The Requisite Juan Williams Post

October 24, 2010

I’ll get this out of the way first:

1.  I love NPR.  I am unable to list the number of times I have been educated, delighted, moved, fascinated and inspired by their programming – both news and entertainment.  I have bridled in the past at the suggestion that NPR is a “mouthpiece for the liberal media” – and have responded to such accusations (when they were made to me) by pointing out that in the media climate of the last 10 years… NPR is pretty much the best example of objective reportage available.  Yes, they have an intellectual lean to them… yes they focus (moreso than other networks, but certainly not as much as they could) on multicultural issues.  But this doesn’t reduce the quality of their programming… and hardly does it make them left-wing media.  At least… not in the same way that Fox News is right-wing media.  Which brings me to my next admission:

2.  I hate Fox News.  The very thought of it is like a mouthful of bile and hot ash.  I believe Fox News to be one of the worst things to happen to intelligence as a whole – and I believe this with such force that it has (at times) caused me to question my beliefs regarding the freedom of the press, as guaranteed by the First Amendment – which allows them the right to spew their hateful, opaque, jingoistic bullshit all over the air and, as a result, make us all a lot fucking dumber.  I think Fox’s shows are tailored towards the lowest common denominator of our society (those consumed by that patented American uninformed-yet-righteous outrage), and disperse the most glaringly inaccurate, crass, mindless form of misinformation available on television.  In fact (I’ve even included a bit of research here!) here’s a terrifying statistic from back in ’03 – please click this link, it’s important. (I think this shred of evidence works two-fold here – both displaying the danger and unprofessionalism of Fox, and the quality of NPR)

People say Fox News leans to the right.  This isn’t accurate.  Fox News is not just right-leaning (as NPR may be left-leaning, inasmuch as its programming is tailored towards their primary audience’s interests: culture, world music, gardening… car trouble, which I still don’t get).  It’s far more than that.  It’s a mouthpiece for a specific political viewpoint – a political reality.  Fox is right propaganda.  Fox News has, for at least within the decade I’ve watched it, tailored, warped and molested their interviews and reportage to both establish a Neoconservative philosophy, and to denigrate, smear and even vilify their opposition.  Their “personalities” (as I refuse to refer to them as journalists) bully, deride and slime their guests for their opposing viewpoints, and then (in O’Reilly’s case) cut their mic and refuse them the opportunity to defend themselves.  All of this theater is followed, of course, by a host taking the opportunity to congratulate themself for their behavior – they justify their absurd, childish tantrum by saying they’re merely, “Keepin’ ’em honest” or “Respecting the 9/11 victims” or whatever empty bit of heartless, cynical, self-serving rhetoric these yahoos say.  Among Fox viewers, it seems that this behavior is upheld as helpful – as decent – as not only right, but good.  That, of course, we should yell and call names.  We should castigate and bluster about.  Because we’re right always… and if you disagree, you’re a pinhead or you hate freedom or you’re not quite as good as I am.

This is, to me, black paint to the mind.  This is toxic, and dangerous, and all too common.

I say this because I want to establish that I am, in fact, biased:

I think NPR is largely good for the soul.  It has given me shows like “Radiolab” and “Fresh Air” and “This American Life” which have gone lengths towards opening my heart and my mind to the world around me.  It’s given me “WireTap” which continues to redefine humor.  I think NPR has made me, not only a smarter, more worldly person… but a better person.  That’s what information can do – it can help someone grow and evolve and become.  And I believe I owe NPR a debt (which is why I pledge almost every time they beg for my money).

Conversely, I think Fox News is a cancer of the mind.  I think it’s grotesque theater that not only caters to, but helps to create the hate-filled, polarized extremists of this country – the groundlings who insist their newshosts be blonde and attractive, with just a sliver of cleavage showing – the proles who vote to regain those “good old days” before a black guy was president, and gays wanted equal rights.  Fox News pundits have become media emperors – holding rallies, selling t-shirts, defining and redefining what’s good or true or factual or American, and their programming has heightened the rhetoric in this country to such a point that I fear at times it will cause everything to crumble.

I think Fox News is fucking poison.

So, clearly, I cannot be objective here.  Not that it’s my responsibility – as I’m a blogger, not a journalist – but as everyone and their mother is yelling about this issue (and thereby making us all dumber)… I’d like to at least get my noise out of the way at the outset, and try to actually write something worth thinking about.

We need less opinion… more consideration.  Please… I’d gladly see us trade in our surety for some circumspection.

Now… to my point (Fair warning: I don’t really know what my point is yet):

I think it’s clear at this point that NPR made a mistake by firing Juan Williams.  They’re in the middle of a pledge drive.  The puppetheads of the far right (Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee) are using this as justification to attempt a federal defunding of NPR as a whole.  It has created an issue where there really didn’t have to be one.  It was just a bad call, Ripley.  A bad call.

But I want to look beyond that, and say that not only do I think it was a bad call… I think it was wrong.  More than wrong – I think the decision to hastily fire Juan Williams goes against everything NPR stands for.  Or, at least, what I think it should stand for.

I know you’ve probably read it everywhere already, but let’s look at what Williams said again:

“Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

These are the sentences that got Williams fired (or at least, that’s what they say he was fired for – others have suggested that NPR suits have been gunning for Williams for a while…).  Williams then went on to say that he knows all Muslims aren’t extremists, and that all Christians shouldn’t have been blamed for the Oklahoma City bombing.  So really, his statement was made in the context of a larger acknowledgment that there is in fact a difference between what one observes and reality.

The comment isn’t sensitive.  Clearly.  I can certainly understand why people would be offended to hear such a thing.  But, if we’re gonna be totally honest here… I know what he’s talking about.  I’m guilty of the same thing.  I’ve been in airport terminals before, waiting for my flight, and have caught the glimpse of a middle-eastern looking guy in some kind of ethnic garb.  And yeah – you know what? – it made me nervous.

The poor guy is just sitting there sipping from his diet coke, probably dreading the flight as much as me (because flying, with its recirculated air and sardine can seats is fucking horrible), and here I am wondering for a brief moment if he’s going to blow me to ribbons once we hit cruising altitude.  How wrong of me.  How silly and scared and simple of me.  Do I really think the guy’s a terrorist?  No, of course not.  But do I feel a brief flicker of doubt?  A little inner wondering if this guy might be different?  Yes, I do.  And I doubt very strongly that Juan Williams and I are the only two people in this county who have felt this way.

What should I do with a feeling like that?  Should I deny it entirely, on the basis of its impropriety?  Should I bury it under my own internal rationalization – satisfy the momentary creeps I experience, but never actually mention it to anyone for fear of appearing racist or bigoted?

No.  I don’t think so at all.  Because to do that, to deny the feeling, is to simply internalize it.  It doesn’t actually go away… it’s just rationalized until tomorrow.  And that needs to change.

I think I should talk to people about it.  I think we as a culture should have a discussion about our perceptions of Muslim-Americans, and about the reality of who these people are… and through discussion and openness and honesty… maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll actually learn something.  Maybe we’ll be closer than we were when we started.

I think I do that man a terrible disservice by not being honest with him – by pretending that I’m not, for a moment, afraid of him.  I’m talking about him to myself… and never inviting him into the conversation.  Never hearing his side.  I’m treating him like he doesn’t exist at all – or, worse, I’ve actually turned him into an idea of a person – a ludicrously polarized Good Muslim or Bad Muslim… and in doing so I essentially erase his own actual humanity altogether.

That, to me, is exactly the opposite of what’s needed today.  If we’re going to move forward as a people in the face of the Age of Terrorism (or whatever you want to call it), we’re going to have to discuss everything (even the ugly stuff) with openness, circumspection, patience and honesty.

And that’s exactly what NPR didn’t do when they fired Juan Williams.

The head of NPR heard what he said, and promptly fired him (and in a rather salty, condescending manner at that – suggesting that he share his opinions with his “psychiatrist or publicist”… which is, you know… mature and intelligent).  She didn’t pause to consider the perspective for what it might mean about what’s happening in our culture.  She didn’t give him a moment to explain.  Instead, she succumbed to a fit of moral and righteous outrage… and then she cut his mic.

NPR pulled a Fox News – worse, they pulled a Bill O’Reilly.  And that really upsets me.

Think of the opportunity that was lost here.  An entire discussion could have been held on public and personal perceptions of Muslim-Americans – even by the media.  NPR could have dedicated an entire week to it on one of their talk shows.  Juan Williams could have been one of the panelists.  Why, when faced with this opportunity to learn and grow, did they choose instead to cut all ties – to end the discussion before it began?

Well, for one – because Williams is a journalist, and he’s not supposed to express his opinion.  This is a reasonable claim… but to be frank, I think it’s bullshit.  Yes, Williams is a reporter… but his comment was made not during an act of reportage… but on an opinion show.  And while, yes, I would rather snakes mate in my mouth than defend someone like Bill O’Reilly and the bilious, empty-headed claptrap he espouses on his show – I think we have to recognize that a person asked of their opinion is actually entitled to one.  Williams was invited onto O’Reilly’s show to share opinion – I don’t see how this can be held against him.

But beyond that… I think there’s a deeper issue.  And it’s one I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, and out loud to many of my friends (who tend to disagree with me).

I think Juan Williams was fired because what he said was considered to be offensive.  Because he wasn’t being politically correct.  And I think political correctness is becoming a menace to thought.

I’ll start by saying this:  I understand the desire and the need to communicate oneself with conscious respect and decency.  I also recognize that if one is not conscious of the effects of their language, they may  end up doing considerable harm.  Take the casual use of the word “gay” for instance:

“Gay” has, for some – hell, most – come to mean (as best I can gauge) the opposite of “cool”.  It doesn’t mean awful.  It doesn’t mean hellish.  Instead, it’s what someone says when they find out news they’d rather not hear.

“Brad, I checked the schedule… you’re working a double tomorrow.”

“I am?  Dude, that’s gay…”

Now in this case, the word “gay” no more implies homosexuality than the word “cool” implies a weather forecast.  When someone shows me a neat card trick, my response of “cool” doesn’t suggest that I should have worn a sweater – it’s just something I say when I think something’s generally okay… like a neat card trick.  Same goes with “gay”.  Brad isn’t suggesting that his double is looking for another boy-double to make out with – it’s just something he says when he hears crap news.  In both cases, these words have been divorced of their original meanings, and have come to represent something else entirely – nebulous good, or nebulous bad.

That said – one should also recognize that to use a word like “gay” in this context might very well suggest something about our cultural perception of homosexuality.  It might also unconsciously suggest a comparison between gay people and “gay” situations – if “gay” means uncool, then maybe it’s uncool to be gay.  Now, is this the end of the world?  No… gay people have much bigger fish to fry these days.  But is it appropriate?  No… it’s really not.  And so we should probably not say it.  Think – would you ever use the word “black” in place of the word “gay”?  Not on your life.

So clearly, there are times when we should be aware of our language.  But this isn’t what I’m talking about, really.  I’m talking about the darker side to political correctness – the side that values how we communicate over what we’re actually communicating.  Political correctness can (and I would argue often does, but that’s another blog for another time), become an impediment to an honest sharing of feeling and thought.  I And that’s what happened with Juan Williams.

So horrified and disgusted were people to hear that Williams was scared for a moment, based on insensitive, prejudicial thinking, that they fired him on the spot.  I’ve heard people on the NPR side of this argument add other such observations as, “You know… any time someone prefaces their statement with ‘I’m not a bigot, but…’ you know they’re about to say something bigoted.”

Well… I understand why someone might say that.  I’ve said it myself.  But if we’re going to be rational here, then no – prefacing a statement with that warning doesn’t necessarily mean that what they say will be bigoted.  Maybe they’re saying it because their position isn’t necessarily going to be sensitive – but just because something’s insensitive doesn’t mean that it’s bigoted.

And it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, either.

Williams admitted that he was nervous.  Lots of Americans are nervous.  Is it because they hate Muslims?  Some might.  But for most, I’d assume, their nervousness is a direct result of the fact that the world is big and scary and filled with scores of people who want to kill everyone in sight… and they’re all wearing funny hats.  We’re not going to get any less nervous if we’re not allowed to say what’s on our mind – respectfully, sure – but honestly first-and-foremost.  To hold all Americans to the ironclad stricture of what any-and-everyone might find offensive places appearance over reality – feelings before thought – emotion over mind.

And that is, with all due respect, fucking stupid.

Which brings me back to NPR.

What kills me about this whole debacle is, like I suggested above, the fact that NPR really made a Fox News move here – harsh, hasty, one-sided, self-satisfied judgment at the cost of pensive, intelligent analysis.  It just did it for its own reasons.  Where Fox News has its self-congratulatory psycho-conservative bluster to justify its refusal to hear another side… NPR has its prejudicial intolerance of honest, understandable prejudice.

Williams isn’t my favorite guy on NPR.  In fact… I’m not really very fond of him at all.  I doesn’t break my heart to see that he’s gone.  What breaks my heart is that the one outlet I have in this country for rational, considered circumspection and analysis is acting so stupidly.  They did what so many progressive people tend to do – they focused on the wrong thing entirely.  Williams’ gaff was something worth exploring.  Something worth talking about.  Not ever something worth cutting him off over.

The suits at NPR should have taken this event as an opportunity for consideration – to put information above emotion – to teach, rather than lecture.  Because that’s what they’re there for.  That’s what they’re good at.

Fox News?  Yeah… they’ve got lectures covered.

 

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