Van Jones is is a little bit of everything we associate with public engagement: commentator, writer, political and environmental activist, former government worker, and attorney. According to most articles in response to his comments in the last few weeks, his real name is “CNN’s Van Jones,” though anyone listening closely to his words or examining his career under a microscope can see that he avoids characterization as a typically belligerent media pundit with ironclad resolve. Jones possesses an eclectic background that extends from socialist collective STORM to founding several non-profits and activist organizations to co-hosting CNN’s Crossfire. The Conservative Review proudly reminds readers that in “in 2011, the late great Andrew Breitbart pulled no punches in describing Jones as a “commie punk” and a “cop killer-supporting, racist, demagogic freak,” while CNN footage shows Jones defending Melania Trump and subsequently sending fellow liberals on the discussion panel spiraling into a rage sharknado. From his ultimately accurate predictions regarding the election to recent initiative establishing a Love Army to counter the current and prospective negative impact of President-Elect Donald Trump, he is positioning himself to serve as far more than commentator on the news of the day. Regardless of any viewer’s political leaning, he is doubtlessly one of the most interesting and (having weathered his fair share of controversy) one of the most resilient voices in American media today.

Jones’ measured, civil, and professorial tone is usually a stark contrast to the shouting of most panel pundits, though he is known for rising to an impassioned defense now and again (notably in a segment discussing the KKK with Jeffrey Lord). Recently, he has stepped into a new role as a chief combination explainer-interpreter and defender of American Muslims, a spot arguably previously occupied by scholar, author, and ever-expanding media presence Reza Aslan, whose new show Believer premieres on CNN in 2017.

JihadWatch is a media outlet “dedicated to bringing public attention to the role that jihad theology and ideology play in the modern world and to correcting popular misconceptions about the role of jihad and religion in modern-day conflicts.” In early December, JihadWatch criticized Jones and fellow panelists for claiming that the President-Elect’s rhetoric inspires Muslims to “self-radicalize” and failing to address the existence of Muslim extremists prior to Trump’s political debut. On Jones’ show The Messy Truth, Jones, Rick Santorum and Ana Navarro engaged in a highly spirited discussion on the growing fears of American Muslim families, with Santorum countering that “anyone concerned about their religious liberty should feel better under President Trump than President Obama,” that the President-Elect should not be held responsible for “crazy people” who “misinterpret” his messages about terrorism, and that many minorities in the country are looking for someone to address their living conditions. Jones continued to press Santorum about the legitimacy of Muslims’ fears, with Santorum closing that Trump will not do anything to marginalize American Muslim families.

His use of classic debate techniques and his background as an attorney are evident when he ridicules hypothetical false equivalences present in public sentiment, rather than attacking direct statements which can subsequently be meticulously challenged on semantics. One week after the election, Jones claimed that “there will be a Muslim Trayvon Martin in the next six months on our present trajectory,” presenting a genuine possibility in envisionable and localized terms fresh in American memory, rather than invoking Orientalist jingoism and/or sweeping claims of malicious intent.

A few days ago, as the lone minority voice on a CNN panel on the President-Elect’s unsubstantiated comments regarding many unmonitored possible threats flooding into our borders, Jones took an opportunity to illustrate the exemplary qualities of the Muslim community, including the lowest crime rates, highest educational attainment for women, and the highest levels of entrepreneurship in the country. He called Muslims the “model community,” which is a title that comes with its own problems.

Despite that baggage, Jones’ elicitation of this imagery as the reality of Muslims in America has struck a chord with many; especially for Muslims who have grown accustomed to defending themselves on the more abstract metric of “general chill” or personal terror-striking ability scales going from zero (Dr. Oz) to 5 (Barack Obama) to (9) Osama bin Laden. The coveted 10 slot is probably a composite image of all the bad guys on Homeland or someone Sikh, since we have garnered international attention for attacks on Sikhs confused for Muslims.

For what feels the first time in recent memory, a media figure has been able to skillfully and noticeably fence against popular rhetoric regarding refugees and extremism in this country in an empowering way, rather than with the purposeful and resented infantilization that pundits across the spectrum have claimed has been perpetrated by left-wing media, Obama administration, and Hillary Clinton.

In the same segment, Jeffrey Lord points out a difference between the Muslims Jones describes and the recent Ohio travesty, San Bernardino, and two 9/11 hijackers with floating visas, returning to the panel topic and his stance that U.S. entrants are not vetted enough. Moderator Anderson Cooper then reminds the panel that the Ohio attacker would have only been 14 or 15 on arrival, and these cases compose a fraction of total Muslim immigrants. Georgia Representative Jack Kingston explains that exact numbers of OTCs, or “Other Than Mexican” entrants are not available, and then this YouTube clip and most of the others of that particular panel end.

Jones’ statement, a moment of significance, occurred during an event showcasing one of the many problems with commentary panels in their popular form: that no one can make a layered statement and receive a layered response in the given time frame. This particular panel only occasionally hit a few of the other usual issues, such as panelists falling out of order, addressing previous topics and seeming like they can’t keep up, and everyone rushing to “win” that viral moment, that deciding statement, or to be the one person voicing the elusive “undeniable truth.” It seems silly to try and respond to one another’s single-point claims with multifaceted refutations in a hyperbolic and irritable environment, distrustful of nuance; this is likely a reflection of CNN and most major network’s opinion of their audience. If the world were composed only of YouTube commenters, I suppose that would actually be the case.

Jones (whether one agrees with him or not) has won moment after moment, gone viral, and even on occasion poised his comment perfectly so as to make any response seem racist, sexist, ignorant, or downright foolish. He has won these moments in his staunch defense of Muslims, without the bias of actually being Muslim, a criticism repeatedly levied against charismatic and also frequently viral commenter Reza Aslan (despite his topical expertise and vast range of experience). This is not to say he hasn’t lost his cool – he most definitely has – but then again, I find myself in awe when any commenter maintains a semblance of decorum during apocalyptic shouting matches.

This panel is a singular showcase of the conflation of separate-but-related themes in pretty much all post-9/11 discourse: the Muslim Experience in America, the American Muslim Experience, and the structural issues that endanger Americans’ personal security. The overarching presence of intersectionality (a word decried by many as overly academic) is undeniable. With this panel and Trevor Noah’s recent interview with Tomi Lahren, it is difficult to say that there aren’t (at minimum) two different conversations happening anytime people representing the left and the right meet for “discourse.”


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