Saturday, July 17, 2010

Day 198- Octavia Nasr

Dear Mr. President,

I wasn't going to write to you about the unfair dismissal of Octavia Nasr from CNN. Your responsibilities may be varied and numerous but, clearly, making HR decisions at CNN is not one of them. Thomas Friedman's column today linked this decision to the Bush-era mentality that requires loyalty over skill or qualification. He asserts that, in a time when we are hindered by our lack of understanding in the the Middle East and Afghanistan, we need people like Octavia Nasr to help us better understand these societies and people. I don't think Mr. Friedman goes far enough; I would extend this indictment beyond the staffing of the Iraqi green zone, to most of our foreign policy decisions, especially toward the Middle East. We prop up or install parties and regimes based on their loyalty to us and not their abilities. The Lebanese cleric Fadlallah, whose death Nasr was fired for publicly mourning, is a perfect example of this. A man who spoke for women's rights in the home and in society; a man who wanted to see the worst beliefs of the organization he founded moderated; this man might have had opinions America disagreed with, and he might have overlooked or even encouraged violence, something that many of us and I personally could not condone. However, by reducing him to a Terrorist, by simplifying and distilling the complexities of this man to a single noun that makes it inexcusable to mourn his passing, we failed to see what we might have learned from him. But this isn't why I changed my mind about writing to you.

What signal are we sending young people? Trim your sails, be politically correct, don’t say anything that will get you flamed by one constituency or another. And if you ever want a job in government, national journalism or as president of Harvard, play it safe and don’t take any intellectual chances that might offend someone. In the age of Google, when everything you say is forever searchable, the future belongs to those who leave no footprints.

This passage changed my mind. I have often joked at my own inability to enter professional politics due to the radical opinions I have expressed as a young person. George Bush could walk away from an undistinguished life story, business failures, drug and alcohol problems, and who knows how many crazy frat stories, because he never said anything too offensive. Elena Kagan has a senate confirmation hearing that is as easy as it is boring, because she has kept her opinions moderate and acceptable, or entirely silent. It reminded me of something my department advisor recently told me, about how a class I'd taken at a previous school was "too political" to count toward my degree.

I think this is why progress seems like such a constant uphill fight. I think we need outspoken, courageous public servants, academics and journalists, even if what they say is challenging and controversial and disagreeable. I think we need to listen, to engage, and learn from those we might otherwise write off as too radical or too extreme. I'd rather disagree honestly than avoid difficult conversations entirely. And, while you probably can't get Octavia Nasr her job back, you can encourage us all to keep the courage of our convictions by demonstrating that you have the courage of yours. As for me, I may change my mind as I get older, but I'm never going to walk away from the mistakes I've made in the past. Even if it means I could never sit in the Oval Office or work for CNN. And, just for the record, I think that Nasr's sentiments were incredibly human and full of compassion. I think a journalist keeping her humanity and appreciation for the complexities of human nature is a minor mirale, but certainly not grounds for dismissal.

Respectfully yours,


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