The flip side of prejudice

Sam Smith

The unprecedented, nasty and almost gleeful participation of liberal groups in the suppression of a free media by getting Don Imus fired twice in a week is another warning for the country. What it means simply is that when you go to the polls you only get to choose who’s going to be censoring things. Beyond that you apparently have few powerful friends in either party who will stand up for free speech.

It’s not the first warning. The Democrats’ participation in getting the egregious Patriot Act passed was a major watershed. The refusal of Democratic presidential candidates to take part in a debate sponsored by a major, albeit conservative, TV network was a lesser but still significant marker.

It’s all part of America’s new bunker mentality: either you’re with us or against us. It’s a battle that can’t be won. And it’s just what the Karl Roves of the country want.

Minutes after the CBS firing of Imus, Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation sent out an e-mail bragging, “Congratulations! We did it! Minutes ago, CBS Radio fired Don Imus. Now, both CBS Radio and MSNBC have finally gotten the message: women and African Americans have had it with hate speech. But, Don Imus is not alone. We must keep the pressure on to ensure that radio and television airwaves stay free of ugly hate speech.”

And who will get to judge what is acceptable behavior? Smeal, for example, may prove to be somewhat selective in which women she plans to help. She, after all, said that the Paula Jones case – which ended in Clinton paying a $850,000 settlement and losing his law license for five years – was a put up job by the right. She also couldn’t be less interested in the rape charges against Clinton By Juanita Brodderick.

That’s one of the problems with censorship – whether by a rightwing government or by liberal pressure groups. Who gets to decide? The Clintons, for example, considered criticism of themselves to be hate speech. Would Smeal include it as well? And who would help her make these choices? Al Sharpton, who once referred to Hasidic Jews as “diamond merchants?”

If you’re going to have free speech, you’re going to have people saying things that are stupid and cruel. You’re going to have people saying some things that are mildly outrageous and others that make you want to barf. But there is no way that anyone has discovered to protect the free speech necessary for a working democracy without this liability. Any attempts to clean up the place, to make everyone nice and civil inevitably starts the ball rolling towards oppression.

Remember Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous dictum that you can’t falsely cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theater? Well here’s what you probably weren’t taught. What the accused, Charles Schenck, had actually done was to leaflet against the World War I draft.

Holmes in his ruling said, “The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils.”

In other words, not unlike the arguments used against Imus’ one liner.

In fact, the Imus show was one of the few spots on radio and television where one could hear discussions of public merit that were not canned, concocted, corporatized or corrupted. This is why so many of the really intelligent people like Craig Crawford or Doris Kearns Goodwin appeared on it. It was a place to escape the dreary cliches of the Lehrer news hour or Meet the Press.

It was also one of the few places on the air where red and blue America came together. It wasn’t integrated by sex and gender but it was by ideology and class – the latter being the last safe haven for socially sanctioned segregation. Liberals won’t admit it but many really don’t like white guys without a college degree. And all you have to do is look at the election results to realize that white guys without a college degrees realize this and return the favor. Don Imus cut across boundaries white liberals don’t even want to discuss.

The risk, of course, was that you might hear something unpleasant or ugly, much as you might also hear at your local bar or on any of the top selling rap albums of the day. In fact, minutes after news that MSNBC had fired Imus, I was walking down our local commercial street and heard a black guy tell a friend, “that nigga wasn’t there.” I thought, you’re lucky you’re not on national television.

I figure I can handle it on Channel 38 and on 8th Street SE. I’d just as soon it wasn’t there, but I don’t expect life in America to be made to my specifications.

And I don’t share the liberal presumption that how you say something determines your worth in the world.

I’ve known too many people who said all the right things the right way but then did them wrong. For example: the executives at GE who are currently congratulating themselves for getting rid of that troublesome Imus at one of their subsidiaries.

Here’s what else they’ve also been up to: making a huge amount of money out of one the sickest wars in American history. According to the Atlanta Business Chronicle a couple of years ago: “Despite the inherent risk, rebuilding Iraq is big business. GE Energy currently has $600 million in contracts in the country, Murphy said. By 2006, GE Energy’s parent, General Electric, is expected to have up to $3 billion in contracts in Iraq.”

So ask yourself: would you rather be around a well-spoken GE war profiteer or an occasionally foul-mouthed TV host who still thinks the truth is worth pursuing?

Admittedly, how one reacts to such things depends on various factors.

For example, I was the third kid in a family of six so I’ve lived with people who disagreed with me all my life. You can’t be a prig for long in such an environment. Once, in explaining to a journalist friend why I didn’t hate him for his widely circulated hawkish views on Iraq, I wrote, “I learned to separate the political from the personal when I was six years old.”

I believe in the principle of reciprocal liberty, which is to say that I can’t have my freedom unless you have yours. That means we’re both going to be unhappy with each other from time to time but it will help both of us remain free.

And I have always preferred sinners who try harder over sanctimonious button wearers who are never around when you really need them. The latter group is over-represented in a contemporary liberalism that lives off the victories of yesteryear without much sense of what to do now. Getting mad at Imus is just one more substitute for actually doing something.

Change doesn’t come from the stultified, self-righteous corners of America; it comes where things are a little unsettled, unpredictable, erratic. The Imus show was one of those places. You could tell from the sort of people who showed up there. Country singers, conservative politicians, intellectuals, liberal journalists. If you were a pre-scripted politician you wouldn’t want to go near the place, but if you knew what you thought, knew how to say it, and weren’t afraid of surprises, it wasn’t a bad way to start the morning for either you or the listeners.

Its problems could have been handled easily. A zapper to eliminate Imus’s falls from grace – just like Jon Stewart uses – would have completely avoided the current furor. Adding a black and a woman to the cast would have helped keep Imus under control and made the program even more interesting.

MSNBC, CBS and the liberal groups could have used it as a case study in how to move from hostility to community. Instead they took the easy way out and, in so doing, increased the hostility of many of the nearly four million listeners and viewers.

The truth of the matter is that these corporations and groups, and people like Smeal and Sharpton, really have little idea of how to deal with such problems. They only know about power, so that when someone does something wrong, you beat them down.

Well, it hasn’t worked in Iraq, it hasn’t worked in the war on drugs and it won’t work in intercultural relations. The assumption that you can beat someone into goodness is a leading cause of child abuse and it is a major reason we don’t get along with each other better. Here’s an alternative approach I wrote about some years ago:

“Janet Hampton, a George Washington University professor whose research specialty is Afro-Hispanic studies, grew up black in Kansas. She exudes a cheerful calm suggestive of having lived around a lot of love, so you might not suspect that she has taught ethnic relations to cops at the local police academy as well as having been on the faculty at both mostly white and mostly black universities.

“Here’s how she handles the first day of class: ‘I ask the students to tell a little about themselves. If some one is from a cultural enclave, I tell them about other students from their school or place who have really done well.’ She pays particular attention to those who come from ‘pariah nations’ like Iraq. She told a student from Eritrea that he could be very helpful when the class discussed the American Civil War.

“I asked her about ethnic slurs. Let’s say, Jan said, that a black student uses the word ‘wetback.’ ‘I would make him apologize but I would also say that we don’t want to lose his point.’ Corrected but still valued. Janet informs her students that “As long as you are never disrespectful, you can say anything you want. We will change by just being together.'”

What Imus and his audience have been told is that not only are they wrong but they are not to be valued. In what possible way does that improve cultural relations in this country?

This isn’t remediation; it is merely the flip side of prejudice.

Paul Begala gave a gentle yet stunning example of the alternative on the last day that Imus was on the air. Without a hint of sanctimony, Begala engaged in a mini intervention.

He told Imus of some of the rules he had for himself. Like: only attack the powerful. “You’re a populist,” he noted and this is what populists do.

Like: don’t make fun of something that is immutable such as race or gender. . .

Begala spoke of being raised Catholic and learning to hate the sin but not the sinner, a philosophy sadly absent in the present controversy.

Then Begala illustrated one of the virtues of the show by admitting to some of his difficulties with his former boss, Bill Clinton, even saying that Clinton had lied to him but that they had reconciled. It was a conversation you couldn’t imagine elsewhere on TV.

And there was something else. I had never liked Begala. Yet even as he was reaching Imus, he was reaching me in a new way. This is how people come closer – not by threats and punishment – but by talking and being together.

Some years back, I addressed the most important fact about prejudice:

“It’s normal. That isn’t to say that it’s nice, pretty, or desirable. Only that suspicion, distrust, and distaste for outsiders is a deeply human trait. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote that ‘all primitive tribes agree in recognizing [a] category of the outsiders, those who are not only outside the provisions of the moral code which holds within the limits of one’s own people, but who are summarily denied a place anywhere in the human scheme. A great number of the tribal names in common use . . . are only their native terms for ‘the human beings,’ that is, themselves. Outside of the closed group there are no human beings.’

“Many attempts to eradicate racism from our society have been based on the opposite notion – that those who harbor prejudice towards others are abnormal and social deviants. . . What if, instead, we were to start with the unhappy truth that humans have always had a hard time dealing with other peoples, and that much ethnic and sexual antagonism stems not from hate so much as from cultural narcissism? Then our repertoire of solutions might tilt more towards education and mediation and away from being self-righteous multi-cultural missionaries converting yahoos in the wilds of the soul. We could turn towards something more akin to what Andrew Young once described as a sense of ‘no fault justice.’ We might begin to consider seriously Martin Luther King’s admonition to his colleagues that among their dreams should be that someday their enemies would be their friends.”

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