The firing of Juan Williams, the latest victim of the PC lynch mob, has the pundits and the politicians in an uproar. Now I happened to be watching Fox News – I confess! I confess! – when Williams made those supposedly "offensive" comments, and my reaction was immediate: I started to recall a long forgotten incident in which my own "bigotry" played a major role.
It was a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Standing on line at the airport, waiting for the announcement to begin boarding, I noticed a group of Muslims standing around with their baggage. I could tell they were Muslims because they had all the visible accouterments – the headdress, the flowing robes, etc. – and all were male, middle-aged except for one young guy. Okay, so what? I thought. They’re Muslims. Big deal.
I put it out of my mind, and tried not to stare. Finally it was time to board: I picked up my bags and noticed that the Muslims were right behind me. Okay, I thought, whatever: don’t be silly, and get a grip on yourself, Justin! I went and found my seat: the Muslims were a few rows back from me, but the one younger guy, it turned out, was in the seat opposite me. Okay, again – so what? I picked up my book, and started to read. We were told to buckle up and get ready for take off: I kept glancing over at the young Muslim guy, and noticed he was reading something. What was it? I tried to focus on the title, which was barely visible, but couldn’t read it. Then I caught myself, and thought: What are you doing? Why do you care? I turned back to my own book. After a while, the young Muslim got up and went to the lavatory. Here was my chance …
I spite of myself, I got up, pretended to stretch, and looked closely at the book with a green cover he’d left laying on the seat.
Oh no! It was … the Koran!
I sat down in my seat just before the young Muslim returned. He didn’t even glance at me: oh good, I thought, he hasn’t noticed someone’s spying on him. I’m safe – for the moment. It was a long flight – New York to San Francisco – made even longer by my paranoia. Every time he got up I watched him out of the corner of my eye, and planned what I’d do if he and his fellow travelers suddenly revealed themselves as terrorists intent on taking over the plane and ramming it into the Golden Gate Bridge. He was, I reckoned, a lot younger than me, but, hey, I’d been lifting my weights again and was in pretty good shape. I looked around at the other male passengers: a skinny guy reading the War Street Journal, an Orthodox Jewish dude about my age wearing the long sideburns and a yarmulke, a college student type reading Sports Illustrated and wearing a football jersey. I figured me and the college guy could take out the Koran-reading "terrorist" without much problem, unless, of course, he was armed, in which case …
You can see how crazy this is, or was. I had no reason to suspect anybody on board was anything other than just a normal passenger going about his or her business. Yet there I was planning how I’d tackle the guy sitting across the way the minute he revealed himself as an al-Qaeda operative intent on wreaking death and destruction.
Am I a bigot?
According to the Guardians of Political Correctness, who have been on a roll, lately, and gotten a whole panoply of media figures fired for supposedly "insensitive" or "bigoted" remarks, the answer is undoubtedly yes.
In spite of the fact that I knew perfectly well at the time that my suspicions were just fantasies, perhaps brought on by the ennui that accompanies all airplane flights, I let my emotions come to the surface. Not that I had much choice in the matter: emotions, you know, are like that. They come bubbling up to the surface, unbidden. The PC-niks, however, would correct in this matter, and say that these are racist emotions, and that my execrable racism was bubbling up to the surface.
But wait a minute: prior to boarding that plane, I had been writing in this space about the government round-up of Muslims and condemning it in no uncertain terms. I had written countless articles and columns descrying anti-Muslim bigotry and denouncing our "war on terrorism" as an excuse to wage endless war to no discernible purpose other than the expansion of American power and influence throughout the world. I had even written a whole series of columns questioning important aspects of the official story of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Is this really the profile of an anti-Muslim bigot?
Okay, let’s look at what Williams actually said:
"Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality. I mean, look Bill [O’Reilly], I’m not a bigot, you know the kind of books I’ve written on 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."
What is the reality Williams says we aren’t addressing? It’s the reality of fear. In the weeks and months – and years – after 9/11, the Bush administration relentlessly played on these fears, and stoked the country up into such a maelstrom of hysteria that they stood by while he and his minions lied us into war.
This fear was not unjustified, or a fantasy: it was based on a reality, the 9/11 attacks themselves. The Bush crowd and the neocons took that fear a couple of steps further, however, and used it to carry out their agenda, which involved effectively declaring war on the entire Muslim world – including here at home. The distance from that justified fear – of another attack – to a more generalized fear, the irrational fear that enabled the Bush crowd to cow everyone into going along with their warmongering, authoritarian program, was a bit of a leap, but that is not to deny that the dread at the core of our being in those days was real — and, furthermore, has never really gone away.
I don’t think Juan Williams is any kind of bigot: he’s just a normal, everyday, average American who – like the rest of us – was traumatized by 9/11, and will never get over it. I also don’t think Helen Thomas is a bigot – she’s just someone who is sick and tired of the double standard when it comes to the treatment of Arabs by Israel. Nor do I think Octavia Nasr is pro-terrorist – she just didn’t realize how deeply entrenched those double standards are. Rick Sanchez, on the other hand, is almost certainly a self-important fool, but his comments were not only not offensive but also true: Jon Stewart is most certainly not a member of an "oppressed" or otherwise marginalized group on account of his ethno-religious heritage, and there’s no two ways about it.
In the horrific new world we’re living in , no one is allowed an unguarded moment: expressions of politically incorrect emotions are verboten, and anyone so foolish as to be honest about their feelings is anathematized if those feelings go against the unwritten but rigidly enforced rules of public discourse. Officially approved victim groups cannot be criticized, except by other members of those victim groups – and then only if you have the right political credentials (Republicans, conservatives, and other villains need not apply). How these controversies work themselves out – who is fired, and who is not – describes the structure of the victimological hierarchy: Sanchez thought he could get away with what he said because, after all, he’s a "minority" too: CNN soon disabused him of this notion, and notified him that he’s on a much lower victimological rung than super-oppressed millionaire TV star Stewart. As for poor old Helen Thomas, she was given the same treatment – and a good thing for her she isn’t a German! Ditto for Ms. Nasr, who I’m surprised wasn’t investigated by the Justice Department for giving "material aid" to "terrorists."
The parameters of permitted public discourse are rapidly shrinking – and they were never that broad to begin with. This is a bad thing. But it’s what happens in wartime, when conformity and thought control is the rule and we’re all supposed to bow down before the authorities, either governmental or self-appointed. We’ve been in a state of constant war since September 11, 2001 – and this is the world in which we are now living. A world where no one can say what they really believe, or feel, for fear of losing their job, or even of facing government prosecution – as the recent raids on antiwar activists in Minneapolis, and elsewhere, have shown. The atmosphere of intellectual and physical intimidation is thick to the point of suffocation – and it has to stop, or else we’re in some real trouble.
National Public Radio is a joke: they broadcast nothing but government-sanctioned lies and pious liberal inanities. If this incident doesn’t lead to their complete defunding, then there is something seriously wrong. The fiction that they don’t want their "analysts" to engage in polemical or political speech is laughable: what about then NPR legal "reporter" Nina Totenberg said she hoped Jesse Helms died of AIDS? What about their reporter specializing in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Linda Gradstein, who took honoraria for speaking engagements sponsored by pro-Israel organizations? If we apply my theory of the victimological hierarchy to these prominent exceptions to NPR’s "policy," they become all too explicable.
NPR should be defunded, and not just because of their persecution of Williams. Publicly-funded media outlets invariably attract ideologues: look at the loon who was working for Voice of America until his own looniness caught up with him. And why am I not surprised that neocon smear merchant James Kirchick, whose pathetic attempts to link Ron Paul to neo-Nazis failed miserably, is now working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty?
Let’s get rid of these archaic institutions: we don’t need "public radio" when we have the internet, which enables the public to speak freely and often. We don’t need Radio Free Europe or Radio Liberty because – guess what? – the cold war is long over. And most of all, we don’t need self-appointed Guardians of Political Correctness deciding what people can and cannot say, write, or think.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
The schedule for the Antiwar.com Autumn tour is shaping up. Here’s what we have scheduled so far:
OCTOBER 25, 7 p.m. The Michigan Campaign for Liberty and the University of Michigan College Libertarians will host "War Without End: The Shame of the American Left." This free event will be held in the Michigan League Ballroom (911 N. University) at the Central Campus in Ann Arbor. You can also join the hosts and Raimondo at the sponsors’ dinner by purchasing tickets here.
OCTOBER 26, 5:30 p.m. California Lutheran University (Lundring Events Center, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks, CA 91360) with Reason magazine’s Brian Doherty. Hosted by the Steven and Susan Woskow Trust and co-sponsored by Students for Liberty, the World Can’t Wait, Ventura County Libertarian Party, and the Center for Equality & Justice. Free admission.
NOVEMBER 10, 6:30 p.m. Western Connecticut State University (Westside Classroom Building, WS Room 218, 43 Lake Avenue Ext., Danbury, CT 06811). Hosted by the Ridgefield Liberty Co-op. $1,000 prize essay contest encourages students to submit a thoughtful essay after the talk. Free admission.
NOVEMBER 18, 7:30 p.m. University of California at Berkeley (20 Barrows Hall, Barrow Lane and Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94704). Hosted by Students for Liberty. Free admission.
Interested in booking me for an event? E-mail email@example.com to coordinate.
By the way, I’m still blogging on a daily basis over at The Hill, Washington’s newspaper of record: go on over and check it out.
I’m also still writing for Chronicles magazine, but you’ll have to subscribe to get my monthly column, where I say all sorts of politically incorrect stuff. Luckily for me, I don’t work for NPR.