Friday, September 28, 2007

The O'Reilly race factor

I haven't been particularly gentle to Bill O'Reilly before. While his "common man talking common sense" persona was once refreshing at times, and his refusal to toe any party line was a welcome contrast to his ideologically sturdier Fox News colleagues like Sean Hannity, his grandiosity, paranoia, and growing tendency to demonize opponents and disparage secular values have turned the culture warrior extraordinaire into self-parody. That said, I think his latest roasting by his longtime nemesis Media Matters over allegedly racist remarks about a black-owned restaurant in New York, and the ensuing brouahaha which has turned into a fairly big news story (it was on the front page of the Washington Post entertainment section yesterday), is seriously unfair.

According to the Media Matters spin, in a September 19 discussion on his radio show, O'Reilly was "surprised" to find no difference between Sylvia's, a famous black-owned restaurant in Harlem, and other New York restaurants, and even noted the fact that "There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea.' " Other coverage has been along the same lines: "Bill O'Reilly Is Shocked That Not All Blacks Are Animals," "Bill O'Reilly Shocked that Sylvia's Harlem Restaurant is Normal," and so on.

However, if you listen to the clip and read the transcript in the Media Matters post, they don't really support that interpretation. True, O'Reilly's choice of words -- "I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City" -- was somewhat infelicitous. But in the context of the entire segment, it was not an expression of shock on O'Reilly's part so much as an expression of being struck by the contrast between this normality and the image of African-Americans in the media. The "M-Fer, I want more iced tea" remark was a reference to the image of blacks and black behavior perpetuated in the hip-hop culture.

In fact, O'Reilly opened his comments with a sympathetic discussion of the racism blacks still face:

Black people in this country understand that they've had a very, very tough go of it, and some of them can get past that, and some of them cannot. I don't think there's a black American who hasn't had a personal insult that they've had to deal with because of the color of their skin. I don't think there's one in the country. So you've got to accept that as being the truth. People deal with that stuff in a variety of ways. Some get bitter. Some say, [unintelligible] "You call me that, I'm gonna be more successful." OK, it depends on the personality.

So it's there. It's there, and I think it's getting better. I think black Americans are starting to think more and more for themselves. They're getting away from the Sharptons and the Jacksons and the people trying to lead them into a race-based culture. They're just trying to figure it out: "Look, I can make it. If I work hard and get educated, I can make it."

You know, I was up in Harlem a few weeks ago, and I actually had dinner with Al Sharpton, who is a very, very interesting guy. And he comes on The Factor a lot, and then I treated him to dinner, because he's made himself available to us, and I felt that I wanted to take him up there. And we went to Sylvia's, a very famous restaurant in Harlem. I had a great time, and all the people up there are tremendously respectful. They all watch The Factor. You know, when Sharpton and I walked in, it was like a big commotion and everything, but everybody was very nice.

And I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship. It was the same, and that's really what this society's all about now here in the U.S.A. There's no difference. There's no difference. There may be a cultural entertainment -- people may gravitate toward different cultural entertainment, but you go down to Little Italy, and you're gonna have that. It has nothing to do with the color of anybody's skin.

Later on, his guest, journalist Juan Williams, brought up the issue of gangsta rap, and the discussion continued as follows:

O'REILLY: You know, and I went to the concert by Anita Baker at Radio City Music Hall, and the crowd was 50/50, black/white, and the blacks were well-dressed. And she came out -- Anita Baker came out on the stage and said, "Look, this is a show for the family. We're not gonna have any profanity here. We're not gonna do any rapping here." The band was excellent, but they were dressed in tuxedoes, and this is what white America doesn't know, particularly people who don't have a lot of interaction with black Americans. They think that the culture is dominated by Twista, Ludacris, and Snoop Dogg.

WILLIAMS: Oh, and it's just so awful. It's just so awful because, I mean, it's literally the sewer come to the surface, and now people take it that the sewer is the whole story --

O'REILLY: That's right. That's right. There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, "M-Fer, I want more iced tea."

WILLIAMS: Please --

O'REILLY: You know, I mean, everybody was -- it was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn't any kind of craziness at all.

It seems to me that O'Reilly was clearly discussing the stereotypes held by many people in "white America" and the disparity between those stereotypes and reality, not his own amazement at finding those stereotypes to be inaccurate. Sure, his remarks can be seen as somewhat condescending, as always happens when you praise people for behaving well. But racist? In fact, O'Reilly went out of his way to emphasize that "there's no difference" between the mainstream of black culture and the mainstream of white culture.

Another fact that has hardly been noted in this controversy is that Juan Williams, O'Reilly's guest and co-discussant, is a renowned black journalist who has written a great deal about issues of race. The Washington Post story did not even mention Juan Williams -- which is rather ironic, because Williams worked for the Post for 23 years, from 1976 to 1999, as editorial writer, op-ed columnnist, and White House correspondent. (Today, he is a political contributor at Fox News but also a frequent commentator on PBS and a senior national correspondent for National Public Radio.) Would Williams have played along with racist comments by O'Reilly? I doubt it. In fact, one virtually unreported fact is that he has come to O'Reilly's defense over the incident.

The Post did talk to CNN's Rick Sanchez, who has made a prime-time story of the O'Reilly race flap:

Sanchez, in a phone interview, said O'Reilly is perpetuating racism by using "the Mandingo argument" against black rappers. "The idea [is] that there's a big, bad African American out there that we all need protection from," he said. "It's a dangerous way of looking at racial relations. The African American community is extremely complex. The thinking that black culture is confined to guys sticking their underwear out is just wrong, and many African Americans resent it."

But isn't that what O'Reilly was saying, too -- if in a rather clumsy fashion? On this one, I think he's getting a bum rap -- and while I have criticized him in the past for calling Media Matters "smear merchants," I think his charge has just acquired a little more legitimacy.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Who's afraid of Ron Paul?

Yes, as promised, regular blogging is resuming after Labor Day.

Starting, for now, with my non-regular contribution to The Boston Globe -- a column on the intriguing candidacy of Ron Paul.

So far in Campaign 2008, the one contender who seems to have generated the most grassroots excitement isn't really a contender at all. Ron Paul, the Republican congressman from Texas, doesn't have much chance of winning.

When the mainstream media have noticed Paul at all, they have largely treated him as a curiosity or even a nuisance: After the first Republican debate in May, a Washington Post editorial suggested that the debates would be much better if they weren't "cluttered" by such nobodies. Perhaps the most media notice he attracted was when, in the second debate, he seemed to suggest that American foreign policy was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. This comment quickly became an opportunity for patriotic point-scoring by Rudy Giuliani, and led some GOP operatives to call for Paul's exclusion from future debates.

Yet Paul has a following that no other candidate can match in sheer dedication. His impressive performance in Internet polls has been supplemented with two landslide victories in Republican straw polls - in Strafford County, N.H., (with 208 of the 288 votes) and in Alabama.

What, then, is Ron Paul all about? While his views are decidedly unorthodox for today's Republican Party, they represent a venerable, oft-forgotten Republican tradition of small government at home and noninterventionism abroad. In some ways, he is an heir to Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Republican who ran for president in 1964. Paul, a 72-year-old physician, first ran for president in 1988 on the Libertarian Party ticket. Then, he decided to work from within the GOP. He won a House seat as a Republican in 1996, over strong opposition from the establishment.

On the campaign trail, Paul articulates a philosophy that recalls the famous dictum often attributed to Henry David Thoreau: "That government is best which governs least." "I want to be president mainly for what I don't want to do: I don't want to run your life, I don't want to run the economy, and I don't want to police the world," he told a potential supporter at the Strafford County straw poll. He wants to abolish the Federal Reserve and the income tax, to end the war in Iraq and the war on drugs, to dismantle the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Education.

Unlike many libertarians, Paul is not a social-issues liberal: thus, he opposes abortion. However, he wants the issue to be decided by states, not on a federal level. And, in the first Republican debate, Paul gave the only principled libertarian response on the issue of funding for stem-cell research: "The trouble with issues like this is, in Washington we either prohibit it or subsidize it. And the market should deal with it, and the states should deal with it."

Paul's followers are a veritable rainbow coalition drawn from across the political spectrum. The most striking image from his campaign - the slogan "Revolution" with the letters "EVOL" reversed to spell "love" backward - is, to use a 1960s metaphor, more Beatles than Barry Goldwater. (The creator of this slogan, Arizona libertarian Ernie Hancock, explains in an online article that the "love" refers to love of liberty, but concedes that the visual was chosen mainly for its emotional impact.)

In a sense, Paul is the Ralph Nader of the right, attracting people who are deeply alienated by conventional politics. Inevitably, he attracts people from the lunatic fringe, such as Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists who believe the US government engineered the attacks. But it would be unfair to paint Paul as the candidate of crackpots. His message resonates with many people who don't fit into conventional categories of left and right.

In its pure form, Paul's libertarianism is not politically viable. Polls have shown that, at most, about 10 percent of Americans are in favor of reducing the scope of government, and domestic government services, to a minimum. Paul's case for noninterventionism abroad is problematic as well. He has contrasted our entanglements in Third World countries that cannot pose a military threat to the United States with the fact that "we stood up to the Soviets [who] had 40,000 nuclear weapons." But American foreign policy in the Cold War was an interventionist one, requiring massive and expensive commitments from the federal government. And there is a strong argument that, in today's globalized world, totalitarian movements rooted in religious extremism would inevitably threaten US interests and safety if left unchecked by American power.

Even if, by some miracle, Paul managed to win, it is unlikely he would be able to enact much of his libertarian agenda. But in an age of bipartisan Nanny Statism, his arguments provide a refreshing alternative, a bold and much-needed critique of a creeping loss of freedom at home and reckless adventurism abroad.

Predictably, I have received some negative emails from Ron Paul supporters, complaining that there is nothing in my column that is different from "a hundred other 'inside baseball' article about why Paul can't win." One gentleman writes:

I found your article titled "A love revolution, Goldwater-style" to be unduly biased and critical of Ron Paul. Perhaps the irony is that you write for Reason Magazine and you fail to use your reason in writing. Reason would dictate a fair consideration of the facts. I don't see you doing that. You engage in predicting the future.

To say that Ron Paul doesn't have much chance is your personal opinion but surely not representative of what is going on. Would you say the same thing about McCain, who has less cash on hand than Paul? If so, then where is that article?

Reason magazine has strong libertarian roots such that REASON is a core value of the libertarian party in addition to FREE MINDS and MARKETS. It is unbelievable that you would write such an article. I think that the article is a disgrace to the magazine. If there would be some shred of support, I would have thought it would have been from REASON. Even a magazine that stands for much of what Ron Paul talks about, abandons him for some reason? Care to explain?

If you really want free minds, you should let people make there own assessment of Ron Paul and NOT try to influence them with subtle suggestions.

Well, I would point out that my column differs from a hundred others in the mainstream media simply by taking Ron Paul's ideas seriously, even I disagree with many of them (at least in degree). I will also point out that I don't speak for Reason magazine and that Reason does not speak for the Libertarian Party or for any candidates. As for whether Paul can win, I seriously doubt I can changed anyone's mind either way. (It's also just my personal opinion that a movie called Ghost Town, a reportedly excellent indie Western scheduled for release later this year, has no chance to become the top-grossing movie of 2007). Those who prefer to be enabled in their wishful thinking are welcome to it.

I would direct my critics to the (far harsher) article by Christopher Caldwell (a libertarian-leaning conservative) in the New York Times Magazine, and specifically to this:

Paul understands that his chances of winning the presidency are infinitesimally slim. He is simultaneously planning his next Congressional race. But in Paul’s idea of politics, spreading a message has always been just as important as seizing office. “Politicians don’t amount to much,” he says, “but ideas do.”

There's one Ron Paul position that gets my vote.