It’s suddenly news that Don Imus shores up his ratings with racist cracks at blacks and Hispanics? Only now, by insulting the women athletes of Rutgers as “nappy-headed ho’s,” has he crossed the Rubicon of racism and the shout has at last gone up, Has Imus no decency? It’s like announcing Bluebeard veered into unforgivable moral excess when he knocked off wife number five.

With the full sanction of his employers–primarily CBS and NBC–the man’s been at it for years, along with his sidekicks, Bernard McGuirk and Sid Rosenberg. Ishmael Reed has a brisk résumé of choice moments on Imus in the Morning in a piece in End Times, a very fine new book on the death of the Fourth Estate written mostly by Jeffrey St. Clair and myself.

“On any day,” Reed wrote, “you might find Bernard McGuirk, the man who, according to 60 Minutes, Imus hired to do ‘nigger jokes,’ doing a lame imitation of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, using a plantation-type dialect. Blacks who are satirized by McGuirk and others are usually displayed as committing malapropisms…. Black athletes are referred to as ‘knuckle draggers.'”

“I replay Don Imus as much as I can,” the intrepid Reed wrote, “because his putrid racist offerings are said to represent the secret thinking of the cognoscenti. Maybe that’s why journalists like Jeff Greenfield and others admire him so much. He says what they think in private.” True enough. Those legions of mostly white men in the Chris Matthews genre, described as “political analysts” or “political strategists,” all adore Imus. (The commentators on the Imus affair are 90 percent men too. I guess women are disqualified because they might be prejudiced.) One such Imus fan, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, made his continuing support an issue of principle, using the pulpit of Tucker Carlson’s show:


I will continue to go on the show. I think what he said was racist, not to mention being unfunny and stupid, but if you don’t believe he should be fired, then you can’t call for a boycott, because a boycott would amount to the same thing as his being fired. If all of his guests, all of those senators in both parties, all the journalists all stopped going on, that would be the end of Imus. It would be…. So if you favor boycotting him, you favor the end of Imus in the Morning.

Thus does Alter–who obviously cherishes his sessions with the manly Imus crew–evolve the position that it is somehow a position of high moral principle, a courageous blow for free speech, to continue to go on Imus. Flaubert couldn’t have topped this.

I call Reed “intrepid” because I’ve tried to watch Imus on MSNBC from time to time in recent years and have found the show far more boring than jewelry sales on QVC. Imus himself looks half-asleep most of the time, which is probably why he tried to offer his audience a quick snicker about the Rutgers girls–it was just an attempt to wake himself up. And indeed, like many of the hee-haw racists strewn across the cable dial and AM frequencies, he must be wondering why this time he got his tongue caught in the wringer. “Nappy-headed ho’s”? What’s so bad about that? Walk into a clothing store patronized by the younger multicultural set and “ho’s” and “bitches” thunder from the loudspeakers.

But wisely, Imus is 100 percent in contrition mode. America, far more than other cultures, adores full-bore apologies leading to a full, low-interest-rate moral re-fi. Not believing in redemption, and schooled by Spinoza and Nietzsche, Europeans tend to take the position that remorse adds to the crime.

Imus’s trip to Canossa on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio program was a particularly rich session, with Imus sniveling that he was just trying “to be funny” and Reverend Al ushering on his daughter as a symbol of black womanhood defiled by Imus’s “ho” talk. Imus could have probed the Rev about his statement on CNN a couple of years ago that, though he disapproves of misogyny, rappers have a First Amendment right to rap about violence and, presumably, ho’s. But Imus passed up the chance, preferring to dwell on his war on sickle cell anemia, a disease he appears to think he alone has had the courage and moral stamina to confront from his ranch in New Mexico. This culminated in another wonderful exchange, this one between Imus and Brian Monroe of Ebony:


Let me be clear…. My magazine, Ebony magazine, has been writing and covering sickle cell anemia for decades now…. When you were still doing radio spots for used cars. I cannot let you—-


I’m not going to sit here and let you insult me…. Don’t talk about me doing used car commercials…. Let me tell you what–I will bet you I have slept in a house with more black children who were not related to me than you have.

In the end, despite the apologies and the groveling and the support of fans like Alter, MSNBC canceled its simulcast of Imus’s radio show, though CBS merely gave him a two-week suspension. The culture czars at CBS don’t want to lose Imus any more than they do their prescription drug ads. Ho’s, Paxil… it’s all music to the media company’s cash registers.

And in the larger context–of Ann Coulter, of O’Reilly the Loofah King, of Limbaugh, of Cynthia Tucker and Juan Williams; of blacks paid by whites to dump on other blacks like Cynthia McKinney; of Chris Rock doling out F-words; of women-dissing rappers–one listens to the fuss about Imus and thinks, OK, but this is only one tiny square in our dirty national quilt. We live in a racist, profit-driven culture that is getting more degraded by the hour.

War is at the apex of that degradation, and these ceremonies of degradation are an integral part of the war machine. Back in February Imus snarled into his mic, “It might be good to start with somebody who is willing to take three big ones and drop one on Mecca, one on Jedda and one on Saudi–one on Riyadh.” No one asked him to apologize for that one. Take that, you ragheads.