Juan WIlliams v. NPR

I realize I’m a little late in commenting on this Juan Williams-NPR fiasco, but I wanted to get the full picture. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I have decided to side with Mr. Williams on the issue. Mr. Williams is a commentator & news analyst. In other words, he is paid by news organizations to give his opinion & lend his worldview to the news stories of the moment, which is precisely what he did on the O’Reilly Factor. In response to the O’Reilly-The View ladies issue, he stated that his initial reaction to seeing Muslims in traditional clothing on airplanes is fear. My guess is that for most non-Muslim Americans, their gut reaction, before it is filtered through the politically correct screen that we are expected to use, is also fear. The events that occurred on 9/11 injured our nation deeply in many ways, but especially psychologically (the way that it was INTENDED to harm us). Up to that point, most Americans probably had no knowledge about Islam, either good or bad, because most Americans are not Muslim. So for many people, 9/11 was their first encounter with this religion. Was it an inaccurate picture? In most cases, yes. But if your first experience with basketball is getting hit in the face with one, you’re probably not going to be trying out for the team anytime soon.

The interesting point in all this is that Mr. Williams was really taken entirely out of context. The quote that got him into trouble was part of a larger discussion that he and Mr. O’Reilly were having about American perceptions of & reactions to Muslims in the United States. The part of the interview that NPR seemed to ignore in their decision to fire Mr. Williams included him stating that most Muslims are good, law-abiding people & that the vast majority are NOT terrorists. That was the point he was trying to make – 9/11 severely damaged the reputation of Muslims in the eyes of many Americans and that it is important for us as a nation to work together to overcome that fear & to defeat radical Islam-fueled terrorism. He didn’t say all Muslims are bad or that they’re all terrorists or that they all eat kittens for breakfast. He just said he gets a little nervous when he gets on a plane & sees people in traditional Muslims garb because of the events of 9/11. For that statement, he was fired.

I don’t know if I believe the George Soros theory espoused by Mr. O’Reilly. He stated that since Mr. Soros is a huge financial supporter of the public radio station, they do his bidding by keeping to a strict liberal agenda & firing dissenters. I’m sure some of that probably goes on, at least the liberal agenda part, but I think that NPR probably just got nervous. They were worried that Mr. Williams might have offended the politically correct sensibilities of the station’s core listener group: middle-and-upper-class liberal white folks. So, instead of risking running off 95% of their base, they decided to fire the troublemaker. NPR really shot themselves in the foot with this decision. Not only is Mr. Williams getting a ton of publicity (most of it good, from what I’ve seen), but NPR is also getting a lot of publicity – the negative kind. Many people have said that NPR should no longer receive taxpayer funding because of its treatment of Mr. Williams and its opposition to free speech. So, instead of having their prodigal son publicly disgraced, he has renewed his contract with Fox for more money, received a great deal of positive publicity, and will probably get a book deal out of the situation. NPR however, is facing a public relations nightmare & may end up losing its public funding which will ultimately cause them to go bankrupt.

I guess I want to wrap up this post with two points: First, I would like to agree with the point Mr. Williams was trying to make – we as a nation, regardless of race, religion, color, etc. need to engage in a productive & meaningful discussion about terrorism & radical Islam. More moderate Muslims need to stand up and publicly condemn the actions of people who commit terror in the name of their religion – they may privately condemn these actions, but until they state publicly their opposition they are going to be (unfairly) lumped together with terrorists, or at least terrorist sympathizers. On the other side of that same coin, non-Muslim Americans need to make an effort to distinguish between standard-issue American Muslims and Islamic terrorists and to treat their (non-terrorist) Muslim neighbors with kindness and respect. Second, we as a nation need to stop worrying so much about being politically correct. Yes, sometimes people are going to say offensive things. Sometimes people are going to be offended by statements that are really not offensive. We cannot condemn everyone who expresses an opinion as a racist or a bigot. Are there racists & bigoted people in the United States? Absolutely. Unfortunately, they have the right to espouse their ridiculous ideas just like everyone else (please see the First Amendment to the Constitution). In our efforts to silence those loons, we end up stifling legitimate statements & hindering real conversation on important issues. If we can strike a balance in our national discussion between political correctness and the reality of Islamic terrorism, I think we could really get somewhere on our understanding of Islam, terrorism, and our connections to other human beings, regardless of religion.

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Episode 201

In 1997, when I was in fourth grade, a new television show appeared on the cable channel Comedy Central. This show was called Southpark and it followed four foul-mouthed third-grade boys (one of whom mysteriously died each episode but was always back for the next one). I did not have cable at the time, but I remember what a stir this show caused. First of all, it was the first weekly M-rated show allowed on TV. Second, it was a cartoon, and thusly attracted (poorly-supervised) children to watch a show that was clearly not directed at them. As I got older, I endured long bus rides to and from school each day where my fellow students spent the entire trip repeatedly saying, “Respect my author-i-ty!”, “Oh my God, they killed Kenny! You bastards!”, and “Screw you guys, I’m going home.” As these kids on my bus were my only source of information on the show, I assumed that Southpark was a dumb show that attracted drooling idiots (the kids on my bus). At some point during my sophomore year of high school, my family got satellite, but due to my initial impressions of the show, I never watched it.

Then, at some point during my college career, I caught an episode or two of the show in a friend’s room. I think maybe the first one I saw was “Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset,” which is the one that lampooned Paris Hilton and pointed out her negative influence on young girls. I remember thinking that this was pretty awesome, because I’ve always disliked Paris Hilton. Over time, I saw more episodes and realized that the show is actually pretty intelligent. Yes, it’s crude. Yes, they make fun of religion. Yes, Cartman is anti-Semitic, annoying, and ridiculous. Yes, Kenny is sex-obsessed and comes from a terrible family. But you have to remember, Cartman and Kenny aren’t the main characters. They are just there for comic relief & plot devices. Stan and Kyle are the main characters, and through them Matt Stone & Trey Parker express their views on politics, celebrities, the economy, and other topics of note. The great thing about Southpark is that they are truly unbiased – they lambaste conservatives AND liberals, which is rare these days. They mocked Al Gore mercilessly over his global warming alarmism. However, they also mocked Glenn Beck. I like Glenn Beck, but I’m glad they made fun of him because for awhile his book promoting was overshadowing his message. They skewered Kanye West for his self-absorbed nature (he still doesn’t get the gay fish joke), and they criticized Paris Hilton and parents who let their daughters idolize her and other young socialites/pop tarts. Southpark keeps public figures on their toes. Because the show takes so little time to produce, the producers are able to react quickly to breaking news, which keeps it relevant. This is why I think Southpark is probably one of the most important shows on TV today.

It seems, however, that Trey and Matt have come under attack for their recent 200th and 201st episodes, because they put the Muslim prophet Muhammad in these episodes, which is forbidden by the Islamic faith. Since Matt & Trey aren’t Muslim, they don’t really give a damn that they can’t do this. America is not a majority-Muslim nation, so it makes no sense for Comedy Central to censor the image of Muhammad. But, that is exactly what they did in both episodes. After the 200th episode aired, a radical Islamic website made death threats against the Southpark creators if episode 201 aired. Comedy Central aired it anyway, but they covered all images of Muhammad with a black censor bar, bleeped out his name when spoken by a character, and, according to Matt & Trey, they censored Kyle’s trademark end-of-episode speech which didn’t even mention Muhammad. This is the statement from the creators, taken from the Southpark website (www.southparkstudios.com):

“In the 14 years we’ve been doing South Park we have never done a show that we couldn’t stand behind. We delivered our version of the show to Comedy Central and they made a determination to alter the episode. It wasn’t some meta-joke on our part. Comedy Central added the bleeps. In fact, Kyle’s customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn’t mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too. We’ll be back next week with a whole new show about something completely different and we’ll see what happens to it.”

In defense of Matt & Trey (and Stan, Kyle, Kenny & Cartman), I just want to say this: This is the United States of America. The First Amendment to our Constitution outlines one of the most important freedoms ever allowed to any people in the history of the world – the freedom of speech. The Southpark creators had every right to have their episode aired uncensored by the network. If Muslims did not want to see it, they could do what Christians are told to do when something offends us: Look away. Don’t watch it. Change the channel. It is unacceptable for Comedy Central to give in to terrorism. If Matt & Trey were unfazed by the threats, which were directed at them personally, not at the network, then Comedy Central should have been undaunted. In the name of freedom of speech, of freedom of religion, and of not tolerating irrational fringe groups, Comedy Central should re-air episode 201, completely uncensored. I know this seems like a small battle, but I think symbolically, it’s an important one. Kyle summed it up well in an earlier episode regarding Muhammad (Cartoon Wars Part II):

“You can’t do what HE wants, just because HE’S the one threatening you with violence. Yes, people can get hurt. That’s how terrorism works. But if you give in to that, Doug, you’re ALLOWING terrorism to work. Do the right thing here… If you censor out Muhammad, then soon you’ll have to censor out more. If you don’t show Muhammad, then you’re making a distinction between what IS okay to poke fun at and what isn’t. Either it’s all okay, or none of it is. Do the right thing. Show Muhammad. DO THE RIGHT THING.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, Kyle.