"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
On Monday, I documented the glaring double standard in our political discourse generally and in the world of journalism specifically, whereby anti-Muslim bigotry is widely tolerated, while those perceived as expressing similar (or even more mild) animus toward other groups are harshly punished (see, for instance, Octavia Nasr, Helen Thomas, Rick Sanchez). That double standard suffered a very welcome blow last night, when NPR announced it was firing its long-time correspondent, Juan Williams, due to blatantly bigoted anti-Muslim remarks Williams made on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News program.
O’Reilly had created controversy last week when he went on The View and blamed 9/11 on “Muslims,” and Fox’s morning host, Brian Kilmeade, then exacerbated that ugliness when he falsely claimed, as part of his defense of O’Reilly: ”not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.” On Tuesday night, Williams went on O’Reilly’s program to perform his standard, long-time function on Fox — offering himself up as the supposed “liberal” defending Fox News commentators (and other right-wing extremists) from charges of bigotry and otherwise giving cover to incendiary right-wing attacks — and said this to O’Reilly (the video is below):
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.
Now, I remember also when the Times Square bomber was at court — this was just last week — he said: “the war with Muslims, America’s war is just beginning, first drop of blood.” I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts.
As Andrew Sullivan wrote about Williams’ attempts to preface his bigoted remarks by declaring himself not to be a bigot: ”No, Juan, what you just described is the working definition of bigotry . . .What percentage of traditionally garbed Muslims — I assume wearing a covered veil or some other indicator and being of darker skin — have committed acts of terror? . . . The literal defense of anti-Muslim bigotry on Fox is becoming endemic. It’s disgusting.”
Williams’ trite attempt to glorify his bigotry as anti-P.C. Speaking of the Truth is inane, as his remarks were suffused with falsehoods, not facts: as Sullivan points out, the minute percentage of Muslims who have committed acts of terror against the U.S. — including those on 9/11 — were not wearing ”Muslim garb.” Moreover, the very idea that those who wear “Muslim garb” are necessarily “identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims” is itself noxious: does anyone who wears religious attire (a yarmulke or crucifix or Sikh turban) identify themselves “first and foremost” by their religion as opposed to, say, their nationality or individuality or any number of other attributes? The bottom line here is that equating Muslims with Terrorism — which is exactly what Williams did — is definitively bigoted (not to mention demonstrably false).
NPR announced its firing of Williams last night in a statement, saying his remarks “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.” NPR has been seemingly uncomfortable for some time with Williams’ role on Fox, as they instructed him last year to stop using NPR’s name when he is identified during his Fox News appearances. Whether these latest comments were merely the opportunity they were looking for to terminate their relationship with him, or whether it was caused solely by these disgusting comments, is unclear. But what is clear is that the anti-Muslim bigotry he spewed is both the proximate and cited cause.
I’m not someone who believes that journalists should lose their jobs over controversial remarks, especially isolated, one-time comments. But if that’s going to be the prevailing standard, then I want to see it applied equally. Those who cheered on the firing of Octavia Nasr, Helen Thomas and Rick Sanchez — and that will include many, probably most, of the right-wing polemicists predictably rushing to transform Juan Williams into some sort of free speech martyr sacrificed on the altar of sharia censorship — have no ground for complaining here. Those who endorse speech-based punishments invariably end up watching as the list of Prohibited Ideas expands far beyond the initial or desired scope, often subsuming their own beliefs. That’s a good reason to oppose all forms of speech-based punishment in the first place. There’s obviously a fundamental difference between (a) being punished by the state for expressing Prohibited Ideas (which is isn’t what happened here) and (b) losing a job for doing so, but the dynamic is similar: those who endorse this framework almost always lose control over how it is applied. And that’s how it should be.
The Nasr/Thomas/Sanchez incidents — and countless others — demonstrate how unequal and imbalanced our standards have become in determining which group-based comments are acceptable and which ones are not. If we’re going to fire or otherwise punish people for expressing Prohibited Ideas against various groups, it’s long overdue that those standards be applied equally to anti-Muslim animus, now easily one of the most — if not the single most — pervasive, tolerated and dangerous forms of blatant bigotry in America.
UPDATE: For those objecting to Williams’ firing as some sort of oppressive act of PC censorship: in addition to wanting to know whether you also objected to CNN’s firing of Nasr and Sanchez, and to Thomas’ forced “retirement,” I’d also like to know what you did to protest CNN’s firing of executive Eason Jordan in 2004 for observing — correctly — that the U.S. military had repeatedly attacked war journalists; and CNN’s 2003 firing of Peter Arnett for criticizing the Iraq War; and MSNBC’s demotion and firing of Ashleigh Banfield after criticizing media coverage of American wars, or the same network’s firing of Phil Donahue for being too anti-war; or, for that matter, the University of Colorado’s dismissal of Ward Churchill for arguing that the World Trade Center was a legitimate target to retaliate against American foreign policy. If you only object to speech-based firings when you agree with the ideas being expressed, then you don’t actually believe in the principles you claim to support.
UPDATE II: Slate‘s William Saletan and others claim that Think Progress deceitfully edited the video of Williams’ comments here in the same way that Shirley Sherrod’s comments were taken out of context, and that the full context of his remarks makes clear that he said nothing bigoted. Please. The full video is here.
Williams began by telling O’Reilly that he was “right” in his view on Muslims. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with candidly admitting that he gets nervous when he sees Muslims on airplanes — even though those feelings reflect some highly distorted thoughts — as we all have irrational reactions to various situations. But Williams was not condemning his own reaction; to the contrary, he went on to justify it by saying that people who wear “Muslim garb” are “identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims,” and that “the war with Muslims” (quoting Faisal Shahzad) is one of those “facts we can’t get away from.” All of those comments were prefaced with the standard defense of bigotry: “political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality.” What “reality” are we supposedly all afraid to address? The full context makes clear that he is not only agreeing with O’Reilly’s perspective on Muslims and Terrorism, but defending the linkage between the two.
It’s true that Williams went on to say that not all Muslims are extremists and that Terrorism shouldn’t be attributed to Muslims generally (just as Timothy McVeigh and Fred Phelps’ actions shouldn’t be attributed to Christianity). If one wants to argue that Think Progress should have included that portion of the video, that’s reasonable. But it’s very common for someone making bigoted remarks about, say, African-Americans to stress afterward that “there are some good ones,” that “they’re not all bad,” etc. Those after-the-fact caveats don’t mitigate the original statements.
I want to emphasize again: I am not arguing that Williams should have been fired for these comments; indeed, I said the opposite: ”I’m not someone who believes that journalists should lose their jobs over controversial remarks, especially isolated, one-time comments.” The point is that if journalists are going to be fired for making remarks like this, then that standard ought to be applied equally, not in service of protecting certain groups while tolerating bigotry against others. Williams’ comments — in full context — are easily worse than Octavia Nasr’s (and worse than other journalists identified above who have also been fired), and are in the same general league as Sanchez’s and Thomas’. There’s no consistent way to vehemently protest Juan Williams’ firing while not doing the same for these others.
UPDATE III: There are two lines of contrary argument from the comment section and elsewhere I want to address. The first is the assertion that — in light of my general opposition to the firing of journalists for controversial comments — it’s wrong of me to welcome Williams’ firing as a corrective to the double standard I’ve documented (whereby anti-Muslim comments are far more tolerated than other types). I find this objection perplexing. Permit me to illustrate why by analogy.
Suppose there is a law that you vehemently dislike and find unjust: assume you feel that way about laws which criminalize drug usage. Further suppose that these drug laws are only being enforced against one group in the society (say, African-Americans), but not against anybody else. Obviously, your first preference is that these drug laws be repealed in their entirety, but if that’s not possible, wouldn’t you demand equal application of this law to everyone, rather than having it applied only to African-Americans? If you do demand equal application — and I would hope most people would — then you’re arguing for increased enforcement of a law that you think is unjust. But that makes sense because the only thing worse than a bad standard is a bad standard that is applied unequally and discriminatorily. That’s how I feel about speech-based journalism firings: I’m against them, but if we’re going to have them (and we do), I’d strongly prefer equal application over unfair application (especially since equal application, by threatening everyone rather than only a minority, is most likely to end the practice).
The second line of argument is the claim — which is completely false — that Williams was actually doing something commendable here by candidly acknowledging his fears in order to explain why they are illegitimate and irrational. That is simply not what he was doing. As I explained in the prior update, the full context of what he said was to justify those irrational reactions as anti-P.C. truth-telling. See Atrios and Adam Serwer in The Washington Post for more on this point. Serwer: ”The problem is that it’s clear from the context that Williams wasn’t merely confessing his own personal fears, he was reassuring O’Reilly that he was right to see all Muslims as potential terrorists.” Precisely.
UPDATE IV: This is important: for those claiming that Juan Williams bravely talked about his fears of Muslims only in order to repudiate those fears, or that his remarks were taken out of context, not even Williams himself claims that. To the contrary: in a statement he released today, he re-affirmed his original comments as NPR understood them, citing 9/11 and the Times Square bomber’s comments as justification for viewing Muslims and Terrorism as connected. There’s no point in raising excuses for Williams which he himself does not even raise and which, in fact, he negates with his own statement. (And Williams was promptly rewarded today by Roger Ailes with a new $2 million contract to expand his role on Fox; anti-Muslim animus pays).
On the issue of the double standard: when Helen Thomas was ”retired,” Howard Kurtz wrote a Washington Post column citing one neocon after the next insisting that her comments disqualified her from working as a journalist any longer; today, however, the same Howard Kurtz predictably argues that Williams should not have been fired by NPR (but, he insists, Rick Sanchez should have been fired by CNN). Similarly, as Emma Mustich notes in Salon, Mike Huckabee today “slammed NPR for discrediting ‘itself as a forum for free speech’ and solidifying ‘itself itself as the purveyor of politically correct pabulum’,” but the very same Mike Huckabee was one of the ring-leaders forcing Helen Thomas to resign.
Finally, and most important: Simon Owens brilliantly demonstrates how various right-wing commentators wrapping themselves today in the self-victimizing flag of “free expression” in order to protest what was done to Juan Williams, were making the exact opposite claims when CNN fired Octavia Nasr and they were cheering it on, and they did the same in other instances where they disliked the ideas that were being punished.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)