News of NPR's decision to fire Juan Williams for "bigoted" comments Williams made earlier this week as a guest on The O'Reilly Factor struck me initially as nothing more than the latest chapter in liberals' recent and sordid history of thought-policing. That the NPR powers-that-be should target Williams, author of multiple books chronicling various aspects of the civil rights movement and--more important from their perspective--a "person of color," might have seemed a bit strange but for the fact that Williams also serves as a FOX News contributor, which, to the folks at NPR, brands him with the ineradicable mark of Cain. Nonetheless, I was not surprised. Perhaps those of us who have made careers in academia while resisting its leftist orthodoxies have somehow lost the capacity for astonishment at such things. After all, we know the NPR types: the campus strut-abouts who think themselves uniquely qualified to define and punish transgressions of speech, all the while oozing sanctimony as they struggle to conceal their disdain for those around them whom they regard as their moral and intellectual inferiors. Even Williams's own account of the firing, chilling though it is, fails to shock. (In an ironic twist, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller offered an apology for comments made about Williams since the firing; she, presumably, will keep her job.) But then I got to thinking, and I wondered if the real story here isn't something more than political-correctness-run-amok.
2010 is the year of the Tea Party. Predictably, today's perplexed liberals have comforted themselves by dusting off old copies of Richard Hofstadter's 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," which, in its day, reassured equally perplexed liberals that they had nothing to fear from the so-called fringe radicals on the right who had hijacked the Republican Party and saddled it with Barry Goldwater (turns out they had a good deal to fear from one of Goldwater's most rhetorically effective champions, Ronald Reagan). No doubt something like a paranoid style has existed since our nation's inception. American patriots in the 1760s and 1770s routinely accused the British ministry of having hatched a conspiracy against liberty. American revolutionaries justified their separation from the British Empire by citing a "long train of abuses and usurpations" and a "systematical plan of reducing [the colonies] to slavery." Since the eighteenth century, fears of concentrated power have manifested themselves in mass movements of ordinary people, and the manifestation, which liberal elites regard as sinister and threatening, we who celebrate individual freedom and constitutional government deem salutary.
But what happens when paranoia grips those in power? I would suggest that an amusing-yet-dangerous paranoia among the liberal elites, not the familiar silliness of political correctness, best explains NPR's decision to fire Williams. What Williams actually said on the air is only part of the story. That he said it on FOX News, whose connection to Williams NPR long has sought to undermine, constitutes another and more important element. What really matters here is that the Obama administration's petulant 2009 crusade against FOX News, complete with the equally petulant narrative that spawned that crusade, retains its relevance among the paranoid left. According to said narrative, and straight from the president himself, FOX News qualifies as little more than a "destructive" mouthpiece for the Republican Party. It's not a real news network. Its commentators are selected and paid by wealthy right-wingers, special interests, etc. Furthermore, it exerts an unhealthy influence upon the viewing public, whom--according to the liberal narrative--Fox News seems somehow to have called into existence. It has not occurred to the president and his supporters that the ironically-labeled "fair and balanced" network might represent an alternate and quite legitimate perspective--a perspective whose decades-long absence from so-called "mainstream" network news broadcasts, and not some mysterious-but-well-funded conspiracy, was what called Fox News into existence in the first place. All of this is so very tedious to conservatives, who, with no little fortitude, have resigned themselves to living in a world where their liberal friends, unsatisfied with seeing their own views advanced on ABC, CBS and NBC, on nearly every major newspaper's editorial page, in academia, and in Hollywood, bristle at the fact that they do not maintain an absolute monopoly over the dissemination of information and opinion. But in our tedium we must not overlook the real danger. Such bristling from liberal colleagues means little when confined to the proverbial faculty lounge. But when the foregoing narrative becomes so widespread in liberal circles as to constitute something of an axiom, when they convince themselves that their opponents act from feelings of paranoia rather than legitimate opposition born of serious reflection, and when one among them gets control of the government, it then becomes possible--imperative, actually--to de-legitimize the sources and the forces of this so-called paranoid opposition. This explains the Obama administration's near-pathological obsession with Fox News. And this, I would suggest, explains NPR's decision to terminate Juan Williams's contract. This, in short, is what happens when real paranoia infects the powerful.