The Collision of Extremism and Appropriateness: The Passion of Don Imus and Michael Richards
First, let me say that the answer to shocking language and socially ‘inappropriate’ behavior in the mainstream media is not to excise the offending member. I’ll try to explain my point on the matter.
Over the past few months I have seen comedian Michael Richards and shock radio host Don Imus lambasted, or even excised from culture for racist epithets. On November 17, 2006, Richards lost his composure with hecklers at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood, California by alluding to Lynch mobs, and repeatedly using the word “Nigger”. What ensued was a media frenzy in which outlets like MSNBC and CNN nearly preempted far more important issues like warfare and hunger to keep Richards’ face on the air day and night for nearly two weeks, as well as demands by subject Kyle Doss for reparations. This was despite statements of contrition and (refused) requests for reconciliatory meetings with African-American leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and articles on conspiracynet about linkages of Richards to his Masonic affiliation and the Freemasons’ linkage to the Ku Klux Klan.
Conversely, NYC shock radio host Don Imus referred to the Rutgers women’s volleyball team as “some nappy-headed hos” on April 4th, 2007 on his nationally-syndicated program. The result was that shortly thereafter, Imus appeared on Sharpton’s radio show and admitted to going too far, and on-air colleagues such as Bill Maher and Rosie O’Donnell both defended Imus’ freedom of speech and that an apology should suffice. Subsequently, major sponsors of the Imus program pulled sponsorship, and CBS President Leslie Moonves relieved Imus of his duties, “in order to change "a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people."
This morning (April 15, 2007), on NPR’s “All things Considered”, there was a conversation about whether other offensive language, such as the use of “ho”, and “Nigga” in rap music should be condoned, and how the use of demeaning language by the oppressed group about themselves supposedly made the difference. Also, there has been a great deal of controversy about the “kick the Hooker” health strategy in Grand Theft Auto, in which the male thug character has sex with the prostitute and then brutalizes her in order to retrieve his money. My media arts students usually giggle innocently at this controversy, but bristle at the idea of ”Super Columbine Massacre RPG”, which I find ironic.
Back to Richards and Imus for a second – how much do we hear about Doss’ return epithets of ‘Cracker”, or Imus’ contrition in meeting with the team, which was accepted by the coach and teammates that indirectly led New Jersey Governor Corzine being critically injured in a car accident? Is there no possibility for real contrition in US culture?
What about Ann Coulter’s murderous tirades against the left, and Rush Limbaugh’s comments against Michael J. Fox faking Parkinson’s Disease. Why are these equally harmful events not met with the same prejudice? I would daresay that there are issues of capital, political will and concentrations of power which prevent them from being Imus-level events.
What I see is a disturbing second stage of political correctness, not driven by social justice, but by certain power elites and corporate interests to shape public discourse by using draconian measures to create quick fixes for epithetic remarks. Of course, Moonves’ remarks that this is a move to change an objectionable culture that has moved in increasingly “EXTREME” forms, from sports to super-sized Red Bull energy drinks to “EXTREME” ads for things as banal as magazines and soft drinks has some merit. Everything in American culture is supposed to be Fun or Extreme, and riding the line of the cultural limit of ‘appropriateness’ seems to be the American game of “Chicken”, in which the loser is excised from culture for a period of time, perhaps permanently, like a penalty box in a hockey game.
Why? Because American culture is not about social justice; it is about maintaining the flow of capital and maintaining the appearance of morality, while taking the difficult subjects like AIDS, Racism, Sexism, Homophobia, Drug Abuse, Teenage Pregnancy, and reducing them to 15-second clips, and eliminating public conversation by either summarily firing, denying or obfuscating issues, and generally distracting the public from the eventual reality that the subjects will HAVE to be dealt with, either reasonably or by crisis; usually the latter in the US.
While I am of the “hegemonic majority” of being a white male (with a little Indigenous American), I feel like a cultural tourist, a Simmelian ‘Stranger’ wherever I go. I’m a Northeast Ohioan who was not accepted by the white community in South Louisiana, and became one of the only whites in the black community for several years, part of a Fundamentalist/Unitarian/Jewish family with very mixed heritage, and a rural suburbanite who is now adapting to the rhythms of urban Chicago. All this means is that these experiences have taught me much about core differences in humanity, and the difficulties of interpersonal understanding, which are vast. Real communication between two individuals is arguably the most difficult thing there is, and taking Imus and Richards directly to the pillory is the easiest and most banal thing US culture can do. This is not punishing ‘inappropriate’ behavior, it is truly something else entirely, and not only are the people making the comments to blame, but also the ones criticizing them while not allowing reconciliation as well.
Perhaps the most difficult, and perhaps the most productive thing we could do is to use these moments as opportunities for real, meaningful conversation as the beginning of a real cultural reevaluation that is not a simple fallback to ‘old-fashioned values’ or an excision of inappropriate language. In the old days, we would just not talk about it until there were riots. Furthermore, one asks about for whom is the language inappropriate, and how that is decided. .
As I begin to close my commentary, I’d like to make a few points. Make no mistake, I am quite critical of Richards’ and Imus’ remarks, and that they _should_ be held accountable. Perhaps Richards’ comments are endemic of personal issues (possibly stress, anger, etc.) that should certainly be addressed. From seeing the video, it was obvious that he is a person whose job is to create affective rhetoric, and he used it violently, but Doss also lashed out, and is also to blame. I see Richards’ comments for now as violence that included racism. For Imus, he uses incendiary polemic for ratings, and he pushed it too far – his sins are the canary of the media coal mine. I’m not apologizing for their actions, and it is my opinion that their actions (personal or systemic), need to be addressed, systemically (without becoming a pious censor-state) for Imus, and personally for Richards.
Individuals like Imus and Richards, as well as the targets of their remarks are potentially invaluable resources for public discourse on hatred and the fracturing of society that is happening under the collision of “Extreme” and “Appropriate” culture.. What about having Kyle Doss and Michael Richards going on a national forum tour together discussing racial issues? How about Imus changing his format, being reprimanded, and subsequently doing a week with the Rutgers team?
Of course, if media are the dreams of the collective unconscious of a society, then one has to consider why US media has its dominant threads of thought. What do Imus and Howard Stern, The Man Show and the Juggies, while contextual nudity in primetime media is banned, and celibacy is the chosen method of sex education in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 4th in the nation for HIV, and the “Kick the Hooker” maneuver in GTA indicate? It indicates a Lefebrian “Culture of Terror” of neo-Roman bread and circuses that keep the public at a fever pitch while immobilizing them in a perpetual stream of frozen media violence and objectification. And what is equally disgusting is the self-righteous Evangelicals who build 150-foot Calvary crosses while thousands starve. It’s all spectacle that keeps us from confronting any substantial issue.
Can figures like the subjects of my essay actually accomplish a national discussion of social injustice? To actually _consider_ a US analogue to a media culture version of the South African Truth and Reconciliation hearings is antithetical to “Extreme” culture, and also goes against US media culture’s agendas of capital and control. It’s actually too humane to consider at this time, more likely than not.
And besides, it’s boring. Reconciling things don’t allow Christians to sacrifice Philistines, while the bikini-clad dancing girls jiggle around as a tragic Greek koros.
What is obvious is that Reason is not anywhere to be found in the capitalist media po(w/s)er circus, and the train keeps steaming down the track while the “correct” argue at opposite sides of the track arguing about which side of the track the tied-down body of culture wriggles on the rails should be removed. What is needed is for people like Richards, Doss, Imus and Rutgers to take the initiative and consider driving a conversation of reason within American society, and not the ‘’offended’ pontificators, as I’m convinced they really don’t care specifically about the matter except as another volley in the Culture Wars. Besides, they don’t want to make up anyway, as it’s really not in their interest to do so.
It isn’t that I’m reiterating Rodney King in saying “Can’t we all just get along?” What I’m saying is that US society has got to start dealing with the ills of acting like a horde of 18-year-olds fresh out of Mom & Dad’s house, thinking they can do whatever they want because no one can tell them what to do. Maybe I’m being way too idealistic, but let old, blind Tiresias have his say…