Posted by David A. Lehrer
Last week’s brouhaha over the firing of National Public Radio and Fox commentator Juan Williams has been a long-time coming. The reluctance of too many to accept honest talk about race relations and its complexity has often led to pious pronouncements that miss the mark—-how we act, not our inner thoughts and fears, is what matters.
According to Williams, he was called by NPR’s head of news and told that he had made a bigoted statement when he appeared on the Bill O’Reilly program and engaged in a colloquy, the initial part of which, has been quoted widely:
JUAN WILLIAMS, FOX NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, actually, I hate to say this to you because I don’t want to get your ego going. But I think you’re right. I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality.
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.
The rest of Williams’ comments make clear that he was admonishing Bill O’Reilly, his host, to be careful in his rhetoric, “But I’m saying, we don’t want in America, people to have their rights violated to be attacked on the street because they heard a rhetoric from Bill O’Reilly and they act crazy. We’ve got to say to people as Bill was saying tonight, that guy is a nut.”
Despite Williams’ unambiguous admonition to avoid stereotyping and bigotry, the hook on which the NPR honchos fired him was his candid admission that he gets nervous when he gets on a plane and sees passengers in Arab garb.
NPR’s executive decried his “bigotry” (their words) in admitting his anxiety and told him that, “there are people who were offended” by his comments. In a conversation with his boss that, as Williams described it, sounded a bit like a Cultural Revolution re-education session, he was admonished that he was in violation of NPR’s values not only for his editorial commentary but because he showed “no remorse” for his comments.
I have been in the civil rights field for over thirty five years and have learned something about bigotry and stereotyping. Indeed, for ten of those years I helped run a large scale anti-bigotry program for the ADL in Southern California whose main purpose was to train educators on how to teach tolerance and acceptance of differences (training well over 100,000 teachers locally).
To acknowledge that we perceive differences (unlike Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert who “doesn’t see color”) and that we may be put off or uncomfortable with what we see is, generally, simply being honest. Our natural/human inclination is to perceive “in-groups” (those like us) and “out groups.” To deny that reality is to live in a make believe world and run the risk of being piously and obnoxiously self righteous with those who are honest; a position in which NPR has now placed itself.
The only test that really matters is how we manage those natural inclinations. Do we have the cognitive tools to hold our visceral tendencies in check and treat people for who they are and not how they look or worship? How we end up acting, not thinking, is what matters. We all need to have little Jiminy Crickets on our shoulders reminding us what the right thing to do is—-we don’t need faux shrinks challenging our innermost anxieties and thoughts trying to analyze how genuine we are, even when we “do the right thing”.
Juan Williams is no more a bigot for having been honest about his thoughts than Jimmy Carter was an adulterer (Christine O’Donnell notwithstanding) for having admitted to “lusting” in his heart. Or Rev. Jesse Jackson is a bigot for admitting that when he walks down the street and hears footsteps and starts thinking about robbery, that he’s relieved when he looks around and sees somebody white. Their honesty was unusual and refreshing, as was Williams’.
Speaking openly about difficult issues involving race, religion and similar divisive issues is challenging—-it’s infinitely easier to invoke platitudes and purport to feel and sing kumbaya; punishing someone (as NPR has done) for daring to be honest about his thoughts, and only his thoughts, involving race or religion sets back honest dialogue and is deplorable.
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October 20, 2010 | 1:15 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
are hard to earn. Anyone who receives one is forever described as “Pulitzer Prize winner….” It’s a distinct and, almost always, well-deserved honor. It’s special to receive one, rare to receive two, and almost unheard of to receive three. Tom Friedman of The New York Times is one of the unheard of triple Pulitzer winners. His column in today’s Times,
Just Knock It Off
, demonstrates why.
It reflects his insight, historical view and courage. It is a wonderful piece displaying at the same time concern and sympathy for Israel and its challenges in the Middle East, while urging Prime Minister Netanyahu to show courage and defy his right wing cabinet members to pursue the chance of meaningful peace talks with Palestinian President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. Friedman writes, “Abbas is weak and acts weaker. Netanyahu is strong and acts weak. And it is time for all the outsiders who spoil them to find another hobby.
It’s a column that reflects Friedman’s long experience and immersion in Middle East politics and the complex realities of that region. It’s not the simplistic black and white portrayal of good guys and bad guys that too often passes for discussion of Israel-Palestinian relations.
His column and analysis is brave because he well knows the onslaught that will come from the reflexive hard, pro-Israel far right that will see the piece as further evidence of Friedman’s “duplicity and disloyalty.”
I recall all too well in the Fall of 1996 when I headed the ADL office in LA and we had invited Tom Friedman to be the keynote speaker at the League’s annual dinner dance. At that time Friedman had only won two Pulitzers but, of course, had his twice a week column in the Times. Nevertheless, the League, its national director and I were attacked, locally and nationally, by the Zionist Organization of America’s head, Mort Klein, for “providing a platform” to Friedman (as if someone who has a semi-weekly column on the op/ed page of The New York Times needed a “platform”).
Friedman was described by Klein as one “regularly defames Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” Friedman, the argument went, should be persona non grata at any organization that considered itself pro-Israel (the words of then Prime Minister Netanyahu’s director of communications, who also weighed in by attacking Friedman and the dinner invitation).
Needless to say, despite having fax machines and voice mail gummed up with ignorant and often hostile faxes and messages, the dinner went off splendidly with but a few protestors picketing the Century Plaza Hotel. Friedman was well aware of the kerfuffle and proceeded with his speech as if nothing untoward had happened; just the way he writes his pieces.
That was not the first, nor the last time that his analysis has been attacked and his bona fides questioned. Despite the occasional harassment, he “calls it as he sees it,” and more often than not, as today, he’s right on the money.
October 7, 2010 | 4:38 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
The news over the past few days offered distressing images of the harassment that the family of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was subjected to when they buried the young soldier in 2006. As most Americans know by now, the Phelps family of Topeka, Kansas and members of their fundamentalist church carried signs and called out epithets with the message that God is punishing America and its troops because of the country’s tolerance of homosexuality.
The signs included, “Thank God for IEDs” (improvised explosive devices) and other generalized protest signs plus “personal, targeted epithets directed at the Snyder family.” Additionally, the Phelps posted messages on their website that accuse the Marine’s father of having raised his son “to defy the creator” and “serve the devil.”
It’s hard to imagine many folks who aren’t disgusted by this behavior and the crass effort to exploit the grief of mourning parents to garner attention for the Phelps family’s hateful message. And yet, there are constitutional issues that impose serious hurdles to allowing monetary damages to the Snyder family for emotional distress they suffered. The trial court ruling that awarded them $11 million was overturned by the Court of Appeals on First Amendment grounds (hence the appeal to the Supreme Court).
The Los Angeles Times reported on yesterday’s Supreme Court debate and offered a brief glimpse into the marvel of our divided government and its unmatched system of a truly independent, respected and obeyed judiciary. The Times quoted from a dialogue between Justice Stephen Breyer and Margie Phelps—the daughter of the offending minister and also his counsel. Justice Breyer unabashedly stated that, “What I’m trying to accomplish is to allow this tort to exist [the Marine’s family right to sue for emotional distress], but not allow it to interfere with an important public message.”
The entire Court discussion is a fascinating example of our government at its very best—- civil, intellectual and honest debate of weighty issues with forthright give and take. The discussion is almost dramatic because of the obvious commitment of the justices to principles that constrain what they would “like to accomplish.”
The debate is a reminder of how complex issues of this type are and how vapid most of the political debate is that occurs (especially in an election year) around equally difficult issues in our society. Complex issues get reduced to slogans and simple black and white characterizations, the nuance and thoughtfulness that the Supreme Court argument demonstrated rarely appears in Congressional debates, to say nothing of the charades that pass for discussion on the local level.
I suspect this is not an infrequent occurrence at the Supreme Court, but I also imagine that the contrast between the visceral response of what most people would like to have happen and the constraints of the Constitution is rarely so stark. It is impressive to witness the justices’ anguish in grappling with their desire to do justice and their obligation to adhere to principles that may conflict with that intent.
It’s a striking reminder of the vitality and intellectual richness of the Supreme Court and the quality of its deliberations—-especially as contrasted with so much that passes for “discourse” in our political bodies.
Take a look at the record, it’s worth it.
October 5, 2010 | 3:31 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
Tens of thousands of people gathered this past weekend in Washington, D.C. under the banner of One Nation Working Together
with the avowed aim of “building a more united America—-with jobs, justice and education for all.” A benign goal with which very few could disagree.
The rally, addressed by the likes of Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, and a variety of leaders of organized labor and progressive organizations hammered home the message of “jobs, justice and education.”
The rally received widespread media coverage, most of it straight reportage of who was there, what they said, and when they said it. What most, but not all, of the coverage missed was the decision by the march sponsors to extend the approved list of endorsers to virtually any organization that simply said they agreed with the rally’s goals.
This “big tent” notion of collaboration sounds wonderful in theory but in the real world of politics and extremism doesn’t work and, in fact, can be dangerous.
A brief review of the some 400 organizations that are listed as “Endorsing Organizations” on theOne Nation Working Together
website reveals both the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition.
These two groups alone demonstrate the folly of the rally leaders’ decision.
The CPUSA and ANSWER are extremist organizations that have demonstrated again and again their warped agendas and their support for, and links to, dictators, repressive regimes and terrorist groups around the world. They are interested in “justice, jobs and education for all” when it suits their larger ideological aims; when that is no longer the case, those goals will be discarded and ignored in an instant.
“Justice” was neither the watchword in Communist regimes of the past century nor of Lebanon and Gaza where ANSWER’s friends (Hamas and Hezbollah) prevail.
The history of the twentieth century is littered with individuals and organizations which paid heavy prices for thinking they could make alliances with extremists and radicals who, seemingly, shared a bit of their agenda. If there is one clear lesson from the tragedies of the past century, it is that one can’t ally with extremists and radicals, because they don’t play by the same rules moderates do. They keep allies so long as they are useful and they exploit any hint of legitimacy for their own awful ends.
For NAACP head Benjamin Jealous (one of the rally’s key sponsors and spokesmen) to say about the event and its endorsers, “This is a big tent and anyone who wants to stand up to create jobs and defend the jobs of teachers, police officers, nurses, firefighters——I say come on and join us,” betrays either naiveté, his youth, or a hidden, unfortunate, agenda. He is quoted by The New York Times as saying, “That did not mean that the organizers agreed with all the policies of every group that endorsed the rally.”One sure would hope not!
In his desire to swell the ranks of demonstrators he, wittingly or unwittingly, aided the crazies. His group’s and the March’s accomplishments can and will accrue to the benefit of extremists who made the “Endorsing Organizations” list.
For decades, an understanding prevailed among mainstream American political leaders—- ostracize the extremists, no matter how tempting such alliances might be. The Republicans, after some flirtation, steered clear of the John Birch Society and the Democrats treated the Communists like the plague. Bigots were eschewed by both parties with regularity and consistency.
Now come some new rules as enunciated by the NAACP’s Jealous, “We welcome them because they endorse our views…even if we don’t endorse theirs.”
If these groups weren’t officially listed as “Endorsing Organizations” one could make the case that the March organizers had no obligation to go out of their way to distance themselves from crazy groups that want a free ride. But once the March officially sanctioned them, the game changed.
There are certain groups—-the CPUSA and the ANSWER Coalition (there may be others in the list of 400 “endorsers”) among them—- that are so vile, their lack of commitment to principle so apparent, their ideological dishonesty so manifest and their track record of wreckage so obvious that to not ostracize them is to commit a political sin.
How self righteous or effective can liberal critics be of right wing groups who fail to ostracize racists and militia-like folks? Even several Tea Party leaders have distanced themselves from racists and extremists who sought to join up; they could simply have answered their critics, in a mirror of Jealous, “We don’t endorse all their views, we just agree with them on less government and lower taxes.”
It shouldn’t work for them and it doesn’t work for the Saturday marchers!
Allowing extremists to acquire some legitimacy by associating with mainstream organizations—whether it’s the NAACP or organized labor or children’s’ advocacy groups—-is a tragic mistake. The Communists and ANSWER folks will exploit this moment and gain adherents by touting the fact that they “marched with and were part of” a demonstration featuring mainline groups with a storied history of accomplishments; they will simply assert “how bad could we be?”
Leaders of the left and the right in this country, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to William F. Buckley knew to stay away from the political edges—-some among us seem not to remember that valued tradition.