Keep Don Imus; Protect Transgressive Humor
Don Imus’ off-the-cuff remark calling the Rutgers University basketball team “nappy-haired hos” was a crime–a crime against humor. It was dumb and stupid.
The reason groups like Media Matters for America–the group founded by ex-right wing smearmeister David Brock that is using underhanded tactics while calling for Ann Coulter’s column to be censored–are calling for Don Imus’ head, however, is that the remark was also racist and sexist.
Well, of course it was.
I was a huge Imus fan throughout the 1980s, until WNBC news-talk radio became WFAN sports radio and he started spending too much time talking about sports to keep my interest. During that time Imus made clear that he was an equal-opportunity offender, trading in ethnic and racial and religious humor, against no one more than rednecks–in other words, himself. What he said about the Rutgers women was not a deviation from his decades of broadcasting.
Firing him for making (bad) racist and sexist jokes is like firing a mailman for delivering letters. It’s what he does.
As he said in his defense, context matters.
For example, I am sick and tired of saying that I called Pat Tillman an “idiot” and a “sap” in a cartoon. I didn’t call him those things. A character in one of my cartoons did. Parallel: Charles Schulz never pulled a football away from a little boy; his character did. Not the same thing.
Imus’ on-air shock-jock persona relies on just the kind of jokes that got him into hot water. Are we, as a society, going to say that all racial and ethnic humor is to be verboten? That idea makes me terribly uncomfortable, yet it’s the logical conclusion to the Imus controversy.
Needless to say, a nation that sits idly by while its soldiers torture and maim innocents in concentration camps ought to be concentrating on more serious matters than a radio host’s ill-considered humor. But while we’re at it, humor relies on transgression, on trashing sacred cows. The very fact that you’re not allowed to say “nappy-headed hos” prompts comedians to try saying it–just to see if the shock value makes it humorous. In this case, it doesn’t work. But comedians need to be able to try everything, to take risks. Imposing economic censorship–firing people for exercising their First Amendment free speech rights–stifles creativity and inhibits discussion. It makes life a little more boring, a little suckier.
I hear a lot of lefties crowing over Imus’ firing by MSNBC TV. How will they feel when right-wingers retaliate with their own censorship campaigns the next time the political winds change? It wasn’t so long, after all–2004–that MSNBC.com fired me for expressing my own, then-controversial opinions.
Anyone who wants Imus to be fired hates America and the First Amendment. I hope these pro-censorship assholes are all registered Republicans, because they sure as hell aren’t liberal or progressive.