Every now and then our moral outrage comes face to face with our moral consistency. And quite often that is where the dilemma rests. So it is with the controversy over the firing of news analyst Juan Williams by NPR.
On Monday, Williams was fulfilling his other role as a commentor for Fox News. Williams has worked for Fox since 1997, when FNC was just developing its programming and placed its hopes on a veteran newsman, Bill O'Reilly to be its anchor. In hindsight, O'Reilly has paid dividends. And, so has Williams. Juan, considered one of the most liberal voices on the right of center cable news channel not only was a good jousting partner but often joined the party of lefty criticism.
Many people remember Williams on the verge of tears during the 2008 DNC Convention reacting to Michelle Obama's speech. But few recall him calling her a racial radical when he described her as "Stokley Carmichael in a designer dress" less than a year later.
But long before his voice was heard on NPR or his presence was felt at Fox News, Williams was a highly respected reporter at the Washington Post. He rose through the ranks and enjoyed a prominent position on the Washington Post's Magazine's rotation. It is in that position that during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings that Williams became a vocal defender of Thomas against the allegations of Anita Hill. Hill was accusing Thomas of outlandish sexual advances and harassment. Williams defense, essentially: "no big deal." It's not surprising he would see things that way since he was embroiled in his own sexual harassment scandal at the Post. One which ultimately ended his career at the paper.
Here is how the Dallas Morning News recalled the situation:
"While the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings were under way in 1991, Washington Post columnist Juan Williams emerged as one of Thomas's chief defenders. Williams minimized the gravity of Thomas's alleged sexual harassment of Anita Hill. Boys will be boys, after all. But it's no surprise Williams thought it was no big deal. At the time, he was involved in repeated episodes of sexual harassment in The Post newsroom. It was only after several women in the newsroom spoke up that The Post took action -- forcing Williams to sit in an isolated part of the newsroom where he could be watched at all times."
This is the Juan Williams NPR rehabilatated and Fox News hired to speak on the behavior political and otherwise of others. Which brings us to the current uproar. Williams was fired from his position at NPR for appearing on Fox News and during what was a rational argument to distinguish muslims from extremists who use Islam to validate their terrorists action said, "when I get on a plane, i have to be honest, when I see someone dressed in muslim garb -- Identifying themselves first as muslims rather than American, I get nervous."
Two days later he was no longer employed by NPR.
Many, most of them on the Right, have criticized NPR for giving Williams a pink slip. A violation of ones free speech is one reason. The more educated, who know that only the government can infringe upon First Amendment rights, suggest Williams was only expressing his belief -- a belief held by millions of others -- since the 9/11 attacks. It's a moral outrage, they cry and have called for Congress to eliminate the minute funding it provides through competitive grants to not only NPR but PBS and other public media outlets. Yet, none of these "supporters" see the hypocrisy in their own arguments. When Harry Reid suggested President Obama didn't have a "negro dialect" many of these same people called for his resignation as Majority Leader. When Rick Sanchez of CNN suggested Jews hold a disproportionate number of leadership positions in the media, there was silence. The fact Williams said something that for political reasons is being broadcast makes the cliche politics makes strange bedfellows all to real.
But all of this misses the point.
Williams wasn't fired because he gets nervous when he sees an easily identifiable Muslim sitting in first class on an airplane. He was fired because his viewpoint exposed a characteristic which a journalist of his caliber should never have. An intellectually lazy one.
That is how Williams described similar viewpoints when he worked for the Washington Post. In 1986, the New Republic solicited various opinions on a story it published about a New York City jeweler who would lock his doors or refuse to buzz in potential black customers for fear of, once again, being robbed. William was one of those who responded to the request and penned these words:
"The race of a potential customer would be one factor among many to be considered as I girded myself against thieves."
Williams went on...
Unless I am a racist, race and age cannot be the sole deciding factors in calculating whom I will and will not let into my store.
He hit the proverbial nail on the head with this...
It all comes down to a subjective judgment of what dangerous people look like. This does not necessarily entail a racial judgment. Cabdrivers who don't pick up young black men as a rule are making a poorly informed decision. Racism is a lazy man's substitute for using good judgment.
When Williams suggested that merely seeing an identifiable Muslim aboard a plane makes him nervous because he thinks they might do him harm, he was essentially calling himself a person who makes poorly informed decisions. He by his own critique was exhibiting a discriminatory view which as he so eloquently put it is the "lazy man's substitute for using good judgment."
His viewpoint is a lazy one because none of the 9/11 hijackers were dressed in "muslim garb" when they hijacked those planes. Nor did they adhere to the predominate sects of Islam. They were dressed as American as a J Crew model. A muslim who identifies him or herself outwardly is the least likely to be a terrorists. Any israeli bus driver will tell you that.
Are there Americans who, because of 9/11 and the subsequent "War on Terrorism" come to identify terrorists with Islam and Muslims? Sure. One Fox News host even called all muslims terrorists. Is it simply a matter of common sense based upon a legitimate fear of another terrorists attack that many people look upon muslims with an eye of caution? It's reasonable, certainly.
But the Williams of 1986 answered that too...
Common sense becomes racism when skin color becomes a formula for figuring out who is a danger to me.
So while Williams presents himself on Fox and other media outlets to defend himself and criticize NPR for its actions. He cannot escape his own conclusions or dismiss his own actions. He claims his nervousness is not based on bigotry. But when religion becomes a formula for figuring out who is a danger to oneself, what else would you call it?
If it's not bigotry, or islamophobia, it is certaintly lazy. And I can't think of any employer who would want a lazy man working for them.
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