On a day in which even those caveman-baiting hatefuckers at Geico decided to disassociate themselves from WFAN’s Don Imus, let’s consider the words of the Village Voice’s Richard Goldstein (July 18, 2000)
Insult humor is nothing new. It’s been a major vein in comedy ever since “Take my wife. Please!” But Henny Youngman’s quips had an edge of affection, heightened by a Jewish comic’s exemption from empty pieties. Even the tummler’s art of insult, honed for a mass audience by comics like Don Rickles, was cast as harmless hazing. Certain members of the audience were singled out for scorn, but certainly not because of their ethnicity.
All that changed with Lenny Bruce, whose comedy confronted the hypocrisy of race relations, not to mention the absurdity of otherness in Christian America. An entertainer like Imus can trace his lineage to Bruce, with one crucial distinction: Lenny made fun of the powerful and their orthodoxies. You won’t find Imus mocking WASPs on a regular basis. Instead, this rude dude focuses on groups whose status is still contested, such as blacks, immigrants, and gays.
The muckraker Philip Nobile has been tracking Imus’s racist rap in a series for the webzine tompaine.com. When you take this patter out of laff-riot context, it’s strikingly similar to the drollery of David Duke. Imus and his buds have called O.J.’s lead attorney “chicken wing Johnny Cochran,” Sammy Davis Jr. “a one-eyed lawn jockey,” Patrick Ewing “Mighty Joe Young,” Defense Secretary William Cohen “the Mandingo,” and his black wife “a ‘ho.” Speaking of reporter Gwen Ifill, he’s said, “Isn’t the Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.” His sidekicks do imitations of Al Sharpton with the kind of botched grammar that would get them run out of town if they ran such shtick on whites (except for John Rocker, whom Imus has called “a redneck goober”).
Many libertarians seem to think this ritual slandering is constructive. It clears the air for a frank discussion of race and sexuality, or it vents the rage of threatened men. In this scenario, hate speech is right up there with military hair and big tattoos: It’s a show of strength designed to compensate for lost status. By providing an arena where jungle bunnies, bitches, and fags can be insulted with impunity, Imus and Eminem make it easier for their fans to bear the real conditions of life in a multicultural society. Your boss may be a woman, your sergeant an African American, your teacher a gay man, but every time you put the earphones on, you rule.