The 'High-Tech Lynching' of Juan Williams

Will Saletan argues Juan Williams received the Shirley Sherrod treatment:

Shirley Sherrod, meet Juan Williams. 

Three months ago, right-wingers clipped a video of Sherrod to make her look like a racist. They circulated the video on the Internet, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture fired her. Now it's happening again. 

This time, left-wingers have done the editing. They clipped a video of Juan Williams, a commentator for Fox News and NPR, to make him look like an anti-Muslim bigot. They circulated the video on the Internet, and last night, NPR fired him.

My sense is that when making these kinds of comparisons, we tend to forget the specific details on which they hinge. In her speech, Shirley Sherrod told a story about her own prejudiced feelings and why they were uninformed, unproductive, and, ultimately, unjustified. Here is how Shirley Sherrod introduces the story:

When I made that commitment, I was making that commitment to black people -- and to black people only. But, you know, God will show you things and He'll put things in your path so that -- that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people, you know.

Sherrod then tells of having to help a white farmer and being held back by her own sense that he was condescending to her and, more specifically, by the prejudice she carried from growing up in a society thoroughly infused with white supremacy. Again, in the middle of the story, Sherrod disavows her own prejudice:

That's when it was revealed to me that, y'all, it's about poor versus those who have, and not so much about white -- it is about white and black, but it's not.

Sherrod then finishes her story with this:

Well, working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't, you know. And they could be black, and they could be white; they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people -- those who don't have access the way others have.

In short, Shirley Sherrod did not simply admit her own past prejudice, and she did not tell the story to show how her sympathy for bigoted black people. She told the story to condemn her own, specific, prejudices. Juan Williams did no such thing.

Saletan goes on to cite Juan Williams admirably noting the folly of claiming Muslims attacked America on 9/11, and assuring host Bill O'Reilly that "there are good Muslims." I am sure those "good Muslims" are as grateful for Williams' defense as he would be for their defense of "good blacks." But that aside, the notion that Williams initial statement of prejudice is somehow absolved by his objections to O'Reilly's greater prejudice is false. I can, all at once, believe that Jews are blood-suckers and still think the Holocaust was horrific. Strom Thurmond's defense of white supremacy is not absolved by his support for South Carolina's black colleges. It is not comforting to behold Trent Lott's pining for segregation in light of the black Senate aids working in his office.

Williams' own prejudice against people in "Muslim garb" is dangerous, which he neither denounced nor condemned, must be defending on its own terms, not by changing the subject to O'Reilly's admitted related prejudice. Specifically to Williams, his point about "Muslim garb" should be considered in light of the memory Balbit Singh Sodi. Sodi was killed by someone who believed his turban signified "Muslim garb." Sodi was Sikh.

The point here isn't that Williams endorses hate crimes--he does not. The point is that prejudice, by its very nature, makes broad leaps in logic. Prejudice is not wrong because it is uncivil, impolite or unsympathetic. It is wrong because it is weak thinking. In the case of Williams, it means believing that a terrorist would be so stupid as to board a plane dressed in a dishdasha and clutching the Koran. In the case of Sodi, it meant that all swarthy looking people with turbans are the same.

Finally, it must be said--in the broader context--that Juan Williams simply isn't Shirley Sherrod. Juan Williams' father, to my knowledge, was not murdered by anti-American Islamic radicals. Juan Williams did not grow up watching his mother  face down the Al'Qaeda on the front porch. Juan Williams did not have his entire life absorbed by the fight against Islamic terror. Juan Williams makes a career amicably discussing bigotry with bigots. Shirley Sherrod made a career, and a life, of confronting bigotry--perhaps most admirably, her own.

This all leads me to this post, in which Andrew looks at Williams' convincing rebuke of those who would justify prejudice with crime stats. I was struck by Williams' impeccable reasoning and sober style--so much so that I had difficulty reconciling it with the pundit who has been reduced to denouncing Michelle Obama as "Stokely Carmichael in a dress."

And then I thought of the old sage Frederick Douglass. "A man is worked on by what he works on," said Douglas. "He may carve out his circumstance, but his circumstances will carve him out as well."