I suppose I can count myself lucky that I joined Twitter
the day before Octavia Nasr was fired,
as it gave me a chance to watch how things went down from within the system itself. For those who haven't heard, Nasr, a Lebanese-born CNN journalist, tweeted on the death of Sheikh Fadlallah
, a Lebanese Shi'i cleric considered to be the "spiritual leader" of Hezbollah, saying "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot." Basically then the internet went BOOM OH NO SHE DIDN'T in a serious business way. She wrote a blog post
explaining what she meant, highlighting Fadlallah's support for women's rights within Islam and her positive experiences interviewing him as a young Christian woman reporter in Lebanon. Nevertheless, she was let go from her position as Middle East correspondent for CNN.Jillian C. York
isn't the only person to have drawn the connection between Helen Thomas's firing
and Octavia Nasr's. Obviously, there are similarities, but I want to point out the differences, because I think they're illustrative. Thomas made a series of comments, on video, to a Zionist rabbi at a pro-Israel celebration at the White House, suggesting that Israeli Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and go back to Poland and Germany. Thomas's comment strikes me as much more problematic than Nasr's; it fails to acknowledge that there are a lot of complicated and legitimate
reasons that Jews can't just "go back" to Poland and Germany (or even Russia, which is where the majority of new immigrants to Israel today are coming from). As we say 'round these parts of the internet, she showed her ass, in completely ignoring the history of disprivilege (from garden-variety discrimination all the way through to genocide) that Jews in the West have had to deal with. Her sympathies to the ways that Palestinians have been screwed over by the politics of the last century in Palestine made her unable to see what was wrong with her statement.
You know, if major news outlets decide they want to start firing people for showing their asses around the collective oppression of large groups of humanity, I'm not going to be opposed to that. (There is the small point that lots of people have said far worse things about various groups than Thomas did, and do it on camera frequently, and still have jobs; why she
was removed from her position while other people can remain does speak to the ways Arab-Americans and those that support Palestinian rights have trouble being heard in public.) But that's not what Nasr did. She made a relatively banal comment about the passing of a political leader whose work she knew from her experience as a journalist, and who she thinks had a complicated and not entirely negative effect on Lebanon's politics. Comments like this get made all the time after political leaders die; it's common courtesy, even if you think the person in question had terrible policies and effects on politics, or even was a downright terrible person. (I remember being very confused when Nixon died, because all the reporting about him was positive. "Didn't he do a lot of terrible things?" I asked my mother. "Yes," she said; "they're just being polite.")
Nasr's error was in two places. The first was in saying something remotely positive about someone affiliated with Hezbollah. The mainstream opinion in the US is that Hezbollah and other Islamist groups are an undifferentiated mass of violent terrorists with no political goals other than death, destruction, and rule over others. (This is, just to be clear, not an opinion that the actual practices of the diverse political movements that get lumped into the category "Islamist" supports, in the end.) Any treatment of these movements as politically legitimate is immediately suspicious, particularly if it is voiced done by a public figure.
Her second problem was in being Arab while she said it. While non-Arabs do take some heat for violating this collective discourse on the non-validity of Islamist movements, the hit they take is much smaller--particularly if they're well-educated white folks. (Note that the British Ambassador to Lebanon, for instance, said much nicer things about Fadlallah
than Nasr. No one's calling for his head, and his post only has one negative comment.) For Arabs in American political life, however, any deviation from this imperative discourse can be catastrophic.
In my dissertation, I call this process "discursive misrecognition" (for high-theoretical reasons I won't both to lay out here, but am happy to talk about more in comments!); it also shows up in the Arab-American studies literature as "political racism" or "refusal to dialogue." (FWIW, I think Stephen Salaita's work is still the best exploration of this dynamic that's currently out there.) Its major characteristic, I argue, is that the speaker and the spoken are fused, such that it is when certain
speakers say particular
things that they are ruled out of the bounds of politics. The forms of misrecognition that Arab-American deal with when they try to speak to politics are many: they can be silenced or ignored, they can be deliberately misheard, they can be forced to speak (as in the constantly demanded statements condemning terrorism), and they can be penalized for speech that, in another individual, would be considered controversial (or maybe even repugnant), but not a career-killer.
Although I think it's too bad that Nasr lost her position at CNN over this comment, I'm fundamentally unsurprised. It's dangerous to speak while Arab in the current political climate. Any deviation from what's demanded of you will have consequences, and they are often unpredictable. In the end, I think I'm with Abu Aardvark (better, or perhaps worse, known as Marc Lynch of George Washington University
): I'd threaten to stop watching CNN if I ever watched CNN, but sadly CNN's programming put an end to that long ago.
Relevant/interesting links:Global Voices's Arab blogosphere roundupJuan Cole's blogpost on the Octavia Nasr firing
. I think his use of "Israel Lobby" in this piece is a little awkward: if by "Israel Lobby" he means AIPAC Et Al - you know, the actual pro-Israel lobbyists in DC - then I don't think it's them; this is bigger than just the pro-Israel foreign policy segments, this is systemic in American politics.
If he means "everybody in politics who's a Zionist," then it strikes me that calling them the "Israel Lobby" is unclear. I haven't been reading Cole a lot lately, so I don't know how he's using it in this post Mearsheimer and Walt period.