Juan Williams

Juan Williams, a reporter and analyst has been fired.  I don’t think it was because of his admission of bigotry, but for confusing confessional with analysis.

I’m one of those who have found him irritating on NPR.  He’s found a niche becoming the moderate, the centrist, the skeptical liberal.  I found his analysis of Obama particularly grating, a little churlish and usually pedestrian.   Too often he takes a David Brooks-like attitude: a little self-righteousness, a little smarmy, a little slippery, and usually patronizing.  The smartest kid in the class, who never had to learn from anybody, surrounded by the rest of us idiots.

It wasn’t always the case.  Once he was a reporter, and a very good one.

But I also sometimes enjoyed watching him on Fox.   He was the token liberal, a little more aggressive and thoughtful than Alan Colmes, trying to understand the conservative mindset without getting in too deep.

The quote that began this kerfuffle was kind of like the liberal who says, “hey, we’re all racists, right?”  Williams then didn’t defend racism but challenged O’Reilly to reconsider his views.  He honestly tried to change O’Reilly’s mind.

Self-revelation is one way we try to describe what is true.  Sometimes, such as in group therapy, it is useful.  It is not part of the traditional culture of public debate.   Perhaps NPR could have quietly suggested that he’s got to find other ways to share his analysis.

I can’t help but think that there were already plenty of people thinking of ways to get him out of NPR, and this was just an excuse, the final straw, an opportunity to cut him loose.  After all, he’s been a headache for NPR for a long time.

I won’t miss him, but I think he’s been wronged.  An apology and a reprimand would have been enough.  That said, now that he’s been fired by NPR, perhaps his credibility among conservatives will soar.

But please, Juan, handle this like with magnanimity and grace.  Handle this as if you’d like your job back.  Don’t feed into the madness.

The NPR Ombudsman argues the firing could have been handled differently, although it was probably legitimate.

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God Loves a Bully

Over the last few weeks, several teens over the last few weeks have committed suicide.  The pundits and the prophets have been reflecting about the problem of bullying.

To some, the current discussion seems different than the everyday cruelty of a group of teenagers or children testing out their power, their desire to determine who is in and who is out.  It may be how easy technology connects us to each other and makes harming others easy.  Give a teen ager a cellphone, a twitter account and Myspace and it’s hard to avoid the potential for taunting, teasing and emotional brutality.

Most of us have experienced fickle friendships, inconvenient infatuations, and the occasional betrayal, and  the disinvitation to a party.  It’s not just those who played Dungeons and Dragons and ran the math team; the awkward, poor and pudgy.   Even the talented find themselves harassed by the envious and resentful.

But bullying isn’t just a confined to high school or prisons.  A waitress related the story of a internet tycoon who threatened to have her fired waving around a couple dollars, declaring his superiority; the unemployed are taunted by those who shout at them, “can’t you just get a job?”

The teased are offered advice:  walk away; ignore the bully; say “thanks for sharing” and roll your eyes.   But when these become impossible, the victim becomes both enraged and powerless, at which point they turn upon themselves.
The heart of the Christian story is about bullying, although a more academic word could be “scapegoating.”    The victim takes the place of the rest of the class, who is terrified of breaking the rule of power the bully has.    One person bullies and the others follow.

And the consequence of standing up for oneself, or for others, is intrinsically risky.  It requires being strong enough to tell the truth; to resist manipulation; to take the side of someone who is defenseless.   That strength is learned, and it is fostered through love, the encouraging support of family and friends who can’t always be present.

Christians have themselves been bullies.   Our anti-semitism, gay-baiting and alliance with racial supremacists have enabled sorts of Christians to justify all sorts of cruelty.  And yet, it would take a certain kind of blindness not to see that how progroms, gay-bashing and lynching are analogous to the cross.   The cross signifies this:  we scapegoat people, and it does not have to be that way.  Any religion that denies the brutal fact of this all too human tendency also denies our own inclination and power to hurt others, if only to protect ourselves.

There are good reasons for us to turn away from the cross.   To be so humiliated, diminished, embarrassed is to suck the life out of someone; to render them ashamed and powerless.     This is one reason the cross was so offensive to imperial religion.  Jesus remained weak and powerless – all too human.  What kind of God is this?  A bullied one.  And nobody wants to be on that side.

His response, of course, was remarkable.   It was not to punish those who crucified him; rather, he instead said, “peace be with you.”   The mark of those who follow Christ would be fearlessness in standing against injustice; and reconciliation with those who killed him.  We need not be afraid of the bully; we may pity them.  Instead of fear, a transformation – and an offering of mercy.

Conversation and the Intelligence of Groups

Apparently Smart People don’t make smart groups.

“What mattered instead was the social sensitivity of individual members, the proportion of women (who tend to be more sensitive) in each group, and a balanced participation of conversation.”

The New Scientist writes “Social sensitivity – measured using a test in which participants had to identify another person’s feelings by looking at photographs of their eyes – was by far the most important factor….”  Anita Woolley, the senior scientist also said, “What it suggests is that if you don’t know the social sensitivity of a group, it is a better bet to include females than not.”

In the Episcopal Church, The Rev. Eric Law started the Kaleidoscope Institute to examine and enable diversity in congregations.  His methods tried to ensure that there was greater participation in communities with different styles of communication.

One of the primary tasks of the parish priest is simply this:  to gather and talk.  It need not lead to action (although it may).  There are rules to this:  one person need not dominate the conversation; all should be able to speak equally and freely; people will pay attention to the dynamics of the group.

But this is not that easy.  Congregants may need to be trained and taught.  There is a discipline to maintaining a learning culture that harnesses the intelligence of a group, a discipline which is worthy for clerics to maintain and teach.

I also wonder if this explains problems in churches that are run only by men.