Lash and backlash
If the truth sets you free, we’re not quite born again yet.
After more than a week of pandering, pontificating and supplicating in the wake of Don Imus’ firing by CBS and MSNBC, we’ve shed little light on the gleaming nugget buried deep within the rubble of rhetoric.
As is often the case, the truth was in front of our noses, captured in a single image: Imus and Al Sharpton facing off in Sharpton’s radio studio the day the civil rights wrangler gelded the cowboy.
Both perched before mics and wearing headphones, they were twins of a different color, mirror images reflecting a co-dependency of provocation and outrage.
Both are products of American emotions that are real and often legitimate. The same culture that created Sharpton also created Imus.
Which is to say, for every lash, there is a backlash.
Racism isn’t a myth, after all. Sharpton – or someone like him – was inevitable. If not he, then someone was bound to grab the spotlight and cast a high beam on the horrors that have been and are committed out of racial animus.
That Sharpton is appropriately called out for applying a double standard in his policing of justice doesn’t change the fact of what brought him forth. Born of a rage that can’t be denied, he is a reaction – if overlong sustained – to a central flaw in our humanity.
While some of Sharpton’s advocacy has been reprehensible and has backfired, he nevertheless has been a voice for people who didn’t have one – a vent for long-simmering frustration among a portion of blacks who feel marginalized and disenfranchised.
Imus, too, was a reaction. Shock jocks come equipped with a range of dubious talents, but they have a market for a reason. Imus was a draw primarily for white males who feel marginalized by a culture that finds entertainment in male bashing, especially those of the pale complexion.
White males, in fact, are the only group left on the planet that can be ridiculed and demonized with impunity. Imus vented their frustrations for them, saying what they couldn’t. In our PC culture, he was a tiny island where bad boys could assemble and make the sort of remarks that men have made among themselves for centuries.
The I-Man and his scatological sidekicks were liberated ids vicariously employed. In particular, Imus was a boy’s boy. Saying he was a man’s man seems a stretch given that his sense of humor often came straight from the back seat of mama’s station wagon.
Or from the locker room.
The Imus show was pure guy play in the tradition of humor as channeled aggression. Poking fun – laughing at each other and oneself – is one of man’s more charming instruments of survival. When guys spout off hostilities in an environment of mutual trust – the sort that evolves from team play and common showers – nobody gets hurt.
Humor can also be a form of peaceful rebellion, in this case against a sometimes too-precious culture. When you can’t say anything, you want to say everything. “Just say no”? Just say bring it on in copious quantities of obscene excess. Yesssssss!
The reflex to do precisely what one is not supposed to is as American as the Boston Tea Party. They say we can’t or must, and we say, “Yah, right.”
Imus has been saying “Yah, right” for a long time. But this time, he said it to the wrong people, picking on individuals who weren’t in on the game. Who didn’t consent to the rules. Who were not one of the guys, but young women who don’t belong to the culture of boydom.
Towel snapping is only fun and fair, after all, if everybody has a towel.
The success of both Sharpton and Imus, despite sometimes contemptible behavior from both, was owing precisely to their having served a constituency that feels beleaguered.
But when one’s audience is a marketplace of misery – when one’s success depends on the perpetuation of victimhood – the groove eventually becomes a rut. Sharpton’s search for justice got bogged down in reverse racism; Imus’ humor got mired in gratuitous insult.
Captured together in the same frame last week, Sharpton and Imus – media stars fashioned by anger and sustained by self-absorption – were cultural doppelgangers come face to face.
They not only mirrored each other, but also, like opposites, they canceled each other out.