I was saddened to hear of Paul Harvey’s passing today. Harvey was an American radio icon – I was introduced to his program by my father, for whom news radio 780 AM (Chicago) is essentially the only station in existence. When Harvey’s show came on, my dad would turn the volume up a notch or two; by such subtle cues I was trained to listen more carefully myself. By the time I’d moved to Houston (and ultimately spending 9 years there), Harvey was a routine part of my commute to grad school.
It’s worth remembering that Harvey was an honest, straightforward, old-fashioned gentleman. He wasn’t very politically correct, not because he enjoyed flaunting offense in others’ faces, but because he simply predated the rise of such diversity as to make offense via miscommunication more likely. However i woudl say that of his loyal audience, a significant fraction were immigrants like my own parents; he embodied the kind of conservative, work-ethic ideals and no-nonsense common sense that were prerequisites for the kind of personality willing to drop everything in their homeland and travel across oceans in search of a dream of better opportunity for themselves and their children.
So, when Harvey made his ill-fated comments about Islam in December of 2003, in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, it was seen as something of a slap in the face by many people who respected him deeply. It is certain that Harvey did not intend true insult to muslims, and that he was simply speaking off the cuff about a topic that he had only passing familiarity with; the brutality of the Iraqi cock-fighting sport he was describing at the time was the context for his rather harsh words. Harvey said,
“Add to the [Iraqi] thirst for blood, a religion which encourages
killing, and it is entirely understandable if Americans came to this
bloody party unprepared.”
Now, the idea that Iraqis have (as a people) a “thirst for blood” is pretty offensive in its own right, but the broader attack on Islam as a faith that “encourages” killing was the deeper insult by far. And yet, can Harvey be faulted for this shallow understanding of Islam or Iraq? Both were simply constructs, bounded only by reporting of death and war, in the American psyche. Harvey merely reflected these constructs blindly.
Naturally, the comments drew outrage, with CAIR calling for an advertiser boycott and an on-air apology. To Harvey’s credit, he dd apologise (though not in person), releasing the following statement via his stand-in Doug Limerick:
Last week [Harvey] told you about bloody cockfights in Iraq and
mentioned the relationship between Islam and violence. He says he
received several letters from dear friends in the American Muslim
community who expressed their disgust with those who have hijacked
their religion to achieve their goal through violence. They reminded
all of us that Islam is a religion of peace, that terrorists do not
I think that Harvey was probably aghast at the offense taken by his remark, and the entire episode was a learning experience for him. I do have to wince at the phrase :religion of peace” though – there’s no such thing, really. Islam is a religion of justice, and religion and violence are not related by cause and effect. However, these nuances are besize the point, the important thing is that Harvey quickly reacted to the criticism and clarified that his comments were not intended to indict the religion as a whole.
I think it’s important to remember this episode because it was in a sense a clash of an older, simpler America with a newer one. The world, too, has grown in complexity in the same period of time. With Harvey’s passing, we might say that he takes an era with him. His was a voice of moral clarity and wit, the likes of which are nowhere to be found elsewhere on the radio dial. He will be missed indeed.