Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Calling all nappy-headed niggas in the projects.

The above words did not burble forth from the loose lips of the embattled Don Imus, nor are they mine (with the exception of "calling all"). They are, in fact, a line of lyrics from a song by the rap group Outkast, known for its explicit, racially charged, blatantly misogynist takes on American society. What makes such poesy both timely and interesting for our purposes is that a few short years ago, Outkast was one of the marquee rap groups courted by Bill Clinton and Al Sharpton when the twosome was plotting strategy for the latter's presidential run; they hoped that such prominent rappers could marshal the "hip hop vote," thereby taking Rev. Al over the top. Nor was this the first or last time Sharpton cheerfully rubbed elbows with key figures in Rap Nation, the worst offenders in today's society when it comes to dehumanizing black women (and blacks overall) while also instigating a war against cops, the social order, and civilized thought itself. Shameless confession of a guilty pleasure: From a purely musical standpoint I happen to enjoy listening to rap. But I don't think there's any doubt that rap music collectively has done far more damage to the psyche of young blacks of both genders than a hundred Don Imuses ever could. (Check out these lyrics as well...but be warned.)

Today, of course, that same Al Sharpton is in the vanguard of black leaders and other heated voices calling for the head of a push-the-envelope radio host who, in a single, unusually lame-brained moment (even for him), said something stupid and offensive (though far less stupid and offensive than what one hears in rap music, or in urban-themed films, or from most black comics except Bill Cosby, in any given moment during any given day). Go figure.

Meanwhile, what happened to free speech? It's true that people generally tend to misunderstand Constitutional protections of speech, which are meant primarily to protect people from the wrath of government. In Fortune-500 America, for example, there are no guarantees of free speech (without consequences, that is): Quite clearly you can be fired for voicing opinions that your corporate higher-ups do not like. That said, there is little doubt that the Framers built free speech into America's nascent democracy specifically to protect words in the arena of public discourse that other people find offensive, outrageous, and hurtful. (Please show me in the Declaration of Independence or Bill of Rights where it says you have "the right not to be insulted or have your feelings hurt.") In what many see as a particular reaction to the latter-day strictures of the Patriot Act, many courts have taken a more laissez-faire position on speech, even when it advocates, or implies the advocacy of, actual violence.

What's the point of extolling "free speech" if we're going to demand the firing of everyone who says something we don't like? Fact is, we probably need the loose canons. We probably need folks like Imus, and Howard Stern, and Dave Chappelle, and George Carlin, and Bill Maher, and Chris Rock. We need them to "keep it real" for us, to remind us that sometimes we take things a bit too seriously; that free speech was intended first and foremost to safeguard the very kinds of ideas that hurt people's feelings or, yes, make people furious. Just let capitalism do its efficient job; if you've got a gripe with Imus, then just let people stop buying the products advertised on Imus' show, or let the ratings drop to zero. That's ultimately how we punish speech we dislike in a free-market society.

Besides, if you were going to call for a head—would you really want that head to be Don Imus'?


Anonymous said...

Steve, I found you through your comment on the Goldberg site. I'm not a big self help reader but it seems like a nice blog.

Here's something else to think about that you may identify with since I assume you're Italian-American, as I am. Ever since movies like the Godfather and Goodfellas it is seemingly permissible to show Italian culture almost solely in terms of stories like today's Sopranos. I realize that two wrongs don't make a right, but can you even imagine a TV series today based in black gang culture, where the characters week after week were portrayed doing the things that the cast on the Sopranos do? What about a story set in gay culture, where the gays were killers or people almost totally lacking in conscience? Would that ever get on the air? Highly doubtful. In fact when was the last time you saw a gay character that was a heavy rather than a hero or a sympathetic figure. Also, I don't know if you've noticed but almost every priest on a show now or in a movie is a pedophile or corrupt in some way. I guess those are acceptable targets.

(Brooklyn born) Tony Cusimano

Cal said...

This is a difficult subject for me. I never stated it in this forum, because I don't think it was important, that I am African American. There have been many times when I have thought in a work environment that a white co-worker, boss, etc. doesn't understand me. I also have listened to Imus for about 15 years. I would say I haven't listened real closely for about 10 years since he has been on MSNBC. I liked his show better when he was just locally on WFAN. I actually lived in Delaware in the early 90's and would listen to show on my way to work because WFAN has a flamethrower for a signal. I listened to WFAN for about two years before I even heard of Imus because it is an all-sports radio station.

I am sure that my personal political viewpoints would be much left of center of yours, Steve. (If I'm being presumptuous, I apologize.) I have to admit I don't like many of the same people that "liberals" don't like,i.e., Clarence Thomas, Rush Limbaugh, etc. I do believe they have the right to free speech.

As I said before, I found Imus' show very funny. Part of it is his curmudgeonly personality. And I'm just that type of guy who likes good humor. It is true that he probably was an equal opportunity offender. I heard things that I think whites, Hispanics, Jews, Catholics, Italians and Asians "could" find offensive.

I do believe Imus stepped over the line with this comment. But I can tell you I have personally had conversations with other guys about how women "look" in whatever venue (sports, news, etc.). I remember your CNN anchorwomen comment recently. I just think heterosexual guys innately do that.

That said, I do believe there is a rush to judgment. As you stated, I find far more egregious statements in rap music. I listed to rap music when it first became popular in the black community about 30 years. Then the lyrics were about having fun, going to parties, etc. Then in the early 90s, it turned to "gangsta rap". That is when I tuned about. I still don't understand how we (i.e, the black community) put Tupac Shakur as a great musician when he did so many bad things. I also remember seeing Stanley Crouch basically lace into Russell Simmons on the Charlie Rose Show in the early 90s about the stuff he was putting out. But yet we still have not boycotted the record companies, radio stations, and cable networks that play this stuff. There was also recently a program on PBS in February by a former black college QB who talked about the misogyny in rap music. (The name of program escapes me.) The guy specifically spoke to Simmons about the degrading lyrics in rap. Simmons responded that he doesn't have the power to change it....yeah, right.

I do think that Revs. Jesse and Al intend to help the black community. I just think their continued outrage in this instance is misplaced. Imus apologized. I thought one of the tenets of religion is forgiveness. No matter what he said, Imus will not cause the next black-on-black crime or teenage girl to get pregnant. I believe he is sincere. In this case, I do think you have to look at Imus' whole body of work. And both Revs. are very controversial. I remember Sharpton's fight with Roy Ennis on the Morton Downey Jr. show, as well as his never apologizing for the whole Tawana Brawley fabrication. He is also involved in this James Brown mess and I specifically remember seeing him on the Howard Stern show on the E! channel. I consider Stern to be very distateful, but he has an audience as well a black female cast member who condones his stuff. And Jesse has been forgiven many times for letting down the black community. Most recently was the disclosure of his affair and out-of-wedlock child.

I don't remember hearing the term "ho" in a derogatory fashion for women until I went to college in the mid 80s. And I remember in the early 90s working in Delaware a white guy who mentioned that his daughter and her friends would use the term in a joking manner among themselves. He knew it was being used in jest, but I still think he didn't like it.

All this being said, we have many more problems in the black community beside Imus' stupid comment. I used the n-word when I was a kid because I was ill-informed. I don't use it now. We have many problems with black males. Some of them I believe you touched on in SHAM with this stuff about wanting boys to be like girls. I'm sure if I was a kid now, I would be consider hyper. I couldn't wait to go outside to recess and play. Now we want boys to sit still and be quiet when I believe little girls are more able to do that. And recess in many schools has been stopped.

Anyway, I could go on forever and I hope my comments are not disjointed. I just think the guy deserves a chance to continue. I think he sincerely means his apology, and black people have much bigger issues to deal with. We won't forget, but we can forgive.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, thanks for commenting at such length, and especially for providing "this forum" with such a multi-faceted yet coherent glimpse of your thoughts on this topic. So often commenters just hit and run, or say a few tart/clever lines and let it go at that. I very much appreciate your taking the time to do this topic justice.

If you've read my earlier posts on race (you should be able to find some of them by following the key words at the bottom), you'll know that I'm not a big fan of racial identity. Or ethnic identity, for that matter. I use racial nomenclature and racial concepts because it's how our society functions, and sees things, at present. But such notions--besides being, in my view, unproven--cause all kinds of problems, and I don't understand why we need them (though I do recognize that it's easier for me to say that, being that I'm regarded as a member of what's traditionally considered the most privileged group in American society). Personally, I don't like to consider myself anything but ME, the individual, Steve Salerno, and I fight VERY hard to discard or at least ignore any of the occasional kneejerk instincts that tug me in other directions.

All that said, I am a HUGE believer in free speech, or more specifically the free expression of ideas, with as few limits as realistically possible. (I exclude pure profanity from that general climate of openness, because profanity serves no purpose, in general. Profanity, per se, is not an idea.) I think that people have a right to be morons in their own voices. I actually think that we could use more inflammatory speech in America, not less, because inflammatory speech is clarifying: It tends to reach inside people and bring the real issues (as opposed to the stated ones) to the surface.

When I was teaching (writing), I used to tell my students on Day 1 of classes that my classroom was a PC-free zone, that anybody could say anything about anybody else, and if they didn't like it, they should drop the class now, as I didn't want anyone running to the dean later on to complain. The only thing I insisted on was that people back up their arguments with some sort of foundation. I've had students who--presumably to get my goat--would tell me that they wanted to write essays about how Italians were a blight on America and should be deported or shot on sight. (They assumed I took pride in my so-called Italian heritage.) My stock--and sincere-- response was to say, "Fine, I'll help you write the stongest, most effective essay possible to try to achieve those aims. Let's think of the best arguments we can find for why Italians should be deported or shot, and let's see how we can most forcefully phrase them...." For me personally, I think that ideas should be analyzed and tested in the forum of public discourse. I don't think that any idea should be outlawed, on an a priori basis, simply because it conflicts with "broader social goals."

What Don Imus said was imbecilic. Fine. End of story. We move on. At least that's how I see it. But again, I realize that it's easier for me to say that, Cal.

Btw, you might be surprised at some of my political leanings, to the extent I have them. And finally, this is an ultra-complex philosophical/sociological area, so this response, even as (overly) long as it is for a blog comment, is bound to raise as many questions as it attempts to answer. Some of what I've said here will strike some readers as self-contradictory. What can I tell ya? Maybe someday I'll try to write a book on the subject--not that anyone would want to read it.

Cal said...


I know I am self-contradictory in some ways. I guess it is part of evolving as a human being.

I have perused some of your comments on race. I specifically remember your comment about intelligence rankings. I have the Bell Curve but I admit I haven't read it because it is such a long book that I need a lot of time to devote to it. I do remember the furor over it when it was published in '94.

Unfortunately, I cannot argue with statistics. It pains me about the achievement gap between blacks and other races. It makes me wonder is there something innate, i.e., do African-americans learn differently? I know some blacks have argued that the questions on standardized tests do not reflect the life experiences of black children, but they shouldn't be that far apart. I don't know if it starts with pre-natal care (especially in the case of teenage mothers )and just continues to deteriorate from there. I had an engineering major in college, and sometimes I didn't know what the heck was going on in my classes. And I wasn't a party animal. I had a theory that maybe the Asian languages are complex compared to English and that maybe Asians are innately able to understand high level math better. But I do know enough to say that I have to go with scientific evidence over someone's opinion.

Anonymous said...

I was very concerned by the tone of your column until I read your amplifications in your response to reader comments-- and then I was flat out horrified. Where do you come up with this stuff? Steve, do yourself a favor and seek help.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I used to tell my students on Day 1 of classes that my classroom was a PC-free zone, that anybody could say anything about anybody else..."

I was pretty much on the same page as yourself, Steve, until we got here. All too often, people use rejection of the restraints implicit in political correctness as giving license to uncivility and boorishness. I think there's a BIG gray area between being afraid to say *anything* and being compelled to say *anything.*

Offensiveness for its own sake can - and should - be avoided in the course of debate for one simple reason, if no other: It does not serve to make one's point (Unless said point is a proclamation of one's ability to offend). It would be hoped that the primary motivation for dialog is the reaching of a consensus on a point, or at the very least, an understanding. Intentionally inflammatory statements pretty well abort such efforts, turning the focus from the issue to the personalities and characteristics of the participants. The inevitable result is a hostile stalemate, as evidenced in our legislative and executive branches of government.

I would hope that by engaging in dialog, the participants would strive for something more meaningful than bragging rights for the most effective posturing.

RevRon's Rants said...

PS to anonymous -

If this relatively benign discussion horrifies you, it's a clear sign you need to get out more often! :-)

In reality, I have the feeling your "issue" is more with Steve himself than with what he has offered here. Just a thought...

Steve Salerno said...

As usual, Rev, you are the voice of a philosophy well-tempered by large doses of exposure to life as it's actually lived. And that's a good thing, I suppose.

What troubles me about the whole Imus affair, I guess, with another day of reflection behind me, and taking into account what's been said here in the comments section, is this: I think we're overthinking it. I think that Imus was just playing off an "ethos," or a tragicomic metaphor, that's rampant in the culture. Maybe I'm naive, but I honestly don't think he meant anything by it (as opposed, say, to Michael Richards, who CLEARLY meant something by it). The term Imus used, after all, was not of his coinage; do you think he would've looked at a group of (mostly) black women and called them "nappy-headed hos" if the phrase, in whole or in part, weren't already in the public domain, as it were? So then ask yourself: How did it get into the public domain? Who put it there? I think that's relevant, and that Imus, in his defense (though it's too late for him to say this now), is entitled to use a variant of the old saw about "community standards" that we use in judging whether or not something is obscene. For better or (surely) worse, "community standards" now decree that it's fairly commonplace to refer to women, especially black women, as "hos." I may get a lot of flack for this, but I actually think the term is used almost playfully sometimes. (And, to reiterate, we've all heard far worse in movies and pop music.) White men did not create that particular element of today's cultural climate, despite what people like the Two Als (Sharpton and Roker) have been saying since the story broke.

Cal said...

Not too mention that the Revs. should have led a boycott of MGM after these parts of the movie Barbershop, if they are calling for Imus' head.

I found this on imdb.com. Please excuse the language.

Shortly after the film's theatrical release in late September 2002, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton protested over some of the statements made by Cedric the Entertainer's character Eddie about African-American historical figures Rosa Parks ("Rosa Parks ain't do nuthin' but sit her Black ass down; there was a whole lotta other people that sat down on the bus, and they did it way before Rosa did!"), Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ("Martin Luther King was a ho [whore]!"), and Jackson himself ("Fuck Jesse Jackson"). Jackson and Sharpton pressured MGM to edit these scenes out of the film before its DVD release in January 2003; the film was released with the "controversial" scenes intact.

RevRon's Rants said...

"How did it get into the public domain? Who put it there?"

This rationale sounds all too similar to ones we used in our childhood. To wit, "But *everybody's* doing it," or "He hit me first." We should keep in mind that precedent does not necessarily constitute justification, and that a hurtful act can retain all of its initial hurtfulness, no matter how often it is repeated.

Steve Salerno said...

NOTE to SHAMbloggers who may wonder why I approved Cal's comment, when I've gone to such lengths to hold the line on language previously: First of all, Cal is quoting from a film; he is not simply cursing in his own voice, merely for the hell of it. Second, the profanity is integral to the topic. Third, I thought Cal's contribution was important to the thread, and I had no way of reaching him directly (i.e. to ask him to bowdlerize the obscenity), so I made a judgment call.

It may seem odd and ironic to even be having this discussion when we're talking about "free speech" and my belief in same, but keep in mind what I noted in a previous comment: I believe in the unfettered exchange of ideas; that's not the same as believing in the unfettered exchange of mere curse words that have no inherent point or value. Now, I suppose that one could level the same allegation against Don Imus. We all have our standards, and that's why the matter is presently being debated in public forums everywhere. Personally, I do believe that what Imus said had a "right to exist," within the context of the nature of his show, because it satisfied some larger satirical purpose (however thin, crude, or ill-advised that purpose may be). In any case, even if it had no place in the show, I do not believe that the matter should cost him his job.

In the case of blogs, I have seen too often where opening the gate to obscenities quickly results in an avalanche of same, and very soon obscenities is all that you find there. I don't want that to happen here, because I take pride in the level of discourse on SHAMblog.

Steve Salerno said...

Rev, I'm not sure I'm buyin' what you're sellin' this time around. The position taken by Sharpton and other black leaders re Imus strikes me as a little bit like the case of the guy who kills his parents, then throws himself on the mercy of the court "because, your Honor, I am an orphan..."

What I'm saying is that the question of how the stuff "got there" is relevant in this case. For black leaders to cozy up to the black entertainers who injected that kind of language (and overall mentality) into the public domain--and then complain about its being there, when someone like Imus uses it--is the height of disingenuousness (and demagoguery), I would argue.

RevRon's Rants said...

My preference would be for the marketplace to muzzle camera whores like Sharpton and Jackson, both of whom taint the "reverend" moniker. However, just because they are narcissistic opportunists doesn't mean that I will accept someone that they so publicly reject. Like them, Imus does little to further understanding (or even intelligent discourse). Should he be officially silenced for this? Heck no. Should the networks that carry his show (while still providing Al & Jesse with their "camera fix") choose not to spread his gospel (and A & J's)? Depends upon what they see as their responsibility to their audience (and stockholders). For myself, I always manage to find something more important to do when any of these clowns comes on the screen, radio, etc..

Steve Salerno said...

I'm a lot closer to buying in now, Rev.

Thing is, the "marketplace" isn't apt to muzzle guys like Sharpton and Jackson because, even in an age when Empowerment Rules, they remain arguably the two most successful (lingering) purveyors of Victimization. And among certain demographics*, Victimization sells as well as it ever did.

* And for the record, no, "certain demographics" is not intended as a sly code for "blacks." I mean the phrase honestly: There are a number of voting blocs in America that define themselves by their victimhood and/or supposed disenfranchisement, and people like the two Revs our own Rev cites are expert at pushing the right hot-buttons. Labor unions are another group that historically have tended to see themselves that way, though they've moderated their tone in recent years, as all of America becomes steadily more centrist.

Cal said...

Here is the link to the film shown on PBS in February about a black man's conflict with the messages in hip-hop.


Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Cal. For this, and for your honest, unflinching comment throughout.