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A Lesson for Today

by Julia Sneden

Well, Don Imus, whose CBS radio show was simulcast on MSNBC, has landed himself in a mess. His reference to the “nappy-haired hos” of the Rutgers women’s basketball team (most of whose members are African-American), was just the newest in a long line of offensive remarks.

Back in the ‘80’s when he put his foot into his bigoted mouth, he found himself pulled up short. At that time, he promised to clean up his act. Well, so much for the ‘80’s. Been there, didn’t do that.

I don’t mean to denigrate Imus’s considerable accomplishments. According to his Web biography, he has a record of remarkable achievements. After dropping out of high school, he served two years in the Marine Band, after which he pursued various venues before emerging as a disc jockey in a small California town. Self-educated, he has shown himself to be an intelligent over-achiever who has worked his way into a position of power. His interviews with celebrities and politicians have often been challenging and substantial.

He has battled and apparently held at bay addictions to both alcohol and cocaine. He has used his considerable influence and wealth to support deserving charities. He has turned his New Mexico property over to children who suffer from cancer, affording them the opportunity to be part of a working cattle ranch.

What he hasn’t done, apparently, is grow up. His outrageous remarks bear all the maturity of a 14-year-old trying to shock the parents. That’s something Imus shares with many other “shock jocks” and aging rappers. It’s not an engaging quality in a man of 66.

Apparently, Imus regards himself as a comedian and an iconoclast. That’s just fine. The use of satire and comedy to attack sacred cows has a long and honorable history. Where Imus stepped out of line was in attacking a group of young women who were undeserving of his disdain. It is one thing to attack people who are pretentious and arrogant. Making fun of a bunch of girls playing basketball (and playing it well at that) is another. If you’re going to ridicule the pretentious or arrogant, you’d better stick to people who really are. Otherwise, you’ll come off as pretentious and arrogant yourself.

In his frantic efforts at damage control, Imus seemed even less than adolescent. In an interview with Matt Lauer on the Today Show last week, he reminded me of the kindergarteners I used to teach.

"I’m a good person,” he said repeatedly, “who said a bad thing.” That isn’t a bad description of what happened, but it’s not an excuse or an explanation or an apology. He seemed to think that if he just labeled his verbal diarrhea as stupid, it would make things right. To his credit, he eventually did make an outright apology.

And then, referring to the ‘80’s debacle, he protested “But that was in a comedy context!” Is calling people names funny to any but your fellow miscreants? (At least he didn’t offer “I take responsibility for my actions,” which seems to be the pet phrase of politicians who can’t bring themselves to admit they were wrong. One doesn’t “take responsibility:” one simply is responsible).

Later on, when CBS finally fired him, Imus said sanctimoniously: “I can understand the pressure they were under,” which seemed to imply that the loss of advertising was the only reason the CBS management would take such a big step. He may be right — but perhaps, just perhaps, the rottenness of his error had something to do with it, too.

Yes, good people do bad things. Afterwards, if they are lucky, there may even be a way to right, or at least to ameliorate, the wrong. Unfortunately for Mr. Imus, no such avenue exists. An apology doesn’t cut it. It’s impossible to unsay the misogynistic and racist words that went out over the airwaves to thousands upon thousands of listeners. Neither was there any way he could have kept those young women and their families from hearing his words. And once those words invaded the minds and hearts of his victims, there was no way he could erase them.

The young women (and their coach) have been miracles of restraint and class. If they represent the face of 21 st century American womanhood, we should all stand up and cheer.

My father, ever the optimist, used to tell me that every generation of mankind is an improvement over its predecessor. I, horrid adolescent cynic that I was, looked around me and said something like “Yeah, yeah, sure.” But when I think, really think about it, I believe he was right.

We no longer burn witches at the stake. We no longer beat children in school rooms. We no longer sell or buy humans, or consider a slave as being 3/5 of a man. We no longer keep women from owning property, or from voting. We no longer consign little girls to a life aimed solely at pleasing a man, any man. And we no longer think it okay to denigrate people who are different from us by gender or race.

Slowly, slowly, we are learning some important things. Perhaps Mr. Imus is, too.

Oh, there are still plenty of individuals of every race who will use offensive language and the kind of smarty pants condescension that produced Mr. Imus’s thoughtless moment. Some people even think such behavior is funny. But they will soon, I believe, be in the minority. Out of date. Behind the times. Hopelessly retrograde.

Other comedians have been remarkably restrained about Imus’s fall. Perhaps they’re a bit nervous and just glad it didn’t happen to them. But perhaps some of them have also noticed that you can be funny and even irreverent without calling names or inflicting egregious pain on the undeserving.

We can hope that if Mr. Imus is able to get another job, he’ll be more careful with his words, and will pause and say sternly to himself:

“Imus’nt.”

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