Rich Lowry

Don Imus has to wonder where all his friends went. Just yesterday, his radio/TV show was the favorite venue of the journalistic and political elite, who delighted -- or pretended to delight -- in his ribald comments. Today, most of them appear shocked that Imus was ever given a show.

The unedifying Imus controversy is almost entirely a liberal conflagration, a perfect bonfire of the profanities: with journalists and politicians caught out ignoring their own standards of political correctness; with left-wing grievance-meisters doing their grim work on the mainstream media's favorite shockjock; with the culture of victimology running its ritualistic course. Armed only with the dubious loyalty of his frequent guests, Imus didn't stand a chance.

Calling the Rutgers' women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos," as Imus did, was, of course, appalling. But you have to feel a twinge of sympathy for him, given the suddenness with which rules that had never applied to him suddenly were brought down around his head. Perhaps if his corporate masters at MSNBC and CBS Radio had told him long ago that he shouldn't gratuitously insult people on the basis of their appearance, race or gender, he never would have made the comment in the first place.

But Imus brought buzzy programming to MSNBC every morning and millions of dollars to CBS, so it was offensiveness in a worthy cause (i.e., $). The talent at NBC and liberal journalists from every other outlet in the country were happy to chuckle along.

Impeccably liberal columnist Tom Oliphant had the misfortune to appear on Imus' show after the "nappy-headed" comment and before it was clear that Imus was on his way to being expelled from polite company. Oliphant excused the Imus remark as something that "can happen to anybody," and ended his appearance by saying that regular guests "have a moral obligation to stand up and say to you, 'Solidarity forever, pal.'"

So there you have it: Offensiveness now, offensiveness tomorrow, offensiveness forever. No liberal would make that kind of stand on behalf of anyone else. Imus got an exemption because his guests could feel as though they were part of the in-crowd and that they had done something wild and naughty by parleying with him.

Time magazine's Ana Marie Cox wrote an admirably honest piece explaining that she went on the show only "to earn my media-elite merit badge." But even those who already had their badges were eager guests. Cox cites New York Times columnist Frank Rich -- a great scourge of racism and sexism, real or imagined -- saying it is the only show where he could talk in more than soundbites. As if he had never heard of C-SPAN, PBS or NPR.

Imus did the rest of us no favors by trying to find redemption by appearing on Al Sharpton's radio show, thus helping legitimize Sharpton's aspiring role as the nation's offensiveness cop. A notion that is itself offensive, given that he made his chops by falsely accusing an innocent man of rape -- something for which he has never apologized -- and that his specialty is inflammatory self-aggrandizement.

The Rutgers basketball team played its assigned role in the saga. Given its pluck and its athletic toughness, the team would have seemed perfectly suited to tell an aging shock jock where to go and leave it that. Instead, it held an hour-long press conference wallowing in just how hurt it was, and then team members headed to "Oprah."

The Imus saga is another sign of how we've degraded the importance of politeness and decorum, and how we try to make up for the loss with political correctness. Imus' show was always boorish, but that was OK until he offended the wrong people at the wrong time with the wrong term. We shouldn't want our public conversation to be limited to the dulcet tones of public radio -- some shouting and barbs are healthy -- but it should have a grounding in civility. On that score, Imus struck out long ago.


Rich Lowry

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years .
 
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