Monday, April 09, 2007


Sam Smith

AL SHARPTON and others who want to dump Don Imus for saying something ethnically rotten about black women - heretofore considered the exclusive province of black men, especially comedians and movie makers - suggests that they haven't been watching the show much.

Imus has been cruel and insensitive towards a lot of people. His producer Bernard McGuirk has parodied New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and an Irish cardinal (while wearing a folded Fedex envelope as headgear). Another regular has played the role of a pompous and stupid Jerry Falwell.

It is gutter humor and some of it pretty lousy. Imus deserves to be scolded, berated and called on it when it gets out of hand. You just don't want to fire him as well.

Here's why: Imus and is crew are one of the few real things on TV. It's not pretty, it's not nice, but it is revealing and at times even refreshing relief from the normal fantasies of the tube.

Imus is like the girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead: "When she was good, she was very, very good and when she was bad she was horrid."

So why not settle for the normal sanctimonies, pomposities and hypocrisies about our state of being as can be easily viewed elsewhere? Simply because we grow individually and as a people not based on our allegiance to some enunciated and prescribed perfection but by the incremental correction of the myriad imperfections that plague us.

Mark Twain said that sins were not to be tossed out the window but eased down the stairs one step at a time. The same goes for Don Imus.

This is not, to be sure, the currently approved method of dealing with degradations of others whether for their color, sex or physical shape. We take great comfort in rules even as we fail to notice that they are not working. We pretend that the average of human behavior is far higher than it actually is. And we assume that those who say the right thing also do the right thing.

For example, where did Imus get the nefarious expression? Probably from some black male comedian or a movie celebrating ghetto culture - including the mistreatment of women.

As the black blog Knock the Hustle put it, "Should he be fired for calling black women 'ho's?' Why? We do it all the time. We get some irrelevant has-been like Imus? We hail Stern as a genius because he has a black female side-kick for doing the same thing. We give all manner of folks passes for similar language whenever it suits our odd peculiars, particulars and assorted pecadillos."

And how does Imus' offense compare in seriousness with the number of blacks being forced out of their homes by white liberal gentrifiers who would never think of using the term 'ho'? Or the number of young blacks killed as a result of a massively cruel and ineffective war on drugs? Is ethnic eviction or ethnic eradication a greater or lesser offense than an ethnic slur? If so then why don't we treat it as such?

Then there's the point raised recently by Bacardi L. Jackson: "How does a white man who signed the deeply disparate crack-cocaine bill into law, introduced a devastating crime bill that further entrenched the prison industrial complex at the expense of black communities and black political power everywhere, oversaw the murder of more people on death row during his presidency than any president in the history of our country, completely dissed and dismissed our sister Lani Guinier, who would have been an amazing Attorney General for our country and for our community, purely for the sake of political expediency, get to be donned the 'First Black President'"? Is our loyalty so easily spawned because one acts like a 'pimp,' plays the saxophone and visits a few pulpits?"

Imus is clearly one of the most imperfect individuals one is likely to find either on or off the tube. But it is not an imperfection honed to a perverse art as with Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern. What you see are the real failings of a real man and a real ex-addict who also, incidentally, displays some unexpected virtues. The same host who spoke of "ho's" was probably Harold Ford's biggest national booster in his race for the U. S. Senate. How does one fit that into a simplistic racist stereotype?

Imus also is environmentally conscious, is truly concerned about the treatment of American war vets and does some of the most interesting interviews with public figures to be found anywhere, in part because his very insensitivity leads him to ask questions others would be too polite to ask.

In a better world we would all treat each other with friendship, respect and as a member of the family. But this is not where we are as a nation. It's not nice that this is the case but it does no good to hide it behind the drapes of liberal sanctimony. It is far better to get all the cards on the table and deal with them rather than pretending they are not there.

Language actually provides a warning sign and serves as an inter-cultural safety valve. Paul Kuritz, in an article on ethnic humor in the Maine Progressive, pointed out that "as early as 1907, the English-speaking rabbis and priests of Cleveland united to protest the Irish and Jewish stage comedians. . . The suppression of crude ethnic humor both accompanied the economic exploitation of the lower-class work force and paralleled the dismissal of the lower classes' tastes as 'offensive' to the newly refined sensibilities of upwardly-mobile second and third generation Americans."

Kuritz, a third-generation Slovak, was arguing that the real problem with a recently fired French-Canadian radio host was not that he had made fun of his own culture but that the full panoply of ethnicity was not also represented on the air. This would have allowed all these groups to experience what anthropologists call a "joking relationship," helping to reduce tensions between potentially antagonistic clans. Said Kuritz, "As a general rule of thumb, an attempt to suppress speech as 'offensive' or 'disempowering' is not a signal to lessen the amount of talk, but to increase the amount."

Today, interethnic joking is mainly found in rough-and-tumble environments such as the modern vaudeville of comedy clubs or in sports and politics, but is frowned upon by those whose social status leads them to presume that manners create reality. The problem is that under the latter ground rules, words often disguise feelings, sidetrack action, and no longer serve to keep tension and hate apart. It is paper wrapping around something still extremely unpleasant.

The irony is that even as standards of interethnic language are enforced, the actual state of those allegedly being protected is being increasingly ignored. Poverty, education, fair voting, healthcare and housing deserve far more attention than some ugly phrase uttered by Don Imus. Yet the less we do about real issues, the more time we seem to spend worry about what people say. And the funny thing is, if we would take care of the things that really matter, the language would take care of itself.