Monday, April 16, 2007

The I-Man Goeth

I will miss Don Imus. The I-Man added something unique to the airwaves. An intolerance for hypocrisy and a nose for bullshit, combined with intelligent rapport made for good public policy entertainment.

Man, "good public policy entertainment." That is one dorky oxymoron.

Moving on, the consensus among the blabberatti is that Imus had "gone too far." No kidding. Big surprise. Have these people never listed to his show? Imus went too far on a regular basis.

The consensus also seems to be that a fair amount of reform will come from firing Imus. Civility in public discourse will enjoy a renaissance. Well I hope so. But I'm not overly optimistic. People are already carving out self-serving distinctions to these newly rediscovered standards of civility to protect their favorite naughty boys and girls. For instance, it is OK to spout bigotry if you are clearly playing a fictional character, and not speaking in your own voice. For example, this safe harbor is offered to excuse the crudities of the comic Sarah Silverman, who only indulges in such incivilities when playing her character called . . . well . . . Sarah Silverman, on her show called, well, yes, The Sarah Silverman Show. Not the best example perhaps, but as Michael Richards said, "You know what I mean."

What makes this odd, or course, is that we sort of do know what she means. (Michael Richards I don't have a clue about.) Her real persona and her comic characters are intertwined, so that she can freely move in and out of different characters in real time, and we can more or less keep track. She's still offensive, but it's not really her, so it's OK. Get it?

So it is with the I-Man. He plays many characters, all called Don Imus. He is the self centered curmudgeon, blatantly abusing his media power to berate some outfit that gave him poor consumer service. He is the high powered political interviewer, who really seems to care about the issues and how they affect our country, and giving hell to those he suspects of hypocrisy or careerist sycophancy. He is the boorish clown, telling and laughing at his own bad jokes, often bigoted. He is the caring old grandpa figure, giving his all to help out sick kids. He rants. He raves. He's entertaining. But there is always a dark side to it.

Back at my ranch, I have a 7 year old who has taken to repeating jokes he hears on television. He likes jokes. For the most part what passes for humor on television is trash at best. Raw insult plus laugh track equals tv joke. Ha ha. So my adorable little boy comes excitedly to me with something he is sure will impress me. He knows a joke! It is a parent's small heartbreak to see the light in their child's eyes go dim as they realize they have disappointed you. So I try to explain that jokes that make fun of someone or hurt someone's feelings are not funny. That a lot of what is on tv is not really funny. He has begun to understand.

Insulting people is not funny. Don Rickles was never really funny. Imus was never funny when he did it. What Imus did, at his best, was to outrageously point out the various emperors of pomposity among us who really have no clothes. And then he was very funny.

But as good habits can save you, bad habits can do you in. Don's bad habits caught up with him and he is done gone. But did he have to go? Is his exile from the airwaves a just punishment? Should decent people never associate with the likes of him again?

Once, a very good friend of mine invited me to her home for a small party. A friend of her husband made a few bigoted remarks. (Ha ha.) I asked her about it later. She said that she and her husband had talked about it and decided that he was their friend and they would try to steer him away from his bigotry. We all have faults, she pointed out to me, and this was his. They would not accept it or go along, but they would not abandon him as a friend either. It made a lot of sense to me at the time.

Imus seems to me to be sincere in his contrition. To a large degree he seems to have "got it." He not only apologized, he gave a real apology. Not one of those "I regret if I offended anyone" fake apologies that are so readily available at Cowards R Us. He also promised to change both himself and his show. He did not claim a momentary lapse of judgment, or that it was just "three little words." (See Iraq War.) He promised to clean up the general behavior and tenor of the humor on his show. In my opinion his remorse was sincere and his contrition was earnest.

Given this, I am appalled at the behavior of the two reverends Sharpton and Jackson. I did not detect any indicia of Christian compassion in either of them. I'm no reverend, but I am a Christian, and my understanding of my faith is that forgiveness is fundamental to reconciliation with God. A Christian leader's job is to help us find the path. Did Reverend Sharpton offer Don Imus a path from confession and contrition to penance and redemption? I didn't see it. What I saw looked like naked opportunism and pandering to the crowd.

I think that an opportunity has been lost here. Imus wants to be a good person, and is willing to change to do it. Watching this change occur in the public eye would, I think, have done us much more good than a momentary flush of self-satisfaction at having pooh-poohed the bad man. We could have lighted a candle here. Instead we have merely cursed the darkness.