IN FOLLOWING the Imus affair, I have been struck by how few of the participants had any experience in improving intercultural relations. It reminded me of the TV coverage of the Iraq war where military experts are constantly being called upon to explain how to achieve peace. Peace experts are virtually non-existent.
Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are the military experts of the civil rights movement, knowledgeable on how to conduct a war but neither skilled nor particularly interested in achieving peace. Their approach has often worked well in dealing with politicians and corporations but it is about as useful dealing with street prejudice in the white community as the US Army is at improving relations with Iraqis by breaking down their doors in the middle of the night.
Thus we find ourselves with Imus gone but an untold number of his four million listeners and viewers angrier over ethnic matters than they were before it all started.
And there are other costs. Peter Wallsten, writing in the LA Times, points out something the critics of Imus have overlooked: “The fate of the controversial shock jock is stirring quiet but heartfelt concern in an unlikely quarter: among Democratic politicians. That’s because, over the years, Democrats such as [Harold] Ford came to count on Imus for the kind of sympathetic treatment that Republicans got from Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. Equally important, Imus gave Democrats a pipeline to a crucial voting bloc that was perennially hard for them to reach: politically independent white men. With Imus’ show canceled indefinitely because of his remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, some Democratic strategists are worried about how to fill the void. For a national radio audience of white men, Democrats see few if any alternatives. ‘This is a real bind for Democrats,’ said Dan Gerstein, an advisor to one of Imus’ favorite regulars, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). ‘Talk radio has become primarily the province of the right, and the blogosphere is largely the province of the left. If Imus loses his microphone, there aren’t many other venues like it around.'”
Of course it didn’t have to happen that way. Imus could have been suspended and in the recovery rather than in the punishment could have been the redemption. Instead, they handled it just like they handle our foreign affairs. Kill the bad guys no matter how much it costs us.
There were exceptions but they got little coverage. For example, the black site Redding News Review reported that, “An Atlanta pastor is urging forgiveness for irreverent talk-show host Don Imus and inviting him to the city to dialog about his racial slur. The Reverend Markel Hutchins, a minister and civil rights activist, told Redding News Review: ‘I want to enrich him with the black perspective and experience that he probably has never had an opportunity to see, and no other city offers that like Atlanta. He has probably never seen that and neither has his audience. Hutchins said that other civil rights activists are engaging in ‘racial arson just because it grabs headlines.’
“My basic position is the persecution is disingenuous and largely hypocritical,” said the minister, who stressed that blacks have to get back to using Martin Luther King and Jesus as models. ‘Someone has to raise their voice and say this type of persecution is illogical and doesn’t serve the interest of African American people or people in general.'”
But that is not how the game is played.
I was reminded during the past week of a conversation I had long ago with the then editor of Washington City Paper, David Carr, who is now with the NY Times and a major Imus critic. I was telling how I had to learn, in moving from being a conventional reporter to editing a newspaper in a 75% black neighborhood, not to treat ordinary citizen activists in the tough way I was used to treating major politicians and other big shots. Carr yelled back at me, “That’s bullshit. That’s patronizing,” and quickly hung up.
But I still think it was a good lesson. It joined what I had learned as an anthropology major about cultural antipathies and reinforced what I had learned at home and in a Friends school about respect for others. Unlike Carr, I had come to appreciate the many and contradictory corners in which truth lay, often unnoticed or unapproved by those of us in the media.
In his marvelous book, Respect, Richard Sennett (who grew up in the Cabrini Green housing project) notes that for radicals in his generation, making bureaucracy the enemy “still did not reveal how to make friends with those who were not radicals. . . The struggle to break apart institutions failed to bring the New Left closer to people unlike ourselves.”
And he concludes, “In society, attacking the evils of inequality cannot alone generate mutual respect. In society, and particularly in the welfare state, the nub of the problem we face is how the strong can practice respect towards those destined to remain weak.”
The problem is particularly acute among liberals who are increasingly separated from the weak either by ethnicity or by class. It has brought a major shift in the priorities of liberals – with a shrinking interest in those policies that truly help the weak and a growing condescension towards those who do not share their cultural enlightenment. Much of what was going on during the Imus affair consisted of upscale liberals and media establishing their own virtuous credentials, an act which, aside from its boredom, does little to improve matters.
We don’t need more military-style experts to guide us towards better cultural relations. We don’t need more laws, more punishment, more sanctimony, more lectures. We need a politics that helps the weak discover their real enemies, which is to say not those of a different ethnic or sexual character struggling like themselves to make it, but those in power who are holding back both black women college basketball players and white guys without a college education at all. Those like those politicians, corporados and media types on TV last week telling us that if we just deal with this ethnic slur everything will be okay.