TheDC Analysis: Mary Katharine Ham speaks out on Juan Williams and the speech police

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A week ago, minutes before Juan Williams and I went on “The O’Reilly Factor” to tape the segment that got him fired by NPR, we had a rather prescient conversation.

Juan has been a colleague and close friend for several years, and we often chat in the green room before our weekly segments on Bill O’Reilly’s show. Last Monday, I confessed to being a little nervous about our topic.

“It’s hard doing these speech-police segments, where you know, no matter how good your intentions are, if you say one thing wrong, they’re going to make you into a bigot,” I said.

Juan, who’s had years more experience with the slings and arrows of constant media criticism than I, gave his standard advice: Be yourself, be honest, and try not to sweat people whose job it is to take offense at everything we say. It was an encouragement not to succumb to the very “paralysis” Juan referenced in the segment.

“I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality,” he told O’Reilly minutes later.

Two days later, Juan had become the object lesson for his own point. Fired over the phone, without even a chance to plead his case, NPR’s higher-ups accused him of being bigoted when he said that Muslims in Muslim garb, identifying themselves “first and foremost as Muslim,” make him “nervous” in airplanes and airports.

Juan’s statement was a confession, not an endorsement, and it was clearly delivered without malice. He went on to stress the distinction between moderate and extremist Muslims no fewer than three times during the exchange, and say that respectful, equal treatment of Muslim countrymen is incumbent upon us as Americans. Both Juan and I made the distinction before pointing out that political correctness shouldn’t lead us to deny the simple fact that Muslim extremists are driven by their religion.

Juan quoted would-be Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, “He said the war with Muslims, America’s war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts,”

Not very shocking stuff, unless you’re talking about an aggrieved group on whose behalf the speech police are patrolling in earnest, which we were.

Valerie Jarrett fell into the same trap just days before Juan, but without the same level of fanfare. The incident is nonetheless indicative of the paralysis liberal orthodoxy can impose. Jarrett, a longtime Obama confidante and bonafide Chicago liberal, was speaking to Washington Post editor Jonathan Capehart, about a recent rash of stories about bullying and suicides among gay teens.

“These are good people,” she said of the parents of one Minnesota teen who committed suicide. “They were aware that their son was gay. They embraced him, they loved him, they supported his lifestyle choice. But yet when he left the home and went to school, he was tortured by his classmates.”
Jarrett was excoriated by liberals and gay activists, while Jonathan Capehart, one of the most prominent openly gay journalists in Washington, was taken to task for not properly castigating Jarrett in the interview.

“Valid lifestyle choice” has been recognized as a generally polite catch-all term for any number of alternative lifestyles ever since Dan Quayle suggested Murphy Brown’s lifestyle choice might be less valid than others. But because Jarrett was talking about homosexuality, the word “choice” became toxic. I submit that Jarrett was not revealing some deeply felt conviction that homosexuality is a choice, as opposed to genetic, but merely using a go-to politically correct term on the wrong politically correct subject. If she’d been talking about veganism or single-motherhood, the construction would have been fine, but in this case, one word made her a bigot working against the cause of gay rights.

Gay-issues blogger Michael Petrelis overreacted in a style befitting NPR, calling Jarrett’s comments an “outrage,” and adding, “it’s doubly offensive that Capehart makes no effort to point out how dangerous Jarrett’s thinking is.”

She was forced to apologize, despite the fact that her entire interview was about genuine concern for the gay community, and the sentence in question was a heartfelt tribute to parents who accept and love their gay children for who they are.

Valerie Jarrett is a well-known liberal figure with a history of vocal support for LGBT causes. Jonathan Capehart is a respected openly gay journalist who helped moderate the first presidential forum on gay issues for the LOGO network and the Human Rights Campaign in 2007. Juan Williams was NPR’s sole black, male commentator, with a distinguished career spent chronicling the civil-rights movement, addressing minority issues sensitively and sometimes bravely.

If, despite their obvious good intentions, none of these three could be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to discussing sensitive social issues, exactly who can have these discussions without being deemed a bigot?

In Jarrett’s apology, she hoped that “this does not distract from the issue I was asked about — the desperate, tragic decision by some young people who feel that their only recourse is to take their own lives because they are being bullied or harassed because they are gay or because others believe they are gay.” Too late. The sensitive discussion Jarrett was clearly engaging in was over the moment her critics called her character into question over one word.

As Juan has shown this week, the best solution is to be yourself, be honest, and try not to sweat the people whose job it is to take offense at everything you say. I hope his grace under fire, and the outpouring of support for him, will encourage others to follow his lead. I hope the near universal backlash directed at NPR for his disrespectful canning will make the speech police more hesitant to make citizens’ arrests for incorrect pronoun usage.

If every word and every sentence is a potential destruction of career or character, there can be no conversation.