The proverbial other shoe dropped the day after CBS pulled the plug from the Don Imus show. The piece of footwear in question belonged to none other than Condoleezza Rice, and came, for all we know, from the very pair she was found buying in New York even as Hurricane Katrina was levelling New Orleans. Talking to a reporter about Imus, Ms. Rice weighed in with a “she should have died hereafter” remark, wondering aloud why such an inept broadcaster had even been allowed to come this far.
When Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor on 9/11, questions someone else’s ascent or their competence, and her remarks are reported with a straight face, one may assume, as they say in India, that Kaliyuga* is here. Game Over.
The facts are straightforward: Don Imus, host of a syndicated radio talk show, made a comment about a college women’s basketball team, a pithy caricature simultaneously offensive to both blacks and women. It was no different than hundreds and hundreds of such comments he had made in his long career. But we are well into the age of YouTube and video-on-demand, where anything can be amplified and replayed to considerable effect.
Former presidential hopefuls Al Sharpton and Jesse “No-ambulance-left-behind” Jackson alighted upon the issue with godspeed. Shortly thereafter, some levee buckled inside the media’s psyche, and an entire week was devoted to a reprise of New Orleans, only now the whole country was deluged instead of one city — by waves of contrition and torrents of apology.
At the head of the advancing waters was Don Imus himself, in non-stop regret mode. Gone was the swagger and arrogance of old. To employ his own, memorable, phrase, he folded like a cheap suitcase. Anything, anything, take my wallet, take my coat, just let me go, he seemed to be saying, as he appeared on Al Sharpton’s radio show in a clumsy attempt at rapprochement. His wish was granted later that week though not as he wished — he was let go — by both his telvision and radio corporate hosts.
For all his interest in politics, Imus had failed to glean a time-tested nugget of American public life, the motto of George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton: never apologize. For all his hobnobbing with the powerful of the land, Imus remained a clueless shill of the corporate-military-entertainment state, as bereft of a larger political consciousness as most of his guests. As George Bernard Shaw observed long ago:
“…The barbarians were not only literally in the saddle, but on the front bench of the House of Commons, with nobody to correct their incorrigible ignorance of modern thought and political science but upstarts from the countinghouse, who had spent their lives furnishing their pockets instead of their minds. Both, however, were practised in dealing with money as with men, as far as acquiring one and exploiting the other went; and although this is as undesirable an expertness as that of the medieval robber baron, it qualifies men to keep an estate or a business going in its old routine without necessarily understanding it, just as Bond Street tradesman and domestic servants keep fashionable society going without any instruction in sociology.”
Thus were the people of the world’s sole superpower treated to a parade of politicians, journalists, and self-crowned moralists all falling over themselves in a week long festival of indignation, asserting their disgust with Imus’s phrase (and repeating it for effect!). Suddenly, to have been on Imus’s guest list became like showing up in Heidi Fleiss’ diary.
As only befits a nation busy bidding goodbye to its remarkable Constitution with remarkable alacrity, there was scarcely any reference to a little item called the First Amendment. Imus himself didn’t mention it, choosing instead the pitiful defense of “but the rappers do it too”. As proper in an age of television, a great deal of attention devolved upon an obvious piece of caricature, while real obscenities pile up with barely a second glance. One never saw “Reverends” Al or Jesse (calling Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson ‘Reverend’ is equally a caricature to which have become inured) keep up the same level of firepower when it came to job losses, outsourcing, growing wealth disparity, or the war. Like good businessmen, they saw a unique opportunity and rode it for all it was worth. But what was gained? Toppling Imus was as much pure symbolism as toppling Saddam’s statue.
Imus, for all the arrogance, was perceptive to note long ago that he was nothing more than part of a larger freak show. When the First Amendment is given such unanimous short shrift the moment some moron (a term Imus frequently used for himself) says something obnoxious, the freak notches new levels in the grotesque, and a country already unhinged from its moorings is cast further adrift. Every year during the festival of Dussehra, giant effigies of mythical villains Ravana, Kumbhakarna and Inderjeet are burnt in bonfires all across Northern India, with newspapers duly reporting the destruction of these demons as symbolizing the triumph of good over evil.
The difference is, no one in India confuses this with reality.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.