Monday, April 09, 2007

Stick and Stones

I’ve been called a lot of things. Fat. Stupid. Gay (or worse). Dumb. Another name for “Richard.” An a-hole. An F’ing a-hole. An idiot. Biased. Phony. A Mets fan.

And worse. I remember a teacher calling me “a little jerk” once. I’m sure I’ve been called a bad son, or a bad friend, or a bad father, or a bad husband (maybe not fair, but that’s what an opinion is). Yet for some reason, while some of it has hurt (especially the “fat” comments), I’m still breathing and generally, still surviving. It’s part of the game of life. I’ve called people things as well, because if I take it, then I can give it. My feeling has long been that life is about having a sense of humor, and without it, you’re shot.

I guess because I’m not a black basketball player, I have no right to get upset though. Why? Because we have another example of political correctness, and race relations in America running amok. Last Wednesday, on the Imus in the Morning radio program, while discussing the Rutgers women’s hoops program with producer Bernard McGuirk. the following exchange occurred:

"That's some rough girls from Rutgers," Imus said. "Man, they got tattoos..."

"Some hardcore hos," McGuirk said.

"That's some nappy-headed hos there, I'm going to tell you that," Imus said.

This was business as usual on IITM. No racism intended, just picking on whatever comes up. Yet by Thursday, Imus felt compelled to apologize, albeit informally. By Friday, he apologized again, with a written statement that he read on the program, which is carried on more than 70 radio stations, streamed on the internet, and televised live on MSNBC. That did not do enough to stave off the oncoming racial freight train, headed by…wait for it…the Rev Al Sharpton. Sharpton, along with Jesse Jackson, many in the media, and the NAACP, called for Imus’s dismissal. This morning, the entire show was dedicated to more apologizing:

"Here's what I've learned: that you can't make fun of everybody, because some people don't deserve it. And because the climate on this program has been what it's been for 30 years doesn't mean it's going to be what it's been for the next five years or whatever.

I'm not a bad person. I'm a good person, but I said a bad thing. But these young women deserve to know it was not said with malice."

Here’s what slays me: had this been said about an all-white women’s team, it would have been brushed off. Call Hilary Clinton “Satan”, and it’s no big deal. Call Oprah Winfrey “Satan” and look out, though I would offer that Mrs. Clinton has done more for the US than Ms. Winfrey. Conversely, Ms. Winfrey has done more for South Africa, but I’m getting off course here.

It’s so easy to brand a white person as a racist. It happens all the time (I pray I have never been called that, but again, it is easy to throw words around). I’ve been critical of the resignation of Jackie Robinson’s number in baseball, but does that make me a racist? It makes me honest, and a realist, and a baseball purist, and an historian but it does NOT make me a racist. I’m not going to sit here and pull the “Some of my closest friends are African-Americans” because what purpose would it make? Just as it would make no purpose to review the recent post I wrote about legendary coach Eddie Robinson, which I received some nice praise for. It’s irrelevant. I know in my heart what I am, and I think Don Imus know what he is as well.

You’ve got to know the person to understand the person, and to be able to judge them. While I don’t truly know Don Imus (having been in his presence all of twice, and I think I might have said two words to him), I’ve listened to his show for over a quarter of a century, and if there’s one thing he is not, it is a racist. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, and the reaction to the plight of the Lower Ninth Ward was anything buy swift, it was Imus who said that it was racism (a point that I disagreed then and now with). It is Imus who has played Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech every year on the holiday that bears Dr. King’s name. It is Imus who has worked tirelessly for Sickle Cell Anemia research, and built a ranch for kids with cancer (regardless of race), and became a surrogate father to many of those children. It is Imus who screamed about the death benefits for soldiers’ families, and the deplorable conditions at VA hospitals across the country. Was he only lobbying for the Caucasian families? Hardly. He counts former congressman Harold Ford, Jr as an ally. He played the sermons of the late Bishop GE Patterson on his show. He had the Blind Boys of Alabama (a black musical group) on the show. He often played rap songs that a white guy like me had never heard. All of which, by the way, he was criticized for, by management, peers, and fans. Yet he did not waver.

To fire him or punish him for this would be beyond absurd, and it is now time for those who have supported him in the past to step up. Already, media people like Evan Thomas, Howard Fineman and Tom Oliphant have come to his defense. I suspect that we will soon hear from Tim Russert, James Carville, Mary Matalin, Jeff Greenfield, Paul Begalla, and others who will remind us all that the spirit of the show is rooted in humor – often mean-spirited, but the targets are always the same, and nobody gets shredded more than Imus himself. Many of these supporters will regard last weeks comments as a mistake, or deplorable, or whatever, but they will continue to support a man who they feel is decent and benevolent. They will speak out against the comments (lest they be branded a racist, or attached to the comments themselves). On the show, Chris Carlin will remain known as “fat”, McGuirk will be a “bald-headed Nazi”, Lou Ruffino will be a “runt” and Charles McCord will be a “four-eyed geek.” That is how it has always been in Imus-land. In comedy bits, or in the average show conversation, any one of the Imus cast would wish for demise of their leader. For instance, “Cardinal Egan” (McGuirk) will say “In the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost. The Iman in a casket we want the most.” Unfortunately, based on this morning, I can already tell that the tone will change, because Imus did the one thing that nobody can do – make fun of a black person.

I’ve spewed about Sharpton before, and will do so again now. Has he ever apologized for being a part of a reverse-racism prank on all of us in 1987 with the Tawana Brawley episode? He defended that hoax, and was part of trying to ruin the reputations of many honorable people. Yet that’s OK. Instead that propelled him to fame beyond his wildest dreams. I don’t want to dislike or distrust Reverend Sharpton, and should follow the lead of Imus, who does like him, and speaks very highly of him, including this morning. I have a feeling I might like the man if I ever had a chance to grab a cup of coffee with him, and I shouldn't judge him because I don't know him, so perhaps I'm not being fair. Yet I just see no good whenever Reverend Sharpton appears somewhere.

Today, Don Imus will appear on his Al Sharpton’s radio program (more like his propaganda show) and will be contrite, but to his credit, I suspect he will also do as he did on his show this morning: remind people that he has done a lot of good (and will continue to do so this week, when he hosts his annual multi-million dollar radiothon). There is talk that Sharpton will then come on the Imus show tomorrow, and that the Rutgers women will talk to him down the road. All OK, I guess, but I found it strange and disheartening to listen to Imus nearly cry for fifteen minutes this morning as he apologized again, and I suppose it will continue that way for a while, as the furor dies down. I can tell that the show will change quite definitively. It will no longer be OK to make fun of everyone. There have been a few serious changes over the years on Imusin the Morning. The first was the move in the late 80's away from playing music to talk. The second, while subtle, was when Imus married Deirdre Coleman. The tone of the show changed signficantly. Now with this, there will be an almost-nervous attempt to soldier on. What does that say to those who have been loyal for all of these years. In my mind, I only think Don Imus should apologize for upsetting those who are politically correct and overly sensitive. Unfortunately we live in a time when everyone (present company often included) is too sensitive and uptight.

Lastly, and they’re always the easiest targets, but the media has nothing to be proud of. As usual, they’ve hopped on the liberal bandwagon. They love fanning the flames of an issue like this, and they’re practically orgasmic about this one. A chance to curry favor with Reverend Al, keep propagating the idea of racism in America, and heave some hate on a so-called “shock jock?” Well count us in! As you read, listen, or watch their work in these upcoming days, consider whether or not they have truly ever listened to Don Imus. I guarantee you that they have not. And ask them if they would have gotten this bent out of shape had the comments been made about a white team in, say, Montana or Wyoming.

Once again, we have learned that literally every word spoken theses days must be measured, as our society keeps heading toward hell in a handbag. I return to the things that my parents taught me as insults and teasing comments were thrown at me, and like a religious chant, we should all say them now:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Maybe not, but the whole thing makes me sick.

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