Symbolism Over Politics

So here’s the question: which was Don Imus’ bigger offense, calling the African-American women on the Rutgers basketball team nappy-headed or calling them hos? Almost all the commentary I’ve read on this now is all about the “racially charged” aspect of the comment, and the response to the “hos” part is: these girls are A students, they’re Girl Scouts, they’re musical prodigies, they’re future leaders. In other words, there are some women whom you might reasonably call hos, but not these women.

Or else the charge is that Imus’s big crime was on picking on 18, 19 and 20 year-olds, which is why Al Sharpton brought out his daughter. He wasn’t picking on someone his own size. A column in the NYT Tuesday said this was the big difference in this case, the reason that, after years of Imus and every other radio shock jock or tv jokester on the planet flinging slurs at people, this was too much. These are kids, not powerful public figures; nice, poised kids. And the coach even has a sad story of triumph over death and suffering. They are noble victims, our daughters, our mothers. How dare you call THEM hos.

But it’s all right to call Hillary Clinton a bitch and Satan, and it’s all right to call Gwen Ifil a cleaning lady, and hey, implicit, some women just are hos and bitches and cleaning ladies and they’re all at the very bottom of the heap and calling them out, pissing on them, is just what they deserve, since they’re gutter trash, the bottom class of the second class. But not these girls, these girls are “class acts”. I guess if they were called ‘big-boned hos’, maybe there’d be more focus on the woman part, but basically we’ve got so used to hearing women called bitches and hos for so long that really that’s just part of the language now. And we’ve got so used to men being called bitches, ladies, girls, girly-men when they don’t live up to some standard of macho killer achievement, that that’s normal too.

It’s been, how long?, fifteen years or so where over any radio, in any public place, you can hear endless screeds against bitches and hos. I remember being in a dressing room of a hip clothing store in New York years and years ago, trying on a T shirt, and the background music is just the most misogynistic stuff, Eminem rapping about killing his girlfriend–and I’m thinking: it is just amazing; you couldn’t get away with this kind of thing toward any other group of people. But women you really can kick around, and since the worst thing you can say to a man still is that he’s like a woman it just rolls on and on, because after all who is it who’s on the A list of shock jocks, outrageous singers, outrageous commentators. Ann Coulter is the new thing because she’s just taken on the shtick, so she can call people faggots and rag heads and call for mass killing with the best of the guys.

I’m just mystified that all of a sudden Don Imus has “crossed a line”. But the man has made a whole career of demeaning people. So has Howard Stern. So has Rush Limbaugh. The culture is absolutely saturated with humor and entertainment based on supposed outrage, but there is no outrage any more. Shock? There is no shock and not even much to laugh about. There was a time when shock worked, because there was intelligence behind it: Lennie Bruce, Richard Pryor. There was a political point to it. If you compare what those guys were doing to the world of fine art, you’d have to look back to the first guy, the Russian Malevich, who painted an all-black canvas. And then an all-white one etc. And that was in 1913 or so, and it was a hugely daring thing to do. But now what does it mean to paint an all-black canvas? It has no meaning, no shock, no daring, just imaginative exhaustion.

Compare Richard Pryor to Chris Rock: they both say fuck; they both say nigger, but the effect is totally different because the context is different and the intention is different. Chris Rock took the form but the content is completely changed, because Pryor came out of a different culture, a mass movement radical culture. On the radio, the shock jock phenomenon was the forward edge of the general exhaustion, a degraded expression of a degraded culture, a right wing culture. But it paid, so it flourished, because it also came out of a hyper-corporate culture. Now the only time it creeps up on anyone that there’s something really degraded about all this is when it’s applied to their wife, their daughter, but that’s very particular.

In general, people tune in to humiliation.

They line up to be humiliated themselves. They compete for cash on reality shows that are all about humiliation. They go on Fear Factor and eat live cockroaches. They go on The Swan to be assessed as fat and misshapen and then carved up on a surgeon’s table, on tv, and remade into “beautiful” replicants, someone’s idea of “attractive woman”. They go on Bill O’Reilly to be abused, or Imus to be tweaked or to talk all serious and flog their books between his demeaning one-liners against other people. And the put downs don’t even have to be clever anymore, don’t even have to pretend to cleverness. Look at Christopher Hitchens, the Oxford man, oh so clever, but his insults are gutter insults, spoken or written in a degraded language, and liberal outfits still invite him to come to their gatherings to soak up his abuse.

Now Imus is being dragged around the paddock and everyone feels better now he’s been canned from MSNBC, and better still if CBS fires him. A demonstration firing. But it won’t mean much. Kind of like firing Donald Rumsfeld. Sure, maybe he should be fired, but it won’t make any difference because the ground from which he sprung is still fertile. There’s a councilman in NY now who’s been on a crusade to ban ‘the n word’; he puts out this literature and he’s trying to get a law passed. What will the cops do, give people tickets if they overhear it? Who knows? So now he’s emboldened, saying this is fuel for his fire: ban this word and that word and the next word. Ban all these words and we’ll be back to decency. As if there ever was decency. So it would be illegal for an Imus to say nigger on the radio and it would be illegal to play Trick Daddy–the first a symbol of the backlash, the second a symbol of that vestige tradition of speaking a cruel truth and using a cruel word to tell it. Same word, different content. Maybe it would be illegal to call women hos too, though probably not illegal to call losing ballplayers a bunch of girls or liberal legislators a bunch of girly men. The old ladies from the NAACP who’ve been doing the protests here in front of CBS say they’re not going to stop until every degrading word is banished from the airwaves.

At the end of the day all of this seems like another triumph of symbolism over politics, whether he stays or goes. If he stays, the symbolism of apology; if he goes, the symbolism of a demonstration firing. Change will come only through changing the culture, the political culture. But it makes a little more sense as a diagnosis, I think, to say that the culture made the man. You can get rid of the man; you’re still stuck with the culture.

JoANN WYPIJEWSKI can be reached at jwyp@earthlink.net_



JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life.