Sunday, April 15, 2007

Outrage Trumps Speech: The Dangerous Precedent of Don Imus

I hate to be politically incorrect, but that has never stopped me and it won't stop me now.

After reading press accounts of Don Imus' termination, I have come to believe that perhaps I am the only person in the country (or in my case outside the country) who believes Imus' firing was wrongheaded for a number of reasons we’ll get to in a moment.

But first, a disclaimer: I'm not a fan of Don Imus or an apologist for his recent commentary. I have never watched his TV program if only because I find the whole idea of watching radio to be contrary to its purpose -- which is to listen.

Like Howard Stern and other shock-jocks, the few times I've heard Imus on the radio I have found him not particularly well-informed and his outrageous humor and language only remains interesting until one habituates to it, which in my case took only a handful of experiences.

That said, I understand others (as in millions of others) feel differently. They love outrageous chatter and can't seem to get enough of it. My guess is these are the same people who watch reality television, a misnomer because that is not reality. That is sensationalism. But whatever it is, it is their right to watch it and listen to it.

I vote with my fingers when it comes to radio and TV. If I don't like what I see or hear, I don't watch it and I don't listen to it -- simple as that. I change the channel. We all should do the same, the only exception being children who are not capable of making those decisions. That is what parents are for and we’d all be better parents if we eliminated television from our homes at least during our children’s formative years.

Now, what was the problem with firing Imus for his outrageous comment? Several reasons come to mind.

First, it is like firing a turtle for being slow. You knew the turtle was slow when you bought it and it is disingenuous to be angry now because it is not fast. Imus has always been outrageous, from day one to the last day. To suddenly take him out for doing what he has always done smacks of hypocrisy mostly because it is hypocrisy.

Second, it was not the outrageousness of his speech that caused him to be fired and silenced. It was that his outrageous speech was racial, and outrageous racial commentary (as opposed to other outrageous commentary) is politically unacceptable. You can talk about giant dildos on the radio because sex is OK. You can even talk about (and show) the most hideous of violent acts on TV and that is OK because for some reason violence got a pass, too. But to utter a racial remark, even in jest, will convict you of a crime for which the only penalty seems to be death.

And that makes no sense to me.

I am likewise non-plussed, but not surprised, by the gutlessness of MSNBC and CBS. They are financial whores who took the opportunity to take out someone who has been a thorn in their side for years. I’m convinced they would fire their own mothers if they thought it meant a buck and when it did mean a buck – that is when GM and a few others pulled the plug -- rather than stand up for their listeners, not to mention free speech, they fell apart like a cheap suit.

But, perhaps my greatest disappointment is in the General Public. They took the easy way out, the politically correct way out, the way out that required no effort whatsoever. It is, after all, easy to offended by speech one finds offensive -- you can just sit in front of the tube and be outraged, righteously indignant, and somehow feel morally superior by calling for the head of anyone that offends you.

I'm unimpressed.

Far more difficult (and effective) is to be outraged about things that are dangerous, and that might actually require us to take action, spend our money, and get off our behinds, to make changes that matter.

What kinds of things? Well here are a few that come to mind this week (not necessarily in order of importance):

The U.S. tax code. I don't believe I (or anyone else) should have to spend two weeks every year trying to figure out how much I need to pay for having to work the other 50 weeks. That is something that is unnecessary and unproductive. But, unlike calling for Imus’ head, we can’t just sit around and bitch about taxes and expect anything to happen. Instead, we have to demand an alternative to the thousands of pages of laws and regulations that only insure that whatever we file each year is not going to be right. If we wanted a fair system, a value-added tax that added 15% to everything we buy (except food, basic shelter, education, and a few rags to wear) we could make it happen. We could eliminate the income tax because each of us would pay as we go. No questions about anymore loopholes, not to mention the positive product of encouraging Americans to save -- something most Americans have forgotten how to do as evidenced by the nation’s negative savings rate. How? Get politically active. We could actually vote. We could elect people to Congress who aren't in the business of protecting the status quo. We could demand public financing of elections to take the lobbyists out of the picture of politics. We could have clean, simple government if we wanted it bad enough and my guess we would feel a whole lot better about that result than most feel about taking out a radio announcer for saying something stupid.

If we want to change the world for the better, we could stop supporting the slaughter of baby seals in Canada by pipe-wielding thugs, an annual murderous spree that has gone on far too long. Could we stop it? In a New York minute. But we can’t do it by watching television and shedding a tear or two. We could handle the problem with our wallets. We could stop buying anything made in Canada, ever, for any reason. We could stop traveling to Canada and let the Department of Tourism there know why we won't darken their door again until this outrageousness, the type that costs lives, stops and we could tell everyone we know about it. I feel a lot better about doing that than about Don Imus getting pegged for a slip of the tongue.

We could deal with species extinction, most of the blood of which is on our human hands. Scientists have learned that once a species is gone, there's nothing we can do to bring it back, and it's place in the amazingly intricate web of life on Earth cannot be filled.

Speaking of the earth and science and outrageous conduct that is dangerous, we need to do something about global warming. It's real; it’s dangerous; and we need to either get used to the result or change it. Every Nobel Prize winner that has studied the topic has acknowledged the grim reality of the situation and our generation will be rightfully judged grossly negligent toward future generations if we continue to ignore it and if we don't do something about it. Those who deny it exists are, in my opinion, both ignorant and outrageous, but I’m not calling for them to be silenced. Let them jabber on, but for the majority who say they care it is not enough to sit in our easy chairs and call for the heads of industries that produce the most greenhouse gasses. No, it requires us to do something like stop doing business with those companies. It means getting in gear with alternative energy sources. If you can't afford a solar water heater, use fluorescent light bulbs, or sell that big SUV and be cool by hooking up with a hybrid. And, if that doesn’t slow down gasoline usage, here’s another idea that will: Anyone who buys a car that gets less than 25 miles per gallon should pay a tax of $2,000 per mile per gallon the car is rated less than 25 mpg. That money would then be divided up and rebated to those who buy cars that get more than 25 mpg. That way anyone can drive anything they want to drive but hogging resources would become very, very expensive.

Oh, and lest I forget while I'm on this rant, I'm also outraged by executives who are paid obscene amounts of money, many of whom have done poor jobs for their shareholders and employees only to be further rewarded on the way out the door, the most recent example being Bob Nardelli who increased the share price of Home Depot by exactly nothing – zero, nada – in the six years he was running the show into the ground and then took $210 million home when was fired. We can do something about that nonsense, too. Just don't buy those companies' stocks. I check to see what the CEO is making before I buy any stock in any company, and if I find it offensive it is “no sale.” Studies have shown that there is no relationship between what a CEO is paid above real market value and his or her performance. Indeed, one recent study illustrates to the contrary -- if you have a CEO who takes his pile ‘o cash and builds a house of over 10,000 square feet, look out below. Best sell now. Their stocks underperform those of CEO's who pay attention to their businesses, not their living quarters, by a whopping 42%! But that requires effort. It requires more than just being righteously indignant.

All this said I am not defending Imus' comment. It was stupid. It was outrageous. It was offensive. And if I listened to his show, I’d probably stop listening. But that is different than silencing him.

Think about it. If stupid or outrageous or offensive were the standards for being silenced and fired, none of us would ever speak or work again. We've all said things we wish we hadn't. If we're sorry about it, we say we're sorry. We mean it. Those who matter forgive us and we move on in hopes we’ll do better the next go around.

Don Imus’ humanitarian record illustrates he isn't a racist and racism is not why he was fired. He was simply outrageous like all of us are from time to time and should have been treated as each of us would hope to have been treated in the same situation – castigated, even vilified, but knowing that a sincere apology would result in ultimate compassion and forgiveness.

And, perhaps most importantly, we should never forget that outrageous speech is still speech. It, along with freedom of the press, are the most fundamental protections we enjoy and we should be most careful when an opportunity arises to silence anyone, for the next time it may be we who are silenced.

P.S. This blog is a good example of what I’m talking about. If you find what you have just read to be offensive or outrageous, I have no problem if you vote with your fingers. You can hit the “unsubscribe” button anytime. Just don't try to take away the right of those who find pieces like this provocative and thought provoking from reading it. That you do not have a right to do, nor do I, nor do any of us, and for that we should be most grateful.