YOU CALL THIS SATIRE? The Imus Files
Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication at American University and co-
author of the book, By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion
of Integration and the Reality of Race (Dutton, 1999). He
is a contributing editor at TomPaine.com.
Don Imus can be a very funny man. With his microphone as a weapon he skewers politicians, the rich, elites, liberals, conservatives, the pious, and the self-righteous. Regular listeners know he’s best when he ridicules affectation, pretension, hypocrisy, privilege, and sniveling sanctimony.
Little wonder pundits, journalists, candidates and celebrities all beat a path to his studio – through Imus they laugh at our foibles in a way that otherwise would horrify their PR advisors.
But with mountains of material and a nation full of absurd characters to lampoon, it’s all the more curious why Imus stoops to good old-boy humor and makes fun of blacks, Jews, immigrants and gays for no other reason than to make fun of who they are.
What Imus doesn’t seem to realize is the difference between exposing people for their hypocrisy and sanctimony on issues like race – and making fun of people simply because of their race.
Let’s say Imus ridicules black leaders who criticize whites for bigotry but take a pass when asked to condemn Al Sharpton or Louis Farrakhan – or gay activists who call for equal rights but demand protected legal status for people with AIDS – or Jewish politicians who look the other way when Israel violates Palestinian human rights.
It may make some of us uncomfortable to hear him go after the most vulnerable groups in society, people who face much worse discrimination than anything they can inflict on others, and many of us might wish he would simply back off. But if his jokes are aimed at unmasking their hypocrisy or self-righteousness, it’s certainly within the bounds of social satire – which is precisely where he likes to see himself.
After all, Imus could argue, it’s not he but the folks he lampoons who make their race, religion or sexual orientation a public issue. Humor like this would place Imus squarely in the tradition of a Lenny Bruce or a Richard Pryor, who force us to look in the mirror at our racial and ethnic hypocrisy and dishonesty. What’s the first English word new immigrants are taught to spell, Pryor used to ask? The word “nigger.”
The trouble is that Imus’s humor doesn’t stop at pointing out the hypocrisy. Some of it simply gets ad hominem and borders the line of hateful. There’s no satire in bigoted humor. And at that point it’s no longer even funny.
His show features ape-like descriptions of black athletes. He condemns a journalist simply for being Jewish – “a boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jew boy.” Blacks who achieve success get there through a “quota hire.” Foreigners are portrayed as “gooks” and “urine-colored brothers.” Gays are described with such contempt you have to wonder why the disgust is so deep.
This isn’t in the Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor tradition. Rather, it’s more in line with disgraced former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who a generation ago claimed that all blacks want is a pair of "loose shoes, a tight pussy, and a warm place to shit” – or in the tradition of radio talk show host Bob Grant, who described American blacks as “millions of subhumanoids, savages” who would “feel more at home careening along the sands of the Kalahari” in Africa.
There’s no parody in this type of humor – assuming it even deserves the label “humor.” Unfortunately, Imus defends himself by shifting blame to what he sees as a humorless class of politically correct scolds, which makes him sound as sanctimonious as the self-righteous he usually lampoons on his show.
Let’s take Imus at his word, that he’s not a bigot and he opposes bigotry in any form. But a look some of those defending him in the TomPaine.com letters-to-the-editor section suggests that many of his fans have no such compunction about their real feelings toward blacks and gays. Surely we can’t blame Imus for what his listeners think, any more than we can blame John Lennon for Mark David Chapman or David Letterman for the woman who stalked him.
But a man like Imus, with such power over his audience, should think twice about the genie of hatred he unleashes over the air. Given his many other talents, Imus doesn’t need this type of “humor” to be funny. C’mon, Imus, get over it.
Published: May 15 2000