In the wake of the Don Imus career implosion, media critics, activists and professional thumbsuckers are debating whether the rules of media argy-bargy have changed.
In a long cover story, Time magazine asks, "Who can say what?" Civil rights ambulance-chaser Al Sharpton says this is the "beginning" of a "broad discussion on what is permitted and not permitted on the airwaves."
On the surface, it does kind of look like a new standard is emerging. After all, by my rough estimate, this was the 1,981,293rd stupid or offensive thing Imus said on his radio show, and yet for reasons hard to fathom this was the one that made him a pariah.
The truth is, however, the rules haven't changed at all - and that's why this story is so maddeningly annoying.
First of all, there are no champions here, no heroes. In fact, there shouldn't even be victims. I agree entirely that Imus' "nappy-headed ho's" comments were offensive and insulting. But what on earth is wrong with the Rutgers' women's basketball team? One player dramatically protested that Imus' insults "scarred me for life."
Really? An aging, dyspeptic poster boy for Viagra says something stupid about you and you're scarred for life? What kind of pride is their coach instilling in them?
Meanwhile, we're supposed to submit to lectures from Al Sharpton about what is "permissible" to say in public life? When exactly did someone invest Al Sharpton with such moral or intellectual authority?
Sharpton has real victims on his rap sheet. He incited Harlem protestors to fight back against Jewish "white interlopers." When one of the protestors invaded a store and set fire to it, killing eight people, Sharpton denied he'd ever spoken at the rally in question. When tapes of Sharpton's incendiary speech were produced, he responded, "What's wrong with denouncing white interlopers?" And let's not even replay the Tawana Brawley episode.
Then there's the smug journalistic establishment, which has been kissing Imus' behind for a decade. Suddenly, they're shocked, shocked by Imus' insensitivity. Please. If they are so concerned with the damage done by hurtful comments, why aren't they begging for forgiveness like Henry in the snows of Canossa for their rush to judgment in the Duke lacrosse scandal?
And liberal politicians, too - most of whom once upon a time lined up to use Imus' megaphone - are suddenly dismayed by Imus' comments. Sen. Barack Obama, for example, called for Imus to be fired for his "ho" comments. OK, but Obama and other leading Democrats routinely meet with rappers, such as Ludacris, who use "ho" - and worse - so much that if you were to delete such terms from some of their songs you'd have little more than a backbeat left.
Don Imus is correct when he objects that he gets this language from the black community, and that these racial doctors should look to healing their own communities first before pounding the table with camera-attracting outrage.
But Imus is hardly a martyr either. Simply because it's wrong - as he now admits - for blacks to insult black women, that doesn't make it right for whites to do it.
What makes this whole spectacle so repugnant is that, rather than ushering in some new set of rules, it merely demonstrates how the existing rules remain perfectly intact.
Is this current kabuki dance really so unfamiliar? Bottom-feeding opportunists like Sharpton and Jesse Jackson rile up a lot of racial outrage, and guilt-ridden white liberal journalists go into a feeding frenzy. Politicians and corporations start running for cover.
The media establishment needs to prove how racially enlightened it is, the activists need a trophy, the advertisers wet their pants over bad publicity. Competing media outlets ramp up coverage of their colleague's desperate attempts to extricate himself, which only emboldens the critics to seek more limelight and sends the politicians even deeper into their rat holes.
The cycle continues until the desired scalp is delivered. Then everything returns to normal until the next full moon, when the werewolves once again must feed.
There's no need to cry for Imus - not only because what he said was wrong but also because he's been a star player in precisely this game for years. Indeed, some hilarious attempts to paint Don Imus as a conservative notwithstanding, one of the great ironies here is that Imus is the bad boy of the elite liberals' locker room. That most of his buddies left him high and dry at the first sign of trouble isn't a sign that there are any "new rules" in place. It's a sign of how well the old ones are working.