I draw three lessons from the Don Imus controversy.
The traditional Muslims were right: I"ve noticed that the Middle Eastern media is treating the Imus story--and how our little scandals travel worldwide!--with a certain degree of relish. And I think I know why. Remember the Muhammad cartoon scandal? When the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed the cartoons portraying the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist, many in the West viewed this solely through the lens of free speech. The media coverage suggested a confirmation of Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis. We believe in free speech and they don't. Many conservatives rallied to this viewpoint.
Clearly the embassy-burnings and rabid protests of the Islamic radicals showed that there is a faction in the Muslim world that completely rejects open debate. But the traditional Muslims fell silent. They did not join with the radicals, but neither did they defend the cartoons. And indeed some commented that the way in which the West was treating the controversy was unfair and hypocritical.
The Imus controversy vindicates the argument of these traditional Muslims. How often during the Imus brouhaha have you heard the words "free speech"? Hardly.
Did the First Amendment even come up? Nyet. Did dozens of other radio hosts choose to echo the epithets directed at the Rutgers women's basketball team in order to affirm their solidarity with Imus and their enthusiasm for civil liberties? No, there has been an almost-universal howl of outrage. The man must be fired! Everyone involved should have sensitivity counseling to make sure this doesn't happen again! All of this is indicative of the racism that is endemic in our society!
No wonder the Muslims are chuckling. They see that when our sacred cows are gored, we scream bloody murder and demand accountability and heads on a platter. By contrast when someone elses's sacred cows are gored, we proclaim ourselves loftily on the side of free speech and demand that they "get over it."
Some minorities are more equal than others: Imus got booted because he forgot to consult The Politically Correct Guide To Insulting People, a wonderfully useful manual that is unfortunately out of print.
That's why he violated Rule Number 1, which is that if you're going to insult someone's appearance and sexual habits, make sure it's a white guy.
Rule Number 2: If it's not a white guy, make sure it's a religious person. Bigotry against religious people is even seen in some quarters as a mark of enlightenment. Christians and Muslims are the most common targets. Jews are riskier, because they can always strike back with the charge of anti-Semitism. Rule Number 3: If it's not a religious guy, make sure it's a Southerner. Working-class Southerner is even better. Jeff Foxworthy makes his entire living off this group.Rule Number 4: You can still get away with quips against gays, especially if they are humorous. "Faggot" doesn't work because it just isn't funny. You have to be careful here because in certain spheres of society, such as the American campus, anti-gay insults are sternly condemned. While homosexuality used to be considered a kind of disorder, now opposition to homosexuality is seen as a mark of "homophobia." Bring on the sensitivity counselors!
Rule Number 5: Never question that women are as intellectually capable as men. Ask Larry Summers, who tried to raise the issue in a scholarly way, but it didn't matter. Summers is now the sommelier at the dining room of the Harvard Club. I knew a guy at Dartmouth who liked to retort that "any man who thinks a woman is his intellectual equal is probably right." Much wittier than anything Imus will ever think of, but I haven't heard of the guy since. Probably he was found dead in a back alley, stabbed with a hat-pin.
Rule Number 6: Never insult the appearance, intelligence or sexual habits of ethnic minorities, especially blacks. Even praise has to be carefully expressed, as Joe Biden found out when he called Obama "articulate." (Of course if you're a black comedian like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock, you can say what you want and you even enjoy N-word immunity.) But for the rest of us, if you have to violate the National Ethnic Sensitivity Protection Act, make sure you pick on an Asian-American and, if none are available, a Hispanic.
It’s time to hold some folks accountable: If the offense given to the female Rutgers basketball players was so grievous that it demanded Imus be fired, what about the harm caused to the lives of those Duke lacrosse players? The wrongly-accused Duke students did not merely endure a two-word insult. They have had to suffer through the most horrific allegations, launched in a witch-hunt atmosphere that lasted for more than a year.
What's the appropriate punishment for Mike Nifong, the opportunistic prosecutor, who seems to have "played" the evidence to promote his career? And what about the long list of Duke professors--some African American, some white--who circulated petitions using the incident to demonstrate racism at Duke, helping in the process to create the atmosphere of racial hysteria in which the whole incident was examined?
I hold no brief for Imus, but on balance I consider the Duke show-trial, thankfully now ended, to have been a much greater miscarriage of justice. The Duke professors, even more than Imus, should have known better and not abused their power. Instead they played the race card and ruined these students' lives in their own university setting. Who will hold them accountable for the pain they have caused?