Anyone with half a brain can see the parallels between Juan Williams’ firing from NPR, and the eviction of Elizabeth Moon from Wiscon. In both cases we saw nominally liberal individuals punished by other liberals for what essentially amounts to ideological failure. Specifically, both of these people made comments — one on her blog, the other on television — which were seen by some people as being “bigoted.”
I use quotes around that word because, having read the original Moon piece and having seen Williams’ statements, I can find nothing in either of them which would validate such a charge. According to the dictionary a bigot is someone who is, “a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion,” and, “a person who is intolerant of any ideas other than his or her own, esp on religion, politics, or race.” There is nothing in either of the pieces by Moon or Williams to indicate in any way that either of these people are, in fact, by definition, bigots. Yet they have been cast out of the halls of progressivism under accusation of being just that, because of some rather thoughtful — and to me, common-sense — observations about what it’s like to grapple with Islam and Muslims in post-9/11 America.
Neither Elizabeth Moon nor Juan Williams in any way attacked or maligned Muslims or Islam. They offered from-the-gut commentary on controversial subjects — honest commentary from their own individually liberal perspective which apparently makes them unwelcome in the eyes of National Public Radio and the convention parent group that operates Wiscon.
Both of these events are symptomatic of a larger problem in American civil discourse: the inability of the liberal-progressive side of the coin to engage Islam as an ideology — or Muslims as followers of that ideology — without overcompensating to the extent that any and all expression of misgiving or apprehension about Muslims or Islam is tantamount to racism, Islamophobia, bigotry, and so forth. In such a reactionary climate, even the most mild, most modest expression of feelings or ideas — see Moon and Williams — which are not 100% flattering of Islam and Muslims, are guaranteed to generate knee-jerk responses. Often from people or groups who are in a hurry themselves to avoid being labeled as ists guilty of ism in regards to Islam and Muslims.
Call me old-fashioned, but that’s not an atmosphere I’d call intellectually healthy.
The United States was and is the national product of the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment was itself the product of the rediscovery of the idea that free inquiry — unbound by shibboleths, dogma, and the hierarchy of gnostic knowledge — was the path to a rational and functional society. The Enlightenment unchained human potential, such that scientific and social experimentation was renewed, resulting in a gradual — and often combative — overthrow of the monarchic and ecclesiastical traditions which bound up the world following the collapse of Classical civilization.
Currently, we can observe an alarming trend in speculative literature and intellectual society as a whole. The progeny of the Enlightenment — progressive intellectuals — have begun to re-invent for themselves a religion of Correct knowledge, replete with a laundry list of “sinful” thoughts and ideas which can never be broached lest the person doing the broaching be guilty of ist and ism. Expression of the Incorrect is treated with badgering, harassment, personal and professional penalties, and exclusionary tactics reminiscent of pre-Enlightenment discourse — when a singular authority or group of authorities (oligarchy) dictated what was acceptable to talk about, and what would get you shipped to the Inquisitors, a rack with your name on it.
The agitators of the new mode — there are various labels, but for the purposes of this article I would call them the anti-ists — have riseable emotional motivation for what they do. Interpreting the history of the West as a series of colonializations, occupations, genocides, and oppressions, they seek to compensate against that history by erecting protective language and barriers around designated victim groups: women, gays, transsexuals, the non-caucasian, etc. This is very probably the inevitable result — here in the U.S. anyway — of the country’s long history of racial and gender double-standards, such that it’s still a bone of contention for many: the land of the free, but how “free” are we really? Free from prejudice? Free from unfairness? Uneven distribution of opportunity? Wealth? Power?
But it’s precisely because the anti-ists are a reaction to past ism that the current anti-ist dialectic is so hyperactively allergic to even the perceived aspect of ism — especially on the part of people like Moon and Williams, who are themselves members of designated victim groups and who are by default natural allies of the anti-ists. If only Moon and Williams would learn to stop being individuals and let the anti-ists dictate to them what is and is not allowable in modern gender, race, and religious discussion. A discussion that is carried out almost exclusively in the larger coastal cities, and in the halls of our universities — and the occasional corner Starbucks.
From the ‘outside’ view of Americans in “fly over” country — work-a-day Janes and Joes with neither the time nor the energy for continual intellectual masturbation of the sort that typifies the anti-ists — that either Moon or Williams could be disenfranchised for what they wrote or said, is preposterous. Average Janes and Joes cannot conceive of people being treated thus on the basis of anything so flimsy and which depends so heavily on the oily lens of eye-of-the-beholder evidence. A majority of Americans do in fact appear flabbergasted that Williams was fired by NPR, and a majority of SF and F fans can’t grok why Moon was targeted and vilified — for merely voicing, rather cogently, what most of us have been thinking and feeling anyway. Heck, there is (at last) a real move in Washington D.C. to defund National Public Radio — everyone’s taxpayer dollars at work, yet financing only one side of the political perspective.
Which is not to say that those — like myself — who oppose the anti-ists believe that ism does not exist. I’m coming up on 18 years in my interracial marriage. I deal with real life ism on a level that is rather intimate. Which is perhaps why I spend so much time thinking about and pondering these things — probably more than I should, given the hypersensitivity within the SF and F genre to ism and the tactics and mob-think of the anti-ists within it. I am in fact quite concerned about ism — when it really surfaces. Key words, those.
I am opposed — rather adamantly and with great vigor — to the ‘little-boy-who-cries-wolf’ syndrome that results from anti-ists too often ringing the town alarm bell over ism lurking behind every bush, every tree, and under every rock. That’s an important thing, that town alarm bell. It’s there for a reason. Like the red fire levers in a public building. You pull that lever, you better have a damned good reason for doing it. Not an imaginary reason, nor a reason dependent wholly on your (skewed political anti-ist) point of view. Claiming flame where others can’t even smell the smoke, tends to create jaundice in the larger public consciousness. Hence when real problems arise, the public has largely grown deaf to the ringing of the bell — because they’ve been fooled too often before.
Thus it seems to me that the reactions to Juan Williams — by NPR — and Elizabeth Moon — by Wiscon and the body of anti-ists who went after Moon — seem quite misplaced, and inappropriate. These two are not “ists” of any sort. They are in fact allies of the anti-ists, yet the anti-ists have an unfortunate habit of taking their own and hanging them from the lampposts. Usually for imaginary or otherwise so-so-minor infractions, that they cannot even be seriously called infractions. Just differences of opinion and viewpoint.
Something we are all, as U.S. citizens, entitled to. And which I think the anti-ists too often forget in their sacred crusade to rid the known universe of the ism, splitting the molecules of a person’s opinion down to the sub-atomic level if necessary to find fault.
Perhaps in another decade or two, when enough people have soured on the cries of the anti-ists, the discussion of victim groups and ism can move beyond its current state. But we’re not going to get there unless more people spend more time thinking carefully about whether or not to pull that proverbial fire alarm — and on whom. In the case of Williams and Moon, the alarm has been rung for the wrong reasons — barely any reason at all. Which to my mind makes the lever-pullers not only irresponsible, but immature.
Which gets me back to the definition of the word bigot. Isn’t that precisely what the anti-ists are? People adamantly opposed to all ideas which differ from their own, in regards to race, politics, religion, and so forth? Wouldn’t it be nice of the anti-ists perhaps spent a little more time examining their bigotry in the mirror, instead of working very hard to inflict that bigotry — in the name of anti-ism — on people who are not even their real enemies in the first place?
ETA: I liked this nicely-put post by Patrice Sarath. I think it’s a good example of how the ‘feminists’ at Wiscon are sort of pouring warm pee down the necks of many of Moon’s supporters, who are also women and feminist, and consider the entire fracas to be absurd, and the con’s decision to evict Moon similarly absurd.