April 19, 2007
The Imus Affair: It’s not hip to be vulgar
Web extra: Jackie Mason rants about Imus and Al Sharpton
Years ago, on my first day of a six-year stint as a substitute teacher in the L.A. Unified School District, I entered El Camino Real High only to be instantly slapped in the face by a profanity-laced tirade by a black male student directed at a group of black females sitting quietly doing their homework. |
"M__f__ bitches, hos..." and other choice expletives flew across the hallway in anger for God knows what slight or misdeed. By the time I left teaching, it was not unusual for a white seventh-grader to posture his manhood by talking about his "hos" and "bitches."
When Don Imus' characterization of the Rutgers University women's basketball team touched off a firestorm that cost him his job, it was clear to me instantly that part of what he was doing (aside from his standard derogation of any cultural minority) was laying down his credentials in the hip world. For all their marginalization, blacks and black culture have always defined what's "hip," particularly in entertainment -- from jazz to rock 'n' roll to rap and hip-hop, from dancing and singing to balling (that's hoops, folks); it is the gold standard, and you proved your bones in the hip world by being down with the idiom and vernacular of the time.
Even in a school district 74 percent Latino, it is not mariachi or Tejano music you hear on the CD players -- it's hip-hop and rap.
I know that's what Imus was doing because for about 100 years, no group was quicker to, or hipper at, embracing black culture and idiom than the other great underdog group of the American 20th Century, the Jews. Perhaps the greatest avatar of that identification was the comic Lenny Bruce, who defined Jewish "hip" in his day, and was ultimately destroyed for attempting to purvey in the "white" world what flew completely beneath the radar in the black world of "race" entertainment.
Jews could easily identify with black culture because, to a great extent, Jews don't even think of themselves as white. WASPs are white. What's hip is to point out how "white" or "whitebread" something or someone is. We were down with Lester and Miles and Monk and 'Trane.
Mort Sahl, white? Kinky Friedman, white? Howard Stern, Sarah Silverman, white? To be white is to not push that envelope. "White" is Dick and Lynn Cheney, for God's sake!
Imus, whose biases clearly run deep and wide (the Anti-Defamation Legaue has been after his employers for years to put an end to his anti-Semitic remarks), longs to be in that hip crowd but lacks the chops. He ain't hip, and what he said wasn't funny. Though he desperately wants to show he's down with what the brothahs are doing, as I and my friends did at 16 by mimicking Lenny Bruce, Imus is little better than ham-handedly prejudiced. He's been passing -- and badly.
But his downfall provides a lesson to those of us who still believe that the slurs passed around within one's group are somehow protected by cultural copyright. Contrary to the popular axiom, what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas, and what happens in the black community doesn't stay in the black community. It didn't with Little Richard, it didn't with my students, and it didn't with Imus.
So much humor is promulgated at the expense of other ethnic and cultural groups; the pervasive acceptance of misogynistic thuggery and sexual objectification that passes for acceptable music and comedy is appalling. It was only a matter of time before what was accepted entre nous/us/nosotros spilled out in this public a manner, which is neither to blame the victim, nor exonerate Imus. However, one truth is certain: the degradation of women and men can no longer be condoned in any community because it's being used by its own about its own. There is no difference between blacks using "niggah," and whites using "nigger."
It's a brutally demeaning pejorative, and it doesn't make it OK because that's your group.
Among the reasons I know this is because I do not hear my Jewish friends, no matter how intimate or hip, greeting me with, "Yo, my kike, vus macht a yid?"
However, what do I hear? I hear JAP jokes, and constant demeaning references to our women as "ball-busting" harpies. What do I see? I see the long-running Saturday morning show, "Saved by the Bell" with this cast of male characters: Zack, the blond Adonis; Slater, the tough, hunky, light-skinned Latino; and the crypto-Jew, the goofy, geeky, hopelessly shrill kid with the big nose who doesn't even merit a human name, but is instead called "Screech." In the spin-off, that character moves up in class to "Weasel."
Instead of wondering where guys like Sharpton and Jackson get off being the standard bearers on an inflammatory speech controversy, better to spend the energy wondering why every Jewish guy in TV and film is married to a non-Jewish woman, preferably a blond; why Jewish and "cool" never seem to go together; and what is the moral responsibility of Jews who run entertainment companies to present men and women, black, white or whatever, in ways that don't degrade them? Why wouldn't black women be lining up to "put 'em on the glass," if that's the available role?
Is Imus a racist? Does complicity in negative Jewish stereotyping make one an anti-Semite? Is the point to just label the other guy and move on? If we're going to beam a little light unto the nations, Jews should take the lead in reversing the progressive vulgarizing of entertainment, and that work begins at home.
Mitch Paradise is a writer/producer living in Los Angeles.