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Could The President's Week Get Any Worse?


I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away and it is time yet again for a visit to the Barbershop. That's where the guys talk about what's in the news, what's on their minds.

And sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week, writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael. He joins us from Chicago. Here in Washington, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar. Also in D.C. with me, Corey Dade. He's a contributing editor for The Root. And, in New York City, Kevin Williamson joins us. He's deputy managing editor of National Review.

So take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, C. Headlee. How you doing?

HEADLEE: I'm doing great. How are you?

IZRAEL: I'm making it work. C. Dade, good to have you in the place to be. K Dub, oh, snap, let me turn off my phone before it...

KEVIN WILLIAMSON: You better hide your phone.

IZRAEL: Here we go.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hide your phone.

IZRAEL: Before it goes down in here, man. Wow.

COREY DADE: Hide your wives. Hide your phones.

IZRAEL: How we doing? Everybody cool?

IFTIKHAR: What's happening, man?

DADE: I'm good, man. What's good?

IZRAEL: All right. Well, you know what? Let's get things started. It's been the best work week - worst week ever for the Obama administration. No rest for our worrisome republic. Hey, Celeste, what do you think?

HEADLEE: Yeah, yeah. There is pushback for the Justice Department seizure of Associated Press phone records and then, of course, the head of the IRS was ousted because the agency reportedly targeted Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny. And then, of course, more hearings on the death of Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Attorney General Eric Holder has been in the hot seat during a House Oversight Committee hearing on Wednesday. Republican and committee chairman Darrell Issa accused Holder of keeping important email information from Congress. Here's a bit of that exchange.



ISSA: In knowing the to and from...

HOLDER: That's what we typically do.

ISSA: Knowing the to and...

HOLDER: No. I'm not going to stop talking now. Characterize something as something...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Chairman, would you inform the witness as to the rules of this committee?

HOLDER: ...that is inappropriate and is too consistent with the way in which you conduct yourself as a member of Congress. It's unacceptable and it's shameful.

IZRAEL: Wow. That sounds like a night at the theatre, huh, K Dub? They should just grease up and go at it. Thanks for that, C. Headlee. Yo, Corey Dade, you've been writing about these political showdowns. How bad is this for the Obama administration?

DADE: I think, in some, it's bad, insofar as they have to fight, essentially, you know, multiple battles at the same time. I think it should be heartening for Democrats and supporters of the president, given how quickly he's responded and how aggressively he's responded this week. He's obviously fired the IRS chief. He's immediately implementing reforms. Even on the AP situation, he has defended vociferously his attorney general, his Justice Department's decision to seize those records.

But I will say that that's the wrong decision. As a journalist, as a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, a board member there, we took a position against it.

IZRAEL: Pop that collar, bro. Pop that collar.

DADE: Well, we took a position against it. It's ridiculous. It's an affront to the First Amendment. The Justice Department has a very specific, carefully crafted policy for how they go about trying to get records from news organizations and, in key ways, they went against that policy. So yeah, it's a tough week, but at the same time, in some cases, he deserves it.

IZRAEL: Kevin Williamson, you wrote that the IRS scandal is not - N-O-T - not about the president. Explain that.

WILLIAMSON: Well, when these things come up, we have a bad habit of reading it all through the lens of electoral politics and what's going to happen, especially from a conservative point of view, is that, no matter what happens in the next election, the Obama administration is going away in 2017, but the IRS is still going to be there. And an IRS that is politicized, that is corrupt, that is misleading the public, that is targeting political enemies, is a real problem for the country whether or not it has anything to do with the White House or anyone in the Obama administration directly or anything like that.

So what we should be doing is looking to the president to take a lead on this. I'm not sure I would say he really did very much aggressive by getting rid of Steven Miller, a guy whose term was up in three weeks, anyway. I mean, it's not like he really went in and, you know, cleaned house. There are a lot more people that need to fire and probably there are some people who need to go to jail.

But, you know, administrations come and go. Members of Congress come and go, but the permanent bureaucracies have political agendas of their own and, often, they are, like in the case of the Justice Department this week, incapable of following their own rules and that's a real problem.

IZRAEL: True that. Arsalan.

IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.

IZRAEL: Arsalan Iftikhar, you know, when it comes to Benghazi, are these hearings helpful or is it just time for everybody to move on?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think, you know, as the noted journalist Andrew Sullivan recently said, you have to bend yourself into several pretzels to even understand what's going on with the whole Benghazi situation, essentially where you have emails are being released. Some selectively, you know...

...bend yourself into yourself into several pretzels to even understand what's going on with the whole Benghazi situation - essentially where you have emails are being released - some selectively, you know, excerpted to show what really amounts to classic interagency conflict. But what's interesting in terms of the AP and the IRS scandal, you know, we're learning that the Obama administration, you know, was monitoring the phone records of some AP reporters. Well, you know what? Now you know how we American Muslims have felt for the last 12 years, who have had their phone tapped - who've had our Muslim charities shut down. You know, the right-wingers, these conservative groups, you know, and the media outrage, you know, likes to talk about how these groups are facing extra scrutiny - well, we American Muslims had 11 of our largest charities shut down summarily by the Treasury Department during the Bush administration. Only three criminal cases were ever brought, and only one out of those 11 were ever convicted of any crime. And so it's really interesting to see this sort of conservative outrage at the overreach of the Treasury Department when we didn't hear it for the last 12 years.

WILLIAMSON: I'm not sure I buy the moral equivalence - that targeting groups that have Tea Party in their name is the same as investigating charities that have connections to, say, Hamas.

IFTIKHAR: No, but they don't. Ten out of those 11 were never brought on any charges, their assets were frozen until they went bankrupt and it chilled the First Amendment right of seven million American Muslims to do their religious obligation of paying charity.

WILLIAMSON: But even...

IZRAEL: OK. Well...

WILLIAMSON: But just in terms of - this is why we have investigations though, right?

IZRAEL: One more. Go ahead, man.

HEADLEE: Yeah. We have to keep it moving here, guys. We got to move on to our next topic.

IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Speaking of fights, wow. K-dub? K-dub?


IZRAEL: You're the man. You kind of had your own bad week or bad night at the theater on Wednesday. You know, I don't understand, people lighting up your comments section on your blog. Tell us, brother. What happened?

WILLIAMSON: Oh, you know, one of my jobs in life is I'm a theater critic at The New Criterion. I actually got thrown out of a theater the night before last, I guess. You know, there was a lady next to me on her cell phone all the way through and she was just, you know, being rude. And I'd spoken to her about it, asked her nicely to knock it off. She wouldn't, she told me to - if I didn't like it look somewhere else. And eventually I just decided that, you know, that it was time to do something about it, so I took her cell phone away from her and I tossed it out the door.

IZRAEL: You know, what was the name of that play?

WILLIAMSON: I was told by the producers not to say.

IZRAEL: OK. Well...

HEADLEE: That's correct.

WILLIAMSON: But if you look at page three of the New York Post today, you can read all about it.

IZRAEL: Yeah. And tickets are going for about 125, 175 dollars for that particular play, so and it's getting mixed reviews.

WILLIAMSON: It is not a cheap play.

IZRAEL: It's getting mixed reviews - not for nothing. Although, it's a delightful remix of Tolstoy's "War and Peace." My dude...


IZRAEL: Go ahead, man.

WILLIAMSON: Well, the play I'm not supposed to talk about is a very good play...

IZRAEL: Right.

WILLIAMSON: ...and people should go see it, I think.

HEADLEE: But there's...

IZRAEL: A-Train?

HEADLEE: But there's been, yeah, exactly. Let's go to our other panelists here because this has been a pretty controversial move on the part of Kevin - to throw that phone. Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, again, being the resident lawyer here, I think it's important to, you know, point out the difference between assault and battery in, you know, in terms of any criminal charges. I don't think that any criminal charges will be brought up against Kevin. I think that what's interesting to note for me as a person of color, as an American Muslim is, you know, if I had thrown a cell phone in a theater, you know, I might be in Guantanamo Bay right now, wearing an...

HEADLEE: Or a black guy.

IFTIKHAR: ... orange jumpsuit.

IZRAEL: We might be at your funeral, brother.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I mean it's quite possible. And so, you know, it's not something that I would've done. You know, if my brother or sister had done it I would've told them not to do it either.

HEADLEE: Let me get your response to that, Kevin...

IZRAEL: Yeah. This...

HEADLEE: ...because there's a certain amount of privilege perhaps, as an adult white guy, that you can throw a - grab a woman's phone and toss it and not be brought up on charges.

WILLIAMSON: I think that Arsalan's chances of getting gunned down by the audience at a musical theater performance in the meatpacking district in Manhattan is fairly, fairly low.

HEADLEE: I think he was talking about security, that the police would have been called.

IZRAEL: But just high enough, bro.


IZRAEL: Just high enough. Fairly low, but not abysmal. Corey, you know, to me, I love K-dub, but this sounds like classic white male indignation, you know, run amok, and that if he tries this when he goes to see - I don't know - if he goes to see "Iron Man 3" and he tries this, it's going to be a whole different set of circumstances. C-Dade, what do you think of this?

DADE: Well, I would love to know what Kevin would have done had the phone been, being - had the phone been held by a man.

WILLIAMSON: Well, about 10 years ago I did the same thing at a movie theater in Philadelphia, so...

DADE: How did that work out for you?

IZRAEL: You're just a gangster like that, huh?

IFTIKHAR: He's a serial phone thrower.


WILLIAMSON: It worked out fine.

IZRAEL: You should start a gang.

DADE: Well, good for you. Maybe that encouraged you to do it this time. I think for me, I think the first thing that came to mind is, you know, Kevin did something that we all want to do. Whenever we're at a movie...


DADE: ...we're at dinner...


HEADLEE: It's true.

DADE: ...we're at any time somebody is in - even in traffic, anytime someone is incessantly texting or talking on the phone in an obnoxious way, we want to either throttle them or crush the phone. But at the same time, that's an impulse that we control as human beings. My concern is, you know, the idea that a man imposes himself physically on a woman is just too inviting, and I think it happens too often. I think if there was a man on the other side of that, it might've been another equation. I know if it were me, it might've been a different result.

WILLIAMSON: I'll take the feminist line here and say that I will treat men and women equally in this situation.

DADE: I don't know if it's about being a feminist so much as it's not just asserting your male physicality.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah. You know...

HEADLEE: We're, we're going to leave the hypothetical fistfight between Corey and Kevin over the cell phone for just a moment.


HEADLEE: Let me remind the audience, you're listening to the weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by culture critic Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, and journalists Kevin Williamson, and Corey Dade.

So back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Celeste. OK, well, we've got a tough story from the Big Easy. Several suspects are now under arrest for their part in a mass shooting that took place on Mother's Day. Isn't that right, Celeste?

HEADLEE: That's right. Twenty people were injured in that shooting, including two children. There's outrage not just because of the crime, but some people are wondering why this story didn't get a lot of national attention. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Well, you know, I don't think, I've heard people say because it's the Big Easy and just people of color being shot, but I think to some degree this doesn't diminish what's happening in New Orleans. But I think there's New Orleans fatigue, not - and it's become old news and I think that's sad and I think maybe we need to bring some of the issues about the rebuilding of New Orleans back into the news, and I think violence - senseless violence like this has become part and parcel of how it goes down in New Orleans, sadly. Corey, you went to school in Louisiana...

DADE: I did.

IZRAEL: ...and you've reported from the big city. What do you think?

DADE: I did. I agree with you, Jimi. I covered Hurricane Katrina. I covered the city's efforts to recover over the next four or five years and, you know, it is personally frustrating that even as a journalist, continuing to cover New Orleans in any way ran up against Katrina fatigue among editors, among producers of the TV news side, and you know, it also pervades among the public. I think, you know, I don't think it's so much that Americans in general don't care about violence happening in New Orleans or any other big city. I think we care most about what directly affects us, and if you have any sort of compassion or activism in you about New Orleans, it's because you have a personal connection to that city. And I think that, you know, once we see something that is the norm - which is gun violence in New Orleans - we sort of accept it and we move on. We only pay attention - and that's the news organizations too - when something is unusual. So I noticed in the Twitter traffic that when this first hit, when this first kind of hit Twitter, there was all kinds of, you know, concern, gasps, worry, fear, etcetera, and then when the details started to trickle out about the fact that this was sort of black on black violence, the interest - especially on Twitter - started to die down. It's like oh, OK.

IZRAEL: Hmm. Hmm. Hmm. Thank you for that, C-Dade. Kevin Williamson, you've written about urban violence. Check in here.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah. Well, I think there is something to that. I think that we do tend to treat violence in particularly black communities, but sort of non-white communities more generally, as being normal. I think it's what someone once called the soft bigotry of low expectations.

DADE: Mm-hmm.

WILLIAMSON: If you had the sort of stuff that happens on any given weekend in South Chicago happen in Austin, Texas or Berkeley, California or Cambridge, Massachusetts, it would be a national story, it would be a huge thing. We have just in a sense written off these cities and written off these communities. We treat crime there is if it's normal, we treat other sorts of social dysfunction as though they are normal, and it's an enormous and serious problem for our country.

HEADLEE: We have time for one more topic today. I hate to move you guys on. But we want to talked about "Saturday Night Live." There's going to be a number of retirements. Bill Hader, for one, is going to leave "Saturday Night Live" when the season ends this weekend. You know him often as the Weekend Update city correspondent, Stefon. Here's a clip of him.


BILL HADER: (as Stefon) New York's hottest club is - your mother and I are separating. Don't be fooled by the charred Red Lobster sign out front. This club is a burn down Red Lobster. It has everything. It has everything: a shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch, a sensible dinner. Those shoes that nurses wear.

HEADLEE: So there's a lot of speculation over who might take Hader's seat. Many people are recommending it be a comedian of color. Let me start with you, Arsalan. Are we - why are we still at the place where there seems to be always a token person of color on "Saturday Night Live"? Why do we even have to talk about, hey, let's make it be a black guy or a brown guy?

IFTIKHAR: Well, because I think that, you know, diversity in American pop culture still has a long ways to go. And I think in terms of "SNL," you know, they've always had quote-unquote "token black comedians," and I think now it's important to get other token brown comedians, South Asian comedians like, you know, maybe Aziz Ansari or Mindy Kaling or Shazia Mirza - as you can tell, I'm holding up my Samosa here as a South Asian.


IFTIKHAR: But, you know, I think it's important. I think it's important to break into this comedic zeitgeist in this regard.

HEADLEE: All right. Comedic zeitgeist. Jimi, what do you think?

IZRAEL: You know, I think fat chance because humor is based on kind of a special knowledge of a common experience, and when white people see a black comedian, you know, they know that they're talking about race, and after they riff on a predicament of race and make a couple of goofy faces, you know, there's no more there there for, they're not considered necessarily funny anymore.


IZRAEL: You know, America's mailman, mailroom clerk, Chris Rock, I mean he gets by because he does great observational comedy and I'm grateful for that. But there's only one Chris Rock in the world. You know, we got too many Tracy Morgans and not enough Chris Rocks.

HEADLEE: All right. Well, Corey, Kevin, you guys want to weigh in on this?

DADE: Yeah, I'll take a shot at it. I mean for every, you know, for every black comedian who focuses on sort of so-called black humor, black observations about black culture, you still have people like Kevin Hart and others who have actually, you know, who are funny beyond telling racial jokes. But I think, you know, "SNL" has had a blind spot on the issue of racial comedy and comedians for years. You know, if this is supposed to be the gold standard for American comedy, then, you know, "SNL" consistently fails when it comes to not only the hiring of black comedians and comedians of color in general, but actually the sketches. This is supposed to be the smartest written comedy anywhere and yet, and whenever you have a person of color in these sketches, it's horrible, it's not even close to funny.

HEADLEE: All right.

IZRAEL: So wait, Corey, wait, Kevin Hart's funny? Good to know.


HEADLEE: All right. You just heard Corey Dade. He's contributing editor at The Root. He joined in our Washington, D.C. studios, and then Jimi Izrael, writer and culture critic, also adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. He joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Kevin Williamson is the deputy managing editor of the National Review. His new book is "The End Is Near and It's Going To Be Awesome." He was with us from our bureau in New York. And also Arsalan Iftikhar, he's civil rights attorney and founder of themuslimguy.com.

Thanks to all of you.



DADE: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

HEADLEE: Remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for the podcast. It's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Tune in for more talk on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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