Saturday, April 14, 2007

On the Imus Firing

I suppose I should probably weigh in on the Imus controversy while it's still news. I've been meaning to say something about this for a couple of days actually - because of an interesting conversation about it I had on Thursday with one of the other graduate students in the department. She's the TA for the Language and Gender topics course and, I have always assumed, a feminist of some kind. And yet she led into the conversation by saying that they were discussing the controversy in class, and that her students would be shocked that she just didn't think it was that big of a deal (rightly noting that TAs for courses called "Language and Gender" are expected to be outraged).

That's the one part of this incident I'm not quite sure I understand. It isn't just this girl. Lots of highly prominent "usual suspects" have mysteriously switched sides on this one, and I can't totally figure why. Rosie O'Donnell, for example, thinks that somehow a private corporation sacking someone for saying things that are against their professional standards and hurting ratings besides is "going down the road to Nazi Germany."


Listen, here's the thing. There's free speech in America. You can say anything that you want in this country, and to think that you could be penalized for it, by a corporation is kind of a strange-


Actually, no it isn't. It happens all the time, and why not? The right to free speech enshrined in the Constitution doesn't give you a right to a venue provided by someone else! It just says that the government can't interfere with your right to express your opinion publicly. Nothing in the Constitution says anything about corporations being required to employ people they disagree with, or whom they feel to be unsuitable for the company, etc.!

That so many people don't seem to grasp this distinction is one of the more frustrating things in politics for me. I'm reminded of the Eddie Vedder incident, where after burning George W. in effigy on stage he was shocked (shocked!) to find that some members of the audience were offended enough to boo him. So thereupon followed all kinds of quotes in the media about the audience violating his free speech rights. (!!!) As if. Listen, asshole, if free speech permits you to burn images of the president in front of a crowd on stage (which it absolutely does), then it sure as hell also affords the crowd the right to jeer back!

There are many things at issue in the Don Imus controversy, but free speech is absolutely NOT one of them. No one but NO ONE denied Imus his right to free speech. It's not as if he's going to jail over this. No - what happened is that Imus used his rights in a dumb way, and now he's paying a price for it that he surely could have guessed, had he stopped to think before speaking, would have been attached.

Now, that said, I understand where a lot of frustration over the firing is coming from, and I'm not totally immune to it myself. Namely - it exposes a huge double standard about what's "appropriate" where race matters are concerned. All manner of minorities are allowed to say exactly what Imus said without so much as a raised eyebrow from anyone. Even more disturbing, they're allowed to say downright racist things about white people without attached consequences. Just to give an example from my own life, Cornell West spoke at my undergraduate institution and said several things that I found quite racist. For example, that he finds it "amusing" when white liberals come up to him and tell him they're not racists. His response, apparently, is to say "If the white male racist oppressor isn't dead in me, then I KNOW he's not dead in you!" Which is about as racist a thing as you can possibly say, really. It's (not-so-)cleverly disguised behind some attempt to abstract "white, maleness" out as a social category, but, even leaving the issue of why the racist archetype has to be a white male (which it doesn't, and in fact shouldn't be, since there are no shortage of examples of nonwhite races oppressing each other, etc.), notice that West assumes people bearing the "white" and "male" characteristics must automatically be more racist than everyone else. And yet, all our professors were falling over themselves fawning at how many "challenging" things he said. Right. If that's "challenging," then crossing the street must be a positive nightmare for these people. I didn't have to struggle with that one for even a microsecond to know that it was bigotry and not scholarship, and that the man should have been booed off the stage and never invited back rather than applauded.

So I get it. It's frustrating to see Imus roasted insofar as we know that the public doesn't apply the same high expectations to women and minorities. And yes, something needs to be done to restore balance here. But allowing Imus to go on being a bigot on live radio isn't the way. You're either opposed to racism across the board, or you're not really opposed to it at all. No - the way to fight the double standard is to throw energy in getting the same standards on which Imus' firing is based applied to everyone. And I suspect (as do many in the blogosphere) that the real reason Rosie is taking Imus' side is because she sees the writing on the wall. If Imus loses his job over racist remarks, what will come next will be precisely a woman or minority losing their job for the same reason, just to show that standards are being applied equally. Given lots of things she's said in the past, she's an obvious candidate for scapegoat here.

But of course, the TA I mentioned doesn't have a talkshow to lose, so her reasons are quite different. What she said was simply that she didn't think it was that big of a deal. And to tell the truth, I don't either. Another dimension to this is that people are way too sensitive about race and gender issues to begin with. We could all do with some lightening up in this department. What Imus said is undeniably racist - but is it really so bad as to be worth his job? Technically yes, if sponsors started pulling contracts. The affiliate's first responsibility is to make money, and if Imus is worth a lot less today than he was yesterday, then a contract renegotiation is certainly warranted. But part of you also wishes that the public would learn to take these things a bit more in stride. You do get the impression, after living most of your life in America, than this country takes all this stuff a little bit too seriously.

Nevertheless, I think in the end it's a good thing there were consequences. However much we may say we wish people were less sensitive about racial slurs, the fact remains that it was a racial slur, and there's nothing even remotely irrational about the girls on the Rutgers team being offended by it. It was, after all, an offensive thing to say. What I mean by "take it a bit more in stride" isn't "pretend you didn't hear what you heard." To their credit, the team stopped short of calling for his head - but they did stand up for themselves, as well they should have.

Whether or not it was enough to justify a firing, though, the point for me is that if we want to fight the double standard that says whites can't say racist things on the air but everyone else can, then the way to do it is surely NOT to encourage more on-air white bigotry. The first step, in fact, to fighting the double standard is demonstrating your sincerity by joining the denounciations when a white man says something racist. Only then are you in a moral position to demand that everyone else hold themselves to the same standards.

So, good riddance Don Imus. It was your own stupid fault. Whatever we do, let's please NOT make this man a folk hero! And PRETTY please let's hear no more about Imus' right to free speech. Unlike love, free speech doesn't mean never having to say you're sorry.

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