Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Sam Smith

DON IMUS is in trouble again, this time for sarcasm that liberal literalists misread as racism. Either way, though, the matter was so miniscule that the attention it has received reveals more about our ethnic hang-ups than anything Imus said.

For example, consider this. Not too many days ago a major celebrity denigrated black men, saying that too many of them "have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men."

This sweeping stereotype passed uncriticized, and was even praised, because the speaker was Barack Obama. Imagine if Imus had said it.

Or what about the late Tim Russert and other major media figures trying to make Obama the god child of Jeremiah Wright and Louis Farrakhan? If Imus had tried this on Obama, imagine the liberal outrage.

I understand Imus' problem. I was once kicked off a local NPR program guest list. When I asked a buddy at the station why, he replied, "Excessive irony." A couple of years ago I was talking with a guy who was doing a book on fifty years of Harvard students. "What's it like now?" I asked. He replied, "There's not an ounce of irony on campus."

The same can be said of establishment America where the ability to look at what one is doing with anything other than pre-approved and well marketed perspective is disappearing by the day. The only thing really safe to say anymore is something that has been safely said many times before. Which is why we hear it so often.

The death of George Carlin is a reminder of how rare is the voice that dares to be different. It's not surprising that Imus liked Carlin as a guest. And there were others. While MSNBC was filling the air with the platitudes of David Gregory, Imus was featuring another Gregory: Dick. How many of Imus' media critics have had Dick Gregory on their show?

Sure, Imus screwed up last year. But listening to the podcasts of his recent interviews it is clear that he has actually learned something from his mistakes. He, for example, made a conscious effort to have guests who dealt directly and informatively with ethnic issues.

Further, Imus is a rare crossover media figure with a diverse audience that includes people who understand that the new and interesting often has rough edges as well as those who identify with him through his culture and troubled past. It's not unlikely, for example, that he helped Harold Ford almost win a Senate seat in Tennessee. Ford has since offered to help Obama reach alienated white voters, but then he wasn't afraid to go on the Imus show while Obama clearly would be.

In a letter home from Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of the 1960s, a civil rights volunteer wrote about Bob Moses, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee:

"Next Bob Moses talked to us in his quiet, reasoned manner about the project and the situation in various parts of the state. Bob warned us that we are all victims of the plague of prejudice but must not make the mistake that the authorities in Camus' Plague made by resisting the recognition of the disease because recognition would have made action necessary. . . Then Bob talked directly to the freedom school teachers. He begged them to be patient with their students. There's a difference between being slow and being stupid, he said. The people you will be working with aren't stupid, he said. But they're slow, so slow."

The inability of today's liberal elite to differentiate between those too slow to change and too rigid to change, those whose prejudice stems from cultural ignorance and those permanently perverted by cruelty, and the difference between knowledge undiscovered and knowledge willfully ignored, has helped complicate our ethnic problems. For too many today, what you say about it all is far more important than what you do, as though there were some standardized test for decency. And those who say the wrong thing are to be punished rather than guided down a better road.

But using random verbal symbols as indicators of propriety or shame doesn't help resolve anything.

In my hometown, for example, the last two black mayors - while always saying words of which liberals approve - have closed the public hospital, reduced public housing, planned black communities towards extinction, started to privatize the public school system and even established South African style police check points. And where have been the liberal voices of opposition? Virtually non-existent.

Or consider the class based contempt many showed toward the Edwards campaign and the issues it raised. Again, the liberal outrage was on mute.

Sure Don Imus is slow, so slow but there are so many things more important than whether he said the correct words. Until liberals start to recognize that and fight for the right things rather than just for the right words, and even be willing to form alliances with the occasionally misspoken, not much is going to happen.