Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Air Quality

Harper's Magazine Notebook (July 2007)

by Lewis H Lapham

"Pollution is not limited to the air we breathe and the water we drink; it can equally offend the eye and the ear".
-- Chief Justice Warren Burger

The offense to the ear formerly known as Imus in the Morning achieved its much-loved, rust-belt sound with the unleaded fuels of ethnic insult and racial slur, and so it was no surprise on April 4 when the talking heads turned their attention to black girls bouncing basketballs. A sideman had seen the NCAA championship game between the women's teams from Rutgers and the University of Tennessee, and the spectacle he thought suggestive of tribal warfare between "the Jigaboos" and "the Wannabes". Don Imus, the program's host and factory foreman, acknowledged the remark with a blowing of old-time smoke. "That's some rough girls from Rutgers", he said. "Man, they got tattoos ... that's some nappy-headed hos there".

It was early in the morning, most of the program's 2.2 million weekly fans not yet angry or awake, and none of the celebrity guests uneasy in the company of their down-home, toxic host. For important authors with important books to sell, appearances on the factory floor with Imus drummed up more business than did interviews with Charlie Rose, and if from time to time the cowboy hat referred to Arabs as "towel-heads" or to a Washington Post reporter as a "boner- nosed beanie- wearing Jew boy" the exhaust fumes could be excused or overlooked in the interest of the greater commercial good.

On April 4, however, the smoke drifted across the horizon of a blog maintained by Media Matters for America, an observatory in Washington that assigns monitors (all day, every day) to the nation's radio and television talk shows. Listening hour after hour to Amy Goodman and Lou Dobbs as well as to Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, the inspectors of the nation's soul keep notes, print transcripts, file complaints. It's not often that the complaints find their way into mainstream print, but over the Easter weekend the market for scandal tends to be slow, and the Media Matters blog blossomed into an outrage as welcome as the flowers of spring.

President Bill Clinton rose in the pulpit of a Methodist church to "deplore what Mr Imus said; it was racist and it was sexist". The Reverend Al Sharpton demanded that Imus be booted off the air with "the shoes of justice", and for an entire week the news media delighted in the spectacle of Imus's humiliation and disgrace - bigger headlines in the New York Post than those awarded to the war in Iraq, cover stories in Time and Newsweek, television cameras following the penitent iconoclast into the confession booth on The Today Show. Network management at CBS Radio and MSNBC television, the two distributors of the Imus program, released statements expressing disappointment and disgust, the hypocrisy as thick upon the page as clotted cream. The program's corporate sponsors, among them GM and American Express, withdrew advertising schedules worth a reported $50 million. The musician Snoop Dogg parsed the difference between Imus's emission and those of rappers like himself: "We are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level of education and sports. We're talking about hos that's in the hood that ain't doing shit, is trying to get a nigga for his money ... We ain't no old-ass white men that sit up on MSNBC going hard on black girls."

More than once and to anybody who would listen, Imus described himself as "a good person who said a bad thing", explained that on his ranch in New Mexico he bankrolls a hospital for children sick with cancer, said that his acquaintance with black people was so solid and cool that no matter what Snoop Dogg might think or say, he enjoyed the status of honorary homeboy. None of the apologies were accepted, and on the afternoon of April 12, eight days after failing what amounted to a nursery-school test of mix and match ("nappy-headed" nun or strawberry-blonde "ho", but never the first adjective with the second noun), the I-Man and his cowboy hat went the way of the Bad-lands bighorn sheep.

So abrupt an exit from the lime-light presumably tells some sort of cautionary tale about the deterioration of the nation's moral character. Imus is by no means alone among celebrities whose conduct and deportment lately have been deemed unsafe at any speed. Over the last eighteen months we've seen Governor George Allen of Virginia losing election to the United States Senate after falling afoul of the word "macaca"; Mel Gibson obliged to seek absolution from Oprah Winfrey for having informed a California sheriffs deputy that "the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world"; Senator Joseph Biden forfeiting his chances at next year's Democratic presidential nomination for praising Senator Barack Obama as "the first sorta mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy"; Alec Baldwin raised to the level of a national-security threat for having told his daughter, Ireland, "I don't give a damn if you're twelve years old or eleven years old ... You are a rude, thoughtless little pig".

The intemperate or ill-conceived remarks clearly suggest a coarsening of our private thought and public speech, but if the scourging of Imus is meant to send a message, to whom is it addressed, and what is the lesson that it hopes to teach? The media like to place the discourtesies in the frames of Christian soap opera, as if they were falls from an imaginary state of grace. The mud- stained idol confesses to the sin of stupidity or pride, consults an authorized dealer in redemption, meets with the spokesperson for an aggrieved minority, undergoes rehabilitation in a clinic for the temporarily insane, and then, depending on the market value of his or her Q rating, disappears into the deserts of oblivion or returns, as a better person and a bigger act, to a brighter stage and a richer contract.

Among members of the general public the parables fall on stony ground, possibly because they fail to explain why Don Imus goes home to New Mexico and Rush Limbaugh remains at the top of the charts despite his solo performance of a tune that he entitled "Barack, the Magic Negro", or why no uproar ensues when Michael Savage refers to Barbara Walters as a "double-talking slut" and to Diane Sawyer as a "lying whore", or why on South Park the racial epithets float around as freely as the balloons in the Puerto Rican Day Parade.

If the mortifications of the flesh take place only when the performance of the ritual turns a profit (that is, when the sinner in the tabloid stocks is a celebrity of sufficient magnitude to sell papers), they can teach no useful lesson to persons unknown to the media. Anonyms have no market value, and so they remain free to address their fellow anonyms in languages unfit for human consumption. No matter how careless their behavior or how tactless their choice of word, nobody bothers to wipe the smudge off the cocktail napkin or clean up the stain on the bed.

How then to interpret Imus's transformation from asset to liability if what we have in mind is a concern for our national health and public safety? We set off on the wrong foot by raising questions about artistic freedom and the uses of the First Amendment. What we have in hand is not a moral issue but an environmental problem, and instead of further confusing ourselves with political arguments, we should begin to think about regulating the manufacture of celebrity by means similar to those applicable to the operation of an oil refinery.

Celebrity is a product made from a volatile organic compound, by its nature toxic, but the entertainment industry has been slow to adopt clean-air standards; nor has it established a uniform set of rules as to the type and quantity of the chemicals that can be added to the product. The result is a troubling absence of agreement as to what is harmful and what is not - Jewish comedians allowed to tell Jewish jokes as long as they don't impugn Israel. Black rappers allowed to stomp on black people as long as the lyrics remain unintelligible to the editors of the Wall Street Journal, Bill Maher allowed to mock fatheaded actors and empty-headed politicians but not baldheaded generals. Imus's contract with CBS entitled him to leak effluents of a specific density and grade (topics known to be "extraordinary", "irreverent", and "controversial"), and by so doing to manufacture a synthetic product capable of meeting the competition forced upon the industrial media by the organic, free-range invective grown in the comedy clubs and the blogs.

Although clear tn its instruction to produce irreverence, the contract apparently didn't define the precise degree of irreverence, or specify the point at which it was likely to interrupt the cash flows from the program's sponsors. During the first week in April, when the irreverence began to flow the wrong way through the factory sound system, none of the engineers on duty in the control room knew how to correct the reversal or contain the buildup of toxins. James Carville, a frequent guest on the Imus program and a political consultant familiar with the handling of incendiary adjectives, described the accident as an act of God, "You had some dry brush, gasoline, high winds, no rain, and low humidity, and before you know it, man, it was a wildfire". What was burning was money, enough of it to bring tears to the eyes of the champions of the free press at CBS and MSNBC, but not enough of it to change the way in which the entertainment industry makes and sells celebrity. The antiquated methods of its purification (more pictures in the papers, extended courses in spiritual healing) do more harm than good, prolonging the flow of pollution and spreading it through broader reaches of the atmosphere.

Let the entertainment industry adopt the practice of emissions trading endorsed by both the European Union and the Chicago Climate Exchange, and the way lies open not only to an upgrading of our air quality but also to a redistribution of the nation's wealth consistent with the economic theory of both the Marxist left and the Milton Friedman right. Just as the nation's steel and textile industries would receive from the government a fixed number of carbon credits entitling them to emit a specific amount of pollution weighed in tons of methane or nitrous oxide, so also the entertainment industry could receive a fixed number of poor-conduct credits measured in incidents of unseemly behavior and hurtful speech. In its initial stages the scheme would need some fine-tuning by the keepers of the nation's conscience in Washington and Las Vegas, and we should expect some early difficulties with the precise definitions of the terms "unseemly" and "hurtful". But once it was well understood that what was at stake was a healthy environment - nothing to do with the sorrows of somebody's inner child - I expect that we could reach a consensus similar to the ones that now guide our thinking about tobacco smoke and greenhouse gases.

Distributed to large processing plants (Disney, HBO, Infinity Broadcasting) as well as to small factories and workshops (Paris Hilton, Russell Crowe, the Baldwin family, the estate of Anna Nicole Smith) , the poor-conduct credits become assets that can be squandered, saved, or sold on a market trading in bad air. The market wouldn't regulate specific emissions from each pollutant source (Ann Coulter can continue to refer to liberal democrats as "faggots", Russell Crowe to throw telephones at hotel bellhops), but if the sum total of the emissions exceeds the government allotment of poor conduct, the pollutant source must acquire other credits. The Catholic Church once supplied additional margins for error by selling papal indulgences, which guaranteed the pollutant source's eventual arrival in Heaven but did nothing to better the lives of people unable to make the payments in Florentine silk or Venetian gold.

The blessing of the free market offers the chance of a more democratic deal. On the assumption that anonyms as well as celebrities embody potential sources of pollution, let the government award poor-conduct credits to every man, woman, and child in the country. Trust the American people to possess so vast a store of virtue that they will have no use for the privilege of conducting themselves in a manner unbecoming an ape, and even if they were to do so, no cameras would show up to hold them hostage to a headline. Know also that the American people possess a sound instinct for easy money, and that they can be counted upon to sell their surplus of potential pollution to the entertainment industry at prices at least equal to the cost of blockbuster movies and Hollywood detectives, Malibu beach houses and sexist rap music. We thus impose a gargantuan but wholesome tax paid by the rich directly to the poor. Confronted with increasingly higher costs of maintenance and production, the entertainment industry would manufacture fewer but more conspicuously obnoxious celebrities. To compensate for their loss in number, their contracts would require them to add more vivid material to their dialogue with bartenders and the police, to give up throwing telephones at hotel bellhops in favor of throwing bellhops out of hotel windows.

In the short term the amount of pollution in the air might remain constant, but over the long term, together with the redistribution of the nation's wealth we would receive three ancillary benefits. First, the displays of social, moral, emotional, and intellectual collapse would become more sensational and therefore more edifying. Second, as the racist and sexist caricatures became uglier and more revolting they would show the true face of what Americans actually think is funny. Third and best of all, when buying poor-conduct credits the entertainment industry must specify the exact amount of pollution it wishes to produce (of what kind and with what motive), and we therefore will be spared the emissions of rank hypocrisy, offensive to both the eye and ear, that send Alec Baldwin to Doctor Phil, prompt the Reverend Sharpton to pose as a man of principle, inspire Leslie Moonves, chairman of CBS, to give as his reason for canceling the Imus program "the effect language like this has on young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society".

If any damage was done to the girls from Rutgers it wasn't done by Imus. His remark was so divorced from the facts as to be meaningless. He neither knew nor cared what he was talking about; he was doing the job that he was paid to do, and instead of feeding racial stereotypes into a microphone he could have been shoveling slag into an ash pit. The more deadly emission was the soap opera staged by the self-righteous scolds in the news media. In order that they might play the part of heroes, they cast the Rutgers girls as victims. For five days they bounced the basketball of their bad faith from one headline to another, promoting Imus's insult to a household word, making nifty moves expressing their pity for the poor young women of color who would stand so little chance in the society were it not for the integrity of CBS, the wisdom of the New York Times, the benevolence of Fox News, and the sympathy of Larry King. The cloud of hypocrisy released into the atmosphere was more corrosive than a heavy fall of acid rain.


Lewis H Lapham is the National Correspandent for Harper's Magazine and the editor of the forthcoming Lapham's Quarterly.

Bill Totten


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