The Agenda

Quick Post on Juan Williams

Much to my chagrin, I was just on a radio program to discuss Juan Williams. I have never met Juan Williams and I don’t consider myself an expert on the subject of Juan Williams. But I was asked by a friendly acquaintance, and I was told this morning that it was too late for the program to find a replacement. Suffice it to say, I don’t find media criticism very edifying as a general rule. This was uncomfortable terrain from me, and I don’t intend to take part in such a conversation again. It felt too unmoored from reality to be productive. 

During the conversation, I tried to stick to only one point: Juan Williams didn’t just say that people in “Muslim garb” made him uncomfortable. He continued to argue, very clearly, that Muslims are not a monolithic group. I see that William Saletan has made this argument much better than I ever could at Slate. A number of my fellow panelists suggested that Fox News is deliberately fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment. And they also suggested that Juan Williams’ statements were Islamophobic, and that this Islamophobia rendered him unfit for a news analyst role. When I suggested that Juan Williams’ statement was not “Islamophobic,” I was told to consult a dictionary. Here is the first part of what Williams said:

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. Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America’s war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts. 

My sense is that Williams was expressing roughly the following view: when he sees Muslims who identify primarily with the global Islamic community rather than the American community, it worries him as it resonates with the idea that Islam and America are contending forces. He was not expressing the view that all people who identify with the global Islamic community are terrorists. 

I decided to look up “phobia,” as my understanding of the word is somewhat different from that of my co-panelist. Here is what I found at my old standby dictionary.com

a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it.

Origin: 1780–90;  extracted from nouns ending in -phobia

—Synonyms aversion, hatred. 

I’ll stand by my view that Juan Williams was not expressing “Islamophobia.” Rather, expressed concern about a phenomenon that has concerned people like David Goodhart, Brian Barry, and many other egalitarian liberal thinkers of good standing. 

Do I share Juan Williams’ worries? No, I do not. I believe that the power of North America’s hybrid culture is great enough to win over most people who enter its orbit. Do I think that Williams and Goodhart are bigots, or that Barry was a bigot? I do not.

Then there is the broader question about NPR, which I’ll address in my next post.

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