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Don Imus and Us

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Message Cynthia Bogard

   With Don Imus gone from the airwaves, worried several noted political analysts in recent days, how are serious politicians and pundits going to reach that crucial white male Independent demographic?  

   You know, the demographic that likes to listen to a patter of racial, ethnic and religious slurs liberally sprinkled with misogyny posing as humor during their a.m. drive time. Those guys. Don Imus drew 3.5 million of them every week.  

   Fans of the show and many of those pundits, including, incredibly, New York Times columnist Frank Rich, argue that the Imus in the Morning Show was only half  filled with racist and sexist yuks – what Rich termed “juvenile” humor. It was the other half of the show that made him and many other (mostly, but not exclusively, white male politicians and pundits) happy to be invited to the Imus show. The other half of the show, you see, was serious analysis of the issues of our times. Rich said, in a 2000 interview on NPR’s On the Media, that it was one of the only venues in commercial broadcasting where a person can “actually talk in an informed way, without sound bites” about current topics and match wits with “someone who really knows his stuff” (that would be Don Imus himself). Rich said he didn’t think his appearance on the serious half of Imus meant he was endorsing the other (supposedly humor-studded) half of the show. And besides, he continued, the humor “plays in context. It doesn’t play as hate speech.”  In his current New York Times column, Rich terms this part of the show as “burlesque.”  

   Rich’s justifications (Et tu, Frank?) hurt more than most because he’s one of the most progressive and media savvy commentators to have a regular job in the mainstream media. If even he doesn’t get it, surely the rest of the political elite who have graced the Imus show don’t either.  

   Let’s review what the Imus in the Morning show reinforced about white male, that is to say, dominant, culture in this country.  

  It’s okay for the people who make the big, important political decisions and those analyze them—who, by the show’s example and of course traditionally in America are almost entirely WASPs and men—to have contempt for the rest of us. Half the time, the white males partaking in this culture talk and act seriously about important matters of politics and policy. The other half the time (presumably because it’s so stressful at the top), they blow off steam with humor that demeans and denigrates “the little people,” especially uppity folks who rise above their subservient station. So journalist Gwen Ifill is “the cleaning lady” that covers the White House, presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton, the “buck-toothed witch Satan, basketball superstar Patrick Ewing a “knuckle-dragging moron,” the “Jewish management” at CBS “money grubbing bastards.”  

   By participating as a listener of the show, the average “Independent” white guy can feel he’s part of that dominant white man’s culture. The message that is sent is this: This is how the Masters of the Universe talk to each other in private!  Those white male “Independents” can relate – that’s how they talk to each other in private too! It makes them feel close to power. It makes them feel close to the guys on the show. It makes them feel part of the power structure, even though many of them at all income levels live lives filled with uncertain job futures, uncertain health care coverage, uncertain ability to pay their mortgage or send their kids to college, uncertain prospects for success. It makes it easy for them to pin that uncertainty on all the “little people” who have invaded the workforce and even sometimes come to real power in these past four decades. The Jews, the Blacks, the Women, and now, the Immigrants.  

   The real function of white male shock jock radio and television is to make the increasingly less than powerful white male “Independent” ally himself with white male power holders in politics and finance, the true Masters of the Universe. Just long enough to sell him a Coors or a right-wing presidential candidate. Indeed, the venerable Mike Wallace, a longtime investigative journalist on CBS’s 60 Minutes and friend of the Imus show and its host, revealed exactly what is going down when he said of the show, “It’s a kind of club…” Right, Mike. The all white, all right men’s club. Western history’s seen plenty of that kind of club. 

   The shock jock demographic is in fact crucial to American politics today. It’s largely the successful manipulation of the fears of “Independent” white men that gave us and the world George Bush and all that’s been wrought by his sorry administration. They were the folks giving a standing ovation at the Axis of Evil Speech. Applauding the “you’re either with us or you’re against us” line. Salivating over the “dead or alive” and Bring it on!” bloviations of the shock jock in Chief in the White House. High-fiving the creation of Gitmo. Cheering “Shock and Awe.” Excusing Abu Ghraib (or not so secretly agreeing with the perpetrators). Buying Hummers and wearing faux cammies. You know the type. They were the ones that cowed most of the rest of us into a terrible silence for the first years of the new millennium. What a price the world has paid for their insecure masculinity. The mostly muted and off-base analysis of the Imus affair suggests we’re afraid of them still.  

   A big congratulations then, to the men of color, the women of all colors and their white male allies (for there are plenty of white men who don’t kowtow to the shock jock mindset) at NBC, CBS and their corporate sponsors such as American Express and Proctor & Gamble who dared to say aloud that using ugly racial and sexual stereotypes to diminish the astonishing accomplishments of young black women hardly old enough to vote was not something they wanted to be associated with. It is way late in the game, folks. We should have spoken up long ago (but some of us fell victim to the fear mongering too and others of us didn’t want to set ourselves up to be objects of shock jock humiliation). 

   Resisting the put-down culture of insecure white men as embodied by Don Imus (and he’s hardly the worst of them) is part of what’s necessary if we’re to wrest our nation and our world from the politics of hate. By that measure, we had a championship week last week.

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Cynthia Bogard is a sociology professor and director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Hofstra University in New York. She can be reached at Cynthia.J.Bogard@hofstra.edumore...)

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