(ok, I stole that from one of the New York tabloids, but I like it)
The best thing written so far about the Don Imus fiasco was Harvey Firestein's op-ed piece in today’s New York Times. While I don't share all of Harvey's thoughts on language, and it would be worth while pointing out that Harvey has in his own way made a living off of perpetuating gay stereotypes, his observation about Imus is right on. The amazing thing about all this isn't that Don Imus said something outrageous and offensive, nor even that he got fired over it, it's what we choose to get outraged about. As Harvey said, the word "faggot" gets bandied about by comedians and pundits all the time without arousing the kind of outrage "nappy headed hos" did for Imus.
I guess some disenfranchised minorities are more equal than others.
But I'd offer a rejoinder to Harvey's commentary. Harvey is himself a comic actor, and a damn good one, so he should understand this: comedy is cruel. Every funny thing in the world is offensive, and if we are going to be sensitive to the harm caused by our words we will never laugh again.
I always come back to the best statement ever on comedy, Al Capp's observation that all comedy is based on man's delight in man's inhumanity toward man. Suffering, difference, abnormality, oppression, depression, pain, humility, degradation is what we laugh at. Jackass wouldn't be so damn funny if that weren't true. Nor the three stooges. Nor the Marx Brothers. Nor Mel Brooks. Nor Weekend at Bernie's (as someone once described it, two hours of a dead guy getting hit in the crotch).
Nor Havey Firestein in his normal schtick. Harvey made his career of camp--in particular, campy female impersonation. Camp, as Sontag reminds us, is the celebration of bad taste. Harvey's own act, as I said earlier perpetuated Gay stereotypes (and of course in Torch Song Trilogy deconstructed them as well).
And so we're back to Don Imus, the most tasteless man in America (and I include John Watters and Lloyd Kaufman in that statement).
My mom has been writing me lately, outraged at all the outrage. She says that bawdy humor such as Imus's (she doesn't listen to Imus by the way), is an important staple of the English language, and that if Imus is brought down they might as well go after Shakespeare too. And she's right. Shakespeare was as bawdy, as racist, as sexist, and as offensive as Imus in his day. Can you imagine the Reverend Al standing in front of the Globe Theatre (in a ruff) demanding that it be shut down?
She brings up another interesting point: can you imagine the Reverend Al apologizing to the Duke Lacrosse players? I certainly can't. Comparing the Imus debacle to the Duke tragedy is, I think, very fair. They are two sides of the same coin. The Reverend Al went to Raleigh for the same reason he went to CBS: to shed light on what he believed to be racism and to call for his brand of justice. But the feeding frenzy in both cases was frightening to watch and while in the case of Imus it was based on something he actually did say, in the case of the Duke Lacrosse players it was based on perceptions and stereotypes about privilege and race, and it put three innocent young men through a hell from which they may never recover.
I keep thinking about Janet Jackson's nipple in all of this. The people who wrote in outraged about Imus were doing the same thing as the right wing reactionaries who wrote in about Janet Jackson after her Superbowl wardrobe malfunction. I hated those people. I thought they were a bunch of loud-mouthed prudes who were trying to impress their version of morality on the rest of us, and that they should be shut up. Is it any different than the good reverends Al and Jesse? Not that I can see. I know the difference is that Janet's incident led to FCC action and Imus' didn't, because nipples are considered more dangerous than hate speech by the prudes who run the government. But the impotace behind both was the same. And that bothers me. But in the end it was the market and not the FCC that brought down Imus, and I can live with that.
Nobody is really harmed by any of this and nothing will come of it. I'd like to think it heralds the end of shock radio, but it won't. The Rutgers women will graduate and they will be heroes. Imus will land on Sirius with Howard Stern. Reverend Al will find a new cause to go after. We'll all find something else to turn our attention to, something important hopefully, like baseball.