When you cover a beat, you get to know the good guys and the bad guys. If you don't have strong opinions about who's who, you're probably not doing your job.
Dave Weigel covers birthers, Birchers, teabaggers, and other movement conservatives for the Washington Post. Nobody knows this beat better than Weigel, who covered the right for the liberal Washington Independent before he got his big break at the Post earlier this year. Bloggers at the Post occupy an intermediate niche between regular reporters and op/ed columnists. They cover a beat, but expressing opinions is also part of their job description.
On Saturday Weigel caused a stir when he tweeted "I can empathize with everyone I cover except for the anti-gay marriage bigots. In 20 years, no one will admit they were a part of that."
Absolutely! Opposing gay marriage is the moral equivalent of supporting anti-miscegenation laws.
By definition, bigots are people with unshakable baseless prejudices. There is absolutely no reason, besides blind prejudice, to deny same sex couples the right to civil marriage.
You can use religious language to express your belief that gays and lesbians are disgusting second class citizens unworthy of rights that heterosexuals take for granted, but it doesn't make your position any less bigoted. Logically, there is no reason to put same-sex relationships on a lesser legal footing than opposite sex unions, unless you think there's something wrong with them.
You can insist you don't wish gay people any harm. Perhaps not. But there were lots of pro-segregationists who didn't wish ill upon black people, but still didn't want to drink out of the same fountains. They too were bigots.
You can point out that discrimination against gays and lesbians is a longstanding tradition, but that doesn't excuse your bigotry. If anything, it makes it worse. It was one thing to fear what the expansion of gay rights might do when gays and lesbians had no rights. Today we're decades into gay liberation and none of the dire predictions have come true. For example, children raised by same-sex parents are at least as healthy and well-adjusted as those raised by opposite sex parents—and no more likely to self-identify as gay.
So, if you're still clinging to those irrational fears in the face of evidence, guess what? That's bigoted. If, like the voters of California, you voted to break up families in the name of preserving family values, that makes you a hypocrite and a bigot.
It's possible to have a bigoted opinion or cast a bigoted vote without being a thoroughgoing bigot. Weigel later clarified that he wasn't talking about everyone who opposes gay marriage, just hardcore activists who think that breaking up other people's families is a good use of their time.
Matt Lewis's reaction to Weigel's tweet at Politics Daily epitomizes everything that's wrong with journalism today:
Perhaps Weigel will turn out two decades from now to have been prescient, but "bigot" is awfully strong language for a person who is making the case for tolerance—and this comment simply reinforced a longstanding view among social conservatives that The Washington Post and most of the rest of the mainstream media are not only implacably opposed to their policy agenda, but personally hostile to them as well.
Lewis stops short of saying that Weigel is wrong on the substance. So, falls back on two acceptable strategies for mainstream commentators: Refereeing language and playing strategist.
The idea that the word "bigot" should be off-limits to proponents of tolerance is absurd. That would mean that any attribution of bigotry is logically self-defeating. Surely, even Lewis would acknowledge that there are some people out there who deserve the label. Is it unacceptably intolerant to describe the KKK as a bigoted organization? Maybe the language of corporate journalism is so debased that it's only acceptable to say that "some civil rights groups allege that the KKK is bigoted."
Calling someone a bigot isn't a failure of tolerance. Nobody is challenging the right of the anti-equal marriage brigade to speak its mind. Nobody is trying to take rights away from them or relegate them to second-class citizenship. They have the Constitutional right to make up whatever crazy rules they want for marriage within their own religions. If only they were willing to extend the same tolerance to gays and lesbians.
Maybe it is bad political strategy to call anti-gay marriage crowd bigots. Maybe it only deepens their self-pity and reinforces their ill-founded sense of persecution. That's hardly Weigel's problem. He's not a Democratic Party consultant, he's a journalist. His job is to call it like he sees it.
So, I'm sorry to see Weigel ultimately apologized for tweeting the truth.
Photo credit: flickr user andy.birky, distributed under Creative Commons.