October 28, 2010
When you make a pact with the devil, the devil always wins.
The Faust of the moment is Juan Williams, the political commentator who was fired from National Public Radio last week for a remark he made at his other job as the left-wing provocateur on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor. It was a remark that was unexpectedly candid — even to him, I think — and that could have led to fruitful dialogue. Unfortunately for all of us, he made it on Fox News, dialogue's desert.
In a segment entitled, "Danger from the Muslim World," host Bill O'Reilly leadingly asked Williams, "Where am I going wrong there, Juan?" "I think you're right," he replied. "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." Digging himself deeper, he continued, "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." Uncharacteristically, O'Reilly did not interrupt. He didn't have to: Why hang somebody who's hanging himself? Surprised, it seemed, at his own words, Williams quickly pivoted, taking O'Reilly to task for identifying all Muslims as potential terrorists.
In a reasonable venue, where participants talk with each other instead of at each other — NPR and PBS, for example — Williams might have retained the composure to soberly reflect on what he'd said. But in a format that abhors reflection and values only the juicy bite, that was impossible.
Days later, on ABC's Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos perceptively prodded Williams: "Should you have gone the extra step and said, ‘Listen, they're irrational, these are feelings I fight'?" "Yeah, I could have done that," Williams replied. Reiterating his comment about airports and Muslim clothing, he added, "in the aftermath of 9/11, I am taken aback. I have a moment of fear and it is visceral, it's a feeling .... So to me, it was admitting that I have this notion, this feeling in the immediate moment."
Speaking for myself, I have similar feelings, even though I live in a neighborhood populated by West African Muslims and see the "garb" on the streets every day. I think many, if not most, non-Muslim Americans have these feelings too. They are part of our ongoing 9/11 post-traumatic stress disorder; any little reminder of that disaster triggers them. As Williams himself admitted, these feelings are irrational. It is our collective national principles of justice and civil liberties grounded in the Constitution that have thus far spared us from total surrender to them, yet they have influenced much of our national reaction, from the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq to the uproar over the "Ground Zero mosque."
It is the irrational, the visceral, the incendiary that governs the panoply of programs on outlets such as Fox News. Williams may have taken that job at Fox with the best intentions, thinking he could inject some reason into the unreasonable. But he ended up leading a double life, sacrificing his integrity as a seasoned, insightful commentator to play O'Reilly's "liberal foil," as a New York Times story described him.
Sucked into the vortex of the visceral, few could escape. Though NPR's decision to sack him was inevitable — long before the present incident, his format-fed flippancy on O'Reilly"undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR," in the words of its press release — the "feeling in the immediate moment" led first to NPR's CEO Vivian Schiller's passive- aggressive recommendation to "take it up with his psychiatrist or his publicist," and then to renewed attacks from the right against public broadcasting and calls to eliminate its federal funding — which, thanks to its enthusiastic listeners and like-minded foundations and corporations, comprises only two percent of NPR's budget.
Right now, Williams is sitting pretty, the unexpected darling of those he has spent most of his career opposing, sweetened all the more with a $2 million contract from Fox News.
But as with Faust, sooner or later the devil will have his due.