No, it was not the most excruciating thing ever seen on television. We've seen worse.
We've seen Roseanne singing the national anthem, Magic Johnson hosting a talk show and Paris Hilton ... existing. But if it's not number one on that list of god-awful TV, author Reza Aslan's recent interview with Lauren Green of Fox "News" is in the top 10.
Google it if you haven't seen it. Or just ask some woman to rake her fingernails down a chalkboard for 10 minutes. Same difference.
Over and over, speaking in the patient tone you'd use to instruct a slow child, Aslan answers the question put to him by reciting his bona fides. He is a historian. He is an expert on the New Testament. He is fluent in Biblical Greek. He holds four degrees. He has spent 20 years researching the origins of Christianity. The study of religion is his job.
And over and over again, doing her best imitation of Mike Wallace pinning miscreants to the wall (if Mike Wallace had shilled for a company of right-wing propagandists playacting at journalism) Green keeps bringing him back to what she regards as the central issue: "You're a Muslim," she informs him, "so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?"
The book in question is "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," a search for the historicity of the itinerant rabbi who founded the biggest religion on Earth. On that basis, you'd expect it to be controversial. Green, however, seems less vexed by the book's content than by its author's faith.
"Why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?" she asks.
And, "You're not just writing about a religion from a point of view of an observer."
And, "You've been on several programs and never disclosed that you're a Muslim." To which Aslan replies that his religion is disclosed on the second page of the book and in every interview he's ever done.
It goes on like that for 10 cringe-inducing minutes. At some point, you find yourself drifting in a stupor of disbelief, amusing yourself by imagining how Green might have interviewed other authors in history:
"John Steinbeck, you're from California. Why did you write about people from Oklahoma?"
"Tom Wolfe, you're no astronaut. Why did you write about astronauts?"
"Alexis de Tocqueville, you're a Frenchman. Why did you write about the United States?"
That's the subtext of Green's interview, after all, the idea that one must belong to a given tribe before one may write about that tribe. But of course, that's not quite what she's saying, is it? No, that stricture only applies if one is a Muslim.
For all their professed abhorrence of so-called "identity politics," it is for many conservatives an article of faith that if one's identity includes Islam, that fact trumps everything else: character, upbringing, beliefs, politics, or fluency in Biblical Greek. Think Glenn Beck asking a Muslim congressman to prove he is not in league with America's enemies. Think Michele Bachmann accusing an aide to the secretary of state of terrorist ties.
You are your tribe. More to the point, you are the worst iteration of your tribe, the scapegoat for all our fears of your tribe.
So Fox's mugging of Aslan was an embarrassment, but hardly a surprise. The nation seems to have grown uncomfortably comfortable with the sort of "thinking" from which it proceeded.
The encounter drove Aslan's book to the top of the Amazon best-sellers list, which is good news for him. But the better news is that he lives in a country where the right to follow any line of scholarship he wants is carved in stone, regardless of how he conceives God. There is a word for that:
Lauren Green should look it up.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers can email him at email@example.com.