Juan Williams is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

NPR correspondent Juan Williams was fired from NPR (and hired by Fox News for $2,000,000) this week after confessing on Bill O’Reilly’s show that all Muslims make him nervous:

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.

In an effort to numb the public’s critical thinking skills before the midterm elections, hopeful Republicans have worked hard to reinforce this idea. It should, then, be no surprise that NPR’s defense of Muslim-hood has led to a loudmouthed backlash against the public radio station.

Just to show how far Muslim-phobia has gone in this country, even our inclusionary President Barack Obama, on a recent trip to India, skipped one the country’s most sacred sites because it would’ve required him to wear a turban. With the possibility of an upswing in his approval rating on the horizon — and knowledge that no media outlet or asshole in the world would be able to resist publishing real photos of Obama in that condition — the president opted to leave well enough alone.

In the long aftermath of the Juan Williams firing, basically everyone has tried to examine whether he was either politically incorrect on O’Reilly’s show — or a martyr to political correctness. NPR’s explanation, that Williams’ statements were inconsistent with their standards (and thus better suited for the motley Fox), led Republicans to unanimously accuse NPR of thinking it’s better than them.

Given little choice, the station has acknowledged that its termination of Williams was perhaps too hasty, though for a variety of reasons, they’d rather not hire him back.

This was not enough. Many commentators were quick to accuse NPR of siding with shifty Muslims instead of the rest of us real Americans. The Washington Times, a Republican mouthpiece not to be confused with the Post, said that there was nothing wrong with what Williams said, and chastised NPR like a finger-wagging old lady from Queens: “Shame on its commitment to political correctness,” they said.

I suspect, though, that Fox and the Times want NPR to be committed to political correctness. That way, they can be committed to political incorrectness. After all, if well-researched stories and reasoned analysis do not get you the audience you deserve, then saying outrageous things usually does the trick.

The Washington Post (again, not to be confused with the Times) said that Williams’ statements — though poorly worded, were taken out of context: yes, Williams did say that he’s suspicious of 23% of the world’s population based on clothing alone. However, said the Post, Williams was really just defending everyone’s right to religious freedom.

Only a handful of people have come close to the meat of the issue. Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic and Glenn Greenwald at Salon have noted that being opinionated — though an issue — isn’t the issue. Rather, Williams’ Fox/NPR dual incomes appear to have affected his consistency as a journalist. (Some might say this is similar to Clarence Thomas insisting that he can be an objective Supreme Court justice, even though his wife’s advocacy group just accepted $500,000 from the Tea Party.)

In an article called “Juan Williams: Busted,” Sullivan reveals that, several years ago, Williams criticized Washington, D.C. jewelry store owners for being nervous around blacks and refusing to buzz them in because of their skin color. In a show of empathy, the former NPR corespondent said, “Common sense becomes racism when skin color becomes a formula for figuring out who is a danger to me.”

If Williams is using garb (which is even more superficial than skin color) to judge a person’s dangerousness, then perhaps his level of common sense is better suited for Fox News. Another result of Williams’ firing, says Glenn Greenwald, is that it sheds uncomfortable light on one of the Republican establishment’s favoritest assertions:

There’s one point from all of this I really want to highlight. The principal reason the Williams firing resonated so much and provoked so much fury is that it threatens the preservation of one of the most important American mythologies: that Muslims are a Serious Threat to America and Americans.

We expect jingoist rhetoric from Fox News and people like Bill O’Reilly:

The Park51 Muslim community center […] is inappropriate […] Because Muslims killed us on 9/11.

And we expect it from Republican Party star Eric Cantor, who in a single stroke, whitewashed O’Reilly’s condemnation of an entire religion (just add “radical” in front of “Islam”) and pledged to de-fund NPR because of its freedom-hating political correctness. Cantor, in a brilliant effort to protect free speech, wants to make it harder for NPR to speak freely by cutting their funding:

Whether it’s people walking off The View when Bill O’Reilly makes a statement about radical Islam or Juan Williams being fired for expressing his opinion, over-reaching political correctness is chipping away at the fundamental American freedoms of speech and expression. […] In light of their rash decision, [Republicans] will include termination of federal funding for NPR as an option in the YouCut program.

And of course, there’s Rudy “9/11″ Giuliani, who says, straight-faced, that because lots of people think the same thing, it can’t be wrong:

All the poor guy did was explain his feelings […] He explains his feelings and the guy gets fired because it doesn’t segue with the left wing dogma that he has to follow. And we put taxpayer money into that kind of censoring. […] Juan Williams just expressed something that a lot of people feel.

We expect this kind of thing from Fox and the Washington Times, who pretend that their defense of the “liberal” Williams (his tenure at NPR is his Star of David) is equivalent to crossing party lines. Nevermind that Williams once said (on O’Reilly’s show, of course) that Michelle Obama reminded him of a 60s black power activist.

But the concept that “Muslims are a Serious Threat to America and Americans” is so embedded in our society — and politically perilous to refute — that even supposedly nonpartisan organizations like the Washington Post have trouble characterizing one million U.S. Muslims as “law-abiding” without qualifying it with a word like “overwhelmingly,” as if the .005% of U.S. Muslims who aren’t skew the whole number. The midterm atmosphere is so favorable to Republicans that even former President Geroge W. Bush, a longtime propagator of the “Muslims are actually good people” theme, hasn’t chimed in to reaffirm his belief.

In Europe, where Muslims are much closer to home, Islamophobia is often basically sanctioned. Yet even with oceans to the East and West, there’s no denying that Muslims are coming to America, too. Until we can honestly say to ourselves that, yes, Muslim people are not dangerous, we’ll be on the same track as France — looking to shut our doors and limit specific peoples’ rights for no better reason than because we don’t like the way they dress.

Coming Soon: Jingoism in the United States: Mexico Edition

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2 Responses to “Juan Williams is Just the Tip of the Iceberg”

  1. I can safely say that I've never been afraid of Muslims in an airport or anywhere else.

    If you're afraid of Muslims in airports, then you must be terrified of flying. If the odds of dying in a mechanical malfunction are 1:2,000,000, then the odds of a terrorist bringing down a jet liner are probably 1:100,000,000. Further, the odds of someone in "Muslim garb" bringing your plane down are actually 0. In the history of the United States, nobody wearing Muslim garb has ever hijacked a plane.

    I don't mind applauding Juan for speaking his mind. I agree with you, journalists should be allowed to express informed opinions, and it doesn't happen enough in the media today. Unfortunately, what Juan said does not qualify. The fact that he came out and said "Yeah, I harbor some prejudice against Muslims" doesn't change the fact that he harbors prejudice against Muslims. Maybe for him, it's the first step toward being a better man, like admitting you're an addict. But for NPR, it only tells the world — citizens and their staffers — that one of their correspondents is prejudiced. Even though he admittedly should know better. And yes, Williams has written extensively about civil rights. So he really should know better.

    And if I can know better, than so can he. So should you. That's all there is to it. Look at the truth, and you'll have no reason to be scared.

    Republicans have latched onto this because they like propagating the idea that Muslims are scary. They know that Americans see them as the party that's tough on terror, so sanctioning a little racism won't hurt anyone, right?

    But yes… of course Fox News is pure and good. No "speaking points" there.

  2. Free Speech? says:

    The lesson here is don't say anything that the left might find offensive. If you do they will destroy you. Here's a guy that has literally written the book on civil rights. He makes a reasonable comment about his feelings when seeing someone in traditional Muslim garb when traveling. If you haven't had the same moment of question than you are a better man than I. He didn't say act on it or that you should feel that way, simply that he has a moment of fear… Honesty. Yeah that should get him fired. Don't ever speak the truth. Just keep repeating the speaking points for the Democratic party and we won't crush you….

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