Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I occasionally listened to Don Imus’s morning show, unimaginatively but accurately named Imus in the Morning, on WNBC radio in New York City. In those days of our country’s — and my own — relative innocence, it seemed enormously funny to hear female callers being asked, “Are you naked?” Just the word “naked” being set loose into the airwaves was hilarious; the fact that many responses were a sultry “yes,” made the humor even more rib-busting.
As I matured, though, I began to realize that there was absolutely nothing even vaguely comical about that repeated interchange. It was moronic, schoolboy comedy, on the level of fart noises and booger jokes. Even before Imus was fired in 1977, he had gone his auditory way, and I had gone mine.
What I did find entertaining, but only slightly, was the fact that Imus later wrote a novel called God’s Other Son: The Life and Times of the Reverend Billy Sol Hargus. Published in 1981, the book’s title was scurrilous, and, to an atheist like me, titillating. I bought it — proud to support any anti-religious sentiment — but I never got past the first few pages. Sinclair Lewis had done a much better hatchet job on the evangelicals in Elmer Gantry, published about 55 years earlier. As I remember Imus's book, it was not very well written, nor was it witty; but it did have that cool controversial title on its cover and spine. It conformed to its author's M.O.: a jolt of superficial shock for shock’s sake, hiding a lack of substance. For years, people who came to my house and goggled at my extensive book collection as if I were running a museum, would notice the Imus work tucked away in a far corner. They’d ask what I thought of it, and I’d confess, “I haven’t read it — yet.” Some time in the late ‘80s,
I hadn’t thought about Don Imus since I kissed his novel goodbye. Until this week, when he became a media un-darling.
I suspect that Imus was paid by his corporate bosses, as all controversial commentators are, to be (1) thought-provoking, (2) funny, and (3) challenging to conventional wisdom — not necessarily in that order. What he said about the Rutgers team was certainly not thought-provoking; it was not funny, except to addle-brained goofballs who laugh, as I did at the word “naked,” whenever they hear something taboo uttered; and it was definitely not challenging to conventional wisdom, since “wisdom,” conventional or otherwise, and “college basketball” are not overlapping magisteria. Here’s what it was: offensive, for no reason.
Now, if Imus had called, say, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, for instance, “hos for publicity,” that might have been (1), (2), and (3). But he didn’t. Instead, he hurled a racist and sexist slur at a group of basically anonymous women who are not public figures deserving of serious criticism — except maybe for the way they played.
The above-named Jackson and Sharpton, sniffing media blood in the water, the possibility of hours and hours of nourishing photo ops and sound bites, then decided to swim in for the self-promoting kill. Jackson, himself, is not exactly innocent of ethnic slurs. His famous anti-semitic characterization of New York City as “Hymietown” was one of the lowlights of the 1984 presidential campaign. Sharpton has been making hay out of racial divisions ever since he became a meme as a spokesperson for the black community in the bogus Tawana Brawley case. It wasn’t long before every third-rate pundit joined the feeding frenzy. Even some of the sharks in the blog-sea are shocked — shocked! — at Imus’s behavior.
Let’s get this straight. Free speech is a right. No government should censor anyone’s expression, no matter how odious. However, broadcasting bigwigs are not the government — not yet, anyway. They can shut up anyone they please, for any reason. They don’t even have to be consistent; they can choose to tolerate specific offensive language from some people and not from others. So Imus has it wrong about rap musicians; it’s perfectly “fair,” in a free-market sense, to single him out. The firings of Don Imus did not infringe in any way on his First Amendment guarantees.
Oddly enough, though, the women who were actually insulted by Imus accepted his insincere apologies. A practical-minded recruiter for Rutgers even pointed out, “You can’t pay for publicity like this.” Ask all those politicans and media mavens who, for years, exploited Imus’s popularity by appearing on his show. They knew that, too. The guy was harmless; his guests must have felt sure that listeners would tune out Imus’s idiocy, leaving interviewees free to use his desirable venue in promoting their own ideas.
Do I think that Imus’s comment was offensive? Definitely; I would choose to have nothing to do with a person who expressed himself that way. Do I care, personally, that Imus was summarily cashiered? Nope; it won’t affect my life at all.
But the incident sets a dangerous precedent, in that it empowers the theocrats, like the reverends Jackson and Sharpton, as well as countless other mind-control freaks of the political right and left. They know that Americans wear their various sensitivities proudly, and, as a people, have forgotten how to shrug off inanities. We have become, all of us, dangerously thin-skinned, regardless of the color of that skin.
What Imus said was nasty and stupid, but it didn’t hurt anyone. He wasn’t calling for an official reaction against his targets, whoever they might have been. He wasn’t asking his listeners to join him in a political campaign to oppose marriage between consenting adults, or to blow up clinics that provide legal medical services. He wasn’t trying to persuade gullible teenagers that they can obliterate their perfectly natural urges by taking a vow to a supernatural being, or deny adequate education to children whose parents would prefer that their offspring remain blissfully ignorant. He was not promoting a war based on lies, not making a mockery of the justice system, not advocating torture, not letting his public policy be bought and paid for by special interests, and not stealing taxpayer dollars to feed into the pockets of the pious mind-twisters. He was just being an ass, and a not very interesting one at that.
So here’s what the Imus situation should teach us. Demagogues of all varieties can use trivial insults to whip up a vast artificial rage that, maybe, most people don’t really feel. The momentum of that spurious anger, unfortunately, can act as a smokescreen hiding the genuine ills in our society. We get hyped up to go on an intellectual rampage over a stupid comment by a no-talent radio personality, but sit apathetically by while our rights are trampled by a no-talent president. After all, he didn’t insult anybody, right?
Meanwhile, the gleeful hierophants wait patiently for us to take umbrage at some frivolous affront. Then they use that latest instance of our national hypersensitivity for their own purposes. In a sudden burst of the news cycle, they rush in and grasp temporary power.
The next target of the rabble-rousers will be, as promised, the music industry. Afterwards, probably that evil Jew-controlled Hollywood will come under scrutiny again. Maybe, in the not-too-distant future, publishers and booksellers who offer those disgusting atheist diatribes will be asked to answer for their transgressions.
And so I say to anyone who has joined in the general condemnatory hysteria: May the farce be with you.