Don Imus Did Not Shock Me

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May 16, 2007

'Many of my white friends do not understand the background to many words that are offensive to me. How hard is it to just not say these words? How hard is it not to use the N-Word or any word that would offend a race? You do not need a high level of education to avoid saying a handful of words. Everyone knows the background to African American culture in this nation and the pain that stems from years of hatred, disrespect and oppression. If you do not know then you need to educate yourself and learn the background of these words and of our history.' ~ an Internet poster

I purposely waited to submit this essay until after most of the Imus-induced furor had died down. I did so because I think there are deeper issues at work, issues that might be lost if I jumped into the fray too soon. For those who refused to take even a brief break from the all-out search for the father of Anna Nicole's baby to enjoy the Imus barbeque, here's a short re-cap.

Radio 'shock jock' Don Imus got into some very hot water for ostensibly attacking the honor of the women who play basketball for Rutgers University . His comments ' supposedly uttered in jest ' were distasteful, including both references to the texture of these young ladies' hair and their possible sexual proclivities. The comments had a harsh, biting, racial overtone. They disparaged the character and pride of these women, many of whom happen to be black, in some very heinous and misogynist ways. They pandered to the most banal stereotypes about black people, black women, and racism generally.

All that said, frankly it was vintage Imus! Expectedly, the response from black 'leadership' was swift and visceral. (Word has it that Jesse Jackson actually had a pitchfork in his hands at some point, but I bet that's an embellishment.) Anyway though, that's the basic story.

There were several questions that occurred to me as I struggled to analyze this event from a libertarian perspective. For instance, was it a market response? (Many folks have already addressed this question, but that won't stop me from doing so as well.) Did Imus 'deserve' to be fired? That is, did the punishment fit the supposed crime? Again, many have chimed in on this, but I feel compelled ' for either the right or the wrong reasons ' to share my thoughts in this regard. Was there some measure of political correctness at play in this situation, and if so, how does that affect the analysis? Finally, was this an issue of free speech? Let's take the easiest question first.

The (Non) Issue of Free Speech

Did those who silenced Imus infringe upon his First Amendment rights, in direct conflict with this well-worn passage from the Constitution?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In a word: 'No.' The First Amendment restricts the acts of the State, not the people. If I want to infringe on your right to free speech, the Constitution doesn't apply, as long as I don't get the State to help me. I might break some moral and ethical laws, but we wouldn't need to consult the Constitution to figure that out. Basic property rights would be sufficient.

CBS or any other employer has the right to "control" what their employees say, particularly on the premises or given the use of its property. If you come to my home and I don't like anyone using the term "shoes," I can ask you to leave if you say it too much. It's really as simple as that. Now, one might wonder how CBS decided that "nappy-headed hos" was bad for Imus' case, particularly in the context of society at large, where such terms are not, shall we say, used rarely.

For example, my brother reminded me that Ludacris recorded a song entitled 'Area Codes' a few years back. In that classic ode to black pride, part of the chorus said, 'I got hos in different area codes.' In the video, there were women wearing sashes with area codes on them, dancing to the music, while Luda sang. (No, I'm not joking.) In fairness, one could argue that CBS simply did the 'good citizen thing' for the case they could control, and left the rest to take care of itself. One really cannot argue with such a decision, but free speech was not at issue.

The Market Has Spoken?

So was the Imus firing a market response? Given that advertisers, in response to their customers, did pull their ads from Imus' show, the answer is pretty clearly, 'Yes.' Given that Imus generated something on the order of $15 million in yearly ad revenue for CBS, such a response can only be called legitimate, because frankly, that's a lot of 'cheddar' to give up. Basically, CBS decided that before too many cases of money left the building, they'd better throw Imus under the bus.

The truth of the matter is this: CBS's action was almost a no-brainer since Imus' schtick was likely nearing the end of this run, anyway. He can always come back, in some other venue, or in some other show format ' complete with pensive consideration for all he's learned, etcetera, etcetera ' and jack-in again. CBS could actually re-hire him, once the heat from this incident cools off! (The extra exposure Imus got during this timeframe will very likely make the previous cash he generated for his employers seem like 'chump change' in some future incarnation of his show.)

Those who were offended by Imus had a simple choice: Stop buying what he sold. Additionally, they decided to inform the purveyor(s) of why they were taking their business elsewhere. It seems pretty clear that the people he worked for listened to that, which is indication of the market talking. Here's the thing, though. Will it stop there? Should it? If Imus can't sell for American Express, I would suppose that anyone else saying something similar can expect the same treatment. I would expect for example, that a similar boycott of any comedian, who uses any similar term, will begin very soon.

Almost right on cue, it appears that the NAACP is preparing to launch a campaign against derogatory words. From the article we have:

"As African-American people with a proud heritage and promising destiny, we have to respect ourselves and stop disrespecting each other," said NAACP National Youth & College Division Director Stefanie L. Brown. "The time has come for us to stop using and responding to derogatory words."

It strikes me that that "not responding to derogatory words" is exactly the opposite of launching a campaign against them. One can't logically have both at the same time nor accomplish both via the same methodology. This strategy has an even more insidious and rather negative flip side, however. I am not interested in having the mores of some forced upon us all. The simple fact of economics (and by extension choice) is this: If people want to buy 'garbage' that I find offensive, and other people want to create that garbage, it's really none of my business.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit to not feeling the least bit embarrassed when I hear Jay-Z sing, 'I've got 99 problems, but a bitch ain't one.' In fact, I like that song quite a bit. I'm willing to bet that more than a few other black folks like it too. (That's a relatively safe bet given that it won a Grammy.) Bottom line: I simply don't need the NAACP, or anyone else, to help me select more appropriate songs to enjoy or less offensive comedians to laugh at. That is my business.

That's what supply and demand are all about, and those who attack only the supplier would do well to understand it. I can assure you that if no one were buying what people like Imus (or Ludacris or Rush Limbaugh or [place name of person who somehow supposedly offends someone here]) were selling, we would not be having this discussion. In short, there is room in society for people with views and opinions, even expressed publicly, with which I disagree. That's how it's supposed to work.

Coffee, Tea, or PC?

Did Imus deserve to be fired, or was this an issue of political correctness? As I mention above, we are all free ' or should be ' to enjoy whomever we wish, as long as we adhere to the principles of property rights. The poster I quote in my opening seems to be saying that everyone should find it easy to avoid saying these types of 'hateful' words. Apparently, this message hasn't reached very far into my own race. Jason Whitlock echoes this view in a recent column:

'While we're fixated on a bad joke cracked by an irrelevant, bad shock jock, I'm sure at least one of the marvelous young women on the Rutgers basketball team is somewhere snapping her fingers to the beat of 50 Cent's or Snoop Dogg's or Young Jeezy's latest ode glorifying nappy-headed pimps and hos.'

'I ain't saying Jesse, Al and Vivian are gold-diggas, but they don't have the heart to mount a legitimate campaign against the real black-folk killas.'

'It is us. At this time, we are our own worst enemies. We have allowed our youths to buy into a culture (hip hop) that has been perverted, corrupted and overtaken by prison culture. The music, attitude and behavior expressed in this culture is anti-black, anti-education, demeaning, self-destructive, pro-drug dealing and violent.'

'Rather than confront this heinous enemy from within, we sit back and wait for someone like Imus to have a slip of the tongue and make the mistake of repeating the things we say about ourselves.'

Indeed. In my view, we've accepted this we-can-say-it-but-you-cannot logic way past the expiration date. However, that too is an issue outside the scope of what this 'Imus thing' should be about. What about Don Imus? What is the problem that we are trying to fix, and is getting rid of Imus even a small portion of the solution? In a word: 'No.' In two words: 'Hell no.'

Clearly, this was a political correctness issue. Imus was a convenient jumping-off point for those who wish to decide what should be offensive ' for all of us. This is troubling from the standpoint of freedom. That doesn't mean I don't get upset with words on occasion. I do! Sometimes, due to history or whatever, people overreact. I've reacted strongly to words myself, but I've never called a radio station to complain.

For example, I think a certain CNN anchor is rather ignorant. I am inclined, therefore, to not watch her specifically and not to watch CNN generally, based upon that opinion. However, I don't think I'm entitled to suggest that CNN fire her or that CNN's advertisers make her tone down or change her rhetoric. I can make an easy decision; I don't watch.

The Issues of Racism, Sexism, Anti-Semitism, Bathtub Ring, and Hemorrhoids

Was any higher goal accomplished by getting Imus ousted from his job? I rather doubt it. It strikes me that one could construct a list of items that plague society, collectively, and individually. I list several such nagging issues in the heading to this paragraph. (That no successful all-out attack has been launched against bathtub ring and hemorrhoids ' eradicating them from our lives forever ' is truly a tragedy. Where is the justice in this world?)

It would make sense, I'd suggest, to rank these issues from most important to least important. In that context, I might construct a list of the Top 10 Harbingers of Racism in America . (All praises be to David Letterman for perfecting the Top-10 list.) I might also build a list of the Top 10 Examples of Misogyny in America . Here's what puzzles me. Would Imus make either of these lists? Probably not, and even if he did, he'd be near the bottom, under the late Strom Thurman and maybe Def Jam Records. So then, how can his eradication be a victory? (If I were loaded for bear, why would bagging a squirrel be a worthy goal?) What difference does it really make? As Justine Nicolas so beautifully put it in her recent essay, the answer is simple: none.

As an aside, in discussions with some of my friends and at various places I frequent all over the Web, I hear stuff like, 'The word 'ho' has a meaning that is rooted in slavery, and this particular attack on black pride has been passed down from that time.' As such, the term is particularly hurtful. This may, in fact, be true. So? What does the actual, historical, etymology of 'ho' have to do with this issue? I'd assert little, if anything, and here's why. Does anyone think Imus did the necessary research to determine exactly which word would most hurt the feelings of his targets? Even if he did, is there anyone, including Imus, who actually believes that word was true in this case? No again. As such, the history of the word is irrelevant to this situation.

I've also heard ' from those who believe justice was served ' that one's position or the directness of the attack makes a person 'fair game' for comments of the type Imus made. Some say that State officials and those in politics must be expected to tolerate some amount of this kind of attack, since they are 'in the public eye,' while private citizens should be spared. Additionally, some believe that offensive implications, such as those in the song 'Area Codes' are somehow different than direct attacks. Ergo, since Imus spoke about specific people, his action was somehow worse. I'm not so sure.

Either way though, I already said I'm comfortable ignoring ignorant people. The position of those they attack or the indirectness of that attack makes them no more tolerable and no less ignorant. It doesn't make them less tolerable and more ignorant, either.


I'm not qualified to speak for all black people, and I'm well aware of that fact. In this case, I'm only comfortable speaking for myself. At some point, I decided that I had to stop celebrating events that weren't victories as if they were. If O.J. Simpson killed his wife and got away with it, it's not like the black folk who got lynched all over the South of my grandfather's childhood will be coming back to life.

Similarly, if a loser like Don Imus gets canned for cracking a very bad joke about 'nappy-headed hos,' it won't justify the number of times I've laughed at a black comedian making a similar reference in his routine. The best way to deal with a blowhard is to ignore him ' sticks and stones and all that. Freedom allows for, and requires this of us all. This is the approach I attempt to use, and it is the approach I would like to teach my children. People like Don Imus are simply not worth my time, and anyway, I am free to not listen.

What is the most important lesson from all this though? Pride comes from within, and cannot be assailed from without, unless we believe our assailant ' even in a small way. I stopped doing that long ago.

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Wilton D. Alston's picture
Columns on STR: 14

Wilt Alston writes from Upstate, NY.  When he's not training for a marathon, or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.