Alright. Racism bad. Insult bad. Bad Imus. True. But there's a piece in all this fuss that leaves me very uncomfortable with the way it's playing out. It's associated with what I think of--and have written about--as our American literalism. It's an almost childish inability to see things in context, an inability to perceive or understand irony, a way of taking everything as a personal insult, as though the world revolved exclusively around ME. It's perhaps a paucity of that imaginative faculty that allows me to see the world from multiple points of view, which results in a self-protectiveness that says. Oh, yes, of course, say anything you want--so long as you don't step on MY toes.
In this literalist context, by all means, Imus's words were unforgivable. But what else do we expect, for God's sake, when we Americans--black and white--delight in precisely the kind of language for which we now condemn Don Imus? And even demand it from our radio shows, our comedians, our musicians... We actually PAY them to do it for our amusement. I keep hearing that there's a line that mustn't under any circumstances be crossed, a sacred line that protects every God-fearing American from offense--and should by rights protect us, also, from the vicissitudes of life. But if that's true, it's a line that each of us draws according to our own sense of entitlement and our own fragile ego.
So I say, Bring it on. Do your worst. Offend me. Challenge my most basic assumptions and my most cherished beliefs about myself, about the world, about God... About the society and culture that we have created for ourselves and in which we live. I may smart when I hear it. But that way I hope to learn, to grow, to see myself in perspective, and get to be a better human being as a result.
So this dread insult may turn out to be a better thing that we imagined. Okay, bad me. But are we really ready to talk honestly about racism in this country, and about the real damage it wreaks on human souls? With poor people everywhere suffering from its ravages, with our schools increasingly de facto segregated, with our inner cities impoverished and neglected? With gangs marauding, with rage and ignorance abounding? Do we dare to talk honestly about racism?
The topic has been manifesting in our collective lives in a variety of ways in recent days, from the Imus gaffe to the dropping of charges in that infamous case against the Duke University lacrosse players and--for those who happened to watch it--the powerful American Experience piece on Jonestown on PBS last night. What a bitter irony that Jim Jones started out with a radical vision of social and racial equality, and ended up a demented tyrant bringing about the needless death of those whom he had enslaved to his overweening ego. In the Duke case, surely, the shoe was on the other foot. How many black leaders were ready to jump in and say, Wait, hold on a moment, before we condemn these white boys, let's first see where the evidence points? How many white civic leaders, for that matter, had the courage to resist the emotional prejudgment and the risk of being labeled with the "r" word? (I actually loathe that habit of substituting the initial for the word we pretend to be too sensitive to utter in polite society--for fear, presumably, of being tainted by it.)
Listen, I'm all up for some real talk about race. It's well past time we had that conversation in this country. But pointing the finger does not a conversation make. As I pointed out recently, the conversation has to start with an owning of responsbility. I'll practice what I preach in tomorrow's entry. Meantime, I will take hope when I hear the Reverend Al Sharpton copping to his own racism as loudly as he talks about the racism of others. Until then, brothers and sisters, it's frankly all hot air.