Something I’d like to do covering D.C. sometime, but that’s another story.) Today, though, in the post-summit glow, it’s different. Yeah, a poem to Kim Il Sung was reported to have been published in Syria, maritime sports were reported to be brisk in Korea, and a seminar on Kim Il Sung thought was reported to have been held in Indonesia, but that story on a South Korean labor dispute actually used the reporting of a South Korean news agency! Come on!