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February 09, 2007

So a Catholic Priest and a Black Rapper Walk Into A Bar...

The whole Marcotte controversy got me thinking about the specter of anti-Catholic bigotry. Some of those charging discrimination weren't credible, but others were, and I was struck by the repetition of the point that, had the same comments been levied against Blacks, the outcome would have been very different.

Well, yeah. I don't know exactly how you quantify this, but the rules for satirizing or making light of dominant groups are in fact different than the rules for speaking about oft-marginalized minorities. And they should be. With over 50 million adherents, Catholics are the single largest religious denomination in this country. The last two Supreme Court Justices and the most recent Democratic nominee for President were Catholic. The standings of Catholics in society are not so precarious that broad social stigma must be applied so their culture is treated with a protective reverence.

That, of course, is not to condone bigotry, but then, bigotry was never part of the conversation. Amanda's most inflammatory comment -- "What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit?" -- was indeed offensive, but it was not bigoted. The sexualization of the virgin birth was a rhetorical flourish atop a post about birth control. It was not about the characters of Catholics.

So the question at hand isn't whether group hatred can be condoned (it cannot, of course), but whether, for some reason, Catholicism should be protected against irreverent, and even over-the-top, rhetoric. That is a protection our society affords to certain groups -- no white man can put on blackface and make jokes about rappers, though black men can put on white face and makes jokes about crackers. Dominant majorities are often strong enough to withstand parody, irreverence, and even attack on their traditions without requiring additional protection, while the same treatment, if deployed against weakened minorities, could enhance ongoing discrimination or cement negative stereotypes believed by the majority. So disrespecting the eucharist isn't my style, but it doesn't concern me in quite the fashion mocking the Black work ethic would.

Update: I worry this comes off too flip. I think mocking religion is often the wrong thing to do. It is offensive, and rude, and tends to muddle your point. But when it comes to dominant groups, I'm not convinced it's dangerous, and while the same approach to a minority may fall under the enahanced definition of bigotry we've created to protect those subgroups, the same approach to whites, or Christians, or men, may not.

Update The Second: Mike MeGinnis makes some good points here. I tend to think the level of choice inherent in religious practice is a bit overblown (for most, it's tribal and hereditary, which is, at best, quasi-rational) and possibly beside the point (nothing about being Catholic strikes me as inherently worthy of hatred). But it is a useful distinction insofar as the elements of Catholicism Amanda is attacking -- mainly, it's patriarchal, regressive social attitudes -- are just that, attitudes, and therefore totally open to challenge. Amanda would have no problem with Catholicism if its adherents weren't trying to deny her, an atheist, access to contraceptives and reproductive choice.

February 9, 2007 | Permalink


Did Amanda say that all Catholics are lazy? Stupid? Prone to violence, disrespectful toward women, part of a culture of victimization that glorifies law-breaking?

No, she didn't. She attacked Catholic beliefs and practices that she finds offensive, oppressive and downright evil. Criticizing beliefs is not the same as criticizing an ethnic minority. Bill Donohue, Professional Victim, wants Roman Catholics to be treated like an ethnic minority. However, one can decide to be a Catholic or not. One cannot decide whether to be white, hispanic or asian.

I also have a bit of a quibble with the idea that Roman Catholics are a dominant group. True, there's a lot of them, and true, several people in positions of power are Roman Catholic. But there are millions of hispanic Catholics in this country, many of them poor. And when some 3rd-generation Hispanic-American is working in a landscaping company (probably as the owner), no one is going to check and see if he's a Catholic before assuming that he's just another dirty illegal alien.

Posted by: Stephen | Feb 9, 2007 11:11:06 AM

This is an important point, but there's another point: what people believe should be fair game for mockery, even if those beliefs happen to bear the magical label of 'religious'.

Now, mocking religion may be tacky, is often rude, and is certainly impolitic, all of which makes it a bad idea in a political context...but let's not lose perspective here. Religion is a choice, and analogies to race or gender or sexual orientation are wrongheaded and, worse, damaging (because they are the foundation on which hoohahs like Donohue build their fantasies of victimhood).

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Feb 9, 2007 11:11:14 AM

"That, of course, is not to condone bigotry, but then, bigotry was never part of the conversation."

The Catholic hierarchy should indeed be fair game for criticism. They have a loooooooooong history of pursuing highly reactionary policy.

Particularly if you are highly concerned with gender and reproductive issues, an anti-Papist orientation makes a huge amount of sense.

Of course, electoral realities have their own internal logic, which is a bit different than the logic expressed above...

Posted by: Petey | Feb 9, 2007 11:23:47 AM

In addition, the rules are different for the lonely blogger than for an employee of a presidential campaign. Politics is a contact sport, and if you say something controversial you can expect to get whacked, hard. So if you plan to go work for pols, be sure to pretend at all times that you're a boring adult, even if in your heart of hearts you're really a snide juvenile.

Posted by: ostap | Feb 9, 2007 11:29:38 AM

Ezra, it's not the mocking.

It's the antagonism. She's against us.

Posted by: a | Feb 9, 2007 11:31:58 AM

Yesh, well... I'm a Catholic and while I find Amanda's stuff frequently over the top for my tastes, my life has not been her life and hers has not been mine. I decided long ago to assume positive intent on Amanda's part and it has served me well. I haven't posted anything as half-cocked on pandagon.net's comment area since she's been there as I often did when the previous incumbents erwe pulling the levers, if you know what I mean.

I see nothing really approaching offensive in what she writes, certainly nothing as offensive as the straight-up insults to my intelligence I frequently get from the Church.

Can Amanda write things I find cringe inducing? Heck, yeah. Lots of people do, in fact, I do it a lot.

Posted by: Lettuce | Feb 9, 2007 11:37:57 AM

Well put, Stephen. But I think even you overstate what Marcotte was doing. If she walked up to a Catholic and made the (very funny) "white, sticky, spirit" comment, it would be quite inappropriate. But it was in reference to a seminar promoting the public policy of banning contraceptive use. In fact, it's directly referencing a common refrain among anti-contraceptive and anti-abortion advocates; "What if Mary had been pro-choice?". Marcotte wasn't even attacking beliefs that she finds offensive, she was attacking people trying to force those beliefs into the public sphere. And that's fair game, just like AIPAC (who claims to represent a group with a more serious claim to persecuted minority status) is fair game when they are trying to influence American policy. Religious organizations don't particularly deserve to be taunted, even if you disagree with them. Religious organizations trying to change public policy deserve exactly as much respect as is given to NARAL or the ACLU, which is to say very little.

Posted by: Sam L. | Feb 9, 2007 11:53:39 AM

The underlying assumption seems to be that bigotry is a matter of directly attacking the character of the members of a group. I think that's plainly false. One, bigotry isn't just about people and two, you don't have to spell out the connections to the people, even if you try to pretend there aren't any. If I spend a significant amount of my energy assailing Kwanzaa and other aspects of black culture in terms as vile as those chosen by Amanda for her attacks on Catholic beliefs, I'll rightly be seen as a flaming bigot.

It's also important to recognize that the fact that Amanda's bigotry isn't dangerous to Catholics doesn't mean it isn't bigotry. The rules differ when it's dangerous, but not in regard to whether it's bigotry.

I'll add that from just a little reading, it appears to me that Amanda's bigotry extends well beyond Catholicism, that she is bigoted in regard to conservative religious belief in general. Many liberals are, to some degree or other. She's just more open about it.

It should also be clear that religious belief, religious believers, and religion in general are all legitimate subjects of criticism. They can be criticized very strongly end effectively without indulging bigotry, which can come through in the form of willful exaggerations or distortions, the plain intent to needlessly offend or insult, and other signs of bad will and bad faith (in their intellectual meanings).

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 9, 2007 12:07:12 PM

Since Mitt Romney entered the race, I've seen a fair amount of mockery and criticism of Mormons. A lot of it was stupid, some of it was ridiculous, some of it was rather fair, but the one thing that really offended me was the serious theological discussions over at RedState and NRO that concluded that Mormons weren't really Christians and should just admit it already. It was the calm deliberateness of the judgment that was creepy. I'd rather read a thousand send-ups of Cosmic Jesus, Holy Underwear, and White Salamanders than a bunch of political activists sitting down with the text of the Nicene Creed and Aquinas's discouses and issuing theobloggical bulls.

Posted by: Jackmormon | Feb 9, 2007 12:13:47 PM

"She's against us."

I'm not sure how you're defining us, but to take Amanda's side for a minute, you were against her first. She's protesting the effort to take papal doctrine and make it the law of the land, that atheists and Jews and everyone else would be subject to.

It IS the mocking. I don't know exactly where the line ought to be drawn. Actions of the Catholic hierarchy and breaches of the church-state wall ought to be fair game for criticism. Poking fun of the Virgin Mary and the Trinity are asking for trouble, I think. The reality is, you can be a practicing Catholic and believe the Church's stance on birth control is silly and wrong. A lot of Christians struggle with the Trinity, but if you feel it's *silly* you're well on the way to being a former Christian.

I'm a liberal Protestant. I've been reading Amanda for quite awhile. Some of her comments have made me mad over the years (equating religious faith with superstition definitely pushes my buttons). But I was glad when I heard Edwards hired her, and I'm doubly glad he didn't fire her over this trumped-up controversy, by people who are no friends of Edwards regardless. (The "leaders" of the Christian left quoted in the Politico piece leave me cold; they don't speak for me.)

I would quibble, however, with the characterization of religion as a choice; for a lot of people it's an inheritance, like your hometown or your ethnicity. That 50 million figure doesn't represent how many people went to mass this week, it represents people who identify as Catholic, some due to childhood or family loyalties.

Posted by: Dix Hill | Feb 9, 2007 12:15:22 PM

"If I spend a significant amount of my energy assailing Kwanzaa and other aspects of black culture in terms as vile as those chosen by Amanda for her attacks on Catholic beliefs, I'll rightly be seen as a flaming bigot."

Not even close to being the right analogy.

If there were an institutionalized Church of Kwanzaa that was unremittingly hostile to the reproductive rights of women, and you used over the top rhetoric to criticize it on those grounds, then, no, you would not rightly be seen as a flaming bigot.

Even more to the point, there are members of the black clergy who have expressed some repellent ideas about homosexuality. The folks who criticized them aren't flaming bigots either.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 9, 2007 12:18:32 PM

Do you guys actually *read* Pandagon? I do, and I have read Amanda call Christians/Catholics stupid, deluded, racist, and genocidal. Not 'the hierarchy' but "Christians" and "Catholics". Not in scare quotes, but in long posts that she defended in comments. She has even gone on rants where she describes what she is doing, hopes it is not only offensive but that it actually offends.

Sure, Amanda is harmless, but she isn't innocent of purposefully offending Christians and catholics.

Posted by: Deep Thought | Feb 9, 2007 12:23:10 PM

There are differences between targets, and there's a difference between provocatively offensive and hatefully malicious. We can quibble about whether Catholics are a dominant group or not, but it's a little disingenuous. Everyone knows they make an easy target, and a cheap shot is a cheap shot.

As for the comments themselves, I'd agree with you, they're more offensive than hateful, and the outrage strikes me as either manufactured, thin-skinned, or both. But the point could have been made without alienating potential readers, allies, and voters, which is Edwards' concern.

Taking into account all the obvious differences, imagine for a second a rapper, hired to be a campaign liaison to the hip hop generation/community, who had previously recorded some gay bashing lyrics (all too common, unfortunately). I think a disavowal would be the very least people would be calling for.

Edwards made the right call by defining what he considers acceptable political discourse. Amanda and Melissa decided to stay with the campaign in light of the clarification. Everyone else is now free to draw their own conclusions. Case (hopefully) closed.

Posted by: Headline Junky | Feb 9, 2007 12:24:46 PM

Now, while I do not hold any religious beliefs, I don't believe it's right to say that religious people choose to be religious, whether they are Roman Catholics, Mormons, or Muslims. Most people are religious because they were indoctrinated into their faiths as children and have experienced no reason to abandon their faith.

Are religious beliefs still open to criticism? Damn straight they are. However, so are the beliefs and practices of any other group, minority or not.

Of course, now we're being unfair by judging groups of individuals who hold similar beliefs as monolithic communities. Sigh.

Posted by: Carlos | Feb 9, 2007 12:29:57 PM

So, if you insult a poor Hispanic woman who is Catholic, are you capable of offending her, or does being a member of any "dominant group" make that impossible? Since many Catholics are descended from people traditionally discriminated against for their faith (see: the Know Nothing party, the KKK, etc.) at what point did they stop being an oppressed religious minority (since they are outnumbered by Protestants) and become a "dominant group"? There are far fewer UPC Pentecostals in America, a group that claims they are not Protestants not catholics; are they a protected group (they are largely Black) or are they a "dominant" group as Christians?

Posted by: Deep Thought | Feb 9, 2007 12:34:55 PM

"I worry this comes off too flip. I think mocking religion is often the wrong thing to do."

Too late. You can never run for office now.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 9, 2007 12:35:28 PM

Jackmormon, a lot of people may not know that your name would usually imply you aren't an active, believing Mormon.

Petey, you're confusing the legitimacy of reasons to attack something with whether the attacks are bigoted. As I said, there is nothing wrong with attacking offending Catholic beliefs, for the reasons you cite (which I think are questionable) or for some other reasons. You don't have to be a bigot, though. My analogy shows the bigotry; your objections are about the reasons for it. Two different things.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 9, 2007 12:36:17 PM

The Catholic Church burned "heretics" to death. Now Donohue is all atwit about some distaseful comments. Tell it to the survivors of the Hugenots.

The Church has always tried to impose itself and its moral dictates on non-Catholic society. If Donohue and his ilk spent their time in church rather than infusing politics with Catholic pedantry, Amanda would have nothing to say.

A tremendous inconsistency, seldom mentioned, is the overall philosophical bent of the left towards tolerance, be it sexual orientation, religion or even governments. The left is, however, motivated to attack the intolerance of others and when Catholicism (or independent practioners thereof) attempts to impose its religious dictates in the social or political realm of non-Catholics, those tenets of the faith, and the attempted imposition of them, are attacked. That response is, of course, expanded by the right to a new definition of left wing intolerance.

Twist the meanings, avoid context and become a victim. A continuing right wing tactic

Posted by: Mudge | Feb 9, 2007 12:39:02 PM

As I've said in other threads, the issue isn't, "should we be nicer to religions?" The issue should be, why do we give so much deference and power to institutions that seldom stand for what they claim to and generally, like most other organisms in society, are really just looking for their collective selves?

The problem is, we've built this entire "you must be respectful of my religious beliefs" while the very same beliefs we are supposed are based on, to one extent or another, the belief that all other beliefs are bullshit. It's naughty when Amanda makes fun of catholicism (because they're trying to control birth control) but it's not naughty when muiltiple parties make fun of mormonism (and well, it is pretty silly after all).

Don't you see? There is no way to play the game where everyone respects everyone. The only thing each group wants is deference and the power to enact its' creed into law. Bottom line. And there may be exceptions to this but I guarantee, those groups have little or no influence in the overall process. It's a fixed game amongst the religious.

So, when someone like Amanda offends religious groups, good for her. And if it's more than just mkaing fun of their bizarre belief system, in in fact she's making fun of the people that support, good for her once again. People should be called into account when they support systems that are responsible for heinous acts. And please, just one of you try to tell me that there isn't a religion on this planet that somewhere, sometime, didn't do some fucked up shit in the name of its' god, godess, idols or whatever.

There's nothing wrong, per se, with religion. There's nothing wrong with people who believe in the supernatural, a god, a higher power, a pantheon of gods, bigfoot, the skunk-ape or whatever. It's when groups of those people get together and decide that their beliefs are more important than someone else's that we begin to have problems.

No Ezra, the problem isn't that Amanda or anyone else making light of religion is bigoted. The problem is that we've elevated these beliefs to some level far above what is rational, reasonable or even healthy for a society.

Posted by: ice weasel | Feb 9, 2007 12:40:22 PM

It's the antagonism. She's against us.

Sorry, that's crap. She's certainly against efforts to implement public policies that mirror religious doctrines-- after all, anyone who wants to live according to Baptist or RCC or Presbyterian rules is free, according to the Establishment Clause, to join a congregation, but no religious obligations or standards should ever be directly linked to American citizenship-- and she is also against the idea that in public policy debates religion can be held as some sort of shield against criticism of policy positions. She may think individuals' beliefs are silly and unfounded, and that they're rather tedious people, but that does not in any way mean she thinks that you or anyone should have their own civil rights (which do not include a right to bully others) restricted based on religious beliefs.

Get over yourself.

Posted by: latts | Feb 9, 2007 12:42:37 PM

It's weird actually. The Roman Catholic Church is by far the most prominent & wide reaching branch of the world's most prominent & wide reaching religion. But because of the more or less protestant nature of the English speaking countries, Catholicism in those places is viewed almost like an ethnic religion. Of course not to play down the real anti-catholic bigotry that permeated the English-speaking world, but in the grand scheme of things, Catholicism IS Christianity for the most part.

Posted by: DRR | Feb 9, 2007 12:43:55 PM

I think Edwards is smart....very smart. I believe he will still get rid of these bloggers, but will do so after the hoo-ha has died down and some of the emotion has subsided.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Feb 9, 2007 12:44:05 PM

I tend to agree with Lettuce here, and it speaks to an important point, one that I think Ezra's post hints at but doesn't address directly. It is a bit too easy to refer to Catholics as a dominant group. First, because the divide between Protestant and Catholic has historically been far more important than the divide between various Protestant sects or Roman Cathlic and the Orthodoxies. Second, because it hasn't historically been true.

The Kennedy campaign had to deal with those questions very seriously. My 8th grade teacher told us about applying for jobs when she was younger and being asked what neighborhood her house was in. When she said Little Italy (in Kansas City, FWIW), the man tore up the application and said, "Go ahead and tear up that application." The English-Irish feuds migrated to the United States, where again it was the English who were dominant; their "Papist" rivals were on the butt end of a lot of discrimination. The Catholics who settled here centuries ago needed Maryland because it was the only colony in which they were free to practice. Catholics have always been drinkers, even during eras of teetotaller domination, which further ostracized "us."

All of which is to say that Catholics have faced a history of discrimination, so the wariness about this is understandable. The problem is that guys like Donohue -- indeed, most people who think Catholics are being victimized here -- seem to be trying to cure anti-Catholic discrimination as practiced prior to Vatican II. Vatican II demystified the Church and made the dominant American Protestants more comfortable interacting with it. The discrimination that worries people so much is, essentially, a relic of a bygone era. But Donohue, et al, act as if the same sort of discrimination is ongoing.

It's about mindset. If you are predisposed to believe that Amanda Marcotte hates you as a result of your religion (rather than hating some of the behavioral laws of your religion, which she surely does), then you will see her writing as discriminatory. If you, as Lettuce and I have, approach her writing assuming positive intent, you aren't likely to feel discriminated against by it.

Unless I have been living in a cocoon thanks to my fifteen years of attending Catholic schools, I just can't understand how people can think anti-Catholic bias is more than a miniscule nuissance at this point. That's why it is dramatically different from the treatment of other ethnic or religious groups: hatred of blacks, Muslims, Mormons, hispanics, etc, is far more pervasive and far more likely to yield some sort of popular assent that can do real damage to the social standings of the target group. Anti-Catholic bias is likely to have almost no impact on the social standing of Catholics.

Posted by: jhupp | Feb 9, 2007 12:45:46 PM

Sorry, I went back and did some editing, and now my second paragraph reads like utter crap.

Posted by: jhupp | Feb 9, 2007 12:47:14 PM

"Petey, you're confusing the legitimacy of reasons to attack something with whether the attacks are bigoted."

I think those two things are intricately linked.

An argument based on legitimate reasons is ipso facto not a bigoted argument.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 9, 2007 12:47:42 PM

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