Don Imus' Via Dolorosa

Kathleen Parker
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Posted: Apr 11, 2007 12:01 AM
Don Imus' Via Dolorosa

WASHINGTON -- I'm an Imus fan and often tune in for headlines, a shot of guyness and a pinch of politics. He's sometimes funny, sometimes smart, and every now and then, dumber'n a box o' rocks.

As recently, when he referred to the Rutgers University women's basketball team as ``nappy-headed hos.'' It was ridiculously unacceptable, mean and insensitive.

But was it unforgivable?

Piling on is awfully fashionable at the moment, and while tempting, it's also awfully easy. Let's try something hard. Like thinking.

The offensive remark was meant to be funny on a show that is a mix of serious and humorous commentary, both irreverent and sometimes adolescent. We all can agree it wasn't funny. As Imus has acknowledged during his stations of the cross, it was ``repugnant, repulsive and horrible.''

It was also racist.

But the public scourging of Don Imus -- and his ``I'm a good person who said a bad thing'' mea culpa -- borders on the ridiculous. Most absurd was his lashing by Al Sharpton on the latter's radio show.

Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and others have called for the I-Man's' firing. A two-week suspension isn't enough, according to these self-appointed arbiters of acceptable speech, who seem to have made peace with their own racist remarks of the past.

In 1995, Sharpton organized a protest and called a Jewish landlord a ``white interloper'' after the man terminated the lease on a black-owned music store. Later, the landlord's own store was burned to the ground, and eight people were killed.

Jackson called New York City ``Hymietown" and Jews "hymies" in a 1984 interview with The Washington Post. When accused of anti-Semitism, he said, ``Charge it to my head ... not to my heart.''

Fair enough for Jackson, but not for Imus?

What Imus said was not hateful, but it was thoughtlessly unkind to young women who are not, in fact, ``hos.''

Anyone who caught the student-athletes' Tuesday news conference couldn't help being impressed by the players' maturity, integrity and poise -- and feel a little bit sorry for the less-mature Imus. His chastening has been severe and his humiliation must be painful.

The strength of the country's reaction may suggest that our tolerance for gratuitous insult has reached a tipping point -- and that is a welcome development. What would be even more welcome is if that news were to reach the places where the word ``ho," short for ``can't-be-printed-here,'' is frequently used.

Black hip-hop artists have been denigrating the women of their families and neighborhoods for years with terminology that reduces all women to receptacles for men's pleasure. Sharpton and Jackson would do well to direct some of their outrage to that neck of the woods.

Meanwhile, the broader savaging of Imus seems disproportionate to the crime. There is in the air the unmistakable scent of schadenfreude -- pleasure in someone else's misery -- as some in the media have turned on the radio jock like pack wolves on a wounded puppy.

Otherwise, his takedown feels like hecklers gone wild. When the star is down, the heckler gets to be the star. Celebrity comes to the one with the loudest voice, the meanest jibe or, in this case, the pithiest piety.

In such an environment, punishment doesn't have to be equal to the sin; it has to be equal to the sinner. Because Imus is rich and powerful, the only appropriate punishment is death by a million apologies.

Followed by forced retirement.

Context has been ignored, meanwhile, by all but Imus' oldest friends. Imus has said a few dumb things in a decades-long career -- as have we all -- but he also has raised many millions for charities.

Otherwise, his show is entertaining and informative, thanks to the many national politicians who show up. Yes, it's a little clubby at times, mutually admiring and self-absorbed, but those characteristics also create a sense of relaxed intimacy that is part of the show's attraction.

Whatever his flaws -- and however careless his recent blurt -- Imus deserves a shot at resurrection.

He has promised to make a better show and to become an even better person. If that means no more racist jokes, the world will be better. It would be a waste, however, to banish a reformed Imus from the airwaves -- especially if an example of redemption and rehabilitation is what we seek.

But sainthood -- please -- is not required. In fact, a St. Imus would be a suicide bomb for sure.