In October 2001, I had to fly up to Toronto for a deposition. I sat next to a middle-aged gentlemen with dark skin wearing what appeared to me to be traditional Sikh garb. The other passengers were staring at him, watching him the way you'd watch Michael Jackson if he showed up at your eight-year-old's swim party. The poor bastard looked utterly miserable. I tried to engage him in conversation, to make him feel more comfortable, but he had limited English and was clearly not at ease speaking with me. So I just sat. I knew, intellectually, that (1) his dress marked him as a Sikh and not a Muslim, and (2) that it was irrational and destructive of the values I cared about to assume the worst about him even if he were a Muslim.
But I'd be a liar if I said that some part of my lizard brain didn't think he looks different, he is the Other, he may be one of Them, you may be in danger. That's the lizard brain that's the target of commercials (this beer will make me sexually attractive!) and most modern political rhetoric.
I didn't voice what my lizard brain thought. This week political commentator Juan Williams did. And National Public Radio fired him for it.
Williams went on Bill O'Reilly's show to talk about O'Reilly's recent all-around horror show of an appearance on The View, which culminated in O'Reilly saying "Muslims killed us on 9/11" and Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar storming off the stage, possibly because it's their job to say extremely stupid things on The View. Now, I know that Bill O'Reilly is a pompous looftah-fondling gasbag, and the View is the most convincing rebuttal to the concept of gender equality ever televised (where else can you find a show where the hosts say that drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl is not "rape-rape", that it's not clear if the earth is flat, and that there were no humans before Christianity?). So it would be silly to expect this was going to be My Dinner With Andre. But it was still ugly.
Anyway, Williams went on O'Reilly's show to discuss what happened and O'Reilly's views on Muslims in America. In deciding to fire Williams, NPR apparently focused on one comment:
"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 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."
(As an aside, allow me to point out that nobody ever said the phrase "I'm not a bigot, but . . ." and followed it with anything flattering.)
Taken out of context, you could read that as a statement of prejudice against Muslims. But context matters. The full exchange — which you can find, among other places, here — suggests that Williams was merely confessing what he felt in his lizard brain — and even voicing regret about it. In the rest of the exchange, he criticized O'Reilly and repeatedly made the point that all Muslims should not be tarred with the brush of extremists. In fact, he even implied that rhetoric like O'Reilly's encourages violence against innocents. Consider the parts that William Saletan at Slate emphasized:
A few seconds later, Williams challenges O'Reilly's suggestion that "the Muslims attacked us on 9/11." Williams points out how wrong it would be to generalize similarly about Christians:
"Hold on, because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals—very obnoxious—you don't say first and foremost, "We got a problem with Christians." That's crazy."
Williams reminds O'Reilly that "there are good Muslims." A short while later, O'Reilly asks: "Juan, who is posing a problem in Germany? Is it the Muslims who have come there, or the Germans?" Williams refuses to play the group blame game. "See, you did it again," he tells O'Reilly. "It's extremists."
Williams warns O'Reilly that televised statements about Muslims as a group can foment bigotry and violence. "The other day in New York, some guy cuts a Muslim cabby's neck," Williams reminds him. "Or you think about the protest at the mosque near Ground Zero … We don't want, in America, people to have their rights violated, to be attacked on the street because they heard rhetoric from Bill O'Reilly."
In that context, it's clear that Williams' confession about how he feels on a plane is not a boast, any more than Jesse Jackson was voicing a feeling he was happy about when he infamously suggested he was afraid upon encountering young black men on the street. Saletan argues that what NPR did is analogous to what the White House did to Shirley Sherrod — it reacted to an out-of-context clip, maliciously and deceptively circulated by ideologues, to fire someone without thinking about all of the facts. As my title suggests, I agree.
Let's be clear: this is not a First Amendment issue. Despite getting about 16% of its funding from various public sources, NPR is not a state actor. It can fire people for unpopular views, just as I can ban any commenter who annoys me. (Actually, that's Patrick's role, but you get my drift.) NPR answers to its customers for doing such things, not to the Constitution.
I'm an NPR customer. I'm appalled. Look — I don't agree with many of Williams' views, but in that full interview with O'Reilly, he was acting like the voice of reason. However much that out-of-context quote sounded Glenn Beck style tones, it's clear from context that he was regretfully confessing the lizard-brain reaction many people have — both because of actual events (like extremists Muslims killing innocents) and because of relentless, and increasingly successful, wall-to-wall propaganda that strives to convince us that it's perfectly acceptable to view an entire religion of 1.5 billion people as inherently dangerous and suspect. For God's sake, we live in a country where the Department of Justice has to file a brief saying that yes, Islam is actually a religion. In modern America, Williams' explicit rejection of calls to collective responsibility is effectively significantly left-of-center on this issue.
The lizard brain has its uses. The lizard brain has occasional insights. But what separates us from the lizards is our ability to question whether the thoughts that bubble up from our lizard brains are supported by facts, and reason, and principle. Whether we exercise that ability is another matter. The culture increasingly celebrates defiant ignorance, unapologetic emotionalism, and capitulation to fear. We need not follow.
NPR has its head up its ass. NPR used its lizard brain. It's going to lose a lot of money, and support, over this. It ought to.
As long as we're discussing reactions to seeing Muslims traveling by air, let me tell a story of my son's lizard brain. When he was about 7, we were at the international terminal at LAX. We saw a group of (I assume) Muslim women in full black burkas nearby. Evan stood transfixed looking at them. "DADDY!" he said. "Look! NINJAS!!"
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