Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Imus in the Afternoon

I spent the morning reading about Don Imus's remarks on "Imus in the Morning," words that got him suspended for two weeks from radio, I found myself slightly confused about the narrowness and nature of the outrage. Of the commentators who have attacked the racist nature of his remarks, very few (that I've come across) have labeled it "sexist." Can we no longer say that a man who dismisses women as "ho's" is making a sexist remark without being branded a reactionary feminist (not that there's anything wrong with that label)? Why isn't anyone discussing the issue in this context? Would his termination be a question if he'd made the remark about a male basketball team?

Imus defended himself, noting that he calls his wife "the green ho" (delightful) and, in context, the comments were inoffensive because the show "makes fun of everybody." Now, I defend Imus's right to call his wife whatever pet names he wants, but calling his wife a "ho" and referring to an entire women's basketball team "nappy-headed ho's" are qualitatively different acts, for several reasons. First, he knows his wife personally and if she's okay with him referring to her as a "ho," well, that's between them (although I don't love the message it sends to his audience about interpersonal relationships). But considering the intersection between race, sex, and sexuality in this country's history-- that Black women have had their sexuality commodified-- the racism of the remarks cannot be separated from their sexism: "nappy" cannot be separated from "ho."

Orange Tangerine and NOW both recognize the sexist implications of his joke (although Kim Gandy should be forbidden from using the non-word "oughta" in a statement. Kim, you're the President of NOW, not a blogger or the editor of Cosmo. Stop it.), as does Desiree Cooper (who ties the outrage into the controversy over Title IX).

Charles Karel Bouley misses the point on the Huffington Post. Yes, speech is protected under the First Ammendment. For all those who skipped Government Class in high school, that means that the government cannot censor his speech, except under certain conditions (do you hear that, FCC? Back off.) But those calling for his termination are not infringing on his free speech and if NBC permanently takes him off the air, that's not censorship: it's business.

Should NBC fire him? That'd be relatively disingenuous, considering that Imus's remarks have a history of inciting controversy, if not because of their racial content, then because of their misogynistic, homophobic, and nativist content. He's a shock jock in the line of Howard Stern, so of course he's going to be offensive; he always has been.

Does that excuse his remarks? No, I think he should be decried for saying things that are sexist, bigoted, and contribute to the culture of hostility in this country. We'd all do well to stand up and say: Imus, shut up, you bigoted SOB. You are a poor man's George Carlin and we're tired of listening to you excuse your unfunny rants as "comedy." Do I think he should be denied the right to say those things? Not legally. Legally he can say whatever he wants and I'll defend that right to the end of days. The real question is if NBC does fire him, is that censorship or infringement on freedom of speech, as Charles Karel Bouley implies? No, it just removes him from a national podium, which NBC, as a private organization in a free market economy, has every right to do. Imus has been spewing venom on air for 30 years. Anyone who has heard his radio program knows he's a shock jock. If NBC decides that Imus no longer has any entertainment value or that his particular, tasteless brand of humor is too vulgar for their evolved and enlightened programming, they should fire him.

And for every writer, blogger, and talking head who point to rap music, Chris Rock, and others who regularly use similar phrasing in their music, comedy, and writing and say, "If he were Black, say Chris Rock, Mo'Nique, Marsha Warfield, this wouldn't be happening," to you, I say: it's all about context. Surely, there is language that is appropriate and acceptable in some contexts and not in others and coming from some people and not others. I'm tired of this response to racial slurs. Read Kant's Critique of Aesthetic Judgment and then see if your arguments hold water. Ridiculous human beings.

I'll give Imus the last word, since I know he likes that:

"Here's what I've learned: that you can't make fun of everybody, because some people don't deserve it. And because the climate on this program has been what it's been for 30 years doesn't mean that it has to be that way for the next five years or whatever because that has to change, and I understand that."

See? Even Imus understands.


Liberal Jew said...

Absolutely Spot On!

This particular line bears repeating:
But those calling for his termination are not infringing on his free speech and if NBC permanently takes him off the air, that's not censorship: it's business.

Zachary said...

I agree with you that the comments can offend. What I don't understand, however, is why you are accusing him of "spewing venom" in a way that differs from any other shock jock or comedian.

In my opinion, the whole "controversy" is absolutely ridiculous. His show is no more a "news" show than Jon Stewart. Just recently, the Daily Show had a whole episode about the "n" word, and the show deploys racial slurs about Jews, blacks, whites, and everyone else, all the time.

Imus's comment was a joke. It was a bad joke that wasn't very funny and was in poor taste. But this has been blown so completely out of proportion with manufactured outrage.

As you suggest, he's a shock jock. A pseudo comedian. If you've ever listened to his show, they make fun of absolutely everyone. Himself included. That's what he gets paid for. Making fun of everyone and everything. Just like Howard Stern, just like Jon Stewart, and all the rest. Nobody boycotts Mind of Mencia. Nobody calls for Dave Chappelle to be fired. Or for Family Guy and Southpark to be pulled off the air.

By the way, Sharpton et al. are extortionists who are simply working this into Imus (who has lots of money) making donations to their various organizations (and FWIW I think they'll probably succeed). It's also no surprise that the other networks are taking the story and running, as they are in direct competition with MSNBC. My dad, who frequently appears on MSNBC, just got called to appear on Larry King today to talk about the situation, which he declined as that would put him in a no-win situation. Again, it's all manufactured outrage and melodrama to try to make MSNBC look bad.

I think Imus is generally offensive and not funny. That's why I don't watch/listen unless someone I know is on. And this most recent comment is case in point. But all this outrage and apologizing at Al Sharpton's feet, etc. is ludicrous. People do stuff that's offensive. Almost all comedy is these days. If someone offends me, I don't watch them. I don't take to the streets. I don't watch Dave Chappelle. I find him offensive. I don't demand that he get taken off the air. Nor the Daily Show, which had a segment last week all about the word "nigger," and also glorified the terms "kyke," "wetback," etc. It's not funny to me (indeed, it's offensive to me). But my goodness, should the guy should be fired for doing his job? And, again, where's the outrage over the Daily Show? Is it different just because Jon Stewart's offensive language is usually funnier?

And FWIW people have called racial/ethnic groups of which I am a member far worse things on national television in an attempt to be funny. I take it for what it is: failed comedy. The bottom line is that I've always thought that Imus was a moron, so I don't listen to his show. That doesn't mean I believe that others who find him entertaining should lose their right to tune in. The same can be said for Kanye West, Rosie O'Donnell, Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson and Michael Moore. I wouldn't contribute a nickel to any of them or their businesses, but I didn't hit the streets demanding that Jessie Jackson be kicked out of the ministry when the "love child" story broke. I didn't protest Michael Moore's movies even though I think they are unpatriotic. I don't demand that Rosie get kicked off The View just because she's stupid. I don't demonstrate against Kanye's label just because he's racist. I don't like any of them, so I don't tune in.

I agree with your assessment of the Constitutional rubbish that people invoke. The fact is that people invoking "Free Speech" and the First Amendment doesn't seem to understand what the First Amendment actually says. It says that THE GOVERNMENT cannot abridge free speech. That does not mean that private citizens do not have the right to protest anything that anyone says. That is - this Country permits you lawfully to say anything you want. But that doesn't mean you are also insulated from very strong private rebuke. You can lawfully say what's on your mind, but that doesn't mind other citizens can't strongly object to what you say. Invoking principles of "free speech" when the government isn't involved makes no sense. The KKK is legally free to come in my town and say whatever they want to say. That doesn't mean that under principles of free speech I'm barred from standing up and telling them that they are full of crap.

The bottom line for me, though is that this is a non-issue. He was making an un-funny joke, and just doing his job. I also think he has gone about this all wrong, and all these apologies are just making things worse. When the "news" broke, all he had to say was, "Look, this is my job. If I offended you, I'm sorry, but I've made a career out of offending everyone, I mean nothing by it, all my jokes are at other people's expense, and while I'm sorry that people were hurt by what I said, that's what I do for a living. I'm a shock jock comedian." Instead, all this groveling just gives credence to all the ludicrous attacks. I see worse stuff on Comedy Central every single day.

harley said...

To clairfy: I'm not accusing Imus of spewing venom in a way that differs from any shock jock or comedian. He's differentiated from Chris Rock not be nature of their craft (albeit, certainly by its quality), but rather because as a Black comedian, Chris Rock can use language that Imus should not.

Liberal Jew said...

Just like Howard Stern, just like Jon Stewart, and all the rest. Nobody boycotts Mind of Mencia. Nobody calls for Dave Chappelle to be fired. Or for Family Guy and Southpark to be pulled off the air.

Are you kidding? Family Guy was pulled from the air for at least two seasons because it was too offensive. South Park has been sued repeatedly and Jon Stewart is a political satirist who has been "victim" of many a Christian-right boycott.

And while I do understand where you are trying to go, comedy has a blurred line of acceptability. This missed it. Mind of Mencia is always very close to over the line. Chris Rock sometimes crosses it.

Imus is nuts and should not have a show because he is going to say something really stupid soon. He has offened the "money grubin' Jews" and the "nappy haired hos"...who is next?

The Pedant said...

Not that I completely disagree with you about Mr. Bouley's remarks on the Huffington Post, but at some level deciding to enforce public mores through mass private action becomes very, very morally questionable.

Basically, mass public action to get someone out of a media job is what comprised the Hollywood anti-Communist blacklist. While there might be very good reasons to try to shut down someone's career, there's also the story of the Dixie Chicks.

The concept that making an unacceptable comment in public should force the end of an entertainment career, to some extent, allows people to be abused by the mob. You just have to trust that the mob is right (sometimes they are).

Anonymous said...


First off, I agree with you about the "manufactured outrage." Imus is an old, white coot who made some mean comments. Big fuckin' deal. But the fact that you took offense to the Daily Show's skit on the word "nigger" ("nigga?") shows that you missed the point completely. The Daily Show was sending up the absurdity of both racism and liberal guilt. Imus, on the other hand, engaged in some careless locker room humor that offered no social commentary whatsoever (except, perhaps, about the IQ of the average Imus listener). I appreciate the fact that you don't take to the streets every time someone uses the word "nigger" (I have too much respect for myself and my audience to say "the n-word"), but by taking offense to mere words and not situating them in their proper context, you lump astute social commentary (The Daily Show, Dave Chappelle, George Carlin, and the late Bill Hicks) together with brainless shock comics who go for the easy laugh.

-The Rooster

DK said...

"He's differentiated from Chris Rock not be nature of their craft (albeit, certainly by its quality), but rather because as a Black comedian, Chris Rock can use language that Imus should not."

This is certainly true for Chris Rock himself, who is careful not to talk about other groups the way he talks about his own.

Zachary said...

Rooster - I agree that the Daily Show piece was also a social commentary and not just a joke at the expense of the poor NYC Assemblyman who had to sit through that interview. But, I also think the message of the piece was that trying to stop people from saying offensive words is a fruitless and ill-conceived endeavor

You are right: social commentary is not on a par with a cheap joke that uses shock tactics. But even some of those who in your book do involve themselves in legitimate social commentary sometimes resort to the latter. (I am reminded of Jon Stewart's recent comment about Senator Obama's blackness and then Obama's (fictional) retort to Hillary Clinton "are those your ankles, or did you just take a dump in your stockings" or something along those lines. It was funny - it was also degrading to women and to accomplished female political figures, for whom it seems comedians still seem to focus on looks and such things far more than they do for their male colleagues.

My point that jokes cross the line. Sometimes when they cross the line they are funny. Sometimes they aren't. But despite stating that Don Imus will undoubtedly "say something really stupid soon," which I certainly agree with, "Liberal Jew" has still failed to draw a connection between that certainty and why he shouldn't have his own show. You're missing that crucial middle step where you have to show why people who say things that offend people shouldn't be free to do so. Indeed, your own post suggests that countless comedy shows have offended countless groups--and are still on the air.

Again - if you don't like it, don't listen to it or watch it. I know I don't.