Here’s a tip: If you ever find yourself qualifying a statement with “I’m not a bigot (racist, sexist, etc.), but…”, then you should probably think four or five times before finishing your sentence. Regardless of whether or not you think NPR’s firing of Juan Williams was justified, I think the resulting fallout surrounding the firing revealed more about our media than it did about the incident in question. In this On The Media interview, William Saletan contends that if NPR had put Williams firing in the context of other questionable remarks, then the resulting conversation would have been quite different:
Well, I think we’d be having a completely different conversation, you and I and the whole political blogosphere, if NPR had said, look, we have a longstanding issue with Juan Williams, and not about any particular comment but over the course of his career, and we don’t feel this is appropriate.
I think Mr. Saletan is missing the forest for the trees here. To claim that qualification and proper context would have resulted in a different conversation is to ignore the rather obvious fact that a large segment of our media have a vested interest in promoting and disseminating anti-Muslim sentiment. In this segment from the Daily Show, John Stewart points out the absurd lengths to which Fox News goes to capitalize on anti-Muslim fear and hatred.
So context does matter. And the context in which NPR fired Williams so obviously threatened the legitimacy of the right-wing’s attempts to capitalize on anti-Muslim sentiment that even the appearance of sanctioning someone for using one of these commonplaces necessitated that the right-wing media turn Williams into some sort of martyr to “political correctness”. Can you imagine the drop in Fox’s quarterly reports if casual Muslim-baiting became a taboo move in journalism? No, better to keep the status quo. That way when someone like Octavia Nasr commits a similar gaffe, the right wing media can jump all over her and destroy her career. You have to fill those 24 hours with something after all.
But I think there’s another way in which context matters here. Williams specifically invoked his ethos and authority as an expert on African-American racial issues to justify his position:
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’ve 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.
As Amir pointed out in an earlier post on Dinesh D’Souza, the use of your identity as an appeal to authority to speak for or about other groups doesn’t hold water (N.B. I’m not comparing Williams to D’Souza: the difference between the two is roughly the difference between Robert DeNiro and the Situation). I don’t think Williams appeal was as cynical as D’Souza’s. I think it was more a reflection of the medium in which he was presenting. The “expert” commentator is expected to be able to move fluidly from issue to issue and offer authoritative commentary on whatever hooves its way into his frame of reference.
And it was precisely this mode in which Williams found himself operating when he offered his comments. While there is no question that Williams is an expert on African-American racial issues in America, there are plenty of reasons to question his expertise on Islamic culture and on terrorism in particular. No self-respecting terrorist would try to board a plane in “Muslim garb” (whatever that is). The whole point is to blend in and not draw attention to one’s self. There’s precisely zero reason to feel afraid of someone who sticks out. Williams could obviously benefit from reading the work of someone like Scott Atran, who has spent the last few years debunking myths about terrorists. Instead, Williams chose to provide a stereotype– not so much of Islam as a whole– but rather of the suicide terrorist as crazed religious zealot, and in doing so, he contributed to the general anti-Muslim sentiment that pays the rent at Fox.
Of course, none of these nuances really matter in the end. Even if you think justice was served in the case of Williams firing, he is still going to get several million dollars from Fox. And even if NPR’s firing was a nod to “political correctness” (i.e. a sanction against offhand bigotry), this, too, doesn’t seem to matter. Just today Republicans tried to defund NPR by passing a bill in the house. In case you were wondering, this is part of the business plan as well. Murdoch’s been working on defunding the BBC across the pond and there’s no reason for him to deviate from that plan in this country. Selah.