Time to transcend group identities

For those who have been vacationing on the moon, the Don Imus radio/TV show is no more. And while he deserved to be canned for the offensive and nonsensical remarks he made, the whole episode also raises some questions about our eagerness to see people as victims.

For the past year or two, I was a frequent watcher of the Imus show on MSNBC when I wasn’t watching CSPAN. (Not to sound too defensive about my blatant news-junkie nerdiness, but I wake up very early, and the current-event choices are few.)

At any rate, I saw enough of Imus and his fawning underlings to get a good idea of what he was about, which was making himself look clever and hip by being cruel to a wide range of anonymous folks – fat, gay, minority, whatever – or to the politicians with whom he didn’t agree. (Politically, he is slightly left of center, but he also promoted such anachronisms as Pennsylvania’s former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, just to show that he was actually a fair and balanced guy.)

His treatment of all his political guests was irreverent and hard-nosed, and many of them plainly appeared on the show just to demonstrate they had the courage to face his withering (or at least withered) forays against their hypocrisies.

Imus tried to cultivate a countryboy/ NASCAR image by wearing cowboy costumes during his broadcasts and asking his sports guy, whose obesity he loved to ridicule, about the latest stockcar races. (He himself rides in limos and flies in private jets – not quite what the average race fan could relate to — but as Emerson said, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of a small mind.)

So after decades of dancing on the edge of the abyss, the decrepit shock jock finally went too far, referring to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as rough, kinky-haired whores the day after they’d lost the NCAA Division I championship game.

A storm quickly gathered despite Imus’ initial lame apology, and the media rushed for comments from the usual “leaders” of the black community – Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson chief among them – who condemned his mean-spirited slurs, threatened boycotts, etc. Sponsors began dropping the show and both NBC and CBS tested the water by announcing he would be “suspended” for two weeks. (This was quite the punishment for a retirement-age geezer who always looks like he could use more time in the Lazy Boy anyway.)

In the meantime, Imus begged for forgiveness, promising to henceforth include more minorities on his show. (Whether he would include more “fat sissies” and “faggots,” and “bone-nosed beanie-wearing Jewboys” and “towelheads” was not made clear.)

These measures flew about as well as Howard Hughes’ plywood airplane, however, and the economics of the PR disaster – not ethical issues – compelled the networks to can him entirely.

Good riddance, I say, to a pile of crap who got rich by being mean in the name of cutting-edge humor. There is nothing funny about what he said about the Rutgers women, nothing even clever.

OK, so Imus got his comeuppance, but it is the discussion that’s followed that troubles me for reasons that have little to do with his boorish behavior. Sharpton and Jackson, well known for rushing to the scene of any racially divisive incident and championing the “black side,” are now taking credit for getting Imus off the airwaves. They regularly exploit such incidents to promote themselves and raise money for their non-profits.

Both have demonstrated they have little regard for the truth – notably Sharpton in the 1987 Tawana Brawley case in which a young black woman falsely claimed to have been raped by a half-dozen white men (they were exonerated, and Sharpton was successfully sued by one of the men he’d defamed); and Jackson in the recent Duke University non-rape case in which the black accuser was shown to be lying about her alleged white attackers. Jackson even promised this prevaricator a college scholarship, regardless of the outcome or her veracity.

The coach and members of the mostly black Rutgers team held a press conference during which they rightly condemned Imus, but then fell into a trap that I believe could condemn them to a self-image more harmful than any words some geriatric freak could utter.

Some of the players said his comments would affect them for the rest of their lives – one observing she expected to be permanently “scarred” – and their supporters universally stressed how deeply hurtful his words were to all these young women.

In other words, these highly disciplined, competitive individuals had been irrevocably harmed by a few nasty words tossed off by someone they didn’t know. The implication was that he had ruined their lives, despite their athletic prowess, their academic achievements and the perverse resulting fame that had unexpectedly lionized them.

It went on for days, the “dialogue” about the impact of his words, whether his dismissal was appropriate and should blacks “forgive” him. What was mostly ignored during these exchanges was the great power falsely attributed to Imus’ ugly blather.

These women aren’t victims, aren’t so weak that any harsh words spoken by whomever — the pope, the president — can render them quivering piles of protoplasm whose futures have suddenly been stolen. On the contrary, they’re so strong, tough and resilient they managed to get all the way to that championship game.

The problem is that the black team members are apparently being urged to see themselves first and foremost as members of a group rather than simply as individual members of the human race — just as all Americans seem obligated to see themselves as members of some group they superficially resemble. (Chinese-American, Hispanic, Irish or whatever. Christians, Jews, Muslims or whatever. Blue-collar, white-collar, no-collar or whatever.)

Historically, though, all races and other subgroups have practiced slavery, discrimination and cruelty toward people they saw as somehow different and therefore inferior, and none of us has any moral high ground on which to stand when it comes to addressing these issues. We are all sinners.

And all of us have to get beyond identifying ourselves by our skin-deep similarities and our so-called “cultural” differences, and fully accept that we are only very temporary residents of Planet Earth, who need to treat one another, our home and all its other inhabitants with the respect life in general deserves, and to condemn words and deeds that harm anyone, not just the members of “our” kind.

Otherwise, our species will soon drive itself to extinction, and it won’t make a damned bit of difference what some ravaged dope fiend said on the radio, or what the proper punishment might be, because the human race will become as irrelevant as he has.

David Grant Long writes from Cortez, Colo.

From -May 2007, David Long.