WASHINGTON -- I should have expected it. There is an effort being made to get talk show host Don Imus back on the air. Citadel Broadcasting, owner of 243 radio stations as well as ABC Radio Networks, reportedly is negotiating to bring him back in December, presumably for the Christmas season. Possibly Christmas has nothing to do with it. Possibly it is just that Citadel's executives recognize that there is a substantial audience of macho fellows out there who consider themselves somewhat intellectual, somewhat athletic, in sum: very au courant with what real men know -- pardon my French. They miss the locker room fantasy of the Imus radio show, complete with pols dropping by, and journalists, and even writers -- all very clever and a little raunchy just to manifest their macho SUPERIORITY.
No, I never shared these fellows' admiration for Imus or, for that matter, their admiration for themselves. Imus has been a vulgar presence for years. He is a poseur of the most repulsive sort. When he was bounced from the airwaves in April for slurs cast on the Rutgers women's basketball team, the only thing that surprised me was that he had not provoked such a ruckus earlier. Down there in the Imus locker room, such drolleries had been heard before. But he camouflaged them all with high-mindedness: a charity for children, earnestness about books, an assumption of moral and intellectual superiority without being too moral or too intellectual. Nonetheless, he was bounced. Now Citadel is negotiating to bring him back. There is a market out there.
Yet there are also groups intent on thwarting his return. The National Organization for Women (by now rather old women I would think) and the National Association of Black Journalists are in full howl. "He used his free speech to broadcast hate speech," the president of NABJ has declaimed. "To put him back on the air now makes light of serious and offensive racial remarks that are still ringing in the ears of people all over this country." Both groups are modern opportunists engendered in an era of identity politics. To maintain their positions at the head of their various aggrieved groups, they have to alight on slobs such as Imus to exploit. For years, they have had numerous opportunities to spot gaucheries in Imus' dialogues, but they would rather hit him when he is down.
Obviously I do not mind taking a few swipes at him either when he is down, but there is something out there that is even more significant than his vulgarity or apparent racial and gender insensitivity, namely the First Amendment's promise of free speech. It allows Imus to speak coarsely or foolishly. To bar him from public forums is to deny a freedom that allowed feminists and civil rights leaders the right to make their cases in years past. The feminists and spokesmen for NABJ now apparently assume the rightness of feminism and civil rights for blacks was always apparent. It was not. Someone had to make their cases in an era when it was unpopular. If it were not for the First Amendment, their cases might never have been made.
Thus I draw the conclusion that Citadel should be free to make its deal with Imus. Let him pull his silly cowboy hat on his head and amble into an air-conditioned radio studio. There in his hat and boots -- who knows, maybe he carries a toy gun -- he can live out his fantasies with his macho audience of wisenheimers. If he attracts enough sound critics, perhaps his audience will shrink into insignificance out of personal embarrassment.
Black journalists, aging feminists, join with me in laughing Imus and his audience into oblivion. But let us not weaken the First Amendment. Free speech is how we all got where we are.