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Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Imus Fallout and Reflections

The discussion and resulting din gets extremely tiring sometimes.

I wasn't going to comment again on the ongoing saga that has become Don Imus, Al Sharpton, CBS radio and MSNBC. The noise is already deafening, and I didn't think I wanted to add to it. But as time went on and the story grew, it became clear that we as a society are at a significant cultural crossroads here (of which Don Imus just happens to be caught in the middle), and I needed to hash out in my own mind what I believe is happening.

Let me say, first and foremost, that I'm tired of talking to idiots on both sides of the cultural divide about this. First and foremost are the legions of angry white men, guys who seem to literally crawl out of the woodwork any time a racially charged issue comes to the fore. Even some of the more generally liberal white guys really seem to believe that the playing field has been completely leveled in terms of race and sex (all that has really happened, of course, is that they don't occupy the entire field anymore-two out of nine of the ballplayers on that field are now nonwhites or women, and a lot of white men consider that sacrifice enough on their part). For them, the entire argument revolves around a) Al Sharpton, who manages to make any discussion of race about himself and gives the angry white guys the perfect distraction to completely deflect any real discussion of the issue. Hey, because Sharpton is a charlatan and a self-promoter, too, I can avoid any responsibility for reflection on this, especially my part in it. Fuck him, they say. His presence proves this isn't really about race, it's about Al Sharpton, whom we hate! and b) gangsta rap. As far as the angry white man is concerned, saying racially insensitive crap can't possibly be bad because such fine, upstanding citizens as 50 Cent and Ludacris have made millions saying far worse. They conveniently forget that other members of the African-American community, such as Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune and innumerable other more reputable black commentators and religious leaders, have called loudly and long for the industry to do more about policing its' glorification of horizontal violence and desensitizingly self-loathing language. Black women nearly universally condemn the genre. Even the despised Sharpton and the #2 guy on the white man's most wanted list, Rev. Jesse Jackson, have made a practice of condemining the practitioners of this realm of theater. By giving themselves a pass on the language because of Suge Knight, whites do a grievous disservice to the millions of African-Americans who do not consider rappers their spokespeople. Additionally, (although this is a loaded thought more appropriate for a PhD dissertation), I would also speculate that in the cultural vernacular of rap, slurs are used for an entirely different purpose and effect and you have to earn your right to use them, even among African-Americans. No white man, certainly not an establishment millionaire dinosaur like Don Imus, will ever be able to stake claim to use those terms with impunity, no matter what the intent.

On the other side are the reactionaries who are taking this opportunity to label Don Imus the second coming of Richard Girnt Butler. Many of the less sophisticated, especially in the blogosphere, who probably hadn't actually heard the comments in context, jumped immediately on the Sharpton bandwagon and rode it over the edge of the reason. One of the nicer comments about him made in this context was that he was a "crypto-bloodless assassin" and a stooge in Ronald Reagan's plot to stamp out diversity in America. Now, I have long been of the opinion that Don Imus is a stupid, insensitive clod who stoops 'way below what is decent in order to get a laugh, but he didn't murder Emmitt Till, folks. As he said, he has done a lot of good works (although admittedly some of his defenses for himself sounded suspiciously like "some of my best friends are black). He's not a virulent racist. He's exposed himself as a cultural relic, more to be pitied than despised, a victim of his own privilege. Let's get a little perspective here.

So it's against this backdrop that one has to try and make sense of all this. Everybody has a theory of what it all means for now and going forward. There is a legitimate question of, what was so much worse about this statement than the myriad of other similar ones he has made over the years? Why have we nailed Imus to the cross on this when far worse can be heard every day on conservative talk radio or Fox? I mean, Bill Bennett suggests that we could reduce the crime rate if we aborted black fetuses, and hardly anybody blinks (it does get plenty of air time on "Air America"). Rush Limbaugh makes a living spouting racially divisive statements; just a couple days ago he asserted that "minorities never do anything for which they have to apologize." Hell, our president got his job by promoting hate and division against targeted groups, primarily gays and immigrants. So why the Imus backlash, against comments that he obviously thought were supposed to be complimentary?

I would speculate the the backlash occurred specifically because of the context in which the words were uttered. We've become, unfortunately, almost immune to the nonsense of the skinheads and Nazis, but Imus is neither. His remark was benign...thoughtless but not intended, I believe, to be racially inflammatory. But it may have reminded us that one of the more poisonous aspects of our racially divided history is not simply slavery, the overt threats and unpeakable violence but also the more benign, insidious forms of oppression-the affectionate references to "our darkies," blacks who knew their place, kept their own council and who whites cared for and saved from themselves because they were genetically unable to do it due to their race (slavery was often defended as a humane institution for this very reason). Imus defenders stridently make the case that no harm was intended by his slur; perhaps, but neither was harm intended in the almost benevolent, but no less virulent, racism of many white people, which manifests itself in the attitude that African-Americans are perpetual children in need of white protection (another version of this is the helpless woman in need of a male protector). Part of that version of bigotry assumes the acceptance of racially derogatory terms spoke in a condescending or even affectionate fashion. Perhaps this is where Imus struck a nerve among us-and where we collectively saw a propensity for the same in ourselves, and were repulsed by it. Blatant racism is easy to spot and dismiss when no one bothers to disguise it, as in the case of Bennett and Limbaugh; in other forms, it becomes less easy to dismiss and now, apparently, more likely to be held up to scrutiny. It's as if we're saying we're giving up on the redemption of the Limbaughs of the world-they're not worth our time, so contain them, and if they and their pathetic devotees drown in their own cesspool of hate, so much the better-but we still hold out some hope for the Imuses. If we let it be known that this is, finally, simply not acceptable, perhaps there is a chance it won't fall on deaf ears.

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