Juan Williams, Human Nature, and Islam

What a mess. NPR chief Vivian Schiller has now apologized for the way she fired Juan Williams -- but not for the act itself. She says that it wasn't his comments about getting nervous over Muslim airline passengers that got him fired -- at least not those comments alone. She apologizes for having either not done it earlier or later, and for the abrupt plug-pulling the she performed after Williams made his remarks on Fox.

Okay, that really clears things up. No doubt Palin and Huckabee will now withdraw their calls for the defunding of NPR.

Sigh... Among the many lessons to be drawn from NPR's dismissal of Juan Williams are these: Schiller is human, Williams is human, we are human, and most importantly, there is no bottom to the barrel of right-wing slime. Propagandists on the right just keep scraping deeper and deeper for the muck that passes for meaning.

Never mind the sheer hypocrisy of their sudden outrage on behalf of Williams compared with their jeers for Helen Thomas. She made the mistake of directing her intemperate and offensive remarks at Jews rather than Muslims. (Even as the Williams melodrama unfolded, the Weekly Standard went out of its way to smear her just last week with a "story" about how an al-Qaeda publication complains of Thomas's firing and supports terrorist attacks. In the same issue! Complete the syllogism yourself.)

Leave aside the inapt comparison of Juan's confession of fear of airplane passengers in Muslim garb and Rev. Jesse Jackson's remark about fearing robbery until he saw that his follower was white.

I'll come back to the psychology underlying these admissions. For the moment, suffice it to note that Schiller is a professional CEO who should know when and how to dismiss an employee. Williams is a professional journalist who should know he crossed a line. However loose the job description of a "news analyst" professional journalists do not broadcast personal fears or resentments of whole classes of people. But feelings get in the way. We're human.

What is inhuman in all of this is not the actions of the principals, but the reaction of the propagandists. There is a gross amorality in the Right's misappropriation language to describe a spat between two high-paid media heavyweights. Try this bit from Andrew Breitbart's "Big Journalism" site for tasteless rhetoric:

What NPR did in terminating Juan Williams was a high profile act of journalistic terrorism. It was a professional beheading with the goal of instilling fear so that other lesser reporters and journalists who might dare associate on Fox News will now think twice. ...NPR's taking offense at Williams's Muslim comment is nothing other than a veil, a burqa, if you will, to cover the real reason underneath his termination. So who's really behind the ... Sharia stoning of Juan Williams?

Only someone with no sympathy at all for the actual victims of beheading could blithely hijack terms for genuine atrocities and apply them to something as comparatively trivial as this. How would Daniel Pearl's children feel reading such heartless lines?

Of course, the underlying issues are not trivial at all -- Williams, who is not after all a bigot, blundered into the right's propaganda campaign to scare America into a blind fear of Islam. This is where human nature comes into focus.

We are born with emotions that evolved over millions of years to help us make snap judgments when survival is at stake. If a snake comes slithering into your house, you do not perform a careful analysis to determine how much of a threat it represents, whether, on balance, its survival as a rat-catcher may be a benefit to you, and so on -- you either flee or grab an ax and start swinging. Such visceral reactions don't make for sound judgments in a complex society, however.

Propagandists work hard to trigger the same kind of reactions in us toward "the enemy." Evidently, it is working so well that even a seasoned journalist like Williams, who made his bones writing about the civil rights movement, can say something like this: "When I get on a plane ... if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried, I get nervous."

This is an understandable yet deeply irrational reaction. It would make about as much sense for me to say that when I see a Christian with a big cross around his neck I get nervous. After all, wasn't George Tiller's murderer a Christian?

But Juan Williams is not alone. We all harbor xenophobic instincts. We're human.

It's not the feelings that makes a bigot. It's how we think about and act upon -- or against -- those feelings that counts. As he made his apparently impromptu remarks, some part of Juan's brain must have sounded a warning. That rational part struggled with the emotions, but could only manage to get out a feeble warning. He repeated it in a written defense of his actions: "This is not a bigoted statement. It is a statement of my feelings, my fears after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by radical Muslims."

Statements aren't bigoted. People are ... or are not. Bigotry is instinctive. Evolution screams, when in doubt, overgeneralize. It's true that Islam has shown a capacity for turning out suicidal killers and appalling atrocities. But it's not true that this is the aim of Islam itself or the aspiration of most Muslims. You can argue about whether the totalistic ideology of Islam renders it capable of adaptation to modern Western values. To me, it's plain that individual Muslims can, and that's what counts.

But here's a larger truth. If even normally thoughtful, humane people like Juan Williams start letting their emotions break down the distinction between the 99.9 percent of Muslims who are peace-loving, decent people and the 0.1 percent of Muslims who are merciless killers, we are in for apocalypse now. And who would be for that? You'd be surprised.

It is strange and nearly incomprehensible, but the propagandists of the right seem to want the same thing that al-Qaeda wants: a global war between the Judeo-Christian West and the Muslim Rest. Perhaps they think God is on their side. Al-Qaeda certainly does. History suggests they are both wrong.