Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A completely untimely note on the Imus “nappy headed hos” comment

--extra bonus note: this is in response to recently relistening to Bill Maher talking to Al Sharpton about Imus’ firing in April. Not timely, but I think it raises interesting points. It occurs to me that the J-readers may or may not already agree with me on this, and not with Bill Maher, but oh well, here it goes.--

Yes, the one with Imus. Yes, the one that happened in April. Yes, that one, that old story. Can I get on with it now?

Thank you.

My thoughts on Imus and the Commercial “Free Speech” industry.

I know the libertarians and anti-politically correct crowd and a mess of well-meaning agonists, liberal and conservative alike, worry about the power of “special interests” and the shutting down of dissident voices and the right to free speech and the right for people to disagree with you and fighting to preserve your right to say something I would spend my life fighting against. Yes yes yes.

But it seems to me the whole thing worked out exactly as it should in a free, capitalist democracy, no? (Ignore here that I don’t believe in the efficacy of free, capitalist democracies as a general rule, though on the other hand, our society is only strictly capitalist by dint of will and ignorance, considering the number of POPULAR social(ist) programs – but I digress) I mean, with Imus, the government didn’t do anything. He wasn’t fined, or kicked off the air by jackbooted FBI toughs. He was fired. From his private job. Where they can hire and fire people at will, for anything not related to their civil rights to be treated fairly regardless of sex, race, age, religion, creed, color, disability or military veteran status. Does this fall under one of those?

What? Race? Er, no… he wasn’t fired because he was white, or even because he was white and made a comment reserved for blacks – a black guy calling the women’s basketball team nappy headed hos probably would’ve been just as screwed, though perhaps while being covered by a more conflicted, divided media. No, he (Imus) was fired for the content of his work – indeed, had he called someone who worked under him a nappy headed ho, it likely would have been legally actionable as racial and sexual discrimination.

So, he was he fired for what he said… isn’t that still unfair? Un-American? Un-free speech-esque?

Well, actually, not really. He was fired because he lost advertisers… who left because of people who were angry and organized around – yes – something he said.

I thought that that was what happened in the so-called marketplace of ideas and a capitalist society, no? The consumers made their displeasure known to a number of companies who advertised with Imus’ home company, and the companies in turn decided that they didn’t want to risk continuing to support a lightning rod for bad consumer vibes, and so his company lost clients and feared losing more and fired him. Is there a step here that’s out of line?

Hearing Bill Maher query Al Sharpton, Maher seems to think something valuable was lost from the discussion, that this runs the risk of impoverishing the marketplace of ideas. He may be right in that it may have a chilling effect on calling college-age women minority athletes childish, inflammatory, and completely unjustified names, or “callin’ people out they names” in general. Is that a loss to our intellectual economy? I know people are afraid of talking about race here in the US in general, but is “nappy-headed ho” on some kind of fine line between productive and unproductive discourse that I don’t see?

I mean, Imus wasn’t a newscaster, he’s not exactly a satirist, and his comments didn’t seem to be making any particular point other than “I’m a cretin.” The basketball players didn’t sue him, they and their allies built a coalition of people who agreed that Imus was a cretin and basically capitalistically petitioned his ouster. They can’t do that? Or they shouldn’t? Ok, where then, I ask a theoretical person queasy about the result of Imus being ousted, did this go off the rails?

I presume we can agree that a) the basketball players, and liberal fuzzy-thinking bleeding-hearts had and have the right to find him & his comments detestable, and him generally yucky and displeasing to the eyes and ears. We can agree that b) the forementioned have the right to express disapproval of his comments. C) They (we) can express disapproval in a specific way by not buying products from those who support Imus’ show through advertising dollars. E) We can organize around this idea and get publicity. F) His corporate overlords can choose to fire him if they want, especially if he may cost them revenue.

Name the part that doesn’t belong in a capitalist democracy? Where is it?

It seems part of the general queasiness that our society has had with organized movements – as if people must obey the homo economicus model of atomized humans, each seeking the most limited forms of self-fulfillment possible and avoiding coalitions that aren’t coldly calculated to advance personal selfish well-being. The fact that neither people nor, really, all “natural” creatures really behave this way seems to be deemed irrelevant. People do form interest groups – should they not?***

Of course, this is tied to the anti-PC industry of “jeez, why should we have to watch what we say?” You don’t (other than some extreme cases like inciting to riot). But why should you have the right to have a major radio show saying what you want to say? If he’d’ve said this to his wife over a plate of vegan spare ribs, there’d’ve been no problem. To his buddies, and his kids. Hell, if he were a small popular local shock jock in Okachobee, Bizztuckas, it might not have made the news or his company might’ve decided to stay with him. But he didn’t, and he doesn’t, and they didn’t. Because people didn’t want to buy what he was selling. Whether or not it was just fringe, pressure groups is debatable – but then, the blame doesn’t lie with them, no matter how fringe – it lies in the fact that Imus’ company didn’t have the courage of their convictions to back Imus rain or shine, hos or nappy-heads. And why should they? Their real convictions are: make money. The fact that they want to avoid controversy is their own how-to-do, and if the libertarians and anti-PCers feel that “pressure groups” wield too much power, bitch to the companies that worry excessively about profits over supporting what comes down to contentless hateful speech. (I might point out that if this had been in a small, local community the opposite as what I just outlined might happen – if a shock jock insulted a local institution, the local Girls’ Basketball or Rotary Club or Knitting Circle or whatever – he might very well be fired without much regret, by causing outrage in a vocal part of the community, not necessarily even a majority of it. This might also be pointed to as a worry for “free speech,” but Imus, or this theoretical dude, can stand on the street and yell all he wants, or send out leaflets, or whatever the fuck. I don’t see how this is my problem or where the problem is in the fact that his self-apparently useless and stupid comments got him thrown out.)

Imus was not making a larger point about a political figure, after all. The girls weren’t even Janet Jackson, much less someone like Janet Reno, about whom people have been able to say whatever they damn well please on a variety of outlets. They (the Rutgers’ women) may have been public figures to some extent, but this is not Larry Flynt making fun of Jerry Falwell – that is, upstart vs. cultural stalwart – this is one the “bad boys” who smokes under the bridge and cracks everyone up in class in high school by kicking around some kids from elementary school. (Not that the basketball players aren’t adults – but rather, as in the analogy, Imus nominally wields disproportionate societal power in comparison to the Rutgers’ women what with his long-running radio show and all).

I’ve yet to hear a libertarian bitch that there aren’t enough communists on the radio. Their argument is “go find some corporate backers and a business plan and you can say what you like.” No money – no talky. Free-marketeers and anti-PCers don’t fret (as a general rule) that little indie bands don’t get national coverage; “if you’re good, you’ll make it,” says they. So why is it that once you get your backers, you’re entitled to keep them? That once you enter the marketplace it’s a violation of free speech if you’re unceremoniously ejected from it by spooked companies? The companies are, after, all, just worried about their bottom line. You don’t like the way capitalism works – start your own hateful broadcasting company, or lobby the government to have a station reserved specifically for dinky irrelevant race- and gender-baiting.

It is the height of mockery that this is a free speech concern when, for example, commercials and campaign infomercials aren’t. I don’t get time to talk about Nader or Kucinich just cuz I want to, he or I’d have to pay for it. I really don’t get time to call white people crackers on the radio just cuz I want to (well, I don’t, but if I did). Who’s crying at my loss of free speech because I can’t spout to millions for my own amusement and that of other cretins? They ain’t – and you know what, speech that is just hateful doesn’t have a specialright to be heard loudly despite the money or lack thereof in it, and certainly doesn’t have rights that grassroots political speech doesn’t have – to be heard nationwide even when it makes a company feel flighty, rightly or not.

Imus can continue to call people whatever he damn well pleases – the fact that he can’t get paid by a media giant to do it anymore (--note: since I wrote this, I think he got another job; c’est la vie) because consumers, at some number, threatened to stop buying what his bosses were selling isn’t a free speech concern at all. And I’ll call anyone a knave, a panderer, an eater of broken meats, a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited hundred pound filthy worsted-stocking knave who disagrees.

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