We should have known about Juan Williams long ago. The signs of a simmering bigotry were always there. The political commentator wrote the book Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965. He followed that up with an admiring biography of Thurgood Marshall. Then, more books on the African-American religious experience, historically black colleges, and black farmers.
If there was anyone clearly on the verge of exploding in a venomous rant against a minority group, it was Williams. And then, inevitably, it happened.
At least that’s what National Public Radio must believe. The government-funded media outfit fired Williams for comments on the Fox News program The O’Reilly Factor that wouldn’t even be considered particularly controversial outside the hothouse of NPR.
I know Williams a little from my own commentary gig at Fox, and can say he’s exactly what he appears — a likable, calls-them-as-he-sees-them liberal who, on most things, defends the Obama administration, sometimes passionately, always civilly. If Juan Williams is outside the bounds of polite discourse, then those bounds have collapsed to the point of suffocating constriction.
What Williams said on The O’Reilly Factor is that when he gets on a plane, he’s worried if he sees people “in Muslim garb” who are “identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims.” In this, he was simply acknowledging an anxiety that is felt by millions of Americans who fly.
This may not be entirely rational (the odds of being victimized by terrorism are very small), and Muslim garb is an unlikely marker of a terrorist in a U.S. airport anyway (a terrorist is likelier to try to fit in). But the connection between Muslims and terrorism exists in the public consciousness because Muslim extremists do routinely carry out acts of terror in the name of their religion. This can’t be said of Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Jews, Quakers, Confucians, Rastafarians, or even worshipers of the Aqua Buddha.
So don’t blame Williams for this fear. His comment is the equivalent of Jesse Jackson’s famous 1993 statement that, when worried about getting robbed, he always felt relieved to see the other person on the street with him wasn’t a black youth. That no more made Jackson anti-black than Williams’s remarks make him anti-Muslim.
Williams didn’t go on to say that everyone looking Muslim should be rounded up at the airport, or prevented from flying, or anything untoward beyond the mere acknowledgment of his own nervous impulse. This makes him Geert Wilders?
In fact, Williams made it clear that he doesn’t think we’re involved in a war against Islam, took care to distinguish between Muslims and extremists, insisted that we not paint with too broad a brush when discussing these issues, and condemned anti-Muslim violence and inflammatory statements that might incite it.
None of that was enough for him to escape the blanket of political correctness that is steadily encroaching on anything relating to Islam. NPR deemed Williams’s remarks “inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices.” The oh-so-thoughtful people at NPR obviously believe there are certain things that can’t be thought or expressed, even if those things clearly aren’t bigoted and are uttered by someone who clearly isn’t a bigot.
In its unwillingness to tolerate Juan Williams, NPR has shown how little regard it has for even the slightest dissent from approved orthodoxies, especially if broadcast on the hated Fox News network. Just because you speak in dulcet tones, it doesn’t make you any less close-minded.
I often find NPR informative and enjoy my occasional appearance, but with this decision, it has chipped away at the country’s shrinking common ground for discourse. Let the record show that it wasn’t Fox News that severed its relationship with Williams because he said unacceptably liberal things, and it wasn’t Fox News viewers who agitated to have him dumped over his appearances on NPR. It’s the self-consciously tolerant people who behaved illiberally, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, [email protected]. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.