Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Don Imus on the Couch

Since there is nothing the media find more interesting than themselves, we have lately been treated to the world-leader-assassinated level of coverage of the verbal misadventures of noted boor Don Imus. While the potential disruption of the media lockerroom which is Imus’ radio program is of marginal interest to those interested in public policy the real drama playing out is the intersection of media business practice, Bonfire of the Vanities political theatre and the sexual power struggle which has come to drive most of our modern cultural activities.

At the superficial level the drama is that a crochety old man has used a Bad Word and rudely drawn negative attention to a widespread African phenotype, negative attention to which phenotype many people of recent African descent have developed strong sensitivity. Immediately, we should understand that something other than the superficial story is being worked out, because the words in question have all been operating at the margins of acceptable discourse for some time, now, and the crochety old man in question has operated in that region of marginally acceptable discourse throughout his career. The sudden scruples evinced now suggest that it is not mere rudeness to which the crochety old man’s detractors object, but rather that this particular crochety old man chose to be rude in this particular way.

To begin with the first Bad Word in question, our attention is initially drawn to its sexually charged origin. It times passed, the word was regarded as objectionable in polite usage because it imputed a woman with an antisocial detachment of sexual activity from conventional social restraint. Such a blot on the personal honour of a woman in more patriarchal times necessarily reflected not only on the woman in question, but on her entire family, possibly resulting in violent attempts by members of the family to force retraction of the insult. In our modern brave new world of sexual liberation, the word is more typically regarded as objectionable, not because we fear the consequences of a rash or improper judgment of the woman so labeled, but rather because the traditionalist assumptions originally imbedded in the word are regarded as retrograde and contrary to current notions of human freedom to live by one's own standards of conduct. Activists who crusade against the word’s common usage in vulgar musical usage typically do so not because they object to the implied labeling of some particular women as antisocially sexual, but rather, generally, because they object to the notion that society has any grounds on which to render judgments about the sexual activity of anyone. Imus’ sin in using this sexual term seems initially not to be that anyone fears any danger of popular perception that the women of the Rutgers basketball team engage in activity traditonally regarded as immoral, but rather that by using the term he sustains the notion that sexual behaviour, of women at least, is subject to social objection or stigma.

Now, of course, we know from Imus long broadcast history that he does not subscribe to many principles of traditional views of sexual morality; rather we see that his usage of the term was coloured by the fetishisation over the last century, by the major arbiters of our culture, of the pathologically antisocial aspects of fringe elements of the American underclass--especially of the African-American underclass--which has over the past half century seen the near total collapse of outward observance of traditional notions of sexual morality. One aspect of that fetishisation has been the embrace by much of the youth of all classes of a caricatured posture of sexual anarchism grounded in the glamourised transactional sexuality of prostitutes and their pimps. While one presumes that Mr. Imus has little direct experience with the desperate nature of the existence of underclass prostitutes, the fantasy of familiarity with the pathologies of the underclass were a necessary precondition for Mr. Imus’ usage of the term in its modern-day minstrel-show context of sexual bravado and anarchism.

While the sexual libertinism, bravado or anarchism of the term used by Mr. Imus could not reasonably be judged to have been meant seriously, because Mr. Imus has never demonstrated either any knowledge of the character of the women of the Rutgers basketball team or any commitment to any sexual ethic beyond simple hedonism, the term used did ignite controversy because Mr. Imus did in fact use the term in a judgmental way, albeit a judgment which had nothing to do with any commitment to traditional notions of sexual morality. It should be pointed out that Mr. Imus did not choose the term in question, rather it was suggested to him by his producer, also in the studio--whose usage of the term we have seen to date almost no objection, confirming our notion that simple usage of the term was not by itself taboo—in the context of Mr. Imus’ attempt to express condemnation of the overall lack of physical attractiveness he found in the Rutgers’ basketball team. Rather, it was the usage of the term in the context of the second offence, drawing attention to some of the players’ hair texture which seems to have ignited the storm.

The politics of hair texture within the African-American community are inflammatory indeed, because they combine at a stroke issues of personhood, sexual desirability, class and cultural cohesion. While research on the role inborn notions and cultural conditioning play on perceptions of beauty is still ongoing, the cultural premium placed on women having long, sleek hair in American society is a clear fact. The challenge this presents to women of more recent sub-Saharan African descent has been a continuous topic of debate and discussion for African-Americans. This debate has oftentimes assumed a political cast, since the questions and problems of intermarriage and assimilation are central to questions of the enduring nature of African-American identity. The political, Afrocentric aspect of this question may have been the aspect to which Mr. Imus was attemping to allude in characterizing some of the players as indifferent to mainstream standards, in contrast to the players from the University of Tennessee, which would explain his willingness to inject himself into the grooming decisions of the players. What was meant as a left-handed compliment, praising their stoic indifference to mainstream standards while keeping Mr. Imus himself safely in the mainstream instead linked with his prior sexual allusions to become a social and cultural condescension.

That this judgement was rendered in the context of a womens’ athletic competion only exacerbated the situation. The very existence of women’s athletics trades on the unreconciled double standard which endures because of the fundamentally transactional nature of post-traditional sexuality. On the one hand, women are to be allowed to participate in athletics which were traditionally foreclosed to them as contrary to traditional standards of modesty, but on the other hand, womens’ activists demand that women be shielded from direct athletic competition with men, since the biological facts of sexual dimorphism would militate to condemn even the most athletically gifted women to junior-varsity level participation on purely meritocratic grounds. In the context of equality between the sexes, we could offer no argument for privileging female participation at the highest levels by the creation of entirely separate leagues of competition (separate but equal, anyone?) except in those sports such as figure skating or gymnastics in which the aesthetic properties of the athlete are explicitly part of the competition. The fact that we have instead constructed parallel athletic structures indicates that values other than equality and athletic excellence are being pursued. The mentality enshrined into law by Title IX is an artifact of the fundamentally adversarial nature of the post-traditional sexual settlement, in which men are presumed to be motivated in their interactions with women primarily by the motive to economically subjugate women as a precursor to extracting traditional patriarchal sexual arrangements. Since men and women are fundamentally in conflict in this view, carefully legislated and judged legal compulsions must be erected to shield women from exploitation by the economically incumbent males. Mr. Imus’ sexually-charged criticisms of the Rutgers women therefore also constituted a subversion of the fiction that female athletics exist as purely athletic competitions without the subtext of sexual politics which has resulted in such vanities as the WNBA and Brandi Chastain marketing undergarments as a form of women's empowerment.

While Mr. Imus himself could not be credibly construed as a defender of traditional sexual morality, he is clearly a powerful media personality whose judgments of attractiveness do carry some perception-shaping weight in the culture at large. The sexual pejorative Imus used has, in his circles, been completely evacuated of serious moral import, but it retains the sting of a denied truth. As such, it does have some currency as an insult generally deployed against women of lower status, whose imputed sexual morality is indistinguishable in practice from the women of higher status, but whose lower status makes the behaviour in question shameful by its association in lower class women with their lower status. In attempting to use the term in its transgressive/hip mode, Imus stumbled into making a fatally revealing linkage betraying not only his own personal sexual associations (which are ostensibly beyond judgment in our sexually liberated times), but also a more general sexual ethic which is profoundly threatening to many lower status women. Mr. Imus presumably has no strong feelings about the manner in which African-American women groom their hair, but his readiness to associate a natural style in African-American women as essentially lower class reveals a mindset which presumes sexual attractiveness to upper-class non-African males is a precondition to upper class status for women. Mr. Imus presumably has no special animus against female athletes, but his conflation of their style of play with their sexual desirability, racial heritage and social prospects expose him to attack from his quondam allies against traditional sexual morality in the women’s’ movement. Combined, these three factors make a poisonous brew which Mr. Imus now must swallow in the modern agora of round-the-clock talk television with the helpful ministration of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

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