Was National Public Radio correct to fire Juan Williams, their National News Analyst, for saying, “…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"? The answer is a simple one: you betcha. This is, as The Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan wrote, "anti-religious bigotry in its purest, clearest form." How could NPR employ an ostensibly unbiased “national news analyst” who admits an irrational bias against Arabs and Muslims? What would our reaction be had he voiced similar sentiments toward any other religion or ethnicity? As Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald made plain, “If we’re going to fire or otherwise punish people for expressing prohibited ideas against various groups, it’s long overdue that those standards be applied equally to anti-Muslim animus, now easily one of the most—if not the single most—pervasive, tolerated and dangerous forms of blatant bigotry in America."
It’s no coincidence that Williams happened to express these views on Fox News. In the Obama era, the cable network has chosen to become a fully functioning engine of racism, operating what can be described as a fifty-state Southern strategy, playing to white anxieties about an increasingly multicultural America. Sure enough, Fox gave Juan Williams, the day after his firing, a $2 million contract. Islamophobia pays, especially when voiced by an African-American who touts his own liberal credentials. (As Fox Anchor Brit Hume said affectionately of Juan Williams on Sunday, he’s a "Bill Cosby Liberal." Nope, no racism at Fox.)
In addition to being very well compensated, Williams has received full-throated support from the usual suspects of intolerance. Figures of the right like Fox News employees Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Karl Rove, along with the utterly repellent professional Islamophobe Pam Gellar, have rushed to Williams’s defense on First Amendment grounds. These figures, to put it mildly, lack a degree of credibility on any issue pertaining to “free speech.” They all celebrated the firing of CNN correspondent Octavia Nasr for tweeting sympathies after the death of Lebanon’s Ayatollah Mohammad Hussain Fadlallah, a cleric who became the spiritual leader of the Lebanese resistance after the 1982 Israeli invasion. They laughed it up when their press-pool nemesis Helen Thomas was forced to retire in disgrace after saying that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine.” But when Dr. Laura Schlessinger was pushed out after using the n-word repeatedly on the air, Palin rushed to her defense; and now as Juan Williams is punished for expressing his Islamic paranoia, Fox & Friends reveal the only kind of speech they fight to defend.
The usual suspects of intolerance don’t defend Islamophobia because they’re bigots, although that certainly helps. There is a wing of the political establishment with a pressing stake in anti-Muslim paranoia this election season. Candidates around the country like Nevada senatorial candidate Sharron Angle are running for office on idiotic planks of fending off creeping “Sharia law” in the United States and stopping a “Ground Zero mosque” in New York City that is neither a mosque nor at “Ground Zero.” While Fox News has of course been the engine of breathless coverage against Muslim Americans, this has not just been the province of the right. Both Democratic Senatorial Majority Leader Harry Reid and liberal favorite Howard Dean have luridly railed against the “Ground Zero mosque.” As for President Obama, we are still trying to decipher his position.
Beneath the election year fear-mongering lies an even more ugly and genocidal reality. More than a million Arabs and Muslims have died in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, since the bipartisan "Global War on Terror" began nine years ago. The Obama administration has of course upped the ante in Afghanistan while accelerating deadly drone attacks in Pakistan, and we know from Wikileaks that accidental deaths of civilians in these countries is a regular reality. Racism and Islamophobia are primarily about dehumanizing Arabs and Muslims. A significant portion of the United States can accept the horrific crimes against humanity in the Middle East only if there is consensus that those dying are less than human.
As for Williams, he has not only refused to apologize. He has taken this moment of infamy to burnish his credentials for his new bosses on Fox. He has made the rounds decrying “political correctness” and “left wing orthodoxy” at NPR, calling them "worse than Nixon." He has even called for his employer of fifteen years to be defunded. In doing so, Williams joined calls by Tea Party leader Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who announced that he is introducing legislation to "defund NPR." The bill calls to “end subsidies” and make NPR “play by the rules of the free market.” That might sound great on Fox News (subsidized by Rupert Murdoch), but the problem is that Congress doesn’t actually fund NPR, which gets just 2 percent of its funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. By piously defending free speech while demogoguing against NPR, DeMint sounds like his Tea Party brethren who rail to "keep the government out of my Medicare!"
To be clear there is nothing “left-wing” about National Public Radio. This is the network that gave airtime to right-wing ideologue David Horowitz the day after the death of Howard Zinn, as an authority to assess the beloved historian’s legacy. Yet in this case they were absolutely correct. Finally, at long last, an institution drew a line against the ceaseless media bigotry faced by Arabs and Muslims.
A quarter of a century ago, there was a person who would have been part of drawing that line. Tragically, he is no longer with us. He was a principled antiracist who wrote the classic civil rights text Eyes on the Prize. In 1986 he said, "Racism is a lazy man’s substitute for using good judgment.… Common sense becomes racism when skin color becomes a formula for figuring out who is a danger to me." His name was Juan Williams. It would be nice if he were still around.