As you know, Imus got into hot water when, joshing with a sidekick on his radio show, he called the players on the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos" the day after the Scarlet Knights were beaten by Tennessee for the national championship.
Now that the whole thing has basically ended, with Imus fired by CBS Thursday and meeting with the Rutgers team at the New Jersey Governor's Mansion Thursday night, I have the same feeling I almost always have at the conclusion of these racial dust-ups.
Was that the best way to handle it?
The pattern of these things is familiar by now. Some public figure says something offensive, gets called on it, starts furiously back-pedaling and apologizing, and, usually, ends up getting fired.
Then there's some cheering, and we all move on to the next one. Tick, tick, tick. Who's up? I have Ozzie Guillen in three separate pools.
But with Imus trudging to the employment office I can't help asking the same things I always ask when we've reached this point in the process: Are we closer to a world of harmony and inclusiveness than we were before this all started? Has the dialogue improved? Are we getting better at talking about the uncomfortable issues of, in this case, race and gender?
The answer this time, I think, is no. The answer is almost always no. So what's the point? Why is it some kind of victory for the forces of good for Don Imus to lose his job?
Now, it doesn't bother me that Don Imus lost his job. He's an offensive blowhard, a bully and a self-aggrandizing jerk. There was never a second after I first heard his voice many years ago when his removal from the airwaves couldn't have come fast enough for me, to the extent I thought about him.
But I never thought about him much. When it comes down to it, I don't listen to Don Imus, and if thousands or millions of other people find it entertaining to listen to him, it's none of my business. Let them do their thing. I don't care.
Don Imus didn't invent offensive, bullying, self-aggrandizing blowhardism, and it won't go away if he never works another day in his life. What do you think is going to replace "Imus in the Morning," "Abe Lincoln at Large"? "Drive Time With Gandhi"? "Shootin' the Shiznit with Shakespeare"?
Talk radio did not just get smarter or kinder or more inclusive because Don Imus got canned.
Maybe CBS firing Imus was, as my boss Walsh wrote, "the right thing" to do, but CBS didn't fire him because it was the right thing to do. It was the right thing to do last week and last year and last decade if the issue was his offensiveness.
CBS fired him because it got pressure from advertisers, which pressured the network not because the companies that make cars and dog food and credit cards are the watchdogs of civil discourse in our culture but because they got pressure from angry customers.
That's us. So what do we get out of the deal?
I suspect a large percentage of the people who called for Imus' firing were, like me, not listeners. So, congratulations, fellow good people of the world, but I don't see how our lives are much different. Judging from the callers I heard on other radio shows Thursday, the reaction of Imus' listeners wasn't "My gosh! I've seen the light! Racism and sexism and meanness are bad!"
It was more like: So a bunch of people who choose not to listen to Imus' show have taken away my choice to listen to him. They're not affected at all, and now I have fewer options.
Which is a compelling point about the sometimes paternalistic nature of the response to comments like those of Imus. Who am I, doer of good, to tell you who you can't listen to?
Absent from any of the conversations I heard: Discussion of why what Imus said was so offensive, so much more offensive than all the other offensive things he has said over the years, many of which were just as racist or just as sexist, or both. Why it pushed so many people's buttons. How Imus' firing would or would not lead to a better world, or better radio. What a better response to offensive comments by public figures might be. Pretty much any constructive dialogue was absent, as it has been in the wider media, for the most part.
The conversation has been almost entirely about whether Imus should or should not have been fired, and whether the Rutgers players should or should not have taken offense at what he said.
I don't think the latter is an intelligent question. There's no asking whether someone should be offended by anything. If a person's offended, she's offended. There's no should.
A better question, the one I'm wrestling with -- and getting pinned, I'm the first to admit -- is what the proper response to Imus' comments might have been.
I applaud the Rutgers team for not demanding Imus' firing but, rather, requesting to meet with him so the players could let him see how wrong he was about them.
But I've wondered all along about their initial reaction. Why did they let Imus get to them? Coach C. Vivian Stringer and more than one player talked in the days after Imus' comments about how what should have been a great moment in their lives -- going to the National Championship Game -- was ruined by Imus. How what should have been a rally at their home gym celebrating their Final Four run turned into a kind of encounter session where they talked about how their feelings had been hurt.
I'm not meaning to blame the victims here. I'm not saying Rutgers should have turned the other cheek, not made a big deal out of it. I think the players' reaction was an honest one, and I don't know what a better one would have been.
What I mean is why do the idiot rantings of an out-of-touch gasbag have such power? Why wouldn't the obvious response be to blow him off, ignore him, the same way the players wouldn't give a second thought to an opposing fan who yelled, "Rutgers sucks"?
That's a question I'd love to hear and participate in a conversation about. It's a question that gets pretty well snuffed out by the habitual swift justice handed out to the offender, a conversation we miss out on every time a name gets added to that list that starts with Al Campanis and Jimmy the Greek and, just for the moment, just until next time, ends with Don Imus.
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