October 21, 2010
Juan Williams has become the latest target of sound bite insanity. Williams — possibly the most intellectually honest, non-partisan opinion journalist in the country — was summarily fired for going on TV’s “The O’Reilly Factor” this week and saying the following, in a conversation about Islam: “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 are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”
This column routinely defends Muslims, who are protected by the Constitution just like everyone else. The Gazette has invited Muslims to bring their mosques to Colorado Springs, if other communities violate their rights to peacefully practice religion and to make reasonable use of private property. It’s about rights and freedom, not the embrace of a social agenda that demands we all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. The dangerous social demand for sensitivity and tolerance results in the opposite of rights and freedom. It cost Williams his right to speak honestly while working for a federally funded media business. It’s eerily similar to the swift firing of Shirley Sherrod, former Georgia director of rural development, for sharing her past prejudices about white farmers.
Williams’ reaction to Muslims on a plane is a natural response for lots of Americans, after years of lethal attacks by Muslims. Is it rational, considering the tiny fraction of Muslims who have hijacked a plane? No. But Williams wasn’t defending his feelings. As a black civil rights crusader, he shared his feelings to illustrate the fact Muslims have an image problem that is causing them problems in the United States. It’s why they have a hard time building mosques.
Would NPR have fired him for expressing some other honest, yet irrational fear? Would the network have fired him for sharing concerns about dropping his children off at a childcare facility staffed by Catholic priests, in the wake the Catholic abuse scandal, even though the vast majority of priests have never harmed a child?
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Williams knows all about irrational fears, as a longtime Washington resident. In Washington, black men have long been unable to get cab rides because cab drivers — even black drivers — have come to associate black men with crime. They associate black men with crime because Washington is predominantly black and, as such, black men commit most of the city’s crimes. The vast majority of black men don’t commit crimes, but gut instincts are formed more by perception than data.
Since the issue became big news in 1993, the situation has improved. That’s because society didn’t hide from the dilemma of a widespread irrational fear that was burdening black people.
We’ve become a society that chooses to react to sound bites, rather than analyze conflicts honestly without blind obedience to pre-approved speech that’s sanitized for delicacy. We can’t discuss race, religion or sexual orientation with honesty because we must walk a tightrope or face public humiliation for some phrase used out of context by those who wish to appear more-sensitive-than-thou.
Williams did Muslims a favor. If a scholarly, black civil rights author experiences fear at the sight of Muslims on a plane, it’s a safe bet other Americans feel the same way. That’s something Muslims should know, if they want to enjoy the best of the American dream.