14 September 2011

American Diogenes: Juan Williams's quest for 'honest debate'

When National Public Radio fired Juan Williams for admitting to anxiety in the presence of traditionally dressed Muslims, he accepted consolation from his friends at Fox News, where he often appeared to defend the liberal viewpoint. Years before, President Bush told Williams that he'd admired a book Williams had written about black America, but was afraid to publicize the fact because he assumed that his recommendation would discredit the book among liberals and many blacks. Karl Rove says that Williams is "a liberal with whom conservatives can have an honest debate," but Williams himself finds honest debate increasingly hard to find in America. In his new book Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, Williams takes his own case as proof; Americans can't air their honest concerns about Islam and Muslims, he laments, without being accused of bigotry. That's just one instance of political correctness suppressing "honest debate," and it might serve to clarify what Williams means by those magic worlds. An honest debate, one infers, is one in which diverse opinions are aired without accusations of hatred attached. Williams can get along with Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, presumably, because he can disagree strongly with them -- Williams confessed his own fears in order to criticize O'Reilly for blanket comments about Muslims -- without accusing them of hating him. He hopes that Americans of diverse views can talk to each other without treating each other as enemies -- presumably without the right being accused of wanting to starve the left or the left being accused of wanting to enslave the right. But he worries that Americans of diverse views are talking to each other less and less often. The loudest voices preach to segregated choirs, refusing to listen to other points of view and ignoring entirely those who consider compromise necessary -- those whom Williams deems truest to the American political tradition.

Williams's book is the usual collection of chapters on hot-button topics, -- interestingly, global warming is conspicuously absent from the discussion -- but the unifying thread is his attempt to explain how the U.S. has reached this dismal moment in the history of discourse. He identifies a number of factors, both historical and mercenary, encouraging polarization and discouraging honest debate. Political correctness comes to the fore in the 1970s and, while still identified with the left, is increasingly adopted by the right, especially by the religious right. Political correctness seems like a natural recourse when no one group of people can feel certain that they speak for America, or that America represents them.

[A]s the country has grown more diverse, as women have gained a larger voice in picking winners and losers in the marketplace of ideas, and as Hispanics, Asians, and blacks also have a say in politics and culture, we find ourselves looking across a broken, factionalized landscape. In this new reality, many Americans feel they have lost power, and an increasing number are worried they are in the minority....The big changes in twentieth-century America -- aside from the atomic bomb and technology -- have been about social movements for equal rights for women and minorities. 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 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. The rising tide has been replaced by zero-sum.(54-5)

Meanwhile, self-interested actors, from media bosses to website enforcers and professional fundraisers, exacerbate our balkanization. Talk radio (especially Rush Limbaugh), Fox News and MSNBC all come in for abuse, though Williams is probably tougher on Limbaugh out of respect to Fox. Overall, however, "More and more people look for one-stop shopping -- news coverage they can trust to digest the news for them and help them reach a conclusion...What they get is predictable political spin, along with big doses of fear, fright and fury"(272). Despite the growing popularity of partisan media, Williams claims that "many Americans have lost trust in the news media" because the media "only offer a one-note performance: their niche brand." While Williams denounces the habit of playing to "the base," he actually underplays the importance of partisanship by emphasizing the media's role. He notes any number of issues that had not been important, or very vehemently debated, before the 1960s or 1970s, but apart from his demographic speculations and his attacks on self-interested media, he doesn't inquire deeply into what happened politically that may have accelerated the trends he abhors. But it seems obvious that the imperative to play to a "base" must follow from a profound empowerment of "base" voters, and that seems to have come with the greater emphasis on party primaries, at the expense of the bad old "smoke filled rooms," ever since the 1960s. My point is not to criticize the greater democracy at work in primary elections, but, predictably enough, to condemn a Bipolarchy that recognizes only two real choices for all American voters, but allows isolated and insular "base" voters to make those choices for everyone else. I can't help feeling that Williams could have paid more attention to the imperatives of partisanship alongside the imperatives of corporate media.

Williams tries to shame us into "honest debate," calling us cowards for avoiding it. But his own narrative raises a problem for honest debate. He wants us to reach across the metaphorical aisle and talk honestly with people who hold different views, on the understanding that none of us actually hate each other. But much of his book is dedicated to describing large constituencies who, on his own account, actually do hate each other. How do you know you won't find yourself talking to one of those thin-skinned, quick-tempered base-ists? I suppose Williams would say that's where courage comes in. He may even wish to minimize the number of Americans actually possessed by hate. He insists repeatedly, for instance, that Bill O'Reilly isn't an intolerant ogre, and he has more experience with the man than I do. Is the same true about O'Reilly's audience -- or Rush Limbaugh's -- or Keith Olbermann's? I guess it's up to us to find out.

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