A Shattered Cultural Taboo


Left-wing political commentator Juan Williams was fired from his post at National Public Radio Wednesday night for a remark he made which was perceived by many to be insolent and politically incorrect. During an appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Monday, Williams, O’Reilly, and Mary Katherine Ham debated about the dubbed “The War against Islam.”

“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,” Williams said. “But when I get on a plane, I gotta tell you, 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.”

That last sentence, unmistakably, was what cost Williams his job. His remarks “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices,” NPR wrote in a memo that explained the firing. From one point of view, several left-wingers expressed outrage at Williams. From another, conservatives like Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin called for NPR’s funding to be cut as a result of Williams’ termination.

But were Williams’ remarks also inconsistent with American mainstream standards and practices? Did he cross a red line that few daring Americans cross? Did he set himself apart from the fray–admitting a type of innate racial skepticism and distrust that is unique to his own conscience? I think not.

Williams’ inborn action of profiling that is now being tossed around in a very public arena is the same action that happens in the minds and souls of Americans every day. This basic xenophobia doesn’t only take form in airports (for people of Arab descent), it also seeps through in legislative and cultural trends. The Arizona immigration law, while it has nothing to do with Islam or the Middle East, exemplifies a quintessential American concept: we are afraid of the unfamiliar.

Juan Williams got fired for violating a supposed cultural taboo. But the cultural taboo is only a facade. Racial profiling is like gossip–society claims to frown upon it, yet everyone does it.

Sure, America is still the “city on a hill,” and in many respects a beacon of light to the rest of the world. But this exclusionist notion of categorical American supremacy needs to end. We use racial and ethnic profiling as a subconscious exertion of our ultranationalism.

And if racial profiling is a passive action, there’s a coherent method of combatting it: a commanding awareness of our actions.

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2 thoughts on “A Shattered Cultural Taboo

  1. Nice post.

    Williams’s firing has mostly to do with his having two jobs, at institutions with very different cultures.

    This isn’t about right or left. It’s about standards. On Fox, Williams was a pundit. On NPR, he was supposed to be balanced, and was supposed to answer to a code of journalistic ethics. NPR plays by the rules of journalism. Fox plays by no rules, except the 21st century rules of dividing, denigrating, and shouting. Williams can keep doing that at Fox. But having crossed that line, he doesn’t belong at NPR anymore.

  2. Firstly, @LALive: While it is true that NPR and Fox play by different rules, FOX is about more than “dividing, denigrating, and shouting.” While I admit that this is true of its analysis programs, that is not true of its journalism. Liberal pundits do the same; please accept that. The following is a quote from Bill O’Reilly: “Here in the USA, we are lucky. The vast majority of American Muslims are good citizens and deplore the extreme actions in the Muslim world. But they know that there is a clash of civilizations in play…The cold truth is that in the world today, jihad, aided and abetted by some Muslim nations, is the biggest threat on the planet. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, Israel and other countries are in grave danger….There is a dangerous problem in the Muslim world, and once again I call for all peace-loving Muslims to join the United States and other conscientious nations to fight the jihadists, to defeat radical Islam.” That all sounds very reasonable to me.

    To the article: The different rules are the rules of a pundit and a reporter. It’s not that only reporters are supposed to be balanced (really, it should be expected of both) but that a journalist is not supposed to express an opinion, period. While I think that because the context was different (Williams was in a talk show as a guest, not reporting while representing NPR) he had every right to express that opinion, it was also taken out of context. It was used to set up a statement about how he should NOT have those feelings and that they are wrong. NPR had longed disliked Williams for also having a job at FOX and this seems to have been opportunism.

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