Sunday, April 15, 2007

Not "Irreverent," Just Mean

If you can bear it, just a few more brief comments about the Don Imus controversy:

1. The word "irreverent," which many of the post-mortems use to characterize Imus's style of humor, actually reveals a lot of what made his "nappy-headed hos" comment so offensive. The point and value of being "irreverent" lies in pulling people and institutions down from their pedestals--treating presidents and popes and CEOs as ordinary, fallible people so that their actions can be judged more realistically, without the air of awe and deference that too often surrounds them and insulates them from criticism.

(To this day I remember a great caricature of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Grossman that appeared in Ramparts magazine at the height of the Vietnam War, depicting him in the bony yet flabby-fleshed nude except for a giant cowboy hat. The cartoon's caption was the Bob Dylan line, "Even the president of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked." That to me is the spirit of irreverence.)

When Imus made fun of the powerful and rich (as he often did), he was being "irreverent." But not when he mocked a bunch of college athletes for their gender and color. Picking on those who have less power and wealth than you isn't irreverent--it's just plain mean. There's a big difference.

2. Another comment one has been hearing that actually sheds real light on the story is the criticism that some comedians have been making--namely, that Imus's crack about the Rutgers players "just wasn't funny." That is indeed a big problem. Not just because it suggests that the 70-year-old Imus may be losing his knack for comedy (in itself potential ground for his dismissal). But also because, when someone spouts racial "humor" that is witless and unfunny, it leads hearers to wonder, Why the heck did he say that? And the only obvious answer is, He gets a kick out of saying it just because it's nasty.

In other words, if you can't find wit and humor in a particular evocation of bigotry (as one can for example in a really great routine by Chris Rock or, according to admirers, in a good episode of South Park), then all that remains is the bigotry itself. And the only people who think that bigotry has value in itself are--well, bigots. Which means that Imus's routine left the inevitable impression that he is in fact a bigot whose show is designed (at least at moments like that) for the delectation of other bigots.

3. Last and least, can people please stop using the phrase "racial insensitivity" to describe what Imus did? The words set my teeth on edge. They make it sound as thought the Rutgers players (and anyone else offended by Imus's slurs) are delicate flowers who insist that everyone else be "sensitive" to their ultra-refined feelings--a ridiculous distortion of the case.

When someone sneaks up on you from behind and whacks you over the head with a stick they are not treating you with "insensitivity." They are committing assault. That's what Imus did.

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