Monday, April 16, 2007

Happy Netted Nose

[posted by Callimachus]

So saith Sully:

The culture has changed since Imus started in radio. White straight men don't control everything any more, and they don't get to set the rules for public discourse with the same finality they once did. What we've seen here is, I think, a genuine reflection of the new American mainstream. Most Americans simply find the spectacle of a rich white bigot beating up on young black female achievers after a crushing tournament loss to be gratuitously cruel and unfair. Punishing someone for calling college women "whores" -- especially those who have beaten the odds and are role models for other back girls and women -- is not a new step in political correctness. It's applying a very old American standard of fairness and decency, which now applies to all Americans, regardless of race or gender. This was the voice of mainstream America speaking. It's not what it once was. I wonder whether many of Imus's buddies realize that yet.

The "mainstream" didn't drive Imus out of his job. The market didn't drain his voice. He was done in by a handful of corporate executives, spurred by two self-appointed censors (in the old, Roman sense of the word). If we're to have speech codes, can we at least settle on them democratically? If we are to be afflicted with censors, can they at least not appoint themselves?

I thought guys understood this stuff: You can say whatever you want, to whomever you want, but you'll risk consequences. You can say the same sentence to a friend and get a laugh, and say it to a stranger and you better be ready to duck a punch. Speech has consequences; words are potent. Handle with care.

It is deeply satisfying now for some people to see only tables turning on the "rich, white, straight guy." Rich, white, straight guy whines that he can't say the "n-word" but Snoop Dogg can. No sympathy, because we all know what kind of white person is itching to say the n-word.

But freedom in a civil society isn't simply about the things you would personally do. Otherwise why would the ACLU defend the Nazis' right to march, or why would some people defend the right of others to buy and own pornography that personally repulses them? Why would people turn out to school board meetings to save "Huck Finn" in the library, even though they don't personally use such language?

Life is a bit more complicated than what you learned in sophomore year of college.

Sullivan's assertion that this new standard "applies to all Americans, regardless of race or gender" is risible. Rather, Imus must suffer under the reversed standards precisely because he is the archetype of the old racist patriarchy. He looks the part and he is the part. In the past (as it is taught in some circles) the Imuses held all the power and the Sharptons had to crawl and plead for his mercy. Very well. Is reversing that a step toward justice and equality? Is it what Martin Luther King Jr. would have wanted?

So what would Imus have had to have been to make his remark acceptable -- that is, to allow him to survive in his job? If he was young and working-class? If he was black? What if he was old and rich and black? What if he was Latino? What if he was a descendant of West Indian or Ethiopian immigrants, but not of U.S. slaves? What if he was mulatto?

What if a woman had said it? The remark was as much racist as sexist. Are white women exempted from the new standard? They come out of the victim class, too: black men could vote and shape their political destinies in the U.S. 50 years before white women could. Where do they come down in the Snoop/Imus dichotomy?

This is not a double standard. This is a standard that splatters over the map of modern American culture like a rotten tomato. It is a standard that can be jiggered at will, to suit the target. And never forget who holds its strings.

Back in the bad old days when "white straight men" controlled the airwaves, you couldn't say any of this stuff. I work in the dinosaur media, still under the firm grip of white straight males, and the newspaper where I work has yet to print the three words Imus said that sparked all this, despite running a dozen or more stories on it. It has been scrupulously scrubbed out of every wire story, in some cases by me personally.

If anything, in the last generation the country has warmed to people who spew bile -- doing so now can get you a lucrative talk radio career or a job as John Edwards' personal blog queen. People who objected to every step down into this meanness were hooted as prudes.

“Thanks for your piece on dirty comedians. It blew a fresh breeze across a smutty section of America. Freedom of speech is one thing, but these gents are overdoing it.”

Groucho Marx, writing to a columnist in reference to Lenny Bruce and his sort, in a letter dated June 25, 1963. Each generation of comics makes its mark by going further over the line than the one before. Add forty years to that letter, and you arrive where we are.

I'm not one of the prudes. I loved those Richard Pryor and Sam Kinison and Eddie Murphy routines in their day. Every one of them succeeded by stepping just over the line, where it then was drawn, and looking back at us and being so funny we laughed in spite of our dismay and discomfort. What better way to prove your chops as a comedian?

The trouble is, for the next one to come along, the line is a little further out there.

Imus is cruel and unfair. To anyone and everyone. Surprise! That's how he got his job. That's how he kept his job all these years. He was lauded and rewarded for it until one particular day.

Labels: ,