Friday, April 13, 2007

Don Imus as Canary

Most of the time it's just a cigar. But this time it's something else. An outpouring of disgust indicates that the national level of righteous indignation is ticking up a bit, making Don Imus a canary in the mine. I hope the trend continues. Free speech is a sacred principle, but so is the freedom to be left alone. At some point racism crosses the line, becoming the verbal equivalent of molestation. It's no longer about the First Amendment. It's finally about civility. There is a distinction between civil rights and civil behavior. Legal rights are protected, but decency, like beauty, is a judgement call. Thankfully, a critical mass is choosing to raise the bar.

Others more articulate than I are making their voices known. Some are out for blood, but the best among them are simply saying that shapers of public opinion, whose words reach a larger audience than a sports bar or club, should be held to a higher standard than others.

This morning I was amused by the Huffington Post in which one writer complained about the coarsening of our culture as another headline included the word "Fucked." (That kind of envelope-pushing, not far from the manners of Don Imus and his peers, is why Huffpo downloads into my spam folder. I rarely read it closely, but the headlines tell me as much as I need to know about where that end of the political spectrum is going.) Raking through the muck, I did come up with this...

The most important thing to know about Don Imus is that he's a cash cow for Viacom and General Electric. Or was, until his advertisers began peeling away. The only reason that shock jocks are on the air in the first place is that people pay attention to them. They - we - lend our ears and eyeballs to Imus and his ilk because their outrageousness amuses us.
The same could be said of the envelope-pushing by Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and the dozens of other circus acts in the infotainment freak show. Their effect may be to debase discourse, inflame prejudice, sow ignorance, exculpate criminality, incite rancor, ruin reputations, and stoke the right-wing base - but their effect is not their job. Their job is to make money for the corporations that employ them. We may revile them for being Rove's toadies, but we're chumps if we ignore how relentlessly the companies that employ them monetize their noxious shtick.

He's right, of course. It's more about money than content. Not much has changed since Mencken said "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." That is part of the reason that otherwise decent people allow themselves to associate with characters like Imus an his ilk, telling themselves that their more noble ends justify the means of mud-wrestling with a pig.

Sarah Robinson at David Neiwert's blog says it well. Her analysis of the flap is worth reading in full.

For 25 years, the dominant radio format in America has consisted of rich white conservative boys filling the national atmosphere with their putrid bloviations about people who were not rich, white, conservative, or boys. What started out as outrageous bad-boy shock-jock shtick in the 80s curdled into self-righteous rebellion against "political correctness" in the 90s, as a growing number of trash talkers and professional potty mouths joined a national race to the rhetorical bottom. Radio stardom was easy. Forget rock'n'roll -- all you had to do was be willing to spew a little more hate against minorities, foreigners, women, the poor, and liberals than the guy on the next band over, and you could have a mansion in Palm Beach, too.

Addendum, April 16

As the dust settles on this tawdry affair, I'm coming across a reassuring number of places where the message is being repeated: Enough is enough. It's too soon to know, but it's possible that we may be seeing more than empty righteous indignation this time. I hope that is the case.

The local Imus clone in Atlanta was quick to come to his defense with yet another let-the-marketplace-decide toss-offs, carefully avoiding saying anything nice about the man while leaving the impression that his conduct was no big deal as long as he's not hurting anybody. When the chips are down, there is a crowd of faux-political types who wave the First Amendment flag as vigorously as the faux-religious crowd quotes the Bible. When the axe finally fell, he took the occasion to make ad hominem attacks on Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, deflecting attention from the substance and content of the incident, ugly language and the reaction it got. I guess when the marketplace made the wrong call, it was time to talk about something else.

Fred Clark points to an excellent analysis of the Imus affair by movie director John Rogers. I know it's good because there is so much squirming in the comments thread by righteous people (like our local talk-show host) who still want to overlook uncalled-for verbal assault.

For all these years, Imus stayed, barely, on the right side of the power equation. Always gone after public figures, or his bosses ...

... but then he screwed up. He didn't steal power, he used it. Used it to say just shitty things about people who, in our minds, just didn't deserve it. He broke the power equation. And when he did, we balked, even if we don't quite understand why this one got under our skin. The wiring goes both ways. It's actually heartening, because it confirms one of the admirable things about American society at large:

America loves a rebel.

America loves a bad boy.

But America hates a fucking bully.

Read the whole thing.
Thanks, Fred.

1 comment:

The Fat Lady Sings said...

It's that mansion in Palm Beach that's the draw. Some people will literally do anything to get it. Years ago I came to the conclusion that most if not all of the TV 'preachers' could not possibly believe in god. If they did - they wouldn't spend every televised moment sewing nothing but hatred and bigotry. You see – ‘god’ would hold them accountable; at lease the Christ of the bible would. The same holds true for the 'conservative' talk show host. I once heard Rush Limbaugh interviewed by Phil Donohue and Vladimir Posner. They asked him if he really believed the swill he was ladling out. Limbaugh said no – not necessarily. He told them he had created a character – and as long as that character continued to make him money, he saw no need to change formats. Now THAT speaks to the relative emptiness of his soul. In my opinion – all the rest of his contemporaries posses that same lack of moral fiber.