I’ve been listening to a lot of the chatter that followed the firing of Juan Williams from National Public Radio. It falls neatly into two categories, but not the ones we’ve come to expect. And the party missing from the conversation — sidelined, perhaps — is all the more interesting for not trying to speak up.
Of course any conversation about culture has to involve the right – they’re the ones who invented the culture wars, after all. So the right is well represented by way of the steam they’re letting off.
The meme is familiar. Liberals — the source of all terrestrial evil — have once again conspired to infringe upon the civil liberties of good, patriotic, well-meaning conservatives. The victims, once again, are those poor souls who love their country so much they’re saying “what must be said,” trying only to expand the bounds of our civic discourse and thus improving our democracy. Their only presumable sin is to speak what is presumably on everyone’s mind.
These battered and wounded defenders of truth and freedom feel bludgeoned by the baton of “political correctness” under whose oppressive yoke they struggle to tell a very important “truth” — if only those evil liberals who control the media (and, presumably, the White House) would let them.
It’s enough to make you want your country back.
Eternally thoughtful (as only they can be) about the distinction between governments and private entities, the right doesn’t hesitate to describe NPR’s actions as censorship. Indignant and outraged over the firing, they are threatening to “stop watching” NPR and even calling for defunding it.
So much for the right. Now you’d expect the blowback to come from the left, no? No.
The other party to the conversation comes from those eminently calm, thoughtful, educated, mature, and responsible citizens who occupy the political “middle”.
You know these folks. They promise the light of reason where others provide only the heat of argument. They don’t shout. In fact, you’d get the impression reading or listening to them they’re not passionate about much at all (ok, maybe literature or the arts); certainly not about politics.
Here, in the “middle,” one finds not partisans (gasp!) but the understandable attempt to turn down the volume and analyze “the issues” in as dispassionate a way possible.
Here the sin is not to be liberal or politically correct so much as to have a horse in this race, to care enough to take sides in the culture wars. So yes, for them liberals also suck because they’re partisans, which makes them, for the middlers, equivalent to conservatives.
Middlers know and preach the truth of “there’s always another side to the story,” by which they mean each side is as good as any other. Thus standing in the middle expresses the highest form of intellectual, moral, and civic virtue. I like to call this the model of the citizen or journalist as jurist: dispassionate and unconcerned with “taking sides.”
In the “middle” one finds concern in the place of outrage, and thoughtful critique in place of diatribe. So while the right denounced the fact of Juan Williams’ firing, the middle turns its attention to analyzing the way in which he was fired, and what this means for the profession of journalism.
Both sides are united by more than a belief that liberals are bad, however. They share an assumption that there are things it is OK for a journalist to say on NPR but not on Fox (or perhaps even MSNBC). Most importantly, however, they both operate under the tacit assumption that Juan Williams was fired not because of what he said but because he violated the rules of an organization, in this case NPR.
The right, of course, finds no legitimacy in those rules whatsoever, while folks in the “middle” are trying to analyze or legitimate them. However, both the right and “the middle” seem to believe there is little to nothing wrong with what Juan Williams said. Jay Rosen, speaking on NPR puts it very directly at about 16:45 into the talk show:
“I don’t think that the specific words he uttered were really all that bad and deserved a firing in and of themselves.”
When this is taken as a given, without debate, it follows quite naturally that the attention be placed on NPR, its rules, and how it enforces them (or Fox’s, MSNBC’s, whoever’s). What I’m going to argue is that — whatever NPR’s stated reasons for the firing — it was perfectly appropriate to fire Juan Williams; not on journalistic but on moral grounds.
In order to do that, I have to point to the words I take to be grounds for firing, not just from NPR, but from any organization that claims to speak authoritatively on matters of political or public consequence:
“Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality. I mean, 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 a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”
First of all, I have to tell you, on a personal note, how reassured I am whenever anyone prefaces a remark with the disclaimer that s/he is not a bigot. “I’m not racist, but…” “Nothing against gays, but…” Whew. Looks like the idea occurred to at least one of us, though.
Kind of like when someone tells you a dream and then immediately says, “but it’s not about my mother.” But I digress.
Juan Williams prefaces his “truth” by establishing his bona fides as a non-bigot and as a civil rights warrior. Then this role model for us all tells us how frightened he is when boarding a plane and seeing individuals in “Muslim garb.”
As if each and every hijacker or terrorist, now and forever, wears Muslim garb.
As if he’s never heard of people being judged by their appearance, clothing, or the color of their skin.
As if we have more to fear from terrorists abroad than right here at home (I’m looking at you, Operation Rescue, Timothy McVeigh, and the Tea Party).
Think, Juan. That’s what they pay you for, isn’t it? To think before you speak?
What Juan Williams did, from the standpoint of someone on the left like me, is to legitimate hatred. He didn’t say, “I struggle with my fear of Muslims (that only benefits terrorists foreign and domestic),” he said, “hey, it’s OK to fear these people, I fear them myself.”
What he could have said is, “hey, the terrorists have won – they’ve gotten me to hate and suspect fellow Americans. Isn’t that great news for Al-Qaeda and those who benefit politically from ads like these?”
What Juan Williams did was give the green light to those who think it’s OK to ask Muslims to move their center out of TriBeCa. After all, we have a long history of Karl Lindners (always speaking from the thoughtful “middle”) asking certain families to move because of the “sensitivities” of the current residents.
Those sensitivities have to be respected, you see. And by respected we don’t mean listened to and understood but acted on.
Why? Because conservatives feel them, not liberals.
And of course, if you feel something, you have an obligation to say it. That’s a civic virtue known to every third-grader. Just ask yourself: where would we be as a civilization if we started keeping certain thoughts and feelings to ourselves?
Snark aside, and believe it or not, I’m actually quite down with honesty. In fact, I daresay I especially appreciate the unique courage it takes for people to confess a thought, feeling, or impulse they’re not too proud of, especially to someone they may barely know.
But that’s not what happened. What happened was Juan Williams consummating his years-long love affair with a network that spews hatred of liberals, gays, Muslims, Latinos, women, intellectuals, and the poor 24 hours a day. He consummated it with the words, “Oh, Bill, I hate too,” to which Bill replied, “of course it’s OK.”
“Come here,” said Sith Lord O’Reilly. I can hear Juan Williams crying into Bill’s arms even now. “You were right about those evil liberals, Bill.”
“Of course I was. There, there. Hey look, what about two million dollars?”
From my perspective, we don’t choose many of the thoughts and feelings we have. But we do get to choose our actions. Giving voice to hatred without in any way trying to suggest acting on it is wrong is, well, for partisan leftists like me anyway, just wrong.