The culture wars flared anew this week amid fresh implications that NPR still employs people who hold opinions. Conservative “activist” James O’Keefe, the intrepid discoverer of the easiest route to media relevance in history, recorded an undercover video depicting a meeting between NPR Senior VP of Fundraising Ron Schiller and men posing as a Muslim group interested in donating $5 million to the media organization. Among the opinions Schiller shared with the donors were his beliefs that the Republican Party has been hijacked by a racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic element, that this Tea Party element embraces a warped version of Evangelical Christianity, and that there is an “anti-intellectual move in a significant part of the Republican Party.”
The video would have been a minor story if not for the bungled response from NPR’s executive board. President and CEO Vivian Schiller was pressured to resign, citing a lack of control over the comments made by her employees. In ousting their CEO, NPR accepted yet another defeat in a war they are not fighting well. It was an unwise, cowardly move. In their previous exercise of Solomon-like wisdom, the organization fired commentator Juan Williams for speaking freely on a cable news show. In both cases, NPR’s attempts to pre-empt backlash in fact drew negative attention to stories that were not worth heeding in the first place.
When I first saw Ron Schiller’s comments, I double-checked to see if they came from some loose-cannon Tea Partier bragging about his convictions or if they were meant to be disparaging. On the eve of Rep. Peter King’s House inquisition on the threat posed by Muslims in America, you can never be sure. But no, this narrative is intended to fit into the classic culture war raging between the Elites and the GOP, the Git Offamah Property’s. It is intended to conjure Obama’s campaign-trail gaffe about the rural poor clinging to guns and religion, though this reprise has none of the same gunpowder behind it.
There are many reasons why this story should not have legs, and thus why NPR’s reaction was inappropriate. Aside from the fact that Ron Schiller is as low-level of a guy as you’d ever want to see a spy-caper exposé about, he was not a reporter, but rather a fundraiser, in a meeting with people he believed were big-ticket donors representing a minority that is legitimately stigmatized by the right. He probably would have danced had they asked him to. There’s no evidence he ever influenced reporters, and he was not verbalizing a statement on which NPR would put its name. The organization could have used any of that and more in its defense, which it failed to do.
The most glaringly obvious aspect of this episode, however, is a truth NPR could not have asserted: Schiller was right.
What’s gotten into Republicans all of the sudden? I thought they were the party of “calling a spade a spade.” The realistic ones who hate to break it to you. Liberals may be off Kumbaya-ing around a campfire, but Republicans are down where the rubber meets the road, looking at the bottom line and the ravages of idealistic legislation—making the hard decisions, dammit! Now, the advent of O’Keefe and his ilk represent a right-wing attempt to harness the power of outrage, a power only effective when wielded by groups reacting to an unwelcome feeling in the mainstream that the conservative base constitutes.
I, for one, do not like the implications of this story being called a scandal. Do we really have to pretend that the Republican Party has not been infiltrated by a racist and xenophobic element? It’s a tired tale, but where was the populist outrage and pitchforks when a white conservative presided over a tripling of the national debt and a diluvial collapse of our economy while eroding civil freedoms? Where were the birthers for any other president? It stymies logic to explain why Republicans are seemingly trying to alienate a potent voting demographic by continuing to scapegoat Latinos for problems they did not cause—or by rejecting the DREAM Act, the most benign naturalization bill to be proposed in decades—without acknowledging the obvious motivations of racism and xenophobia.
Ron Schiller was not the first to look suspiciously upon the Tea Party’s combination of populism with an unrecognizably hateful strain of Evangelical Christianity. Is it truly not P.C. to make that association? Does anyone outside of Deuteronomy or the Tea Party think that God hates fags? Do we have to pretend that the congruence of the Evangelical and far-right agendas is coincidence? This used to be a point of pride for them.
The anti-intellectual claim is beyond question. American conservatism is a rich vein of political thought, swelled with the ideas of William Buckley, Milton Friedman, and modern intellectuals like George Will, Krauthammer, and Thomas Sowell. The Tea Party, on the other hand, derives none of their rhetoric from these literati. It prefers the buzzword chorus that propelled idiots like Christine O’Donnell and Glenn Beck to prominence. It is the reason we still hear the screechings of Sarah Palin, who was the keynote speaker at the Tea Party’s inaugural convention in February 2010. It is comprised of the same people who resent Obama for being an elitist, yet tolerate the legislatively-enabled and -entitled corporate class as a bunch of John Galts. Was Ron Schiller wrong to so observe?
He may have actually understated the situation. It would be a stretch to allow the Tea Party to claim even a modest grasp of policy. They have no economic ideas or solutions past small government (the ideal role of which is rarely realistically specified) and the absolute annihilation of Barack Obama. Their scriptures tell of a land of milk and honey where an unrestricted market fails to present any of the problems it is known to create, a land where global trade ceases so that American capital circulates right where it is, where polluters simply stop polluting when the environment’s had enough, where Ludwig von Mises never ages so long as he never sees his own portrait. Back in real life, the struggle of actually enacting this impossible doctrine is left to intelligent conservatives like the non-Tea Party Paul Ryan. If they’ve arrived at their conclusions deliberately and logically, Michele Bachmann or Rand Paul should be able to float at least one viable proposal to tackle the third-rail entitlements, or military spending, or even just provide a frontier-wisdom solution on how to get manufacturing back without reverting to pre-union feudalism. Of course, they won’t; like all abused underlings, they’re just here to vent. But do we have to pretend that the Tea Party is built on anything but the shreds of outdated, anarchic platitudes? Should we ignore that the GOP’s pandering to these extremists provokes self-evident criticism?
We should not, and neither should we be cowed by those who feign indignation at its mention. This story’s fabricated outrage is a game between a few pundits and their malcontent audience. Ron Schiller is probably not a radical leftist; I certainly am not. But to give credence to O’Keefe’s faux outrage, as NPR has chosen, is to place the poisonous current thread of desperation conservatism beyond reproach by virtue of its popularity. It would be a nightmare to envision a media environment even more ruled by political correctness than it already is. This is true when the cries-foul originate on the left, and it is no less true here.
NPR’s handling of this story no doubt stemmed partly from a desire to repudiate Ron Schiller’s claim that they would be better off without public funding. Nevertheless, the board should have allowed their departing fundraiser his opinion and maintained that they differed with it. His words are already public; opponents of federal funding are no less likely to cite them now than if NPR had stood by the non-reporter’s right to express personal beliefs in private. NPR only hurt themselves by attempting to retroactively stifle Schiller and his observations. He may share them with most reasonable observers of the Tea Party, but not necessarily with NPR’s journalists.
American politics needs more candor, not less, on both sides. Dishonesty publicized through the media is what allows politicians to posture and crow yet never solve problems. We cannot punish honesty; we should embrace it as the inception of dialogue. Excessive deference to political correctness threatens the statement of truth. For that reason, NPR made a bad decision in firing Juan Williams, and in overreacting to Ron Schiller’s statements about the Tea Party. His observations may be legitimate to the point of being obvious, but not a shred of evidence suggests that the his colleagues whose jobs demand they strive toward objectivity fail at that.