Why fire Imus?
I admit that I've never been a Don Imus fan. I've long been aware of him, but I've never actually listened to his show. All of what I know about him comes from reports from others, or stories I've read about him. Still, since I have a blog, my opinion is clearly meaningful, so much to your inevitable gratitude, I'll give it.
I understand CBS dropping Imus for his "nappy-headed hos" crack. Sure, Imus is a "shock jock," and he's made all kinds of racially charged comments in the past, I understand, so this one isn't really out of character. I guess Imus was following women's college basketball and fired what he imagined was a generic insult at the team he was not rooting for. "Nappy-headed" is a loaded adjective in the black community, which is why so many people are upset. I'll admit that as a balding white guy, it doesn't mean much to me, but commenting on the "nappiness" of a black person's hair does carry a lot of cultural baggage. It's up there with calling a black person filthy and unkempt. As one of the Rutgers' basketball women said, "Nappy? But I comb my hair!" Imus clearly didn't understand what this word really means, just as I'm sure he didn't understand the meaning of "ho," because I don't believe he meant to suggest that these women were sexually loose or crass.
And that's really the point. Don Imus was utterly ignorant of the offense he was giving, which makes it inappropriate for him to have a forum like he did. Sure, he's got every right to be ignorant of America's racial politics, just like he's got every right to be a racist. I don't think he's a racist; he's just woefully out of touch with the subjects he was talking about. So when people started complaining, and when advertisers started pulling out, it was just a sound business decision on the part of CBS to unceremoniously drop the guy's program. Those who would complain about the complainers seem to be content to allow anyone to speak their minds, as long as no action (like the firing of Don Imus) results.
On today's episode of NPR's sports show Only a Game, it was observed by sports journailst Charlie Pierce referred to Imus's famous remark as "a camel carrying a great many straws." Imus had long made many comments about blacks as well as Jews and other ethnic groups in the past—it was part of his shtick. But it finally wore too thin, and we see Don Imus revealed: he doesn't understand what he's talking about, which is why he's such a liability. And I don't just mean he's a commercial liability for CBS; he's also a liability to our national discourse. We want Imus to shock us, sure, but is that all we want? Clearly not. Otherwise we'd be clamoring for him and other Archie Bunker-like instigators to crowd our airwaves.
This is a symptom of how crass and polluted our political discourse has gotten over the past fifteen years. Another symptom is Ann Coulter, who's a regularly erupting pustule of vulgar, non-constructive comments. When she called for America to kill foreign leaders and convert them to Christianity, the National Review summarily dropped her, much to their credit. Later on, when Coulter referred to Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards as a "faggot," a number of papers dropped her column. Shock and controversy are fine, but this is going too far.
I think the common thread between Imus and Coulter is that both are out there to stir people up, but neither really knows what they think or what they're talking about. Coulter is the worst of the two; her books are poorly-strung-together non sequitur jeremiads against liberals and the Democratic Party. Imus at least makes sense much of the time and, I understand, has earned the cachet of being classy enough to attract presidential candidates and other politicans to his sound booth. Still, if you want to speak to the public, you can't afford to be tone deaf. Not anymore, at least—after six years of George W. Bush, it looks as though the American people have lost their tolerance for tone deafness.
Ours is an age of overnight success and overnight failure, when celebrity isn't a result of what you've done but rather a goal in and of itself. While I think Don Imus didn't really know what he was doing (or Ann Coulter, for that matter,) it's time for the pantheon of America's thoughtful people to be populated with people who actually do. So keep writing those letters: words matter, and complaints do make a difference.