Dave Weigel and the Right

by Benjamin Domenech on 8:39 am May 4, 2010

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Matt Lewis has an excellent piece this morning concerning the blowback over Washington Post blogger Dave Weigel, who is assigned to cover the political right, and a recent tweet where he shared his feelings about covering those who oppose same-sex marriage. Weigel wrote:

“I can empathize with everyone I cover except for the anti-gay marriage bigots. In 20 years no one will admit they were part of that.”

Lewis covers the responses from the usual parties irate about Weigel’s language, and he makes a key point which goes beyond that:

But opposition to gay marriage is hardly a fringe movement. A majority of Americans tell pollsters they are opposed to it, a number that, if you take him at face value, includes President Obama. Presumably Weigel would also count as “bigots” the 70 percent of African-Americans who backed Proposition 8 in California.

Weigel issued a mea culpa the next day. The language was harsh, but I’m a little confused why conservatives would be surprised at Weigel’s opinion, which I would assume is both 1) honest and 2) shared by other journalists who cover the right.

Unlike his colleague Ezra Klein, Weigel is being asked by the Post to do shoe leather journalism, not just opinion and analysis — but unless this view will result in him not getting calls back from people he’s writing about, I see no reason why his expression of his personal opinion on those who oppose same sex marriage should spark any reaction other than “well, that’s what a lot of people in the media think.” (Frankly, Klein’s view that Joe Lieberman’s opposition to the health care bill would result in the deaths of thousands is a far more jarring comment. But that’s beside the point.)

I don’t know Weigel and I have never met him, but as far as I know he doesn’t represent himself as a conservative, just as someone who primarily writes about them. He first contacted me several years ago while doing a story for Campaigns & Elections in just that arena, wrote a bit for the libertarian Reason, and then moved to smart lefty journal The Washington Independent, funded in part by the Gill Foundation and George Soros’ Open Society Institute. So why would anyone assume that Weigel, after working for places funded by same sex marriage activists like Tim Gill, would have any difference of opinion on the matter than the rest of his colleagues?

Sure, conservatives might have hoped for more balanced coverage after Weigel professed his eagerness to write fairly about the Tea Party movement, and responded to those on the right who doubted his approach by saying “I’m going to work hard on changing your mind about this.” But I don’t know why anyone would assume that’s more than just polite pleasantries (delivered with Weigel’s typically sarcastic tone). He’s covering the right with the traditional “conservatives in the mist” approach, and nothing I’ve seen that he’s written thus far would indicate he has a more unique perspective to offer.

In fact, if there is something unfortunate to take away from Weigel’s remarks, it’s not the “bigots” word — it’s the response he gave to Lewis when prodded on the issue:

“I like (and largely agree with) pro-lifers. But I do not understand or respect the motivation of anti-gay marriage campaigners.”

Understand is the key word there, and I’d argue it’s the more disappointing one than “bigots.” The reasons for being opposed to same sex marriage are often tied to arguments about morality, faith, the effect on civil society, and certainly in some groups a degree of homophobia. But there are also very complex legal questions which arise concerning religious freedom and the legal status of churches and faith groups. A key question for me, as someone who opposes court-mandated same sex marriage but favors civil unions, is how it is even possible, absent Constitutional amendment, to grant same sex couples protections under equality provisions without resulting in a massive increase in lawsuits against churches and faith based groups. As we saw earlier this year in Washington, absent carve-outs for faith-based organizations, the Catholic Church and other groups are forced to make a decision between continuing providing social services in the city and following the tenets of their faith. Worse, the fact that lawsuits of this variety are already proceeding, where a Methodist organization lost tax exempt status for refusing to assent to a permit for a same sex union on their property, should concern many faith groups. As it happens, Wikipedia informs me that Weigel is a Methodist — surely he doesn’t think of his own church as populated by bigots?

These are complex issues, cutting across lines of individual rights, equality under law, religious freedom and more. Referring to people who oppose same sex marriage as bigots is insulting, of course, but it’s something people should be used to by now — the “understand” comment is worse because people might have hoped Weigel would at least try to understand the right’s perspective on something, as a part of his job. It reflects a strong degree of dismissal of an entire viewpoint, one that most polls indicate is still held by the majority of Americans. The complicated ways this issue runs across political boundaries isn’t just exemplified by the coalition of churchgoing Hispanics and African Americans who defeated same sex marriage in California, but shows in individuals as well. Consider David Blankenhorn, a personal friend, a lifelong Democrat, a dedicated Obama supporter, and a leading figure in the fatherhood movement. He’s also strongly opposed to a redefinition of marriage and has done his best to work across partisan and ideological lines to achieve compromise on the issue with people like Jonathan Rauch, packaging expanded recognition with religious protections.

Even if you disagree with his views, Blankenhorn and dozens of other key respected figures in the political opposition to same sex marriage put the lie to the idea that this is a movement motivated by bigotry. Weigel can of course hold his own personal opinions about anyone he covers, that’s his right — I’d just ask that he take the time to try to understand the motivation of those he’s going to write about regularly on this beat. After that, he can of course go back to dismissing them as bigots.

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