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Don of the Dead

April 17, 2007

“That’s some nappy-headed hos there.”

These were the words uttered by radio personality Don Imus a few weeks ago as an aside on the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team, and for now at least they appear to have cost him his job. Media maelstrom, racial conflagration – whatever creaky, wheezing metaphor one might choose to apply, the whole thing did seem to go by in a trice. And in keeping with this column’s defiant habit of ignoring the tyranny of the news cycle, we come to it now when the dust mites appear to have gone back to business.

I should say first that I have never listened to or watched Imus, with the exception of the replays of this incident. I am, however, an avid fan of Howard Stern and South Park, but more on that later. In any event, I imagine that almost all among the enraged who demanded Imus’ head are in the same boat as me – they weren’t listeners, didn’t hear the original comment when it was uttered, and learned of the offending line second-hand. They charged Imus with unforgivable racism (although, as it turns out, the Rutgers women’s basketball team did in fact accept his apology), with spouting derogatory hate that should not be permitted on the air, and he was swiftly booted as a result. His opponents declared themselves satisfied, American mainstream society gave itself a good sanctimonious pat on the back and everything returned to normal. As the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson opined: “Now that the networks have pulled the plug on Don Imus, let’s have no hyperventilation to the effect that the aging shock jock’s fall from undeserved grace raises some important question about just who in our society is permitted to say just what. Wherever ‘the line’ delineating acceptable discourse might be, calling those young women from Rutgers University ‘nappy-headed hos’ is miles on the other side.” Right, no need to hyperventilate then. For, as Robinson assures us, “This doesn’t portend any sort of chilling effect on free speech.”

And yet while it’s a great comfort to have Robinson around to not bother delineating these bright lines for us, assuring us that like indecency he knows unacceptable discourse when he sees it, I can’t help but feel a slight nip in the air and just a hint of hyperventilation in my chest. Perhaps this isn’t a free speech issue. As Robinson says, “The First Amendment notwithstanding, it has always been the case that some speech has been off-limits to some people.” Certainly, the First Amendment doesn’t apply in this case as no government agency restricted Imus’ speech. Even so, it would be ludicrous to suggest that Imus’ ouster doesn’t – oh, what’s a good way to describe it? Someone said it so well. Oh yes… I remember: “raise some important questions about just who in our society is permitted to say just what.” In fact that is exactly what it does, Eugene Robinson notwithstanding.

That Imus’ comment itself was racially offensive is difficult to dispute. There have been some rather lame attempts to contextualize the comment, pointing out that the opposing Tennessee team that Imus seemed to praise as lady-like and delicate was largely made up of African-American players as well. But it hardly takes a cultural studies primer or the ministrations of that race-baiter extraordinaire, the Revered Al Sharpton, to parse the phrase for bigotry. It conjures up a demeaning stereotype of blacks as unkempt and uncouth, thuggish and rough. Further, Imus managed to combine the racial trigger word ‘nappy,’ with its deeply ingrained history of contempt for black physical features, with a word commonly understood to be the urban “ghetto” (read “black”) term for a prostitute. I doubt Imus really meant to suggest much about his targets’ supposed promiscuity but rather seems to have lurched rather lamely to appropriate the first ghetto-slang descriptive that came into his mind, again to emphasize the players’ supposedly “thuggish” quality. It’s pretty ugly stuff, and especially nasty considering that the Rutgers team had fought all the way to their first ever NCAA national championship game.

Is Don Imus a racist? I don’t know. He certainly appears to be something of an as-hole. (Not wanting to get Imus’d myself, I await clarification on naughty utterances from my corporate overlords). Unlike some, I don’t claim the power to see into men’s souls and divine the dark hatred that lurks therein. In the sense that “evelyone’s a rittle bit lacist,” he would certainly qualify. Rather than a deliberate attempt to hurt or bellitle blacks, his comment strikes me more as a lame attempt at coarse, offensive banter, which as far as I understand is his shock in trade. Imus reminds me of that older white fellow one sometimes meets at parties who insists he’s got no problem with black people while engaging in racially-charged raillery that sends one’s eyebrow shooting skyward. Imus in facts says he is no racist, and as defined by hating black people or considering them inferior, I’m inclined to take his word for it. I’m also inclined to understand why others, particularly black people, would call him a racist and fully support their right to do so, as well as anyone’s right to consider him a fool, an as-hole or a pretty piss-poor radio jockey.

I object, however, to the attempt to pull him off the air. I understand that no-one has the inalienable right to be broadcast by vast media corporations to an audience of millions (with the possible exception of Ghida Fakhry), and that the decision by MSNBC and CBS to ax Imus’ show was more business than ethics. (I understand too, or at least suspect, that Imus would not have apologized for his remarks if he wasn’t afraid of being axed.) But the fact remains that a large public constituency lobbied to silence the expression of someone by whom they were offended. At stake here is something perhaps more basic than freedom of speech. Call it freedom of expression – the right to express oneself in whatever manner one chooses, and to reach an audience of however many people care to listen to you. Surely this is a basic element of a free society, one that should not be tossed away so easily in the name of a pious standard that becomes porous on closer inspection? If Imus must go, then why not Stern or South Park? If offense is good enough to get you canned what would be left on the airwaves or the blogosphere? True, Imus makes millions. But by what standard would you deny someone the right to profit from a willing audience? What committee would decide that which was too racist, sexist, anti-Semitic or offensive?

The answer to offensive speech – cliched but true – is not less speech, but more speech. Mounting Imus’ head on the trophy wall of racial etiquette will ultimately do little for racial understanding. Tackling racism by making people scared to speak their minds is a tactic of limited returns. I admit I’m glad that we now live in a society where African-Americans can flex enough media and economic muscle to bring Imus down, and courtesy – racial or otherwise – is of course essential to most human interactions. But Imus was not in church or at a company picnic. There was no clear line which he knew he could not cross. Those who objected to his words were free to make their voices heard without silencing his, and not one was ultimately obliged to listen to him. They could turn the dial or change the channel.

The alternative is fear, media regulation by listener’s veto. That chilling effect that Robinson derides. Restricting the ability of others to say or listen to what they want is always a bad precedent. I’ve never listened to Don Imus, and probably never would have. But I still think we should all have the chance.

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