I gasped when I read the story in The New York Times.
The folks at National Public Radio fired Juan Williams, ostensibly because of his comments on “The O’Reilly Factor,” which were judged by NPR to be “inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”
Here is the offending statement: “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 the 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.”
It’s a remark that reminds me of Jesse Jackson’s frank (and controversial at the time) observation that when he heard footsteps behind him on a dark street, he tended to be relieved when the person following him turned out to be a young white male and not a young black male.
Jesse Jackson’s comment was an honest personal confession from someone who had the courage to admit what many were thinking at the time. (And that’s changed in part because honesty about the problem of black violence allowed it to be addressed.) The comment Williams made is similar—and I’m sure he’s also hopeful that social changes in America will make his fears irrelevant in the future.
But let’s drop the proximate cause of his dismissal from NPR. It’s rarely the case that a single statement—especially one as innocuous as the one Williams made on “The O’Reilly Factor”—provides a sufficient explanation. More is going on.
For a long time I’ve thought of Juan Williams as one of the most sensible voices in the public square, someone with a genuinely independent critical intelligence. Perhaps that’s the problem.
Example: After Barack Obama’s nomination as Democratic candidate for President, I remember listening to Juan Williams give a striking segment on NPR. He argued that Obama’s nomination indicates that the main contours of racial politics since the 1960s are no longer relevant. He wasn’t arguing that racial identity has disappeared or become invisible. Instead, he was suggesting that the vast apparatus of government mandated racial set asides in contracting, the racially motivated gerrymandering designed to create safe districts for black congressmen and women—and perhaps even the very idea of a Black Caucus on Capitol Hill—no longer corresponds to social reality.
Maybe Williams is right. Maybe he is wrong. But who can deny that the Obama candidacy (and victory!) requires rethinking our assumptions about race and politics?
Democratic party strategists, that’s who. You don’t need a PhD in political science to see that it would be a disaster for the Democratic Party if Black America starting thinking differently about politics. And across government, the corporate world, and the educational-industrial complex there are bureaucracies and careers that depend upon the perpetual and defining role of racism.
In other words, there are lots of powerful people out there who might be thinking that Juan Williams ought to shut up.
There is a further factor. Williams is employed as a news analyst on Fox News. This poses a direct threat to the most fundamental strategy of the liberal establishment, which is to deny the legitimacy of American conservatism, painting it as “extremist”—or better, as “stupid.”
Williams is an intelligent, moderate, nuanced member of the media establishment, and so naturally he brings precisely those qualities to Fox. The effect is similar to the presence of David Brooks on the Lehrer News Hour. Williams makes Fox interesting, buttressing its claim that it reflects a cross section of American opinion and not just a narrow ideological position. This is precisely what the liberal media establishment does not want.
Even after writing this plausible explanation for why the grandees at NPR so fit to fire Juan Williams, I remain shocked. I’m amazed that the liberal establishment can’t see that it is making itself incapable of governing the country, because it is purifying itself of all dissent
I’m willing to bet that Juan Williams thinks of himself (and rightly so) as part of the great American liberal tradition. And yet he has been deemed unfit to serve at NPR.
Perhaps I should not be so surprised. As I have written elsewhere, American higher education has seriously compromised its civic identity by hiring faculty and allocating resources in a fashion that amounts to putting up signs that say, “conservatives need not apply.”
Let me end by stepping back and trying to say something impressionistic, but I hope not inaccurate.
The liberal establishment in America for a long time has been serenely dominant. This is no longer the case, and because the liberal establishment is anxious about the ascendancy of a conservative elite, it is circling the wagons.
In itself the self-defensive posture is understandable. However, because of past dominance, the liberal establishment has control of (and responsibility for) many important national institutions (universities, foundations, media, museums, and so forth). As the liberal establishment circles its wagons, these institutions are damaged, because they become more partisan and therefore by definition less national. The conservative response has been to set up parallel institutions, also by necessity partisan and therefore less national. (For example, the think tank world functions as an alternative to the universities in the competition of ideas.)
This is not good for our national culture.