NPR fired you last fall because you said you get nervous when boarding a plane with passengers dressed in Muslim garb. Do you regret saying what you did?
Absolutely not! I honestly expressed my feelings.
In the course of a real debate with Bill O’Reilly about the lingering antagonism toward Muslims after the 9/11 attacks, I told him about my misgivings. Millions of people who heard the conversation can tell you that I admitted to my feelings while making the argument that such feelings cannot be the basis for public policy. America celebrates individual rights and responsibility. We embrace religious diversity. We did not blame all of my fellow Christians for the actions of Timothy McVeigh. Similarly, we should not paint all Muslims with one damning color. This was all said at the time, so I have no regrets over what I said.
Is Muzzled just sour grapes? It seems like people are debating the issues all the time, and anything goes on the airwaves these days. Why then are you claiming that we’re muzzled?
No sour grapes; it is more like making lemonade out of lemons. As a result of the intense national attention to my firing, I heard from people all over who said they, too, feel muzzled. The real issue is that sincere, thoughtful people feel they will get in trouble for saying how they feel, expressing ideas that are not politically correct, and sometimes stating the obvious. This book is the start of a necessary discussion about the degraded state of debate in this country. We are all caught in an arbitrary web of political correctness, speech codes, and fear about what we can and cannot say. It is stifling our ability as a nation to deal with big issues--finding solutions to our problems. This is much bigger and separate from the issue of people making outrageous, stupid statements to bring attention to themselves on a radio or TV show.
Can you give examples of some public figures who deliberately try to shut down debate?
The billionaire George Soros putting big money into Media Matters is a good example. Media Matters, by its own admission, is engaged in a war on conservative news outlets. They take statements out of context in an effort to demonize strong conservative voices and shut down debate.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is the group that took my comments out of context and launched an Internet campaign against me, including suggestions of bigotry. They don’t want anyone to talk about the obvious connections between Islam and the terrorist threat facing the world.
On the right, the National Rifle Association has shut down reasoned debate of gun policy in this country. Similarly, Grover Norquist, the anti-tax advocate, has a “no new taxes” pledge he forces Republican candidates to sign. That kind of litmus test for being a good Republican inhibits reasoned discussion of tax policy and again undercuts the power of debate--an open marketplace for all ideas and points of view that allows the best ideas to win. And, by the way, good ideas often include synthesis or compromise. That is the opposite of refusing to hear the other side because you are operating under a pledge that stops you from joining the debate and using your brain.
Isn’t the right more guilty of this than the left?
Both sides are guilty--it is just a matter of different strains of the same disease. The left gave us Political Correctness. The right gave us what Bill Maher calls “Patriotic Correctness,” where anyone who questions the war in Iraq is questioned about his or her patriotism. I’ve also seen the right use morality and religion to shut down debate on abortion and same-sex marriage. But this is all poison. It kills the vigorous debate that is essential to a healthy body politic.
You were known as a liberal, but you are now a regular on the Fox News Channel. What side of the political divide do you see yourself as being on?
I have worked for the Washington Post, CNN, Fox, and NPR. They all appreciated my ability to report and analyze the news from all points of view. On a personal level, I grew up as a Democrat and I am registered as a Democrat. But if you ask dyed-in-the-wool liberals about me, they will tell you I am a conservative. And if you ask doctrinaire conservatives about me, they will tell you I am a liberal.
From the liberal perspective, I can point out that I have written bestselling books on the Civil Rights movement and a biography of the first black man on the Supreme Court. From a conservative perspective, I’ve also written a bestselling critique of black leadership in the country. My goal is not to fit into any preordained box on the left or right but to report and analyze the news honestly and tell people what is going on.
What can we do to begin to fix this problem?
We can call out the special-interest groups, the politicians, and the provocateurs and hold them accountable for making it difficult to have a real conversation on the hot topics. There are too many people who benefit from the paralysis that comes from the lack of debate. They use the status quo of political polarization and demonization of opposing views to profit from the anger it generates among people. On the most basic level, we have to get back to talking with and listening to people who don’t simply affirm our preexisting bias. It is fun to think for yourself, to admit other people have good ideas, and to take pleasure in solving a problem with the best idea.