The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Commentary April 20, 2007

In Defense of A Childhood Friend

I used to love basketball. During my later prepubescent years I watched games, learned plays and followed every statistic. Don’t get me wrong, I never had athletic ability. When I did play, my role was that of the fat kid in the middle of the court with his arms up so the opposing players couldn’t get a clean drive to the hoop.

My lack of athletic ability led me to an outlet for my obsession that was a lot easier and less humiliating than attempting to play. As a fifth grader I was able to do what sports fans of any age spend their time doing when they can’t even walk up a flight of stairs without getting winded: I listened to sports radio.

I chose “Sports Radio 66, The FAN!” or WFAN, NY. The programming on the station ranged from games to call-in shows and I listened to everything. Glued to the radio, I tuned in every morning a program titled “Imus in The Morning.” In case the political implications of this column are still not clear, “Imus in the Morning” is hosted by Don Imus, who was recently fired for calling the Rutgers Women’s Basketball Team a bunch of “nappy headed hos.”

This comment was nothing new for Imus, who has made a career out of making offensive and bigoted statements. He’s attacked women (calling PBS anchor Gwen Ifill a “cleaning lady”) referred to Arabs as “towel heads,” and called Simon and Schuster “thieving Jews,” later retracting the statement as redundant. He also throws around the term “faggot” as if it’s second nature. Finally, he crossed the line for the last time; the mainstream media turned and Imus was dropped. It was a great victory for liberals everywhere and we could all pat ourselves on the back knowing that the world was safe and tolerant once again.

And yet, something made me vaguely uncomfortable about the whole incident, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. For some reason, it didn’t really seem appropriate that Imus was fired. Did my early exposure to Don Imus affect my ability to judge him objectively? Did I feel for the guy like I’d feel for an old friend who has done something stupid? Did my gut reaction suggest a lack of indignation that implicated me in the racist and sexist sentiment behind Imus’ disgusting comment? While not willing to rule out any of these questions, I’m convinced that something deeper was at play.

A quick check of the “Politics” section of the New York Times website illuminated partially why I felt so uncomfortable. In Alabama, Republican frontrunner Rudy Guliani called the confederate flag a “local issue.” Guliani, it should be noted, came under attack while mayor of New York for overseeing a particularly aggressive and racially motivated police force. Despite all of this, Guliani’s main problem (and the reason that he might lose the nomination) is his lack of opposition to gay marriage and abortion, combined with the fact that he is an Italian New Yorker and therefore suspicious to many conservative voters.

I include all this to say that in mainstream politics today we have pretty and politically correct language to describe some of the most bigoted and hurtful actions imaginable. We can subtly endorse the Confederacy because it’s a “local issue,” racially profile because it’s “crime reduction,” limit a woman’s control over her own body because it’s a “moral issue,” keep large segments of the population from sharing equal rights because we’re defending age-old institutions and look strangely upon candidates with particular ethnic and geographical backgrounds because they are outside of the political mainstream.

On Don Imus’s show, I can pick up the phone and shout right back at him. His remarks are racist, but it’s an open racism that can be challenged for what it is. Because it can be confronted head on, “open racism” actually gives us in the progressive community an opportunity to confront prejudices that few beyond Imus have the balls to say. Taking Imus off of the air was a denial of a far deeper, more mainstream form of racism that has no problem entering the most polite conversation in this country; it was like putting a band-aid over a cut when the patient has sustained severe internal bleeding.

If I had to choose, I would much rather turn on the radio and hear someone use the word “faggot” for a cheap joke than flip on the TV and hear a politician with a straight face and sober tone claim that he has gay friends and respect for the gay community but cannot support marriage because of his “faith in the Bible.” In the past week, we made sure a commentator was fired, while leaving some of the most dangerous players in the game.


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