Thursday, October 21, 2010

Oh, Juan

I need to start this post by making myself perfectly clear: I am not a Juan Williams fan. I owe the brother a huge debt of gratitude for his Eyes on the Prize documentary series. However, for the past few years, he's been steady-pissing me off. That Rupert Murdoch money has been getting too good to him, and he's been becoming more conservative by the fiscal year. He had a particularly large bug up his bugger over Obama in '08, and his calling the First Lady Stokely Carmichael in drag was way out of bounds. All that being said, the only thing more annoying than Williams' pseudo-sagacious commentary these past few years is his being fired by NPR for that same commentary last night.

The reason given for the termination was a comment Williams made on The O'Reilly Factor earlier this week:

"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." 

NPR claims that Williams' statements "were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR." Earlier today on that same network, one of their executives also claimed that Williams' spouting his opinion like that on Fox also undermined said "credibility."

Of course, NPR's been paying the man for years to spout his opinion. They also pay scores of other "news analysts" to spout their opinions over the airwaves. I know they try to paint these opinions, these analyses as somehow objective, but there is no way on God's green Earth that opinion can actually ever be objective.

Williams' "credibility" has less to do with his firing than CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) and other groups finding offense in his comment. They assert that Williams' comments were, despite his protestations, bigoted and that these bigoted comments coming from a "mainstream journalist" somehow legitimate others' bigotry. Walter Conkrite should not go all Mel Gibson on our asses. Now, I'm no conservative. I'm not going to tell folks what they can and cannot be offended by. But I gotta tell ya, even taken alone, I just don't see what's so offensive about what Williams said.

What he was talking about was his socialized response to more traditionally-clothed Muslims. Is he alone in this? You're lying to yourself if you actually think so. Since the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, when PLO operatives took Israeli athletes hostage and murdered them, we Americans have been inundated with the image of the Muslim terrorist. Thousands of movies, books, radio and TV shows, news articles, and even comic books have hammered that idea into our heads. For the vast majority of us, this mediated image that's resonated for almost 40 years is the only exposure we've had to Muslims. September 11, this "War on Terror," Iraq, and Afghanistan only further cement this image home. So, it actually comes as no surprise that your average American or even the most PC multiculturalist might share Williams' reaction if they got on a 747 with 12 bin Laden lookalikes chillin' in first class. Why do you think al Qaeda had the 9/11 hijackers dress like "Westerners."

Muslims, of course, are not the only victims of such socialized responses. Put a clean-cut white guy in a business suit, and we have a whole set of these mediated responses. Scruff him up a bit and slap on a Southern accent, and we think another. Wrap an Asian woman in a kimono, what does one think? A Latino in some dirty work clothes? A young black man in some baggy clothes and a baseball cap?

We all possess socialized responses to these images--and tons of others. We are all victims of them. All beneficiaries of them. They are all complex and all-pervasive. Yet, to even admit that fact in the public sphere brings outrage and cries of bigotry.

They are the same cries one can receive at the mere mention of another's race because, to some (mostly white) people to simply mention race is somehow racist. They will say they don't even see race. Threat of death will not get them to open their eyes. Sheer practically will not loose their tongues. I once spent 20 minutes looking for a friend of a white friend's in an overwhelmingly white bar because the 5'2" "brunette" was actually Asian and the 5'9" "guy with long hair" she was looking for was me.

But being "blind to race" does not mean that you actually don't "see" race. It doesn't prove one is not racist. While race is a social construct, melanin levels in one's skin is merely a biological difference. It may not always tell you what "race" someone is, but it is simply a fact--one without any inherent moral value--like hair color. To not "see," not acknowledge, not to even mention another's race leads me to believe that one actually does place a moral value on race--a fairly negative one--like treating me like someone who has suffered a horrible disfigurement. It's something one just does not mention in polite company, which begs the question, "What do you find so objectionable about my black flesh?" After all, when was the last time you heard someone say, "How dare you mention the fact that I'm a brunette?!"

But Juan Williams did see this socialized response in himself and he had the temerity/insanity to mention it on television. And, just as "seeing" race isn't morally wrong, having a socialized response to the "Other" isn't wrong in and of itself. It is what one does with it that dictates its moral value. In fact, if you look at what Williams went on to say that same night, you will see that that was exactly the man's point:

"We don't want, in America, people to have their rights violated, to be attacked on the street because they hear rhetoric from Bill O'Reilly and they act crazy."

He even went on to say that we don't judge all Christians on the actions of Timothy McVeigh and that "God Hates Fags" church that is now protesting at the funerals of servicemen who've died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In other words, we have all been trained to have these responses to the "Other." They have been so often repeated, so ingrained in our collective psyche, that they pretty much work on us on a subconscious level. That reaction is bigoted, but it is not as important as the influence that it has on our conscious actions. If we let these responses influence the way we actually treat people, if we allow them to let us deny the "Other's" humanity, that is where the tragedy actually lies. Williams' argument was that, while he does have these initial apprehensions when seeing Muslims, he refuses to let those feelings view them as somehow subhuman.

Unfortunately, that argument is too nuanced in the modern-day shoutfest that American political discourse has become. Personally, I think NPR has fired Williams because he is no longer the comfortable black liberal voice they originally hired him to be. But they and the Left are going to cling to the notion of Williams' assumed biogtry. The Right will make the brother a well-compensated proof of the Left's hypocritical intolerance.

And once again, another opportunity for real dialogue will be shouted down in the public square. Because having a mediated image of any "Other" isn't the real sin. That belongs to the people who have ingrained those images into our brains and who continue to inundate us with them, and what we should really be asking ourselves and them why they continue to do it.


  1. You're black, Bill? Gee, I hadn't noticed...

    Agreed on pretty much everything. There's entirely too much kowtowing to Muslim opinion here, presumably because of the fear of protest or other action by these groups. Opinion is opinion, and if that's what someone's hired to give, I find it hypocritical to fire someone for expressing it.

    Black? Really? Wow. ... Not that there's anything wrong with that! :^)

  2. Yes.

    I also liked Salon's take on the issue:

  3. I've also found JW to be an irritant these past couple years. Fox couldn't get Aln Keys, so they dug up JW when the Obama craze began to swell. It's a racist tactic on their part and JW has played along with it.
    That being said, I was a bit surprised by the reasons they gave for firing him. If they'd ladled a good portion of "we're sick of his tired ass remarks and biased Fox news appearances," it wouldn't have been a surprise.
    BTW: In all the flying I do, if I see a woman wearing a scarf like an Arab, I don't react at all. They always have their kids with them, and if they were up to terrorist mischief they would be dressed as slick preppies like the 9-11 guys were.
    Sure, we all have ingrained prejudices. If you saw me after a hard day's work out here on the farm you might think "cracker." "This MFer doesn't have a liberal bone in his body and would shoot me if I were walking around his barnyard at night." That's OK, but are you going to say it to my face? Would you make the comment on national TV? No, you'd wait for me to open my mouth and prove or disprove your fleeting thoughts. JW simply backed up BO's bullshit like an excited and willing little cheerleader dying to give a bj to the star quarterback.
    We can have real dialog. I've always believed we should discuss our prejudices and the things that make us different. It's the only way we're going to get comfortable with each other, but we can't do it in an environment of hate and fear, and that's were BO and his prom queen JW want to take things.

  4. I'm listening to "Left, Right and Center" and they are discussing the Juan Williams thing. I'd be interested in your response to it?

  5. @Mark -- Over 1.1 billion can't be wrong. ;)

    @Shani -- Thanks. They're right. He is a hack, but how many of these fools would have jobs if that were the sole qualification?

    @SagHill -- I agree with you on too many points to respond succinctly here. However, I gotta say, this was simply beautiful:

    "JW simply backed up BO's bullshit like an excited and willing little cheerleader dying to give a bj to the star quarterback."

    @Nunya -- I'll try to check it out soon (I'm trying to put a few extra pennies on that paycheck right now) and let you know.