The I-Man Goeth

  Jerome Shea       April 21, 2007      Weekend Wonk

(Can you stand one more column about Don Imus, Gentle Reader? That’s what I thought. Well, since you are staring at the monitor anyway you can do some surfing, play Tetris, whatever, while I indulge myself. You won’t hurt my feelings.)

Don Imus, talk show shock jock, deserved to be fired. Let’s get that much out of the way. Even his defenders did not suggest that the insult to the Rutgers women basketball players was defensible. So far as I have read, no cretin has suggested that those women should “get over it,” not be so thin-skinned. Let’s at least be thankful for that. And, surprisingly, no one tried to frame it as the free speech issue that it isn’t. On the other hand, a couple of arguments did at least brush up against those points.

To get some order out of this media chaos, I decided to focus on those letters that did attempt to defend Imus or at least mitigate his coarseness. Some of the arguments are hardly worth our time (though they are revealing); others are more sophisticated and do, I think, provide food for thought. Overall, however, it looks like the Just Don’t Get It Society has had a very successful recruitment drive.

One of the more stunning defenses is based upon the fact that Imus has insulted everybody over the years. Evidently he is not a racist and should not be censured, because over the years he has demonstrated that he is also an anti-Semite, a homophobe, a sexist, and a host of other nasty things. Insulting is simply what the man does and is, so we should cut him some slack. This argument need not detain us.

Similarly, many letter writers decried the fact that Imus was being punished for something that many others are guilty of. “Why,” they asked, “is the media not going after (fill in the blank), who say far worse things and have been getting away with it for years?” Also noted was the irony that Imus went on the Al Sharpton (that notorious piece of work!) show to apologize, and that those that routinely call black women “ho’s” and worse are highly paid black men. I quite agree. We should—and maybe we will but don’t hold your breath—go after the rappers, the black race-baiters as well as the white, the comedians who lose it on stage, the movie stars who get plastered and spew venom, and all the others. We desperately need a sea change in our society. But, like the first argument, this one does not let Imus off the hook. Didn’t Mother straighten us out on that point years ago (“Just because everybody else is doing it…”)? Imus mouthed off about the wrong people at the wrong time–a “perfect storm,” if you will—and he got caught.

Others point out that Imus is, after all, a humorist, a satirist. But satire exists to attack hypocrisy and injustice. What heinous offenses are the Rutgers women guilty of? Like most of his other attacks, it was gratuitous and pointless. Just like this “defense.”

And then there is the “sticks and stones” argument, the assertion that “names will never hurt me.” (I guess this is the “get over it” argument, after all.) But we really need to lay this pernicious old saw to rest, folks. Names will indeed hurt you: that is why we call it “verbal abuse.” Parents preach that “sticks and stones” nonsense to their children precisely to give them a desperate lie to hold onto when they are being harassed and bullied on the playground.

I would have expected the “politically correct” argument to raise its scabrous head early on. I had to wait a week or so, but, sure enough, there it was. Imus’s comment was indeed reprehensible (etc., etc.), but the overreaction to it was the work of the politically correct faction, refusing to let go, hounding him out of his job (etc., etc.). “PC” is a brilliant ploy, a cudgel to beat your enemies with while leaving them no real defense.* And it is time we retired it. It provides cover for the most obnoxious of incivilities, the basest insults. Well, if objecting to the cruelty that Imus perpetrated and refusing to sigh and let him get away with it is political correctness, where do I sign up? I refuse to let anyone beat me with that cudgel ever again.

Finally, there is the argument that we should not forget the genuine good work that Imus does. I refer to his ranch in northern New Mexico where children with cancer can enjoy the cowboy life, and the other good causes for which he is, evidently, a tireless fundraiser. This is the one that provides food for thought, the point that is not so easy to knock down. There are of course many examples of people who do both real bad and real good. Andrew Carnegie treated his workers brutally and then became one of the greatest philanthropists in our history. The same man can coach his kid’s soccer team and walk the block for the March of Dimes but become a menace in traffic or cheat on his wife. Every one of us, sadly, is a mixed bag in that regard, and this is not the time for hypocrisy. I was going to suggest sarcastically that this trade-off is similar to carbon credits or set-asides: you get to be a complete jerk in one compartment of your life as long as you are saintly in another compartment. But that’s too easy. What puzzles me is that, from all I have heard and read, Imus’s charity work is the real deal, for which he deserves our praise and gratitude. How can a man do such good work, care so obviously for those who are less fortunate, and then behave so vilely behind a microphone toward other innocent people? I have a very hard time with that. But I don’t think we can let him off the hook. He has become too valuable as an example—yes, I believe in setting examples and making examples—of what we should and must do when we are sufficiently outraged. Let us thank the man for his good works and honor him by continuing to support those good works. But the I-Man has to go.

He has to go not so much because that comment was racist and sexist—which it certainly was—but because it was absolutely gratuitous. He did not know these women, and they never meant him ill. He made that crack simply because he could (or thought he could) and it clearly never crossed his mind that not only the Rutgers basketball team but right-thinking people (put that in your PC pipe) around the country would finally be stunned and then outraged, would finally say “Enough!”

Maybe, as Ellen Goodman put it, “we are finally holding a stop sign in front of the speeding coarseness of the culture.” That is the point. As I said above, don’t hold your breath. But we have got to start somewhere.

*Like most people, I attributed the phrase “politically correct”—with deep but grudging admiration—to latter-day conservatives. Frank Luntz or Karl Rove came to mind. Turns out, according to Wikipedia, that the phrase owes more to Karl Marx than to Karl Rove. Who knew?

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