... as to "Who Can Say What?". Allow me to clarify:
Cackling, rich old white men are not allowed to call innocent hard-working scholarship girls "nigger whores."
Didn't think that was so hard, but ... hey. Glad to be of help.
The article inside this issue of TIME, by James Poniewozik, is a magnificent piece of wankery. It starts:
But we also live in a culture in which racially and sexually edgy material is often — legitimately — considered brilliant comment, even art. Last year's most critically praised comedy, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, won Sacha Baron Cohen a Golden Globe for playing a Kazakh journalist who calls Alan Keyes a "genuine chocolate face" and asks a gun-shop owner to suggest a good piece for killing a Jew. Quentin Tarantino has made a career borrowing tropes from blaxploitation movies. In the critics-favorite sitcom The Sarah Silverman Program, the star sleeps with God, who is African American and who she assumes is "God's black friend." And the current season of South Park opened with an episode about a Michael Richards-esque controversy erupting when a character blurts the word niggers on Wheel of Fortune. (He answers a puzzle — N-GGERS — for which the clue is "People who annoy you"; the correct answer is "naggers.")
It launches on from that for about four pages of discussion, but then lands on, second to last paragraph:
You might say that there's no excuse and that I'm as big a hypocrite as Imus' defenders for suggesting that there is one. Which may be true. That's finally why "Where's the line?" is a misleading question. There are as many lines as there are people. We draw and redraw them by constantly arguing them. This is how we avoid throwing out the brilliance of a Sacha Baron Cohen — who offends us to point out absurdities in our society, not just to make "idiot comments meant to be amusing" — with a shock jock's dirty bathwater. It's a draining, polarizing but necessary process.
That's ... separated by four pages of writing? That's the WHOLE BLOODY POINT. All the people in his own example are using those transgressive phrases in a context. Even if you don't agree with the validity of the context, it still exists. Silverman, as magnificently over-rated as she is, is mocking her own racism. Borat is not supposed to be an admirable human. South Park is examining the ramifications of racist speech in modern society. The context justifies their use of the imagery. To pretend you need to explore other points before arriving at that conclusion is just justifying your penny-per-word count. Imus may have said "nappy-headed", but that's "nigger", plain and simple. To call someone a nigger without a context, even a half-assed one, is just racism. Period. And much like porn, we all know it when we see it.
At least the Poniewozick sensed the need for value in transgressive statements here, but is hampered by his own misunderstanding of how humor, at least in America, works:
Imus uses jokes to establish his power, in other words. He's hardly the only humorist to do that. But making jokes about difference — race, gender, sexual orientation, the whole list — is ultimately about power. You need to purchase the right to do it through some form of vulnerability, especially if you happen to be a rich, famous white man. But the I-Man — his radio persona, anyway — is not about vulnerability. (The nickname, for Pete's sake: I, Man!) That's creepy enough when he's having a big-name columnist kiss his ring; when he hurled his tinfoil thunderbolts at a team of college kids, it was too much. "Some people have said, 'Well, he says this all the time,'" Rutgers' team captain Carson told TIME. "But does that justify the remarks he's made about anyone?"
Almost, but no. Humorists don't use jokes to establish power. We use jokes to steal power. We use jokes to steal power from the audience. We use jokes to steal power from smarter, better looking people. We use jokes to steal power from powerful men and women, politicians and celebrities. I do believe that this balance, these scales are hardwired into us culturally. This is why we tolerate celebrity-bashing humor -- the comedian is our proxy in levelling the playing field. "Britney may be rich and beautiful but she's still a redneck" ... and therefore not better than I am. This is also why shock humor tends to work. The boundaries of polite, acceptable behaviour are set by society, which is immensely powerful. When you break those boundaries, you are stealing power from society at large. It does help, however, if you have a larger purpose in mind than petty larceny.
The power relationship is why you need to be self-effacing -- if you're not in a power negative position, you're kind of breaking the contract. A stand-up doing jokes about his wife running his life gets laughs from men, who feel (wrongly, but hey) that their wives have more control of their lives than they do. He gets laughs from women because by complaining about the situation the comic is in fact confirming the woman's superior position as the status quo. He has stolen power for the woman ... by insulting her. Tricky, eh?
(On a side note -- why don't many conservatives think Colbert and Stewart are funny? Because they're not. They're not stealing power from the right people for the conservative mindset, because for them power belongs to a different set of people (Same with liberals, by the way, just flip the framework). Rush is funny because he transgresses against the powerful media and politicians and Others who may be nameless, but they must be more powerful than I am, or why else would I be struggling to pay my bills and YOU GET 'EM, RUSH ...)
I think this is the key to understanding why the Rutgers incident suddenly brought the whole Imus parade to a halt. The guy's been a frikkin' cretin for years, and this was really not that different objectively -- you really have to listen to the whole thing, by the way, to get that this was a good solid chunk of time dumping on these young women, not just the magnificently constructed "nappy-headed hos" sound bite. McGuirk in particular is just hateful ... Anyway, why this comment and why now?
For all these years, Imus stayed, barely, on the right side of the power equation. Always gone after public figures, or his bosses ...
... but then he screwed up. He didn't steal power, he used it. Used it to say just shitty things about people who, in our minds, just didn't deserve it. He broke the power equation. And when he did, we balked, even if we don't quite understand why this one got under our skin. The wiring goes both ways. It's actually heartening, because it confirms one of the admirable things about American society at large:
America loves a rebel.
America loves a bad boy.
But America hates a fucking bully.
Is this the start of a sea change? I don't know. Some people are even distressed at all the attention being paid to this -- after all, he's a shock jock, he says shocking things, why are we doing the victory dance? I don't know about that. People lump all shock jocks together, never realizing the damage context-less bullies do while skating under the radar of other funny shock-jocks. These guys have gotten a pass for a long time, like our racist, drunk uncle at Thanksgiving. At some point you have to slam your beer down on the coffee table and say "That's not cool." Not everybody will agree with you, and your mom will accuse you of ruining the shared fiction of the family holiday, and let's face it, you're not really going to change anything ... but you know it's the right thing to do.