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Imus and the Usual Suspects

        Imus hasn’t yet checked into rehab, but the uproar over his racist swipe at the Rutger’s women’s basketball team has otherwise followed the usual script.  Apology, followed by abject apology, followed by a stream of commentary (we have all seized the moment,) a futile effort to appease the gleefully opportunistic Al Sharpton, expressions of opprobrium from Imus's bosses, instability among advertisers, a two week suspension, and a segment on The Daily Show. 
  
         The usual claims about the harm of racist, sexist insults are being countered by the usual charges of censorship and paeans to free speech. The usual hyperbole rules both sides.   
   
        What’s the harm of the racist remark?  While I imagine that the young women on the Rutger’s team were deeply offended, justifiably angered, and maybe initially embarrassed by Imus’s insult, I hope it’s by clear to them by now that he has only hurt himself.  As innocent slander victims, they’ve been carefully treated with sympathy and respect, (they’ll probably emerge as heroes, as so many victims do in this culture,) while he’s being condemned as a pathetic old potty mouth. Groveling, desperately declaring his own essential goodness, he seems more pathetic daily.
   
        Where’s the censorship?  Everyday, media executives engage in content-based discrimination against speech, with every right.  They’re in the business of discriminating, deciding what and what not to publish or air.  Media conglomerates base these decisions on the bottom line, promoting profitable speech (like Imus’s rants.)  Money losing opinion journals, dependent on foundations or deep-pocketed publishers, discriminate against speech on ideological grounds.  But whether they’re interested in profits or politics, editors and executives who decide what we will read, hear and see generally aim to please their audiences.   Imus will keep his job if he continues to be an asset; he’ll lose it if he becomes a liability.  What else is new?
   
        So let’s not pretend that the terrorists will win if Imus is fired or muzzled.  Let’s not even pretend that his schoolyard taunts have social value.  (I’m surprised that Harvey compares Imus’s witless insults to parody, in his post below.  If I began peppering my posts with racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic epithets, how long does Harvey imagine the Phoenix would continue to publish me, unfiltered?)
 
        But neither should we act as if the Rutgers women are likely to have been deeply scarred by Imus’s epithets. And please, let’s not encourage them to believe that they can be wounded by an aging shock jock.  Let’s celebrate the toughness they display on the court, not the imagined feminine fragility that turns every insult into an assault.
   
        What’s most disturbing about the Imus story is the hysteria that has spawned it. We seem to have lost all sense of proportion when the subject is offensive speech.  It’s hard to imagine that we’d be paying any more attention to this story if Imus had attacked a woman physically.  Imus himself, in his quest for forgiveness, has contributed to this hysteria, stating that if he had made an intentionally hateful, racist remark, he would deserve to be jailed, as well as fired.  
   
        So the controversy intensifies.  Now Barack Obama has been drawn into it, charged with not condemning Imus’s remarks quickly or forcefully enough, as if they constituted a national crisis, like – oh, I don’t know – a disastrous war.  





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