Don Imus is the anti-hero for our sordid times, the white shadow who reveals everything about the culture. Elvis Presley took black music and made it white, and that was shocking in the '50s, but his raw talent excused a lot. Rock 'n' roll developed as a fusion of black and white rhythms.
Don Imus, it's fair to say, has no rhythm. He merely took the vocabulary of black rappers and made an insult of an unfunny attempt at a "joke." If a black celebrity had made a remark about a "nappy-headed ho," it would have passed without notice. But the Imus controversy is not about Don Imus, but the culture.
We've become so inured to vicious vulgarity that the language seeps into the talk of a man who regularly interviews serious politicians and media stars who want to be serious. They banter with him as if they're all just raunchy boys together.
Don Imus is a fusion talk-show host whose audience and guests have lost the ability to make clear distinctions between entertainment and news, between insult and opinion. His frequent guests say they're searching their souls to decide whether to appear on his show again, if he has a show again, and we can only mutter that it's about time.
"If it were anyone else, I wouldn't have anything to do with them," Bob Schieffer, the sometime anchorman of CBS News, tells The Washington Post. "But I'm not going to sever a relationship with someone who has apologized for what he said." Power in the media, like power in politics, means having to say you're sorry. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, a frequent guest, says he didn't like it when the I-man compared his wife to Squeaky Fromme, who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford. "But it's part of the usual tone of the show." (What a thoughtful man.)
Jeff Greenfield and Andrea Mitchell are awed by the clubbiness and salon-like atmosphere of the show, as if Imus rivals Oscar Wilde and Mme. de Stael in fusing the lifestyles of the wits and famous. The guests are eager to demonstrate, if only to themselves, how hip their repartee, even if their host is a serial insulter.
But it smacks of colossal hypocrisy when the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton become the arbiters of rectitude and righteousness. They're willing to sacrifice Imus because he's white. Men of the cloth they may be, but has anyone heard them rebuke the black rapper celebration of drugs, violence and utter contempt of women?
Our culture is gloriously enriched by the African American contributions -- think W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong, B.B. King and the Delta blues singers -- and the golden age of popular music became golden through the inspirations of ragtime, jazz, swing, blues and soul, speaking to our common humanity. But shock for the sake of shock forces the popular culture to accept the darker side of angry music, which filters into the vernacular of everyday speech and is absorbed by those who should know better. Rappers black and white revel in the obscene, the sadistic, the racist and the nihilistic, and they're defended as mere reflectors of "authentic experience."
Pop culture has often appealed to our baser instincts, and that doesn't automatically make it bad. But when it is bad it's important to say so. Race has blurred critical distinctions to make it perilous to criticize a destructive black message in music. "Obscenity has become the preferred weapon of those willing to do anything to get a rise out of the public," writes Martha Bayles in her book "Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music." That's what Imus and the rappers have in common.
Orlando Patterson, the sociologist, observes that rap dance-hall lyrics were originally innocent, harmlessly erotic, something he could listen and dance to with his daughters. But the lyrics became brutal, reflecting a sickness that "has nothing to do with any acceptable form of humor."
Saddest of all in this sordid story are the young women of the Rutgers basketball team, who were legitimately outraged but who bought into the hyperbole. "This has scarred me for life," one of them said. Someone, perhaps her coach, should reassure her that a month from now a new outrage will send this one down the memory hole.
If only this episode would enable these women and others like them -- and like us -- to stand up to the celebrities notorious for their violent and vicious language and tell them to knock it off. For those who remember the more innocent radio days of the 1950s, they might have said, "T'ain't funny, McGee."