Friday, January 06, 2012

The silenced majority

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, politics, free speech, polemics

As polemical writing goes, Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate by Juan Williams is rather mild. This is not because he lacks passion, but because he is a gentleman, a very rare breed in modern political discourse. Mild and gentlemanly he may be, but here are a few things he has to say:
"…what happened to me … was an assault on journalism and honest debate. Ne need to protect a free-flowing, respectful national conversation in our country. Today, such honest debate about the issues becomes collateral damage in an undeclared war by those who make accusations of racism and bigotry whenever their political positions are challenged." (p27)

"Political correctness has grown so thick that, like an untended garden, it is now less about the flowers than it is about the weeds. Too much of American politics has become an exercise in institutional madness, hampering our nation's ability to solve urgent problems." (p91)

"…these professional rude boys (and girls) [political commentators and talk show hosts at both ends of the spectrum] thrive on arousing people's passions. They make money by making our problems even worse. The more bitter the divide over an issue, the more intractable the problem, the brighter they shine." (p213)
As most folks know, just over a year ago (October 2010) he was fired by NPR for stating that he felt uncomfortable boarding an airplane if there were people in Muslim clothing on the same plane. I suspect elements of this book had been percolating around in his mind for a long time, but it took a blatant collision with Political Correctness to push him to actually write it.

Ah, good old PC, the source of such neologisms as "mentally challenged", "person of color" and "man-caused disaster". It makes us pretzelize our language until we're like an octopus playing Twister®. In modern political discourse, offending someone is the greatest sin, more heinous than embezzlement or adultery, more to be despised than sloth or gluttony.

Mr. Williams happens to be a liberal. I happen to be a conservative. There is nothing in his book that rankles me. He is honest, forthright, and quite correct in his assessment that the noisy fringes of the political spectrum have taken over all the platforms of debate. I remember the first televised debate, the one between Nixon and Kennedy. It was an actual debate. Even the Reagan-Mondale debate was a genuine exchange of views with few ad hominem moments. But since the League of Women Voters was kicked out of the debate business in favor of news anchors, the so-called debates have been a joke. I watched a portion of one of last year's debates, then went off and read a book.

If I have a criticism of the book, it would be that it is longer than it needs to be, or perhaps much, much too short. In a series of well-researched chapters, the author exposes the breakdown of communications related to the past decade's wars, to taxation and entitlements and military spending, to health care legislation and immigration and abortion—a laundry list of the hot button issues of our time. The trouble is, on one hand, two or three examples would be enough, while on the other, there are no "warm" button issues, no issues at all that can be fairly debated in this political climate. A book five times as long could have been filled with examples of issues, that just their mention is likely to get you called names, intimidated and shouted down.

Nobody is willing to admit the slightest possibility that their tiniest opinion might not be 100% correct. This is why I find genuine Christian faith so salutary. To be a true Christian requires that, at least once in your life, you admit you were wrong, ask for forgiveness, and pray for divine guidance and correction. To walk a Christian walk requires frequent repentance. Now, the churches are as full of bigoted fools as the rest of society, but those who are actually serious about their faith are capable of admitting fault, of learning better, of growing and becoming ever more loving and caring and respectful in a way that is simply not possible to a person who has never said, "I repent."

In a joking way, sometimes someone will say, "Oh, I made a mistake once. I thought I was wrong about something but it turned out I was right." For far too many people, that isn't a joke but a way of life. They cannot imagine that their political opposite number might have a valid point about anything. They forget Churchill's maxim, "Even a fool is right once in a while."

I find it refreshing that the author has no call to legislative action, no demand for "something to be done" by the powers that be. The powers that be are the problem, actually. All are too timid to say what they mean, mean what they say, and demand to be treated with the respect they afford others by doing so. He instead trusts the American people to take his points to heart and learn to talk things over without rancor. There is one area in which Mr. Williams does make a suggestion; he is in favor of defunding NPR. He may be the first liberal journalist to take this conservative position. He makes a very good case for this in a portion of his last chapter; it boils down to this, that firstly, no other news organization needs a subsidy to survive, and secondly, for the government to subsidize any news organization is actually a hindrance to free speech and a free press.

He talks about how people who recognize him tend to say three things: they appreciate his work, they don't quite agree with everything he says, and finally tell him their name. I don't expect ever to run into him, but if I do, he'll get my name first, a big hug (or handshake) for writing this book, and, "I don't care if we agree or disagree, if we can keep from being disagreeable about it."

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