Tweedle Left and Tweedle Right

“Live by the sword, die by the sword.”  We’re all familiar with that old chestnut, a paraphrasing of Jesus from the Book of Matthew (26:52).  Not only do we get what it means, but it’s also an idea that makes real sense to most of us.  If you’re going to behave in a violent manner, that violence will eventually catch up to you; if you’re dishing it out to others, don’t be surprised when it comes back to bite you in the ass.  It’s pretty straightforward and seems perfectly fair, a dash of karma and an ounce of poetic justice.  And we’d like to think it’s the way the world actually works.

But in the world of media punditry, the truth is this: Live by the sword, rake in the profits.

In 2003, Bill O’Reilly threw a hissy fit and stormed off the National Public Radio show FFFFFFresh Air, hosted by Terry Gross.  In an astounding case of the pot calling the kettle black, O’Reilly got incensed because Gross was peppering him with questions that he considered to be objectionable and hostile.  In a priceless bit of hypocrisy, he accused Gross of being “in attack mode.”  I mean really, this is like Lex Luthor bitching at Superman for being an egomaniac: yeah, sure, I guess, but how can you, of all people, possibly say this with a straight face?  But of course O’Reilly found Gross to be, in his words, chock “full of typical NPR liberal bias.” Just like O’Reilly’s filled to the gills with typical Fox News conservative bias.  Duh.

So what do we end up with?  A staged walkout.  Now I don’t think for a second that the two of them agreed to this ahead of time, and I could easily believe they really do detest each other.  But there’s no way you’ll ever convince me that he didn’t plan to walkout (conveniently, after he’d spent almost the entire show sparring with Gross), and that she wasn’t absolutely elated that he did.  It generated lots of publicity for both of them.  Hell, lest we forget, FFFFFFresh Air is to some extent a plug show, and plugging his latest book is why O’Reilly was there to begin with.  Free publicity for everyone!  Yay!

Fast forward to last week.  O’Reilly’s back.  Once again he’s got a new book to plug.  Once again, he’s going to walk into the Lion’s Den of Liberal Women Media Hosts.  This time it was on The View. Starting to sound familiar?  Oh, but wait, there are some minor differences that lead to a slight variation on the theme.  Instead of lowering himself to participate in a diminished medium (FM radio) and going one-on-one against a woman  who’s hosting a show on one of the Right’s favorite punching bags (NPR), he’s facing off against five women on one of the most highly rated daytime TV shows around, hosted by an ensemble that features America’s sweethearts.  It’s Barbara Walters, people!  You’ve gotta play nice.  And in Bill O’Reilly’s world, that means instead of being nasty and hostile, he’s simply condescending and patronizing.  And this time (ready for the big twist?) instead of the avowedly conservative guest storming off in a huff, it’s now avowedly liberal co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar who pull the disappearing act.

It took seven years, but it all came full circle, and no one’s coming out of it looking very good; there are black eyes a-plenty to go around on this one.

Just like you’ll never convince me that O’Reilly’s walkout in 2003 wasn’t planned, there’s no way you’ll ever convince me that Goldberg and Behar didn’t plan theirs.  Even though they’ll never admit it, it came across as the height of contrivance.  And the results are the same: all involved get a fresh blast of publicity to juice their ratings and book sales, and they increase their credibility with their Liberal and Conservative followers respectively.  Meanwhile, we’re stuck with a perversion of that old aphorism.  No live by the sword, die by the sword here.  Media celebrities like O’Reilly, Goldberg and  Behar (and Gross to a much, much lesser extent) promote their agendas, contribute to the cacophony of partisan rancor, participate in ludicrous behavior, and get rewarded for it.  Sigh.

But then the question remains: who’s actually getting the sword?

That brings us to Juan Williams.  Earlier today, the longtime (and just about only) conservative news analyst of National Public Radio was fired for comments he made on Bill O’Reilly’s show Wednesday night.  It took seven years, but it all came full circle, and no one’s coming out of it looking very good; there are black eyes a-plenty to go around on this one.

O’Reilly had guests on his show last night to discuss, you guessed it,  the grade school theatrics that occurred during his recent visit to The View. One of those people was author, journalist and NPR analyst Juan Williams.  Amid the otherwise dull and predictable discussion, Williams launched an assault on the of strawman of “political correctness.”  It’s a phrase, like “community,” that is overused and misused, people using it to mean whatever they want it to mean, to the point that the phrase itself has become virtually meaningless.  And in that context, Williams said the following:

“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.”

Oh God, where to begin?  First off, how could O’Reilly let such a silly statement slide given the number of times he’s insinuated or outright accused Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton of being bigots despite their involvement in Civil Rights?  Again with the hypocrisy.  But beyond that, just because you’re sympathetic to one form of bigotry doesn’t mean you’re immune from indulging in other forms of bigotry.  You’re telling me Williams can’t be any kind of a bigot because he has a deep appreciation of the racism black people endured in the Jim Crow South?  That’s just ridiculous.  For starters, I grew up with Jewish family, friends and acquaintances, most of whom were very sensitive to anti-Semitism, but some of whom were also very bigoted against blacks and Puerto Ricans.  I’m sorry.  No one gets a free pass.  And how could they?  It makes no sense.  Bigotry is usually driven by fear, the kind of fear that stems from ignorance, and no one’s immune from ignorance.  No one’s perfect.  We’re all vulnerable.

So what about the statement on its own merits?  What about Williams’ self-professed fear of Muslims?  This is where it gets trickier.  Given that most Americans have had little or no substantive interaction with any of the world’s one billion Muslims, and given that September 11th and the subsequent invasion of two secular, but overwhelmingly Muslim countries have greatly shaped most Americans’ perceptions of Muslims, and not in a positive way, it should not come as a surprise that many Americans are scared of Muslims.  That’s not excusing those fears, it’s explaining them, and it shouldn’t be news to anyone.

I usually associate such distinctions with grounds for not offering workers health care, not for covering your ass.

It’s certainly disappointing that someone as worldly as Juan Williams is afraid of random Muslims sitting near him on a plane (you think he flies first class?  I wonder).  But hey, people are complex, and fears can be very hard to shake.  I’m not condoning his statement.  It was a bigoted thing to say.  But it’s also very important that people be free to express their fears, albeit in a mature and responsible manner.  Which is what Williams was kinda, sorta, maybe doing.  O’Reilly’s a right wing propagandist (just like, say, Keith Olbermann’s a Liberal propagandist), and his show, despite all the pathetic ballyhoo to the contrary, is the opposite of “fair and balanced,” it’s a paean to spin.  So while Williams wasn’t screaming from the rafters and calling for a renewal of The Crusades, The O’Reilly Factor was not the right venue to get a mature, responsible discussion of complex issues.

And then this morning he gets fired.  NPR dumps him, over the phone no less, not even extending him the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting after 10 years of employment.  What’s more, in a move of incredible classlessness, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller gave an interview to Atlanta Journal Constitution in which she rubbed salt in the wound.  First she split hairs about “Juan” (she refuses to call him Williams, which, given the circumstances, is incredibly unprofessional and belittling) being an independent contract worker, not an NPR employee or staff member; funny, I usually associate such distinctions with grounds for not offering workers health care, not for covering your ass.  Schiller then justified the firing by stating that NPR news analysts such as Williams should not make controversial comments.  Wow.  News analysts (analysts, not reporters) should not make controversial comments.  Think about that one for a moment.  And when you’re done, take a look at the potshot CEO Schiller made about Williams in her official release, which was posted online by NPR:

“NPR news analyst Juan Williams should have kept his feelings about Muslims between himself and his psychiatrist or his publicist.”

Jesus, did she just say that?  Did she really just say that?  Did the CEO who just publicly fired an employee (pardon me, a mere “independent contractor”) just publicly accuse that person of being mentally ill?  Holy shit.

And so the circus continues.  So much for responsible, mature, open discourse.

12 Responses to “Tweedle Left and Tweedle Right”

  1. Circus is right! I have long since given up on responsible, mature, open or USEFUL discourse in politics and public at large. The media cycle of scandals-de-jour, spun carefully by opposing sides for political gains is not only tiring, but damaging to the country. There are so many complex, meaningful debates and dialog we need to be having. Sad that most peoples’ attention is drawn away by all the meaningless frenzy.

  2. It’s impressive for Juan Williams to be discussing political correctness and then speak his thoughts of potential Muslims on a plane, and consequently be fired by NPR, proving his point on Political Correctness.

  3. Great point, and I largely agree. Though I do think that the phrase “political correctness” itself is stretched beyond meaning to some extent. If Conservatives can bash Liberals for being “politically correct” at the same time a Liberal comedian like Bill Maher can call his first show “Politically Incorrect,” then after a while I think it’s time to find better terminology for what we really mean.

  4. My secular/historically Muslim friend from Pakistan hates to be looked at suspiciously for his appearance. He has endured much trouble from the airlines and elsewhere for his first name “Mohammed”. However, he has indicated to me that he gets nervous on a plane with folks from his place of origin that look “fundamentalist.” I grew up in the middle of the US and I too get nervous on a plane with someone that looks like the underpants bomber or some fellow whitey that is spouting some sort of tea party extremism. I don’t think that being nervous on a plane necessarily makes you a racist. However, I think it is silly to not acknowledge that a little old lady from Sweden wouldn’t make a traveler as nervous as a militant white tea party activist with his violent rhetoric, or someone dressed in a certain outfit shared by people who have blown up airplanes. I’m not saying that it is good or justified to be nervous but I don’t think it was wrong for Juan Williams to admit to his fears. It was also not wrong for Bill Maher to say that the 9/11 hijackers were not cowards. Regardless of the evilness of that act, it was not a cowardly thing to be in a suicide mission. That is all that he was commenting on. I don’t see how you could have a valid argument against that. It’s complicated. That is why it is interesting.

  5. Another aspect of this which seems to be excluded is the fact that many people’s thoughts do not follow their actions. This can go in either good or bad directions.

    Many people, myself included, think the original thoughts they were taught as children or the initial thought brought forth by learned fear, and then take the moment to understand that an action (either verbally – including silence or physically – including the lack of) taken needn’t be that which is based on the initial thought. If merely speaking of that base response, especially when unrelated to one’s actual actions in life, is now to be considered a fireable offense, the unemployment rate shall surely grow exponentially.

  6. While the situation was poorly handled, I can understand NPR’s frustration with Williams. Sure, he expressed his honest feelings. Yawn. Instead of feelings, how about some news? You know, the stuff with actual facts.

    NPR should have just let the guy’s contract run out. How moronic to feed this fire. But don’t kid yourself into thinking Juan Williams has anything to add to an intelligent discussion about racism, fear, or the travel woes of incredibly immature journalists.

  7. Re: Your deconstruction of the Juan Williams Incident

    While you make some cogent points about both O’Reilly and just about every other media hog looking for publicity, your take on Williams indicates you have more in common with Obama than previously thought. By throwing your Jewish family under the bus so to speak with intimations of their bigotry, you elevate your platform to that phonily sanctimonious, uber moral/uber liberal stance that Obama took with his grandmother. It did not go over all that well, and neither did your anecdote. As in: no one gets a pass.

  8. Oh, almost forgot.
    To compare Juan Williams on a level of pardon the pc jargon) “moral equilavency” with:
    Jessie “Hymietown” Jackson
    and
    Al “Tawana Brawley Hoax” Sharpton
    somehow just does not fly, with or without headscarves.

    LH

  9. If it makes you feel any better, Leigh, the WASP side of my family is not immune to racism either, though they have less ground for sympathy with the downtrodden of the world, so it didn’t seem relevant to this particular post. Beyond that, honesty and revelation are not Liberal or Conservative traits, no matter how much those factions might wish or claim otherwise. And finally, no real or lasting dialog on the complex and tender issues of bigotry in America will ever come to the fore so long as everyone runs around pretending that they and theirs are never racist.

    Oh, and I wasn’t comparing Williams to Jackson and Sharpton to make anyone look good; I was doing it to point out O’Reilly’s blatant hypocrisy.

  10. I think the last commentator, Leigh Hunt, was entirely too serious. I think she took it personally. I think your argument that this race talk is all a commercial enterprise has a great deal of validity. O’Reilly is just doing his thing and laughing all the way to the bank. But what can you do? This is how books are sold. Many deserving authors who do not market their material go unnoticed.

    GJ

  11. I miss Bob Newhart!

    Claiming to be exempt from prejudice because we don’t indulge in another form of it isn’t helpful. We all have to honestly reflect on our biases and beliefs. However, I doubt a media circus over Juan Williams or anyone else will promote this type of inquiry.

  12. If nothing else, we can all agree that we miss the ultimate circus ring master, Bob Newhart.

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