Time ripens all things, and then perhaps we see them actual size. The more precise dimensions of the Don Imus radio blunder were available just days after it started to expand like that pink stuff in the movie The Blob. Just as we were all pretty sure we were outraged by what Imus said about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, the killings at Virginia Tech forced us to reach for our real eyeglasses and take off the tons-o-fun circus goggles we wear when we want nothing to look like something. That way, we won’t have to think about anything.
Not that there wasn’t real damage done by Don Imus, or more specifically, his ego. But the beautiful and accomplished women of Rutgers, basketball program weren’t the victims of racism. They were, unfortunately, buffeted by the wind created when the runaway train of American banality rumbles through your neighborhood.
You might assess the same kind of wind damage to the people who happened to be in the room the night Michael Richards’ swollen and gaseous ego came in contact with a cigarette lighter, or more specifically a phone that was also a video camera. Everybody’s hair got ruffled, but there weren’t any serious injuries. Not because race and racism don’t matter; they matter very much. Rather, because Richards did not enter that nightclub to be a racist. He came in to be an egotist and to enjoy a certain kind of worship. When denied that attention, he reached for race in the fury of his anger. And when you do that, then, at the moment of doing it anyhow, you are a racist.
Too bad Don Imus wasn’t lost in any fury of anger. Instead, he was relaxed, alert, fully into the moment. Most likely he’d had a strong cup of coffee and knew he was talking into a microphone to a large listening audience. So why say something idiotic?
In the days following the Imus blunder, there emerged a kind of blanket excuse that, if I understand it properly, goes something like this: Grown men can generate statements of obtuse and degrading juvenilia (for high salaries) because there is so much low-rent garbage in the media environment that such statements come off as a kind of banality Esperanto understood by all.
Advocates of that line of defense might have also argued that the ramp to the Imus blunder was a period of national necrophilia with the remains of Anna Nicole Smith, so what’s the big deal with a few racial barbs? Still, it was a wise ancient (or maybe my Grandmother) who said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Distraction finds purchase in the arid soil that hardens during a time of war. Iraq is unrelenting in its darkness and depressing in its near daily revelations of corruption and intellectual bankruptcy in the White House. We can be disgusted but we can’t be surprised that a beautiful albeit dead model and a banal DJ somehow end up standing in front of the window to the war.
Still, that only explains why we let it into our homes; it doesn’t explain Imus’ mistake. Is there such a thing as racism of the moment? Imus pointed out that he’s had African American kids as guests at his ranch. Conclusion: He’s not a racist, just as Michael Richards pointed out that he was not a racist on a largely half-ass (for all involved) appearance on Letterman. That those ugly thoughts were there on their brain shelves waiting to be reached for is something Imus and Richards can hash out in whatever hell-of-the-moment they take turns roasting in.
It is oft observed that race is America’s Achilles’ heel, but I believe another vulnerable heel is challenging it for the top spot. It’s not our appetite for distraction, but more our ever-growing sense of entitlement to distraction that played a larger role in the Imus blunder than racism. Louder than the hue and cry for more and better information about the disaster of Iraq and a way to end it, there is a kind of barking for the next “runner” story that has as it central feature no meaning or relevance to the horrible realness of America under Bush. Racist or not, I will never forgive Don Imus for that week where his flabby intelligence caused him to stand up right in front of the screen and block my view of the world.