I’ve always liked Juan Williams. I used to listen to him on NPR, long before I knew he was also a news analyst on Fox News. He always seemed like a rational, fair-minded, and intelligent person. Awhile back he was on Fox, and – in the context of reminding everyone that we’re a country of religious freedom and not all Muslims are terrorists – he confessed that he feels a flash of fear when he sees Muslims in traditional gear in the airport. All h*ll broke out after that. Ignoring everything else he said in that segment, the horrified voices screamed out, “How dare he say something like that???? What a bigot!” The upshot is that NPR fired him, and Fox News increased his contract to make up for his lost pay.
This episode in his life motivated him to write his newest book, “Muzzled: The assault on honest debate”. The main theme of the book is that our country and our constitution were created by honest, and often strongly voiced, discussions about issues – yet today we tend to only share our opinions with those of like mind to avoid negative consequences. His book illustrates how we have ALL been muzzled by the current polarized climate – by the media, by the politicians, by people in our personal lives. If we try to speak out, to be honest about our thoughts or feelings, we get an extreme, reactionary response, just as Juan did. As a result, most of us keep silent, which leaves only those extreme, polarized voices in the public sphere. As a result, we’re not having the important, productive discussions we need to have as a society. Here’s a good video of Juan discussing this polarizing trend and its muzzling effect.
Here are some excerpts from Juan’s book Muzzled:
As a black child during the height of the civil rights movement, Republicans seemed to me to be a bunch of Archie Bunkers… This all led me to believe the right wing had a monopoly on cruelty, intolerance, and ideological rigidity. Now, at fifty-five, it was painfully clear to me that the left wing, represented by NPR and liberal lobbying groups, had become likewise intolerant of people who did not agree with them…. They do not believe in tolerance. They do not care about open-minded debate. They care first and foremost about liberal orthodoxy. (pp. 26-27)
We need to protect a free-flowing, respectful national conversation in our country. Today, such honest debate about the issues becomes collateral damage in an undeclared war by those who make accusations of racism and bigotry whenever their political positions are challenged. (p. 27)
Of course, condoning political polarization goes well beyond just NPR. One-party dominance and one-sided thinking have become the rule rather than the exception in much of the media. We are creating a culture in the newsroom where facts, context, and insight take a backseat to fear of complaints of insensitivity, accusations of racism, and all sorts of phony charges of bigotry. On the left, the politically correct police are increasingly out in force. (p. 28)
I want to look more deeply at the problems of censorship and political correctness in our society and show how they are undermining our ability to have meaningful discussions about important issues. I cast a critical eye toward the role of money and institutions, and the changing nature of the media, in our society…. If people won’t tell one another what they think, we run the risk that bad ideas will never be refuted and many good ideas will never be expressed. When our biggest concern is not whether are words are true, but whether our words will result in punishment, then we are giving away our most precious freedom. (pp. 30-31)
While the Left mostly uses PC (political correctness) on minority identity issues like race and ethnicity, the Right uses it on issues of piety and patriotism. (p. 51)
At its core, political correctness relies on tribalism, an “us versus them” mentality. It is about cultivating identity groups and placing people into convenient boxes where they think and act and speak in predictable ways. (p. 53)
The big changes in twentieth-century America… have been about social movements… They have left much of the nation, including women and minorities, with an identity crisis, a new hunger for some scrap of common identity, and heightened competition for influence over the country’s future as we Americans safeguard identities, both for individuals and for groups. We are all adopting the vocabulary of the aggrieved, and it comes at the expense of some notion that we all share a common cause. (pp. 54-55)
If the intent of PC was to encourage a culture in which people in power had to be careful of the sensitivities of others, the reality of it was that it inhibited frank conversations…. As a result, the most important conversations, in which people try to understand one another and solve problems, became more trouble than they were worth. (p. 55)
Separate realities, with Democrats consuming liberal media and conservatives responding to rightwing media, meant stories that attracted headlines on one side of the political divide got no mention on the other. (p. 81)
He has some really great insights, doesn’t he? It’s almost as if he’s a PUMA who went through the horrors of the 2008 primary season and came out a much wiser person, now able to step outside their party and observe and recognize the machinations of party politics more objectively. Juan can see good and bad in both parties. And he is aware that the parties manipulate us (in the book he illustrates this with discussions of 9/11, abortion, immigration, among others).
However, I don’t actually think Juan became aware of these realities with the same rather sudden, world-view changing epiphany that most of us experienced. I suspect he’s known for awhile, and indeed had been experiencing the muzzling effect trying to juggle being on both NPR and Fox News. NPR’s reactionary decision to fire him, though, was certainly sudden and I’m sure unexpected, and it triggered him to spill the beans with this book.
I have to tell you, I think this is a really good book. BUT. Although Juan has always fought people muzzling him, and has a renewed conviction to continue doing so, I think he’s still muzzled. He reveals a lot of political truths in his book, but only a few times does he illustrate how Obama exemplified some of those negative behaviors. And never does he mention anything about Obama and company’s race baiting. And as I’m sure you can guess, he doesn’t mention caucus cheating or delegate stealing.
Juan is a good political analyst, one who calls it as he sees it, one who has been called an Uncle Tom for being himself and not being “the way a black man is supposed to be” — I don’t believe for a second he didn’t notice what was going on. But I don’t think some higher authority is muzzling him. I think he is muzzling himself. So while I think this book has the capacity to move our country forward in political understanding, I have to admit to disappointment. I don’t think Juan has become quite as freed from his proscribed partisan and racial identities as he thinks he has. He hasn’t quite caught up to US!