Monday, October 25, 2010

If you're not already sick of thinking about Juan Williams ...

... Tobin Harshaw has gathered up links and excerpts from some thoughtful reactions from a bunch of people, many of whom I respect. Michael Tomasky's piece is worth reading in its entirety (i.e., says what I think about the whole mess, better than I have been able to). Here's an excerpt different from the one Harshaw chose:

Williams once had a distinguished career. He spent nearly a quarter-century at the Washington Post, and I remember him, back when I was in college, as a guy on television panels sometimes with a winning presence and decent insights. He rose quickly and seemed to deserve to.

He then wrote the companion book to the amazing early 90s PBS documentary series on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize. He was a big deal.

As I think back over my adult lifetime as a frequent consumer of Juan Williams news segments, I really can't decide which of us changed more. I certainly changed: I grew my antennae for reflexive and frankly lazy Beltway conventional wisdom, and I came to believe that Williams did a lot of that.

But maybe he changed, too. Because what sort of non-conservative – one perceives Williams to be some degree of liberal; he'd probably protest that he's just a reporter; in either case, he's not a conservative – agreed to be an in-house flunky at Fox? I'm sure they offered him nice money, and money is money, and I can't say with certainty that I'd have turned it down if Rupert had waved it under my nose.

But if you're any kind of liberal at all, even in the softest and most non-political possible sense, it's basically an indefensible thing to do. Fox News wants liberalism to perish from the face of the earth. Going on their air on a regular basis and lending your name and reputation to their ideological razzle-dazzle is like agreeing to be the regular kulak guest columnist at Pravda in 1929. For "balance".

It may be the case that those nervous nellies at NPR overreacted a bit. If they had been phrased another way, his comments might have been completely unremarkable. Even as they stand, they don't strike me on paper as being that far outside our established parameters (which may say something about our parameters, I guess). I doubt very much that they'd rank in the top 10 or even top 20 of the most revolting statements made on Fox that day.

Also worth reading in full:

Eric Boehlert's piece. He's good at asking the discomforting questions.

Will Bunch makes a good argument against the firing of Williams and what it says about the fetish for objectivity that sometimes hurts organizations like NPR. He is being a bit disingenuous here, I think, to ignore the near-certainty that this one remark by Williams was more of a convenient excuse or last straw than the sole reason for his firing, but that aside, he's got some useful things to say.

• Via Will, this bit from Adam Serwer, also considering only the one statement, is pretty smart:

That really doesn't matter as to whether or not the above remarks qualify as prejudice -- assuming people might be terrorists because they are wearing "Muslim garb" is the textbook definition of prejudice. Prejudice doesn't cease to be prejudice because it is widely held. Whether or not Williams "is a bigot" is beside the point, this is a bigoted statement.

That said, because it's a feeling that's so widely shared, it's a topic worthy of public discussion. Everyone at some point succumbs to their prejudices -- if reasonable people couldn't possess them then prejudice wouldn't be a problem. Had Williams phrased his statement differently, or made it under different circumstances, the conversation might have been constructive. The problem is that it's clear from the context that Williams wasn't merely confessing his own personal fears, he was reassuring O'Reilly that he was right to see all Muslims as potential terrorists.

I'd add to what Adam said that for all of the legitimate reasons we might have to talk about how much Islam is worrisome as it is misused to motivate (brainwash) young men who, due to their life circumstances, don't enjoy access to a wide spectrum of news or competing views, it is completely counterproductive to engage in the sort of broad-brush fear-mongering that Williams did, and that FoxNews sells every damned day. Even considered only as a pragmatic calculation, the people wetting their beds over Teh Muslins ought to realize that their excessiveness causes people like me, who are usually eager to be outspoken in criticizing the bad parts of organized religion, to keep quiet, lest we be seen as allied with their ilk.

And finally, a bit of blue-penciling for Tobin Harshaw is in order. Where he says, "Slate’s William Saletan feels that …," it would have been better to say, "Slate’s William Saletan, who has had his own problems telling stories beginning I'm not a bigot, but, feels that …"

Come to that, I'm not sure why in the first place Harshaw felt it was worth including Saletan's take on this. Saletan is not quite as sure a predictor as Bill Kristol, but in sorting out one's own feelings on any complex social issue, a safe bet is to see what Saletan thinks and then don't think that. Maybe Harshaw felt compelled to offer … balance.

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