Thursday, April 12, 2007

Defending The Indefensible

Since my last visit to these pages, during which I addressed the controversy surrounding Don Imus and his characterization of the Rutgers Womens Basketball team as "nappy-headed ho's," MSNBC opted to alter their suspension of their weekday simulcast of Mr. Imus's show to permanent status. It's possible they will reinstate the simulcast but, at this point, it's doubtful.

This morning I had occasion to listen to Imus's show, which was the start of the annual two-day Radiothon dedicated to research fighting Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and Tomorrow's Children. During the first five hours the Radiothon -- which runs 'round the clock even when Mr. Imus signed off this morning and tomorrow as well -- raised $1 million.

At some point this morning, when not directly calling attention to the goal of the Radiothon, ie to raise monies for charity, Mr. Imus did address the situation and last night's announced cancellation of the simulcast by MSNBC. Basically, he said he'd spoken to several of his friends -- many of whom happen to be regular guests on his program -- and they all suggested he'd apologized enough and that he should move on and move forward, which is what he did. Although he hopes, I would imagine, this situation will calm down somewhat, perhaps once he has met in person with the Rutgers Womens Basketball team, he also acknowledged that this Radiothon could be his last.

I think why this situation, which has clearly snowballed, is so troubling depends on one's perspective thereon. On the surface, I would think that most black people reacting to this story would concur that his comments were repulsive, deplorable and demand his dismissal. The sole exception, I would think, would be those black people who know him personally (ie colleagues of his at WFAN) and those who listen to his show somewhat regularly. Even among those people, I'm sure none of them are supportive or enthused by the comments that fomented this trouble in the first place; however, knowing the context and the style in which Mr. Imus operates makes these comments less a matter of racism and more simple bad judgment.

With respect to White America, the only people who have no issue whatsoever with his comments are people who indeed are racist, bigoted, misogynistic imbeciles. Every person with whom I've spoken or heard from think he said something terrible, stupid and repulsive -- and as he has admitted himself, they are correct.

However, I'm -- fortunately or otherwise -- in a somewhat interesting place vis-a-vis this whole situation. Despite not having been a regular Imus listener for at least a year or two, when I heard these comments and the context in which they were spoken, my first thought wasn't "How could he have said something so disgusting about black women?" Instead, it was "How could he have said something so stupid?"

Obviously his comments denigrated these women on the basis of their ethnicity. Obviously his comments denigrated them as women. And obviously, his comments -- as a result of these facts -- have no place in public speech.

Without invoking the Bill of Rights, our Freedom of Speech and Expression and lamenting -- over a violin creaking out a sad tune -- the death of life as we know it in the face of political correctness, it's clear that he said something really, really stupid. We could also discuss the fact that he didn't refer to these women by using the "n-word" -- a word so horrible, so awful, so terrible, that we can't even fucking include it -- even to exemplify how horrible, how awful, how terrible a word it is in some shitty blog, let alone on the public fucking airwaves -- but the fact is his intent was not to denigrate these women or black people in general. Taken in or out of context, however, it sure sounds like it -- which is why said comments are so stupid.

However, to anyone who has any experience listening to Mr. Imus's show, he/she knows that Mr. Imus -- like other participants on his show -- do impersonations of people. Many of these impersonations -- of a sarcastic Irish cardinal, Rush Limbaugh, Janet Reno, Bill Clinton, Al Sharpton, et al -- are meant to be humorous in their ridiculous extremism. Rush Limbaugh, via the Imus show, has -- in the past -- sung "The Lady Is A Tramp" (dedicated to Hilary Clinton); the aforementioned Irish cardinal talks about drinking and pedophilia; Janet Reno is portrayed with a gruff-voiced man who talks as if he's the sheriff of a Wyatt Earp-era frontier town; and Al Sharpton is portrayed as a caricature that makes Jerry Springer and his show seem sophisticated.

Of these people he has lambasted with regularity, all but one are white.

Further, in his show's impersonation of Al Sharpton, he tries to emphasize that Mr. Sharpton spends more time yelling and screaming and pointing a finger than at making any valid or worthwhile points. Moreover, he does so by portraying him to be a joke -- at least, in my estimation, he's done so since Mr. Sharpton accused white policemen in the Tawana Brawley incident of being racist, even though his claims were proven summarily false (and he was forced to pay damages and restitution to the officers thereafter).

It's also interesting to note that Mr. Sharpton's reaction to Mr. Imus's comments caome well after Mr. Imus's show had been poking fun at Mr. Sharpton for years.

The point being, Imus -- in the course of saying something stupid -- was not being racist or bigoted. His crime, if you will, was of using terminology that -- coming from a white person -- is, essentially, despicable. Of course, had he been a black person referring to the team in that particular manner, none of this uproar would have taken place, especially at the hands of a hypocrite like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson.

But he's not black, so it's meaningless.

However, it seems to me -- whether stupid or racist -- these comments deserve and merit reaction. The question, however, remains as to whether his comments were intended in humor that simply went too far or if they were/are evidence of his racial/bigoted prejudices. If I haven't made same clear, I believe wholeheartedly that the guy said something stupid "in character" -- that is, two homies rappin' with one another -- rather than his genuine views on black women.

Still, since we're debating whether he genuinely is a racist and a misogynist, it seems to me that if he was a racist he would denigrate black people with more regularity and would have been dismissed years ago. Why? Because most of his interviews are with political candidates and/or people, like Tim Russert, who could and cannot afford to be associated with someone who is identified -- properly or otherwise -- as a racist. That doesn't mean he's not a racist; it simply means that he has spent much of his career talking and sharing his views over a four-hour clip on a daily basis and has less than a handful of racial controversy on his resume. If he was a genuine racist, I believe he would have been "outed" long ago. Granted, he takes liberties in describing and/or impersonating some guests who are of a different ethnicity than him -- but he lampoons white people to whom he is very similar ethnically. So if he is a racist because he lampoons black people, than he is a self-hating white man because he rips into every- and anyone that does, says, thinks or portrays something stupid, different or interesting.

Essentially, if we're to brand him a racist, than we should also aim our bile at comedians who attack people at live performances (Michael Richards aside). People who are overweight, short, bald and just plain ugly are all targets of stand-up comedians. Does that mean that if a comic fires off a fat joke in the direction of someone who's overweight that said comic hates fat people? Similarly...short people? The point isn't whether the comments are shared, but the intent behind them.

As far as him being a misogynist, Mr. Imus's agent, Esther Newburgh, is a lesbian. He refers to her as "Lobster" ("Lobster Newburgh"). Does that mean he hates women, hates lesbians, or has some deep-seated resentment of females in general? Or is it merely, perhaps, evidence that he enjoys attacking women in general?

Or perhaps it could also mean that despite the fact he takes liberties with Ms. Newburgh's name, he trusts and respects her enough to represent his interests in his publishing endeavors. Does that sound like someone who is a misogynist?

He referred, at one point, to the media critic for the Washington Post (Eric Kurtz, I believe) as a boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jewboy. The gentleman to which he was referring is Jewish.

That must mean, certainly, that Imus is a raging anti-Semite. Regular readers of this space, I'm confident, know that I am quick to respond to anti-Semitic and anti-Israel commentary when it is done in ignorance rather than factual debate. And yet, somehow, I can overlook Mr. Imus's characterization of the aforementioned Mr. Kurtz. Why? Because despite poking fun at Mr. Kurtz, he also treats him -- when the conversation turns serious -- with respect and admiration, clarifying the fact that a silly spewing of nicknames and/or labels is done in jest. If I believed Mr. Imus went after Mr. Kurtz or another Jewish person for their ethnicity, I'd be standing next to Mr. Sharpton bitching and moaning.

It's very easy to take shots at a man who said something stupid in a public setting as Imus did. It's also very easy to ignore the fact that, despite his being a target, he today raised $1 million for a charity dedicated to children. What sometimes amazes me is that a man who does so much good for so many people -- ask any of the families who have been involved in the Imus Ranch -- is even questioned as he has been.

Certainly, he said something stupid and hurtful -- but it's clear, at least to me, that his goal was to be funny, not hurtful. Had he gone after these women endlessly, and insulted other teams simply due to the fact that they were composed of mostly black women, I guess I would wonder about his intentions. But he didn't. I wonder what would have happened had the team been composed of mostly hispanic women, and instead of referring to them as "nappy-headed hos" he referred to them as "hubcap-stealin' hos" or "guacamole-eatin' hos." What would the fallout been thereafter? How about if he referred to McAbee (an Israeli basketball team) as a bunch of "yamulkah-wearing freaks" or the University of Nebraska Mens Basketball Team as a bunch of "White-Bread Corn-Holing Farmer Idiots." Who would be on the picket line chanting for justice and out for blood?

The answer is, likely, no one.

The reason why, whether we want to admit same or not, is that despite saying something incredibly stupid, which he did, his intent was not to hurt or offend anyone. However, this country has become so hyper-sensitive to anything remotely negative vis-a-vis the black community, as represented by Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Jackson, that all non-black people -- even other minorities -- are forbidden from approach. To wit, is the word "kike" referred to as the "k-word?" Is the word "mick" referred to as the "m-word?" Do people think of the word "chink" when the "c-word" is invoked? No. So why, in our daily discourse, are we so intrinsically repulsed by the word "nigger" that we can't even repeat it to exemplify that word which repulses us so without fearing an appearance by Betelguese, Satan, Candyman or something far more sinister? The word is repulsive and connotes a disgusting period in our history, so we avoid it. Yet many black people refer to one another in that manner.

Hypocrisy. Plain and simple.

I'm not suggesting we as Americans, black or white, start using the "n-word" in our regular discourse. I'm suggesting, rather, that we as Americans -- black AND white -- should ask why we've been brainwashed into being so afraid of speaking frankly about race and about the differences that divide us -- in an interest of bridging these divisions. Hearing some rapper or some random imbecile use the "n-word" casually is an especially repulsive experience, if only because I've never heard a Jewish person refer to another Jew as a kike, and I've never heard Irish people refer to themselves as micks, and I've certainly never heard an Asian person refer to other Asians as chinks. In fact, I bristle whenever I hear the genuine use of one of these slurs because it is repulsive to me; however, when it is used in context -- regardless of the recipient of the insult or slur is black, jewish, asian, or arab -- it's different. Hearing someone refer to me as a boner-nosed, beanie-wearing jewboy wouldn't be acceptable, except if I knew the person's intent wasn't to insult but to go so far beyond the bounds that the insult was an attempt at humor.

I'm not defending Mr. Imus nor do I condone his comments. But I think this uproar, this controversy, this witch hunt, is a sham. I think it's a hoax. I think it's retribution and I think Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Jackson are hypocritical pulpit-pounders who need to go find a legitimate cause in which to involve themselves. Imus did something stupid -- and he knows and admits he did -- and not simply because he said something shitty about people who really didn't deserve to be insulted, even in jest. What he did was cross the line and allow hypocrites like Sharpton and Jackson to judge him.

At least that's how I, a honky resident of Hymietown, see it.

Or, I think we have a long way to go in this country before speech really is free and protected, on both side of the gray.


Since I wrote the above, it was widely reported that Mr. Imus was fired by CBS. I remain shocked and amazed that his mistake has cost him his job. I further am shocked and amazed that CBS caved to pressure from Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Bruce Gordon and opted to remove Mr. Imus in the middle of a multi-day Radiothon dedicated to helping sick children. As I wrote above, in its first four hours, Mr. Imus raised over $1 million. Assuming tomorrow's donations approached those he achieved today, I was curious as to why CBS -- and any of the people calling for Imus's removal -- would ignore what he was doing today and what he was aiming to do tomorrow and remove him. The only logical conclusion I have been able to reach is that they were under so much pressure from the black community that they basically had no choice. What bothers me about all of this is that the Black Community -- from the parents of the Rutgers players to Mr. Sharpton, who is supposedly a minister, to Oprah, to any of the other prominent critics of Mr. Imus -- has repeatedly suggested that Imus's attack insulted these proud, articulate, promising women. And yet CBS -- with pressure from the concerned, protective black community -- still went ahead and prevented him from continuing to raise money for charities dedicated to helping children.

It seems to me that if the Black Community -- Mr. Sharpton, Mr. Jackson, Mr. Gordon, et al -- really wanted to change the way we see race in this country, they would have at least recognized that Imus should have been permitted to finish the Radiothon. I guess it's really not about helping one another or protecting and nurturing the children -- it's about helping out black people, and protecting and nurturing the black children.

Way to go, CBS. Your callow, pandering release valve demonstrated to me that you care more about the black minority than operating within a modicum of common sense.

I hope CBS has plenty of good, pro-black community programming in the near future. It better be good -- Al Sharpton's watching and waiting.


LisaBinDaCity said...

It's not just the African American community, Boogs, I was offended as well. What Imus said was obnoxious on many levels. To me, it was more about college level women athletes than their color. In one nasty sentence he attempted to negate all of their accomplishments into the dust, and wrote them off as trash.

What if he said that about your daughter, sister, friend etc?

All that being said, I still think people who live in glass houses i.e. Sharpton and Jackson should not throw stones.

Oh and great minds ;-)

Boogie said...

There's no question that what he said was obnoxious; I'm not defending his language. Further, while I understand what he was doing -- at least on some level -- and I do believe he didn't mean to offend anyone at all, I understand and agree that what he said was offensive. Like he himself said, "it doesn't matter if I meant to shoot someone or if the gun just went off while I was cleaning it. Either way, someone's dead."

However, what intrigues me about this situation is determining whether the punishment fits the crime. My belief is it doesn't. I expected a reaction -- and I would be shocked and disappointed had there not been one -- but these comments, I believe, were inappropriate but not worthy of his termination. If he had made those comments with malice and meant to denigrate the women of Rutgers basketball or women in general, than I would wholeheartedly have supported his firing; as it is, I think he just said something stupid and thoughtless without malice.

Again, either way, the gun went off and someone's dead. And inasmuch as I disagree with his firing, had he not made those stupid, hurtful comments in the first place, none of this would have been an issue.

Incidentally, if my daughter/sister/friend was a public figure and Imus dropped a bomb similar to what he did last Wednesday, I probably would not have been thrilled but I would not have been outraged or offended; again, I call attention to his characterization of the Post Media Critic as a boner-nosed, beanie-wearing jewboy. If any of his (former) locker-room trash-talk/insults had meaning behind them, I'd take offense at that and a lot more; as it is, it's simply his style of communicating with and entertaining -- if in the past -- his listeners.

If nothing else, I think the timing and the very fact this is front-page news says a lot about us as a culture that seemingly, somehow, has the audacity to claim we enjoy the freedom of speech.

That, and every time I see or hear Al Sharpton I wonder how he'll lower his stature and what bullshit he'll sling.

That double standard shows there is no black and white but just a muddled mass of gray. What's worse is I don't know if that's an improvement or a setback.

O well.