Reinventing Don Imus

Anatomy of an Excuse

by Michael E. Ross

1 December 2009


Pointless Randomness

Pointless Randomness

While ethnic humor can be biting, even lacerating, the humor and humorists that resonate in American society are those with a strong sense of the moral, a relatively clear distinction of right and wrong, and an understanding of the need to (borrowing Finley Peter Dunne’s mission statement for journalists) “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

Awkward isn’t well-served by his frequent attempts to contextualize Imus’ “nappy-headed hos” riposte as on-air theater. Awkward uses the word “skit” dozens of times to describe it, almost defensively at times. But as even a casual start-to-finish reading of a transcript of the offending passages of the 4 April 2007 broadcast reveals, Imus’ comments weren’t made in the innocent context of a “skit” (the word brings to mind a third-grader’s backyard mise en scéne with bedsheets for a backdrop).

What Imus said that morning was an organic extension of a conversation with his associates on the air. Contrary to Awkward’s entire argument, Imus made no attempts to frame his comments as part of any alternate conversation, with him as a character in a role-play. There was no attempt to put the comments in the mouth of some hypothetical Other; this was Don Imus talking as Don Imus. As such, his comments don’t warrant the convenient theatrical cover Awkward provides.

The author often makes earnest attempts to put Imus and his previous examples of race-tinged humor in a pantheon of ethnic humor, ignoring one of humor’s more redeeming qualities. While ethnic humor can be biting, even lacerating, the humor and humorists that resonate in American society are those with a strong sense of the moral, a relatively clear distinction of right and wrong, and an understanding of the need to (borrowing Finley Peter Dunne’s mission statement for journalists) “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

This is what’s so unsettling to Imus’ past critics. Imus’ remarks wounded precisely because of the pointless randomness of their intended targets. Besides the deliberately provocative racial innuendo, besides the macho, towel-snapping aspect of his humor, there was the inescapable sense that there was no moral gravity in Don Imus’ comic universe, no moral center beyond his own. Everyone’s deserving of ridicule. There’s been no one to root for in Don Imus’ world except the foppish, mercurial, petulant multimillionaire behind the microphone.

The fact of his years of admirable charity work on behalf of children with cancer only deepens our confusion. The disconnect between Imus’ deeply felt, sometimes refreshingly emotional display of love for those at the Imus Ranch—all of them children and some of them black children—and the casually ruthless characterizations of other black children (like the girls at Rutgers) is hard to understand, and a challenge to intellectually defend.

Awkward examines Imus’ comments through too narrow a lens. Imus’ words that morning in 2007 had a direct line to the auction block and the plantation; the words had an emotional impact that predates Imus by generations. The author misunderstands how the Imus incident has played into a persistent devaluing narrative of black people in general and black women in particular, and how Imus’ comments did nothing to elevate the public discourse about the black experience.

Awkward has generally excused Imus from his dalliance with the misogyny associated with hip-hop and young urban black culture. The author’s reasoning—if black men can talk about black women like that, Imus can, too—only has any traction if you think misogyny deserves to be an equal opportunity experience. Whether rap’s misogynist tendencies are borrowed by a white sexagenarian disc jockey or an African American teenager doesn’t matter.

Awkward takes a tough-love approach, saying that black Americans would be better off less focused on the diatribe of a disc jockey with a talent for self-promotion and outrageousness, and paying more attention to other societal ills like black-on-black crime.

I hope to demonstrate that the deep, festering fissures in the souls of black American folk have led us to react compulsively when we feel our humanity challenged by events and language we perceive of as indistinguishable from our experience of racism and the discourse used to buttress it ...

[O]ur collective identities may be so thoroughly the product of our traumatized national status that we are unable to distinguish the real threats we face—such as the fact that in my own and the nation’s birthplace, the City of Brotherly Love, black boys and young men kill each other indiscriminately and at an alarming rate ...

That’s easy to say if you look at black-on-black crime in a societal vacuum, as something specific to today. But crime is pathology made real, and the pathologies black Americans confront and negotiate in the 21st century have their antecedents.

Awkward’s notion that Imus is a surrogate, one of the convenient whipping boys of pop culture chosen because “they sufficiently resemble the ones who have deeply injured us” is shortsighted. For many black Americans, Imus was no stand-in; he was  one of those people who have deeply injured them, legitimized and empowered by those who’d put socially corrosive behavior in the benign, juvenilizing context of a “skit”.

Awkward also underplays a fact that necessarily widens the scope of the Imus controversy, one that neutralizes the race-specific complaints: Imus’ slurs haven’t been limited to black women, or even to black people.

In 1998, Imus told CBS’ 60 Minutes that he hired an African-American producer to “tell nigger jokes”. In 2000, he described the New York Knicks as “chest-thumping pimps”. In 2006, Imus made a reference to the “Jewish management” of CBS Radio as “money-grubbing bastards”. In 2007, he described Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz as “a boner-nosed… beanie-wearing Jewboy”.

Awkward dutifully lists all of these and more to support his contention that they’re evidence of Imus as comedian. But with the rights of the public square come responsibilities.

An earlier event, on a stage in West Hollywood, California, had already made that clear. On 17 November 2006, five months before the Imus affair, Michael Richards, the actor formerly known as Kramer in the Seinfeld TV series, went onstage at the Laugh Factory nightclub and committed professional suicide. In a mad tirade directed at two hapless black patrons of the club, Richards hurled the n-word repeatedly at the two men, along with a viscious reference to lynching—before lamely attempting to rationalize his outbursts as a comic’s shock study of the psyche (“Oh, it shocks you ... what lies buried,” he said).

Chronology notwithstanding, would Awkward be so willing to place Imus’ comments in the benign context of comedic expression had Imus decided to cross that line—if he’d replaced “hos” with “niggers” that April morning? That would cast the thrust of Awkward’s thesis—that the Imus controversy revealed more about the black American subconscious than Imus’—in a new light.

But if Awkward were to insist there’s no difference between “hos” and the n-word, the questions are: What commentary does society have a right to object to? What’s Awkward’s threshold for antisocial invective? What, in his view, is the Enough moment when the social contract goes into effect, when society is entitled to react, and react negatively, to words that cross the collectively recognized line?

We’ll never know; the author airily dismisses any study of the social and cultural relationship between the two incidents, admitting that “the Richards case interests me very little”. This convenient dismissal is as intellectually inconsistent as it is literarily unsatisfying.

The author begins finally to make excuses. Seeking to shore up Imus’ bona fides with black Americans, Awkward cuts Imus a break for “annually airing ‘I Have a Dream’ in its entirety on Martin Luther King Day”. How could it have escaped Awkward’s attention that the day of the nappy-headed hos incident was 4 April 2007—the 39th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King?

Ironically, Awkward is undercut in his argument by none other than Don Imus himself. Awkward’s attempts to diminish Imus’ responsibility for his own actions confront the inconvenient fact of the shock jock’s own numerous apologies after April 2007. Even allowing for Imus’ malleable mind, as Awkward does, a reasonable person comes to a reasonable conclusion: you shouldn’t apologize if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong.

In his first program after the Rutgers debacle, Imus promised to “never say anything in my lifetime that will make any of these young women at Rutgers regret or feel foolish that they accepted my apology and forgave me”. This apology was followed by at least two others, including a mea culpa from a great height, a radio show with Al Sharpton, himself hoist on the public petard for various flamethrower statements.

Sharpton:... Now, let me first ask you this: What is any possible reason you could feel that this kind of statement could be just forgiven and overlooked?

Imus: I don’t think it should be. I don’t think it can be. I think it can be forgiven, but I don’t think it can be overlooked. And I—when I originally apologized on Friday, I apologized. And I didn’t say what everybody said, you know, ‘if I offended somebody, I’m sorry’, because I knew I offended somebody.

I’m not a journalist, I’m not Tim Russert, I’m not a politician. I don’t have any—we don’t have an agenda. Our agenda is to try to be funny. And sometimes we go too far and sometimes we go way too far. In this case, we went way too far.

Sharpton: Mr. Imus, do you think it’s funny to call people nappy-headed ho’s?

Imus. No, I don’t.

During his RFD stint, Imus enlisted the services of not one but two black comedians—presumably to keep him in check should he go off the rails again.

The two African American comedians aren’t part of the new Imus-on-Fox on-air lineup.

The author fails in his attempts to reinvent Don Imus as a chameleon of the radio, a man of a thousand disguises. For 40 years, despite all of his flirtations with various personae, the baseline, foundational identity of Don Imus on the radio has been… Don Imus on the radio. Listeners are invited to a world seen mostly through his eyes.

Not for nothing is his show called “Imus in the Morning”. His staff, the esteemed political guests, the legions of equally esteemed journalists and tastemakers, all are ultimately there at the service of Imus and his personality—a fact that hasn’t escaped the many companies who have for years advertised their products on his show with exactly that expectation.

In his numerous apologies, in some of the changes evident in his new program, and in the wake of a recent and no doubt life-changing diagnosis of prostate cancer, Don Imus so far seems to get it, to understand something the author hasn’t fully grasped, or accepted: To whom much is given, much is expected. The artistic-license clause of the social contract doesn’t supersede the contract itself.

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