Saturday, October 23, 2010

Today's colored folks

Jamaicans have a saying: tideh fi yu, tomorrow fi mi.  We all eventually have the same experiences.  The Muslim community in America is having their just-short-of strange-fruit 'tideh' right now.

The on-air conversation between Juan Williams and Bill O'Reilly that got Williams fired from National Public Radio would have been unfortunate even in the privacy of their own homes.  It was absolutely unacceptable on national television.  Unfortunately, such hate speech is not uncommon on The O'Reilly Factor.  Bill O'Reilly has built his success at Fox News largely on racial provocation.  He has over the years prostituted his own bigotry to great success.  He has bemoaned immigration and its 'browning' of America, said lives were lost in Hurricane Katrina because New Orleans were largely junkies, and once expressed surprise that eating at a restaurant in Harlem was a similarly pleasant experience as eating in a white suburban restaurant of New York.  These days Muslims are his favorite target - after Democrats.  After he blamed Muslims for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 on the ABC talk show The View, upsetting two of the hosts enough for them to walk off camera, O'Reilly says people on the street supported him. Sadly, I have no doubt many people do.

Juan Williams says he was only being honest on the show when he said he feels nervous about flying on a plane with people who identify as Muslims in their dress.  Mr. Williams, who is Black and who has written about the civil rights movement, would be understanding I guess if someone on national television said they were nervous around African-Americans.  I am willing to bet, though, that most viewers would not be.

Anti-immigrant sentiment in this country has ballooned in ferocity and scope in recent years.  It is more accurately, anti-different.  Blacks, Jews, homosexuals, and other groups, however, have been brought in under the umbrella of hate protection over the years.  Muslims are still standing out in the hail storm of intolerance. Practicing Muslims become easy targets for their dress, for their unfamiliar religious practices and for their perceived alien status,l and extremists in their midst give prejudice a ready excuse.

It has, in fact, become acceptable to vilify Muslims.  No one bothers to make the distinction between the fanatical elements of Islam and the Muslim faith.  Recently, amidst the dust-up about the plans for an Islamic center blocks from the 9-11 site in New York, a friend of mine (Someone in whom I have never before seen an ounce of racism) posted to her Facebook page "let them build it...but across the street put a topless bar named You Mecca Me Hot..." One of the comments she got was a suggestion to let the building go up and then bomb it.  When I asked who is 'they/them', she responded, "The Muslims who were part of the terrorists attack."   That the New York Muslims trying to build a community center had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks does not seem to enter her, or her commenting friends' minds.  Is there any other group who is so maligned and assailed upon for the actions of a few?  Americans for the near-eradication of the Native Americans? Europeans for slavery? Germans for the Holocaust? Christians for the Oklahoma City bombing?

Before we dismiss anti-Muslim sentiments as not our problem, before we choose to be quiet for fear of castigation from our neighbors, before we place the responsibility for change on the victims, ask yourself: Today for them, tomorrow for who?

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Leaning Towers of Media

When I studied journalism a decade ago I was taught that a journalist's job is to report the facts without opinion, without prejudice.  I remember a class exercise in which my instructor had us read sentences and pick out words that could indicate the writer's position on the subject.  Is there a difference between someone 'fleeing' and someone 'leaving?'  Is the word 'bizarre' objective?  I learned that the subtlest word usage, or twist of phrase could take a news reporter beyond his scope of telling just the truth.  I used to do that exercise while watching television news with my husband, pointing out the opinion-filled adjectives, and unnecessary tacked on bits.

That exercise is harder to do these days.  Not that journalists are being more careful about insinuating their bent into their stories, but more that the craft of news reporting has moved significantly away from truth telling towards position taking.  Now, viewers and readers are being asked to make the distinction between journalists and commentators - often the same people playing dual roles, and on the same screens or pages.

The recent high-profile firings of Rick Sanchez from CNN and Juan Williams from National Public Radio for expressing their political views - off their main job and in other media - brings to fore the discussion about if and when journalists are allowed opinions.  A larger question:  Were these reporters fired for having opinions that stand in contrast to their employers'.

I think viewers/readers who are filling the comment pages on various media websites with arguments about free speech are missing the point.  Rick Sanchez and Juan Williams may exercise their free speech rights to their hearts content in their living rooms, among friends.  Unfortunately, because of their chosen profession, and also because of their success, they now must consider first that they are viewed as newsmen - on and off the job.  As unfair as it seems, they should not be free to express their opinions in any broadcast.

We cannot overlook the fact that the reporters were fired for comments contrary to the perceived left lean of the employers.  That they were fired for being contrary is certainly an argument that can be made.  The power houses of media have almost stated political leans, in effect killing journalism.  These days viewers and listeners don't so much go to their favorite news source for unbiased reports, but to solidify their already-held points of view.  The market place of ideas has contracted into a fight circle where participants pick a side and stand their ground.  Token opposing points are thrown in by guests sporadically in vain attempts to feign impartiality. Gross misstatements and omission or twisting of facts are commonplace.

There is no growing or learning in this environment.  We are not fostering an educated electorate.  As consumers, it has to be our responsibility to sift through the opinions for the facts, formulate our own opinions and then challenge those opinions regularly.  We can no longer look to the news media to guide our opinions, but rather be vigilant about seeing through opinions.  Another option: We could watch Fox News and CNN and find the truth somewhere in the middle.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Happy Columbus Day

As one Facebook friend put it: "Today we celebrate the discovery of an already inhabited land."  It is actually a good day to celebrate today's America.  The frontier and the 'savages' are different but the method of invasion is pretty much the same.

Today's Columbuses still assume right of space.  After all, they have more right to be Americans than anybody else.  Never mind they were not the first to get here.  Never mind their grandparents immigrated here from somewhere else.  The rules should be different now.  No one else should be allowed in.

Today's Columbuses still assume right of faith. Of course, Native Americans needed proselytizing.  What did they know of higher powers and spirituality.  Today it's the Muslims who need conversion.  They are all terrorists and do funny chants when they worship.  If we can't convince them to let their women dress like Beyonce we should kill them all.  We certainly should not let them build a social service center wherever they want.

Today's Columbuses assume right of politics.  It's not good enough to agree to disagree. Anyone who disagrees with our politics are idiots.  They must be fascists, socialists, communists, anti-American or any other name we think is bad.  It doesn't matter if we really don't understand the terms.  It's really not about truth anyway; but about grabbing headlines, sewing angst and creating division.

Just like Columbus and the Pilgrims who later followed, today's Columbuses assume themselves the standard of normalcy.  Everyone else must conform. Being gay, defending a woman's right to choose when she is ready to parent, or believing in any theory other than creation is just deviant and intolerable.

We should all be happy we discovered this great land.  Happy Columbus Day.