Juan Williams

Again, I’m kind of late getting my arms around this story, but I think its a very interesting microcosm of many things that I constantly bring up on this blog.

Here’s the deal: Juan Williams, a political commentator, was on the O’Reilly Factor where he said these words. He was fired soon afterwards from NPR.

I don’t think his words come anywhere close to being a firing offense and I’m not even sure they are even that offensive (depends if you think he was just confessing an unavoidable prejudice or affirming the value of stereotyping). Overall, I think Williams comes off in this video as being a honest commentator saying what’s on his mind. I’ve seen him before and have found him to be considerate and controlled in his argumentation. Basically, everything a nation trying to sort out its political discourse could appreciate.

Still he was fired at the drop of a hat and even E.J. Dionne, someone who I think is EXTREMELY liberal (for the mainstream media anyway), thought this was too quick.

The weird thing is that you get all these bizarre comments from the liberal blogosphere sniping at Williams but all the while knowing and acknowledging that he didn’t do anything wrong. Take this post from Matt Yglesias (or this one from garbage.com, I mean, salon.com).

I didn’t call Williams “average.” Obviously being average can’t be a firing offense. I accused him of “general lameness and lack of valuable contribution to their programming” and on Twitter accused him of offering “replacement-level political commentary.” The latter was intended as a reference to baseball’s VORP concept and means that Williams is well below average.

Which is just to say that I don’t think I’ve dodged anything. Like Jon Chait I don’t like the idea of hair-trigger firings of people who step in it while making on-the-fly comments. At the same time, I’m against non-interesting non-insightful political commentary. And I’m very much against the idea, all-too-prevalent today, that certain kinds of punditry perches should be treated like tenured professorships from which people can only be let go for some kind of egregious misconduct. So while I wish this series of events hadn’t gone down in this way, I can hardly say I’ll miss Williams once he’s gone from NPR.

I have respect for Yglesias, but this comment really bothered me. First of all, he says he’s not dodging, but then he goes ahead and does exactly that, replacing a discussion of the political correctness issue with some unsupported gripes about Williams. I don’t like to get into name-calling, but I will say that the tone here comes off as very arrogant to me. Yglesias admits that he doesn’t like “hair trigger firings” but then goes on to say that he IS against “non-interesting, non-insightful” political commentary. Yglesias has never said complained about Williams before, and he follows his baseless remarks with talk about tenured commentator positions, but I don’t know what this even has to do with anything. Does he think Williams is sleeping with the editor of NPR to keep his job? I mean, he’s got a job and he’s kept it.

The other piece I cited above is, in a sense, even sillier, because it derides Williams for trying to be a moderate conservative who will listen to liberal ideas. HUH!? Why is that a bad thing?

The real lesson here I think is what I’ve said before, the culture of civility is not obeyed even by those who so adamantly and superciliously monitor the public discourse for civility. Notice this is not a reason to stop such policing. I think even hypocrites perform a valuable service when they call people out for inaccurate or offensive comments (and Yglesias has done this before, so good for him on that), but the lesson of this little mishap is that everyone, liberal and conservatives love conflict and hate reconciliation. This sort of thing angers conservatives (rightly) and does nothing to advance any idea. This is destructive discourse for the sake of slaking our basest political impulses.

It seems that the obvious thing for everyone to do would be to say simply “I disagree with Williams and/or his views in general, but he was fired mistakenly.” End of story. Instead, a lot of liberal commentators, rather than nobly acknowledging that political correctness has gone too far (in this case) take this as an opportunity to cut down what seems to be just an average pundit trying to make a living. No one gains.


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