Bumper Stickers in Defense of Juan Williams

Bloggified by Jake on Friday, October 22, 2010

I don't get bumper stickers.

When you put a bumper sticker on your car, more than 99% of the people who see it will have no idea who you are and never will learn anything about who you are. The only impression you will make on their lives--unless you've cut them off in traffic--is the pithy message you've slapped to your vehicle with a permanent adhesive.

With that in mind, is it preferable to be an anonymous teal sedan or the guy who thinks "Pobody's Nerfect" is poignant enough that it should be broadcast to everyone who comes within 100 feet?

A bumper sticker answers the question, "If you only had seven seconds to let someone know everything they need to know about you, what would you say?" And for the majority of the population that is either "I root for a particular football team," "My child got some form of recognition at school," or "I voted for someone for president in 2008 or 2004." To each and everyone of these messages--and any others--I say, "Who cares?" And that's coming from someone who has an old school Tampa Bay Buccaneers logo tattoo on his shoulder blade.

Given the vast number of bumper stickers I see while driving around every day, I have to assume most people don't think of them the way I do. I can't imagine that if you were introduced to someone at a party, you would shout "Florida Gators National Champions 2006!" or "You can't hug children with nuclear arms!" then walk away, yet that's essentially what a bumper sticker does to everyone behind you on the road.

The fact is that most of us don't consider the image that we project to the rest of society. We wear what we want, we act how we want, and if others have a problem with it, we get indignant.

Yesterday, NPR fired news analyst Juan Williams over comments he made while on "The O'Reilly Factor." Williams admitted to host Bill O'Reilly that when he sees Muslims getting on a flight, he gets nervous.
The notable part of Williams's statement, which is being largely ignored in discussion of the incident, was that his nervousness was because the people in question "are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims."

He went on to add that he knew it wasn't fair, just as it would be unfair to be nervous every time you see a Christian near a Federal building because of Timothy McVeigh. However, this is not a fair comparison. McVeigh did not wear his Christianity on his sleeve, nor did he blow up the building in question because of his Christian beliefs (or a twisted version of Christian dogma).

Rather, McVeigh was identified with the militia movement, and it's likely that were Juan Williams to get on a plane with a bunch of backwoods rednecks from Montana all sporting homemade military uniforms, he would be even more nervous than he'd be about a family in "Muslim garb."

Like the bumper sticker, wearing a hajib or a burqa or having a long beard sends an immediate message to others, including the 99% who will never get to know anything more about you than "I am a Muslim!" It doesn't matter who you really are. You have chosen to reduce yourself to a stereotype in the eyes of most people.

This image problem is certainly not limited to Muslims. When I was 16, I was thrown across the hood of a police car and had a gun held to the back of my head while the officers explained how easily accidental shootings can happen. My crime? Wearing a Public Enemy T-shirt. It didn't matter that I was an honor student or that I'd never seen a real gun, much less fired one.

If I see someone wearing one of those Christian T-shirts made to look like a familiar corporate logo, I go out of my way to avoid any conversation with him. When the person on the plane next to me is reading People, Us, or any other celebrity gossip magazine, I assume she is stupid and has no grasp on weighty issues. If 90% of someone's Facebook status updates involve the phrase "Roll Tide!" I feel secure knowing that if he gets hit by a truck, the world isn't any worse off.

But dorky Christian campers, "Entertainment Tonight" junkies, and Alabama football fans don't have a history of blowing up airplanes in the name of Sixpence None the Richer, "Dancing with the Stars" behind the scenes footage, or Bear Bryant, even at their most extreme. With the exception of D.B. Cooper, how many plane hijackings can you think of that weren't executed by Muslim extremists?

Every time we go to an airport, we have to deal with some new inconvenience that make the long wait at security that much longer, and while we stand there, laptop out, shoes off, belt in a dog bowl, only to be told we need additional screening because we didn't realize our new glasses have metal frames instead of polycarbonite, we all know we're enduring all of this for one reason only.

And it's not Alabama football fans.

Islam is a religion of peace with over a billion followers who'll never hurt anyone in their lifetimes with anything stronger than harsh words. However, there are also thousands who are determined to bring death and destruction to any who oppose their radical misinterpretation of the Koran. And nearly all the security measures that are in our faces from the time we get within a half mile of the airport until we open our luggage at our destination to find a slip from the TSA informing us our bag was hand inspected at random are in place because those thousands exist.

With that in mind, it's nearly impossible to believe someone seeing a group in "Muslim garb" wouldn't have a nervous reaction. If for the half hour leading up to a circus trip everywhere you looked were reminders of John Wayne Gacy, what reaction would you expect when the clowns made their appearance?

Sarah Palin rushed to Juan Williams's defense using a misinterpretation of the First Amendment that is calculated and obvious at this point, claiming that Williams's right to free speech is being violated by his firing. As Palin well knows by now--but ignores purposely to rile up ignorant supporters--the First Amendment protects free speech from government crackdown, but not from private, individual repercussions. The First Amendment protects your right to go into your boss's office and call him a fat jerk, but it doesn't protect your job.

And in that way, Juan Williams and the Muslims he sees at an airport are victims of their own making.

From the girl who wears skimpy outfits and gets upset that people think she's a slut to the guy who dyes his hair purple, shaves it into a mohawk, and can't figure out why everyone stares, we all choose what image we want to project to the world. We can try to blend in and remain inconspicuous, or we can hang a neon sign flashing "LOOK AT ME!" over our heads. But while we have the right to project whatever image we want, be it "so-called liberal news analyst who exploits his association with National Public Radio to earn credibility with Fox News audiences" or "devout Muslim who wears authentic hajib clothing in accordance with the teaching of Allah," we don't have the right to dictate how those images will be interpreted by others.

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