Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Beyond Imus

-- by Dave

Like Sara, I welcome the firing of Don Imus as a significant blow in the ongoing battle to beat back the rising tide of open bigotry that has been creeping into our public discourse, particularly when broadcast over the national airwaves.

But I'm probably not as optimistic about how significant a step forward it actually will be, mainly because the underlying problems are so deep-rooted and systemic. Considering the course of the discussion in the wake of Imus' firing, it feels more as though we've just tossed a bucket of water back into the ocean.

As Media Matters has already observed, the problem is hardly relegated to Don Imus -- who has been getting away with wink-and-nudge bigotry for many years now, but is hardly the ugliest nor the most prolific purveyor of this garbage. Leading the list are right-wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and Michael Savage.

It's worth noting, though, that there is a structural difference between most of these hate purveyors and Imus (Beck being the exception): they operate in a different sphere in terms of the funding that keeps their voices on the air. Limbaugh, Coulter, and Savage are syndicated, and Coulter makes most of her living through speaking appearances and books. Most of all, they operate within a right-wing bubble that ensures the money will keep coming regardless of what outrageous thing they say, a bubble Imus never was really part of.

What did Imus in, after all, was that in the end he was much more vulnerable to pressure placed upon advertisers. Eleanor Clift actually had it about right:
I thought Imus would survive because of money. He's been a cash cow for low-rated MSNBC, bringing in advertising dollars for three hours of broadcast time and costing the network relatively little to produce. ... Instead, he got canned because of money. Advertisers bailed out, forcing NBC's hand. Though the head of the NBC news division cast it as a moral decision and looked anguished as he made the rounds of the cable shows Wednesday night, if the advertisers had stuck by Imus, the outcome would have been different.

...The difference with Imus is that he's on the public airwaves. It's not a question of whether he can say all the outrageous things he says -- it's where he says them. The marketplace has spoken.

This is an important distinction, because much of the right-wing and even mainstream response to the Imus firing has been to make him out to be a free-speech martyr, sacrificed on the altar of political correctness while hip-hop gangstas still roam free at your CD store; the preferred characterization, ironically, is to call it a "lynching." It's an argument that purposefully confuses privileges with rights.

As Clift notes, first of all, Don Imus' free speech rights were not under attack here: he remains free to go stand on any street corner and spew the same nonsense to passers-by (though he might find it considerably riskier to do so). Hate speech may be deplorable, poisonous, and profoundly irresponsible, it is also still legal. It's a right.

However, working in mainstream media is not a democracy or even a meritocracy. Being one of the select who are given the precious few slots available to talking heads and pundits of various stripes in the press, TV and radio is purely a privilege. It is a privilege granted by publishers, editors, producers and network poobahs who operate with an often idiosyncratic set of criteria that have little to do with actual substance or merit, but usually comes down to whether or not you can make them money.

Mostly this is a privilege that is extended to whites generally and males especially; while a handful of minorities can be pointed out as exceptions, their presence among the ranks of the pundit class is in no way reflective of said minorities' actual presence in society at large (this is particularly true of Latinos and gays and lesbians). So it's no surprise, perhaps, that resulting discussion of a case like Imus' reflects a perspective prone to ignoring the serious ramifications of racial issues and reducing them to zero-sum nonsequiturs that form a narrative friendly to defending white privilege.

That certainly been the case with Imus. Figures on the right, from Michelle Malkin to Ann Coulter, have been eagerly pointing to the misogyny and racially charged language endemic to hip-hop and rap music, by way of suggesting that liberals are hypocrites for attacking Imus while ignoring these musicians. But rap musicians, whose lyrics indeed at times wallow in the execrable, are simply exercisizing their free-speech rights, and operate within the same free marketplace the right in most cases studiously defends. Imus, by contrast, was speaking from a position of unique privilege.

In demanding Imus be fired, the underlying reason for doing so is that, because of speech that could not be described as anything but callous and irresponsible, he was no longer worthy of the privilege of holding such a powerful and influential position.

It is, after all, deeply irresponsible in a diverse democratic society to engage in nasty and ugly stereotyping, racial, religious, sexual, or otherwise. We have the right to do so if we choose as individuals. That doesn't mean, however, that any media outlet is obligated to broadcast that kind of speech.

Generally speaking, media outlets have traditionally understood that the extraordinary power they possess also entails a certain responsibility to the public well-being. Condoning, publishing, or broadcasting irresponsible speech that poisons the public well has generally been understood to be grounds for losing, or being barred from, holding elite positions within the media.

That is, until recent years, when a coterie of right-wing ideologues has repeatedly engaged in profoundly ugly, threatening, and bigoted speech, topped with a heaping helping of misogyny, and it has consistently rebuffed any efforts to hold them accountable. The Imus firing, should the public manage to come to grips with what the matter really is about -- namely, the flagrant use of the public airwaves and national broadcast media to foster an ugly and bigoted public discourse -- really does pose a threat to what many right-wing ideologues have built their entire careers around.

The bubble that encircles the rest of the right wing somewhat insulates them from this pressure; after all, there seems to be an endless stream of money to keep people like Coulter and Limbaugh busy hawking their wares to a variety of audiences and ensuring their continued status as pundit-class elites. But make no mistake, the Imus firing was indeed a shot across their bows as well -- a clear sign that the endless hatemongering that has been their red meat and potatoes for the past decade is reaching its limits with the public.

That, no doubt, is a large part of what's fueling the almost hysterical response from the same crowds over this, particularly the Imus=rappers bloviation that keeps coming 'round like a bad hairball. Another favored theme is to compare Imus' incivility to that of liberal bloggers. Phoenix Woman at Firedoglake has done a nice job of explaining the coded language at work here.

In the case of Limbaugh, the response was predictably paranoid, prompting a rant blaming the incident on a vast left-wing conspiracy to shut down people like him:
Let me just ask you a question. Did America, did this country hear what Don Imus said on the Imus show? They didn't. When Imus said what he said, was there a national uproar? Forget the fact his ratings are insignificant and tiny, which that fact is now starting to trickle out. The fact is, guests on the show, people who listen to the show, nobody said a word. Nobody could have cared less. It wasn't any big deal. America didn't hear it and America didn't hear what he said on the Imus show. No, you know where America heard it? They heard it on YouTube, and they heard it on MoveOn.org, and they heard it on cable TV. They heard it on network TV. They heard it on the early news, the evening news, the late news. A combination of all these places said what Imus said thousands of times more than he said it, and that's where America heard it. The Imus audience couldn't have cared less, I don't care how small that it is. So these pretenders... By the way, all of this was set up by Media Matters for America, and everybody thinks of this group as "a liberal media watchdog" out there surveying the media airwaves and making sure that those who say these so-called outrageous things are held to account.

It's nothing more than a Democrat Party front organization! It's George Soros-funded. It is staffed by people that used to work for elected Democrats -- and it's tax exempt. It's a tax exempt group, but they're purely political, and all they are is an arm of the Democrat Party. They're part of the Democrat machine.

[Factual note here: Media Matters has never received funding from George Soros.]
... [A]nd the interesting thing about that to me is that these are the same people who are scouring this country for any sign of racism or any sign of bigotry, any sign of homophobia, and when they find it, they pounce on it! They have shown themselves to be insincere hypocrites. They have shown themselves to be agenda-oriented, here. They have shown themselves to only care when certain people say these things, because, you see, Sharpton and his gang are out there now supposedly targeting the rap industry. But let me ask you a question: When's the last time they picketed an urban radio station? When's the last time they picketed Viacom, which owns MTV? When's the last they picketed Hollywood for putting out movies with these kinds of characters and lyrics?

Zero, zilch, nada, and you know why? Because they're minorities and they don't have "hate in their hearts." Only right-wingers, only conservatives have "hate in their hearts." They couldn't contain the Imus thing. Remember, what happened on Imus' show took two days to hit, much like what I said on ESPN. There was no outrage for two days after my ESPN comments until the Philadelphia print media, all five or six, had the same column on the Tuesday following the Sunday show. That's when people were supposedly outraged and offended. By the way, the same thing happened in that case. Well, worse things happened. What I said was totally distorted. I was making comments about the media, not Donovan McNabb, yet it got totally distorted. Michael J. Fox was the same scenario -- and there is this group. The only reason for last week, Sharpton, these guys are out there supposedly targeting rap music, but that's just to give themselves some street cred. Everybody's asking about that now. So if they go out and they target rap music and say they're going to try to clean it up and the urban radio stations that play it and all these corporate interests that broadcast it and produce it, they hope to have street cred for the next talk radio guy they go after.

Which is, believe me, their aim. That's their desire. The only reason for last week is that it is an excuse to assault conservative talk radio, even though conservatives had nothing to do with what happened last week, even though talk radio is far cleaner than urban radio, far cleaner than television, far cleaner than movies and books. This is a politically directed attack by Democrats and their media outlets.

He's right in one respect -- people have had enough of the bigoted bullying that has dominated the discourse presented by the likes of Limbaugh, and are ready to begin reining it in.

Unfortunately, the larger bubble surrounding the right -- namely, the one inflated by the supposed "liberal media" that rules the roost from the Beltway -- has also largely remained intact. Nearly every discussion of the Imus affair I've seen on cable since has focused not on the real problem it raises -- the spread of bigoted rhetoric through supposedly mainstream media outlets -- but has instead seized on the right's nonsequitur spin: it's really the fault of black people and their culture. The underlying narrative has once again become, predictably, all about defending white privilege.

Perhaps the worst of the lot was CNN's Howard Kurtz, who came to Imus's defense with an incredibly lame but-everyone-talks-this-way argument:
"Journalists like me who have gone on Imus's show have done so because we enjoyed the opportunity to talk about politics and media without the stuffiness of so many other programs. And it's probably true that too many of us looked the other way when he went over the line with some of his cruder comedy bits." Yet, as Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting documented, Kurtz wrote in his 1996 book, Hot Air (Crown) that "Imus's sexist, homophobic, and politically incorrect routines echo what many journalists joke about in private."

As Roger Ailes notes, Kurtz's obliviousness to the problem with this defense would be hilarious were it not so revealing. It's obvious that one of the reasons Imus felt free to indulge such bigotry so freely is that he felt he was just giving voice to what others would only say privately; indeed, that's the excuse nearly all of the right-wing hatemongers give when called on it. It never seems to cross the imaginations of the cocktail-weenie crowd that these attitudes very much embody the institutional racism that is the real target of the anti-Imus pushback -- the same kind of racism they blithely dismiss as nearly nonexistent, and concerns about which are just so much "identity politics".

These attitudes have been the fuel for a lot of what I've been calling the "new racism" -- a regurgitation of old white-supremacist myths about the innate inferiority of other races, couched as a kind of "street realism" aimed at knocking down "political correctness." Limbaugh peddles it about blacks; Savage and Coulter like to target Muslims; and the whole gang of them blithely slime gays and lesbians.

Meanwhile, Glenn Beck poses as a "sincere fellow" who's just asking ordinary, folksy questions that in the end reflect an extraordinarily narrow and bigoted framework that, surprise, favors whites and looks down on anyone "different." And on Fox, the entire cast runs "news" commentary that just coincidentally makes black Americans out to be thugs and moral lepers.

A crystalline example of the way right-wing apologists for this kind of racist creep operate is John Derbyshire's recent piece in NRO reflecting on race:
In the U.S. today, the most glaring differences between black America and white America are in education and in crime. The terrible academic statistics for young black Americans, and the equally appalling statistics on black crime, are well known to everyone. Wishing, as most of us do, to live in a more harmonious country — or, as President Clinton’s 1997 advisory board urged the president, “to build one America” — we’d like to do something about this. The first step is of course to identify causes. What are the causes of those disparities?

Americans have come up with two broad categories of answers to that question, what I shall call the Folk Biology and Social Science categories. The Folk Biology explainers all assume that there are innate and intractable differences between populations that are descended, or mostly descended, from different, small founder-groups in the remote past, inhabiting different environments. Social Science explainers deny such differences and assume that all group disparities arise from social mechanics.

In the particular case of black-white disparities in education and crime here in the U.S., Social Science explanations are spread across a spectrum according to how much, or how little, importance the explainer assigns to the malice of white Americans -- i.e. to racism -- as opposed to cold impersonal or historical factors.

Derbyshire, somewhat typically, sidesteps explaining exactly which view -- Folk Biology or Social Science -- he gravitates toward, but it's clear over the ensuing column that he falls well into the former camp. And he explains why he thinks they are right:
White liberals who would rather pluck out their eyeballs than let their kids attend a majority-black public school nevertheless protest indignantly about the supposed racism of Don Imus. A presidential candidate who subtitled his autobiography A Story of Race and Inheritance will tell you (I am sure) if you ask him, that race is a figment of your imagination, a "social construct," while inheritance is of no importance whatsoever in human affairs, and never has been, and never could be. White Americans, a scattering of bohemians aside, beggar themselves to buy homes as far as possible from big concentrations of their black fellow-citizens. Inside those concentrations, black Americans stew in dependency and hopelessness. When, as happened with Hurricane Katrina, the dependency and the hopelessness decorate our TV screens for days on end, we turn away in embarrassment, having no real clue what to do about any of it.

It seems not to occur to Derbyshire that the behavior of the "Folk Biologists" that he describes here is in fact profoundly racist -- and that this racist behavior, being widespread, deeply systemic, and largely unremarked, might in fact have a profound causal effect on those same hopeless urban blacks for whom he seems incapable of finding any clue about what to do.

James Loewen's book Sundown Towns (explored in some detail here) is a careful historical and demographic examination of deliberate racial residential segregation in America, a balkanization imposed by whites beginning in the late 19th century and continuing through today. As he explains:
What could make living in an all-white town right? The old idea that African Americans constitute the problem, of course. In 1914, Thomas Bailey, a professor in Mississippi, told what is wrong with that line of thinking: "The real problem is not the Negro, but the white man's attitude toward the Negro." Sundown towns only made the problem worse. Having driven out or kept out African Americans (or perhaps Chinese Americans or Jewish Americans), their residents then became more racist and more likely to believe the worst about the excluded groups.

That's why the talk in sundown towns brims with amazing stereotypes about African Americans, put forth confidently with nary an African American in their lives. The ideology intrinsic to sundown towns -- that African Americans ... are the problem -- prompts their residents to believe and pass on all kinds of negative generalizations as fact. They are the problem because they choose segregation -- even though "they" don't, as we have seen. Or they are the problem owing to their criminality -- confirmed by the stereotype -- misbehavior that "we" avoid by excluding or moving away from them.

Of course, such stereotypes are hardly limited to sundown towns. Summarizing a nationwide 1991 poll, Lynne Duke found that a majority of whites believed that "blacks and Hispanics are likely to prefer welfare to hard work and tend to be lazier than whites, more prone to violence, less intelligent, and less patriotic." Even worse, in sundown towns and suburbs, statements such as these usually evoke no open disagreement at all. Because most listeners in sundown towns have never lived near African Americans, they have no experiential foundation from which to question the negative generalities that they hear voiced. So the stereotypes usually go unchallenged: blacks are less intelligent, lazier, and lack drive, and that's why they haven't built successful careers.

As I noted then, sundown towns and their continuing legacy have also had a profound psychological impact on blacks, including the internalization of low expectations, and the exclusion of blacks from cultural capital [pp. 353-355]:
Confining most African Americans to the opposite of sundown suburbs -- majority black, inner-city neighborhoods -- also restricts their access to what Patterson calls cultural capital: "those learned patterns of mutual trust, insider knowledge about how things really work, encounter rituals, and social sensibilities that constitute the language of power and success." ...

Making the suburbs unreachable for nonwhites similarly restricts them from making the social connections that are critical to forming networks that help us find work and move ahead in the workforce. Loewen notes that "the trouble is, these networks are segregated, so important information never reaches black America. ... Sundown suburbanites know only whites, by definition, except perhaps a few work contacts. Thus sundown suburbs contribute to economic inequality by race."

Loewen also notes [pp. 369-370]:
In his famous book An American Dilemma, written as World War II wound down, Gunnar Myrdal noted that residential segregation has been a key factor accounting for the subordinate status of African Americans. Separating people geographically makes it much easier to provide better city services to some than to others, and indeed to label some people as better than others.

It's much easier, and certainly well within the tradition of white response to such challenges, to ignore the larger underlying issues and instead blame the victims -- in this case, by assuming that all blacks are responsible for the behavior of some blacks. (That line of argument too has a grand tradition in American history, particularly when it came to justifying lynching.) It's blacks, you see, who are responsible for the excesses of gangsta culture, not a broader materialism and toilerance for violence that is in fact rampant in all corners of society.

As Pam Spaulding notes, the way the whole affair has played out so far suggests we've taken two steps back along with one forward. No doubt the time came and went long ago that the ugliness of gangsta rap should have fallen into disfavor with the public, and for obvious reasons -- embracing mindless violence and soulless misogyny is bad for us all simply as human beings. Talking about it openly might have helped, but eventually such talk seems to come around to moralists who then embark on efforts to legislate and regulate, and that's a ship many of us will not board, for good reason.

Moreover, gangsta rap, like all pop music, only reflects the environment that created it. If you want to know why hip-hop is violent and misogynistic, consider the hopelessness that Derbyshire describes as endemic to black culture. And then consider that the roots of that hopelessness in fact lie in those mostly white enclaves he celebrates.

It then finally becomes time to examine the reasons for the public's slowness to reject the violent ethos present in so much hip-hop -- including, it must be noted, a large chunk of young white suburbia. And you can't do that without addressing the real culture of viciousness, bigotry, and misogyny that has infected our discourse from above. Don Imus, really, was just the tip of that particular iceberg.

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