Signs of Infection
By BOB HERBERT
People in positions of great power are the ones who define those who are relatively lacking in power. So when Don Imus, a very powerful radio personality, dropped his disgusting verbal bomb on the members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team, he sent a powerful message across the airwaves: that the young women on the team (the black ones, at least) were crude, ugly and genetically inferior, and that all of the women were whores.
That message, which Mr. Imus insisted was meant to be funny, reinforced views already widely held in our society, which is why I could get the following e-mail from a reader:
“Who woulda thunk that the Imus idiocy and the Duke Debacle would hit home on the same day. Both stories bring to mind what my father told me 60 years ago: Stay away from colored women.”
The attention surrounding Mr. Imus’s very public self-immolation is an opportunity for Americans to acknowledge that we have a problem. Not only is the society still permeated by racism and sexism and the stereotypes they spawn, but we have allowed a debased and profoundly immature culture to emerge in which the coarsest, most socially destructive images and language are an integral part of the everyday discourse.
Gangsta rappers trapped in the throes of the Stockholm syndrome have spent years encouraging black people to see themselves as niggers and all women as whores. Michael Savage, one of the most prominent figures in talk radio, with an audience substantially larger than Don Imus’s, has called Diane Sawyer a “lying whore” and Barbara Walters a “double-talking slut,” according to Media Matters for America, a group that monitors some of the excesses of talk radio.
The culture that has given us such wonders as jazz, blues, baseball, Hollywood, the Broadway musical theater, rock ’n’ roll, and on and on, is now specializing in too many instances in language and entertainment fit only for the gutter or a sewer.
Something has gone completely haywire when young American boys and girls are listening to songs like “Can You Control Yo Hoe” and “Break a Bitch Til I Die,” by Snoop Dogg, formerly Snoop Doggy Dogg, formerly Cordozar Calvin Broadus.
“It’s gotten pretty savage out there,” said Tom Brokaw of NBC News during an on-air discussion of the Imus situation.
Mr. Brokaw, who believes that firing Mr. Imus was the right thing to do, said: “There’s been an absence of civility in public discourse for some time now. The use of language across the racial spectrum, and across the political spectrum, and across the cultural spectrum, has been, in any way you want to describe it, debased to a certain degree.
“The words that you hear used commonly on the street, or on the air, or on radio, or in rap lyrics, are words that in the worst days of segregation in this country, in the worst segregated parts of this country, you would not have heard on radio. Now you hear them commonly.”
The language, of course, is just a symptom. Mr. Brokaw went on to mention, in a tone that sounded a bit sad and somewhat resigned, that Americans had steadfastly refused to face the race issue honestly and head-on. “I had hoped,” he said, “I guess somewhat naïvely 20 years ago, that we would be in a far different place than we are now.”
We should also be in a better place in the way that women are viewed and portrayed in the culture. And one of the first steps in a conversation about how to honestly address these issues should be a discussion of how to get more more blacks, other ethnic minorities and women into positions of real authority in the major news and entertainment outlets.
Another part of the conversation should deal with why the bullying and degradation of other human beings is such a staple of popular entertainment in this country. One of the Rutgers players expressed astonishment Thursday night when Mr. Imus told her that making fun of people was how he’d made his living for many years.
The people who fought back against the racism and misogyny of the “Imus in the Morning” program need to keep the momentum going. Keep the pressure on the companies that sponsor this garbage. Keep the matter before the media.
Imus, Snoop Dogg, Michael Savage — it doesn’t matter where the bigotry is coming from. What’s important is to find the integrity and the strength to see it for what it is — a loathsome, soul-destroying disease — and then to respond accordingly.