There are certainly bigots in the world. By no reasonable definition is Juan Williams, whose journalistic career has been capped with several books on civil rights, one of them. But last week, Williams spoke honestly about having had a thought that has occurred to many people. He confessed on national TV to his unease, in an age of terrorism, about boarding planes alongside groups of people in “Muslim garb.” NPR’s decision to fire Williams for that statement is either an astonishing lapse in judgment or a disgraceful act of intolerance.
Williams was not proud of his discomfort with Muslim fellow passengers. There is not a shred of evidence that he harbors any ill-feelings towards Muslims or even towards Islam. He simply refuses to pretend that September 11 didn’t happen. If that is NPR’s standard for intolerance, then it intends to purchase tolerance at the price of free speech and open public debate. It has joined the ranks of those who use accusations of bigotry as weapons of defamation, not as a means of ensuring that citizens treat each other with a basic level of decency.
The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, like Williams, has spent much of his career as a writer attacking bigotry. But after the banlieue riots of 2005, Finkielkraut was accused of bigotry for daring to dissent from the media consensus that the unrest was caused only by poverty and unemployment. “The lofty idea of ‘the war on racism’ is gradually turning into a hideously false ideology,” Finkielkraut wrote that year. “This antiracism,” he added, “will be for the twenty-first century what Communism was for the twentieth century.”
An accusation of bigotry is a summons to ostracize the accused. Juan Williams has not only been unjustly fired. He has been defamed. A full apology and an offer of reinstatement, however much water may have flowed under the bridge, is the bare minimum to which Williams is entitled from NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller and the organization she runs. Until such an apology is forthcoming, a quasi-governmental entity is engaging in an act of character assassination. Congress should ensure that citizens not be required through their taxes to collude in it.