Monday, April 09, 2007

The Cost of Free Speech

Unless you live under a rock, you have heard something -- on some level -- about last week's comments by Don Imus, the morning "shock jock" DJ for WFAN in New York City. His program addresses a variety of topics; last Wednesday, however, his focus was on the Tuesday night Womens' Final Four Final game, which featured the Rutgers Womens Basketball team. Mr. Imus, in his discourse, referred to the team as a bunch of "nappy-headed ho's."

Had that phrase been uttered by Rush Limbaugh or any other conservative political radio pundit, the axe would have swiftly come down. However, because Mr. Imus is an "entertainer" rather than a serious political commentator, there's question over whether his remarks were really racially-motivated by bigotry and/or racism.

However, the uproar that has resulted from these comments is interesting. Al Sharpton, a frequent target of Imus insults, led the charge, calling for Imus's dismissal. In addition, Jesse Jackson also called for Mr. Imus to be fired by WFAN. The latter led a protest held at NBC in Chicago which saw 50 people picket the NBC affiliate there, while the former continued calling for Imus to step down. Imus offered to have Mr. Sharpton appear on his show, which Mr. Sharpton denied; however, Sharpton invited Imus to appear on his show, which Imus accepted.

While a transcript of the interchange isn't yet available, I watched some of the conversation between the two. First, I genuinely believe Al Sharpton thinks Imus is a bigot and a racist. Second, I think Mr. Imus genuinely was trying to be funny, not racist. Third, I think that the disparity of opinion over what actually transpired is too great to be successfully bridged. And fourth, I think that any time a white person makes any disparaging comment about a black person or black people in general, he or she will be branded a racist.

To expound on these points, we live in a tight-lipped, tight-ass culture. We speak in politically-correct terms, even when those terms are ridiculous. Several Presidents refer to black Americans as African-Americans, yet if a white person of African heritage became a citizen of the United States, that person would also be regarded as an African American. We're so careful not to insult or offend or step on anyone's toes that we walk on eggshells any time we even approach the topic of race, and while I understand the defensive nature of a minority against broad, stereotypical criticism, I cannot understand the overzealous need to apologize for years of systematic bigotry in modern contexts.

Essentially, in recent retrospect, what Michael Richards did onstage was fairly repulsive. So was what Mel Gibson did in the back of a police cruiser after being arrested for DUI. Each of those two individuals displayed, perhaps, how they felt at that particular moment without regard for the people or the ethnic group which they attacked. What Imus did, however, was a silly, foolish attempt at humor.

Part of the problem in the Imus situation is that Al Sharpton not only focused on the "nappy-headed ho's" comment but also another of the radio show's participants using the terms "wanna-be's" and "jigaboos." Those terms were taken from the context of a Spike Lee film; however, being that Spike Lee is black, his use of those terms, obviously, has far different meaning and consequence.

In this particular situation, Mr. Imus jabbed at the Rutgers' Womens' Basketball Team but didn't do so out of malice or racism, at least not in my opinion. If one listens to his show for a week -- or has done so in the past -- it's fairly clear that he uses base, foolish, silly humor to attack any and all members of the public. He, in the past, has referred to Janet Reno as a man, and he's poked fun at Al Sharpton -- the same man leading the charge calling for his dismissal -- by depicting him as a fool who shouts out his thoughts like a circus ringmaster.

When all is said and done, Mr. Imus isn't going to lose his job as a DJ, and I think within a month all of this will disappear from society's front pages. I think black people will continue to despise him and brand him a bigot and a racist, and I doubt that characterization will ever disappear. However, I think it's convenient that many people -- especially those calling for him to be fired -- ignore the fact that he's spent countless millions building hospitals and the Imus Ranch, which is dedicated to putting smiles on the faces of critically ill children and their families. He also hosts an annual telethon on WFAN which is dedicated to research for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. For a bigoted piece of shit, the guy seems to be awfully generous.

Was what he said racist? I'm not sure. If he said "I wouldn't give a job to a black person because they're all lazy," that's racist. If he said "I wouldn't give a job to a jewish person because they're all greedy and cheap," that's racist. If he said "The New York Knicks are a bunch of carjackers in shorts," that's not racist. Why? First of all, he HAS said it on his program -- a number of times. Second, because he's not being serious in his suggestion that the Knicks are a bunch of guys who actually go steal cars. He is trying to be funny; whether or not he's successful is another story. When he referred to the women on Rutgers Women's Team, I doubt he was referring to them in that way in truth; I think it was his way of attempting to be funny and characterize them as a bunch of tough women. His use of the word "ho" wasn't suggesting they were prostitutes, nor was he suggesting they were low-end human beings or somehow to be regarded in a lower light because they're female.

He was simply trying to be funny, and his attempt at humor failed miserably. He has admitted same numerous times, so there's no point in regurgitating that fact.

However, what all this shows is that any disparaging commentary aimed at black people in this country must be given with a disclaimer, or not be given at all. And the truth is, I think his attack on these women -- even in jest -- was way off base. And again, he'll agree. The bottom line is that he said something stupid and is being attacked for doing so. But what he did was use bad judgement, not reveal some bigoted, racist side to his character.

I only wish we lived in a culture that didn't spend so much time poring over the minutae of some dumb comment from a comedian and more time digging into the actual problems we face as a culture.

It's easier to chastise and brand Mr. Imus as a racist and a bigot than actually try and make some progress in any meaningful way.

I guess, however, that's why Reverend Al has his radio show; if things actually improved, he could actually go home, get a regular job, stay off the front page (and the 6 O'Clock News) and we could actually move forward as a culture.

Guess not.

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