Keep Don Imus; Protect Transgressive Humor

Don Imus’ off-the-cuff remark calling the Rutgers University basketball team “nappy-haired hos” was a crime–a crime against humor. It was dumb and stupid.

The reason groups like Media Matters for America–the group founded by ex-right wing smearmeister David Brock that is using underhanded tactics while calling for Ann Coulter’s column to be censored–are calling for Don Imus’ head, however, is that the remark was also racist and sexist.

Well, of course it was.

I was a huge Imus fan throughout the 1980s, until WNBC news-talk radio became WFAN sports radio and he started spending too much time talking about sports to keep my interest. During that time Imus made clear that he was an equal-opportunity offender, trading in ethnic and racial and religious humor, against no one more than rednecks–in other words, himself. What he said about the Rutgers women was not a deviation from his decades of broadcasting.

Firing him for making (bad) racist and sexist jokes is like firing a mailman for delivering letters. It’s what he does.

As he said in his defense, context matters.

For example, I am sick and tired of saying that I called Pat Tillman an “idiot” and a “sap” in a cartoon. I didn’t call him those things. A character in one of my cartoons did. Parallel: Charles Schulz never pulled a football away from a little boy; his character did. Not the same thing.

Imus’ on-air shock-jock persona relies on just the kind of jokes that got him into hot water. Are we, as a society, going to say that all racial and ethnic humor is to be verboten? That idea makes me terribly uncomfortable, yet it’s the logical conclusion to the Imus controversy.

Needless to say, a nation that sits idly by while its soldiers torture and maim innocents in concentration camps ought to be concentrating on more serious matters than a radio host’s ill-considered humor. But while we’re at it, humor relies on transgression, on trashing sacred cows. The very fact that you’re not allowed to say “nappy-headed hos” prompts comedians to try saying it–just to see if the shock value makes it humorous. In this case, it doesn’t work. But comedians need to be able to try everything, to take risks. Imposing economic censorship–firing people for exercising their First Amendment free speech rights–stifles creativity and inhibits discussion. It makes life a little more boring, a little suckier.

I hear a lot of lefties crowing over Imus’ firing by MSNBC TV. How will they feel when right-wingers retaliate with their own censorship campaigns the next time the political winds change? It wasn’t so long, after all–2004–that fired me for expressing my own, then-controversial opinions.

Anyone who wants Imus to be fired hates America and the First Amendment. I hope these pro-censorship assholes are all registered Republicans, because they sure as hell aren’t liberal or progressive.

28 Responses to “”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I wondered how long it would be before Ted chimed in with this predictible rant about the Imus situation. I guess Ted thinks the first ammendment means you have the right to a job. Maybe you should re-read the Bill of Rights Ted. No one has the right to employment, ok Ted? Do you get that simple point or are you a complete idiot? If Don Imus wants to post all sorts of horseshit on his own blog, or publish his own books himself through a mail order service, no one’s going to stop him. But a third party employer has every right to fire him for what he says, as do advertisers have the right not to advertise on his programs, as do consumers have the right to not buy their products.

    Let me break it down for you Ted, since you probably still don’t get it. Say whatever the fuck you want. You don’t have the right to a job. Period.

  2. Sean Says:

    Once the advertisers started pulling ads it was only a matter of time before they dropped him.

    It’s all about da CASH baby!

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Right on, Ted!

    People in the U.S. should be allowed to record songs about killing cops, allowed to take pictures of the crucifix in urine, make statues of Britney giving birth on a bear rug, and allow shock jocks to shock.

    Al Sharpton has no business censoring Imus OR gangsta rap (which he has actually done contrary to popular belief). Hilary Clinton has no business banning video games. The DNC has no business forcibly ejecting Nader and Green Party supporters from their events.

    If the “Left” of 2007 is about suppression of free speech then the fascists have taken root in both parties.

  4. yousuf_sajjad Says:

    Cash, jobs and employment aside Ted, I tend to agree with you. As I sat watching the redults of the election get announced in November ’06, I thought that us(the opposition in Pakistan) sticking to our guns on Afghanistan had been right….we had a clear position (definitely an unpopular one amongst the mor rightwing Bhutto crowd)….but we had taken the abuse and said that the Mullahs in South Asia be damned no one has the right to invade that God-for-Saken death trap that is Afghanistan….And now that we were proven right we should keep sticking to those same guns until proof comes along that those side-arms are rusted 😉

  5. Warren Gamache Says:

    “For example, I am sick and tired of saying that I called Pat Tillman an “idiot” and a “sap” in a cartoon. I didn’t call him those things. A character in one of my cartoons did. Parallel: Charles Schulz never pulled a football away from a little boy; his character did.”

    This is sophistry so blatant it insults the intelligence. In the context of the cartoon, it’s clear the author believes Tillman was being mindlessly hailed a hero, even though he was clearly and idiot and a sap.

    This argument is tantamount to insulting someone using a hand puppet, and then claiming that *you* didn’t say it, the *puppet* did.

  6. SDS Says:

    Anonymous is missing the point, and wildly so. This is not specifically a legal matter. It’s a question of what kind of society we want to live in. The First Amendment sets certain restrictions against state censorship; no, what happened to Imus is not that. But the philosophical underpinning is that free-speech IS a good thing. As capitalism is married to modern America, capitalist systems have the ability to support, curtail, or take no position on matters of freedom. Ted’s point, I believe, is that we should ideally never seek to curtail speech for its own sake. If Imus loses his viability as a speaker, this is another matter. Then his profitability and usefulness within the corporation dissipates. At that point, firing him is a legitimate thought.

    The most alarming thing about the Imus fiasco is the somewhat juvenile notion that a knee-jerk reaction is a remedy. It is not. The racism that he invoked may not be the kind of discourse we want. Michael Wilbon wrote an excellent article on this. If we want to combat Imus’s invocation of hateful speech, let us let him remain in his seat and assail him repeatedly. Accountability will not come by driving people into the shadows.

    Also, this whole discussion has a very self-satisfied sensibility that is useless and possible destructive: the racism that he tapped into is very real. As we pillory him, shouldn’t we ask if it lives in many others? And isn’t the opportunity to make this speech an ongoing concern a better opportunity to bring about racial understanding? I am not white, but I do wonder how many white people are happy to denounce Imus (or Michael Richards, to pick an earlier press fracas) yet live in effectively segregated worlds. It all seems to smell from my vantage point.

  7. Sam Holloway Says:

    I’ll try to avoid value judgments here, Ted. It’s admittedly tough. I agree with what you say here:
    But comedians need to be able to try everything, to take risks. Imposing economic censorship–firing people for exercising their First Amendment free speech rights–stifles creativity and inhibits discussion.
    When Dave Chappelle poses himself as a fictional black George W. Bush and peppers his skit with terms like “nigger” and “bitch,” I can accept that he is being creative and pushing the envelope in order to take a humorous look at both politics and the politics of ‘race.’ It’s a little difficult to see what creative envelope is being pushed when Don Imus– who has a long history of peddling racist and sexist ‘humor’– denigrates some accomplished female, African-American student-athletes merely for their looks.

    I find it hard to believe that Don Imus believed he was taking any risk at all. I can understand why Imus must have thought he could throw away a cheap racist, sexist insult like that and get away with it; after all, he had spent decades building up to his multimillion-dollar salary by doing just that sort of thing on behalf of his racist white male audience. Imus, in his own mind, was just doing his job.

    But I must reiterate a point I made in an earlier thread here, Ted. It is not censorship when people organize and mobilize market pressure to encourage a corporate media outlet to tailor its programming to their desires.

    I might also add that the effect upon Imus and his radio show remains to be seen. Though the MSNBC simulcast has been dropped (for now), Imus has only been suspended for two weeks from CBS Radio. There’s a good chance he’s made himself a martyr to the oppressed white man crowd and that he’ll be a bigger draw than ever. Talk radio is more fertile and friendly ground for naked racism and misogyny than is cable TV; Imus’s biggest liability there is probably that he’s too tame. I digress.

    You are correct that humor relies on transgression and on trashing sacred cows. That’s why you faced the heat you did in 2004, and that’s why Michael Moore– in spite of his wild box office success– is a virtual pariah to the corporate media pundit class. You and Mr. Moore excel at deconstructing (often through ridicule) the sacred cows of the reactionary conservatives and ‘centrists’ who dominate our political landscape. The humor in which Don Imus deals does no such thing. Imus specializes, though to a lesser degree than many, in picking on the weak and the outnumbered. What a maverick he is.

    Does Imus have a right to sell it, and do his listeners have a right to buy it? Yes. But the rest of us have a right not to buy it, and we have a right to demand that it be taken off the shelves in the places where we shop. It is then up to the corporate honchos to decide whose dollars they’d rather have.

    Rest assured, Ted; Imus hasn’t been silenced. The racists and misogynists who dig his shtick will still be able to find it. That’s more than I can say for those of us who wanted to see more of Phil Donahue.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    Sigh…. Imus on the heels of Coulter. I would ask the “lefties” (I agree with Ted, if you howl for his firing you’re sure not progressive) only this: why was it wrong for Clear Channel and other coutry stations to ban the Dixie Chicks, but not for MSNBC and CBS to can Imus?

    Explain it to me in a way that ISN’T galringly hypocritcal… go ahead I dare ya.

  9. DKW Says:

    I actually view this the same way as Bobby Knight getting fired from Indiana. A good move, definitely a positive development, but certainly nothing to dance in the friggin’ streets about, and it should’ve happened YEARS ago. Don’t forget that to this day Knight is still a god among Indiana fanatics who are utterly blind to the seemingly endless sickening crap he pulled in his tenure. And he got a nice new job at Texas Tech, which he still has, and not a single sports commentator has ANYTHING bad to say about him now, and he broke Dean Smith’s career wins record. IU firing him was a century late and a thousand dollars short, a miserable, useless, token gesture that didn’t do the slightest bit of damage to him in any way.

    Imus was powerless. He never poisoned national discourse the way Rush Limbaugh or even Ann Coulter gleefully did for years. Now he gets to take his money and walk, all while the predictable sycopanths fanatically defend him to the very end (no, Rall isn’t one of them, read his articles *carefully* sometime), and the door is open for a young, fresh good-for-nothing shock crock to take the reins. I mean, what the bloody hell is there to celebrate?

  10. Chris Says:

    Thank you so much for being the voice of reason in this unfortunate situation. The issue is not what Imus said (which bordered on the moronic, contextually or otherwise) but whether or not he had the right to say it on his own radio show, his own forum, without the prospect of losing his job. Sean is right, of course it’s all about the cash. We are in America, all too often it is. Ted, you see through the bullshit when you speak of the lefties crowing. When the winds change we will reap the whirlwind. Peace, and RIP Mr. Kurt Vonnegut Junior.

  11. Ted Rall Says:

    So, Warren, did the Beatles literally live in a Yellow Submarine? Artists create characters who say things. If you’re looking for literal expression from yours truly, you’ll do better looking at my column or this blog. Unless, of course, it’s in the context of a joke.

  12. Andy Says:

    I’d never heard of Don Imus before this thing broke so I may be talking out of my ass here but…

    It makes me very uncomfortable when people go nuts over a couple of words. The point about “what kind of society do we want to live in.” I for one want to live in one where people understand the “Sticks and stones may brake my bones but words will never hurt me.” Anyone who is hurt by words is a big baby and should move to France (tee he).

    Not interested in Don Imus’s material? Don’t listen to him. Simple as that.

    I do understand the other side though. Racism is real. Publicly racist comment legitatize racism. Denouncing racist comment delegitatizes (spelling) racism. Thus, denounce away.

    Fine I say. But allow room for forgiveness. Give a guy another chance. You say he’s been doing it for years? Then what’s the big deal now? Okay, you’ve finally got around to calling him on it. Tell him, “you do it again you’re fired.” Then give him a chance to reform.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    Right on, Mr. Rall.

    Why are people so worried about Imus’s effect on young african-americans, considering the fact he’s not sending them to Iraq to die or lose their legs, arms, brains, etc. ??

  14. Dave Says:

    Imus’ antics are a mere reflection of a symptom of a systemic problem, which is that we in fact live in a country where bigotry and misogyny are on the rise. Imus had to continually up the anti and makes a living pushing the envelop, kind of like the marketing department at Kelloggs a colleague of mine was talking about recently, who constantly have to push the envelop and occasionally get their tail handed to them by senior management.

    What Imus actually said was mild, we are so intolerant of it because Rush Limbaugh still spews his hatred with impunity and we don’t have the balls to take people like him down.

    Face it, ladies and gentlemen, the US is a militant and aggressive nation. Militancy and aggression, like Columbine High School, are a consequence of it.

  15. ugly Says:

    I wish I got to whine on Oprah and get people fired every time somebody called me a big-nosed hairy greaseball guinea.

  16. The Most Gracious Loser Says:

    “The Pigs Are Walking!!”

    This sucks – I used to like Media Matters when they started – a watchdog group is one thing, but advocacy of this kind of pressure on media outlets and sponsors SUCKS when applied against the Dixie Chicks, Bill Maher, Rosie O’Donnel, Ted Rall, Disney World, etc… It also sucks in this case. And now Media Matters is gunning for O’Reilly, Savage, Beck, etc – all of whom I despise.

    I’m glad that Rall has spoken out against this, suspect that Maher will tonight on his show. Please speak up Rosie (fat chance, actually) and Natalie (I actually think she might).

    Lefty goon squads are NOT the answer. We don’t need our own version of the American Family Association. If we ever had the moral high ground, it has been forfeit.

    “The Pigs Are Walking!!”

  17. Warren Gamache Says:

    Did Phil Ochs literally march in the battle of New Orleans? Of course not. But if you listen to “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” it’s apparent what his position is regarding war.

    As well it’s fairly obvious, reading Calvin and Hobbes, what Bill Watterson’s beliefs were regarding the environment, and the insidious effects of television. He never appeared in the strip, but his fictional characters spoke for him.

    Some art (like “Yellow Submarine”) is fanciful, some art is explicitly political and most is a combination of both. Of course, art is often ambiguous and open to interpretation.

    That aside, no reasonable person could read the Tillman cartoon and not see what the cartoonist is trying to say: Pat Tillman allowed himself to be duped into fighting in an immoral and illegal war. After his death, he was mindlessly hailed as a hero, when in fact he was an idiot and sap. I don’t think anyone could honestly put forth an alternate interpretation.

    Keep in mind, I have no specific gripe with the cartoon; I don’t agree with it, but I think it’s in bounds. What I object to is that instead of saying “I said something I wish I hadn’t said,” you’re claiming – in the face of the obvious – that you didn’t say it.

  18. Andy Says:

    The Russians take on Don Imus.

    From the famous newspaper Pravda (“truth” in Russian)

  19. Anonymous Says:

    So you can unambiguously state that Pat Tillman was neither a sap nor an idiot for leaving the NFL and joining the army? Furthermore, what about the fact that in the first panel of the infamous cartoon in which the Pat Tillman character said “Never mind the fine print. Will I get to kill Arabs?” Was that simply your protrayal of a Pat Tillman character, and not your personal opinion of Mr. Tillman?

  20. Anonymous Says:

    I agree with “anonymous”, and I have a hard time understanding where everyone else is coming from…Most of the topics on this blog/forum seem lame in comparison to, well, just about everything. Maybe a inability to see the forest for the trees? I think it would be healthy for the US to be finally forced to use other alternative energy resources – rather than keep trying to maintain their grip and dependency on the current supplies.
    Ragheads, faggots, niggers, wops, whatever – these words should not be banned or even avoided, as they serve to describe people who actually exist – and as someone who has spent time among ragheads and niggers (Saudi Arabia and Compton, USA), I will not be disabused from using them; I believe they still exist because of their value – despite all the Hallmark efforts to erase them from our lexicon. When will you get a clue? Maybe this will happen when one of your family is a casualty, or when it hits you in your pocket – the bottom line, $$$.
    Until then, keep focusing on the trees and buying SUVs :^)!

  21. Anders Says:

    Yet again, the Tillman cartoon is used against Rall.
    My interpretation of the whole affair was that Mr. Rall formed an opinion of the late mr. Tillman (or his character) out of the media sources available to him: newspapers and television. Not having ever heard of mr. Tillman before I read the cartoon, I looked up the story on available net sources. The opinion I formed was not entirely different from the characters in the cartoon’s final panel; “Idiot”, “Sap”, and of course “poor guy, another pointless death”.

  22. Tom Crooz Says:

    Yes, Mr. Anders, Soldier Tillman was the product of American training – some of the best in the world. If he had been older or middle-aged, he might have had enough world experience to know he was being brainwashed for his country’s good – to just obey orders and function as an efficient tool for his country. That is why the Armed Forces don’t usually enlist intelligent or older people – as they may display individuality. Many of them may have to function as fodder for illicit wars or actions. But please know that these are our children – and while the secretary of de’fence may disavow any knowledge of their actions as they be being (Mission Implausible music here)- he is doing so to be doing what he is, so hlep me glob!

  23. Anders Says:

    In other news, Rall’s 2007/04/18 cartoon was right on target.
    It seems to me, being European, that there’s much more media hype around rather insignificant aspects of the GWOT, like “L’affaire Tillman”, than the war itself. L’affaire Tillman was just a symptom of the way things really works in times of war. Look up the Dutch “naval hero” Karel Doorman for an earlier example, though not as grotesque as Tillmans.

  24. Doc Nebula Says:


    I’m generally an admirer of yours, but not when you say really retarded shit such as the following:

    Firing him for making (bad) racist and sexist jokes is like firing a mailman for delivering letters. It’s what he does.

    That analogy only works if the mailman is delivering offensive mail that he himself has written. Otherwise, sorry, you’re talking out your ass.

    I don’t disagree with you entirely, mind you. I have lengthier thoughts on the Imus thing on my blog, and much of it marches in cadence with much of what you’ve said here. But statements like the one I’ve quoted above are straight up stupid. I know you want to defend everybody’s right to say whatever the hell they want to say any where at any time, and I’m there with you, but when you phrase yourself this irrationally, you do your argument deep and perhaps even mortal injury.

  25. repsac3 Says:

    I’m kinda in that middle ground, too… I don’t think Imus should’ve lost his job over his nasty little comments, but his nasty little comments were offensive, and Media Matters & the rest were justified in saying so. The fact that many people spoke out & made it tough for the sponsors to stick with the show, which made the stations let poor Mr. Imus go is just the breaks.

    I don’t want to live in an America where performers & artists can’t be offensive, but I also don’t want to live in an America where the consumers of art & entertainment can’t be offended, and do whatever they can to see that they’re offended as little as possible.

    I get TR’s comment about Imus just doing his job. To be fired in mid-April 2007 for saying essentially the same kind of offensive things that’vegotten you hired & kept you working for the last 30 or so years must really, really suck.

    I’m a little less sure about TR’s statement saying “The character said it, not me,” as regards the Tillman strip. I’ve been mulling that over for the last hour or so. (I actually left the blog, & came back to comment.) I see the Charlie Brown football analogy, but I think it may be different when one is making such a strong & controversial startement. Besides, I’m not sure “the media” is the same kinda recurring character in TR’s strips as Lucy Van Pelt was in Peanuts. On the other hand, I think Tillman got badly used by the Bush admin., and probably was kinda foolish for joining up. I just don’t know…

  26. Steve T. Says:

    Ted, I am in general a fan and am frequently in agreement with you, but I feel compelled to point out that your Tillman argument in this post is really intellectually dishonest. It’s blatantly obvious from a cursory glance at your cartoon that the characters calling Tillman an “idiot” and a “sap” are there to reflect the point of view of the cartoonist and, by extension, the sympathetic reader. It’s both funny and sad that you chose use the Peanuts example to illustrate your flawed point, because in a way, you’re right, just not in the way you intended. In Schulz’ football cartoons, the reader is obviously supposed to sympathize with the put-upon Charlie Brown, and it doesn’t take too close an analysis to realize that Schulz didn’t see Lucy as a kindred spirit. Very myopic of you to rush to point out that Schulz didn’t sympathize with Lucy while ignoring that he clearly was sympathizing with Charlie Brown, just as you’re clearly sympathizing with the two characters in the final panel.

    This is probably a useless exercise, but as a liberal, I’m going to have to ask you not to please not use this silly, unconvincing argument anymore. It’s exactly the kind of dissembling the Bush administration does on a daily basis and hurts our generally deserved reputation as the side that doesn’t do that sort of thing. I would be happy with your saying that you regret doing the Tillman cartoon and were wrong, or that you have no regrets about the Tillman cartoon because it reflected what you believed to be the best information at the time, or even — though I would personally disagree with this — that you have no regrets about the Tillman cartoon because it was valid then and remains valid now. One of those things must be true, whereas I don’t believe you on the argument you’re trying. So you can use any one of them. But please, please don’t make Bush tactics look good.

  27. blackhelicoptercircling Says:

    Why is it that whenever I see “transgressive humor” I think of Ann Coulter?

    And speaking of transsexual windbags, I wonder if Ann Coulter would have had the balls to say what Imus said? (Don’t believe the rumor she keeps hers in a jar on her nightstand as a memento.) I doubt it. As Ann Coulter herself has remarked, she’s a humorist (though we’ll have to take her word for it) and she’s not in the business of taking cheap shots (except maybe for those estrogen injections she gets down in Mexico — though that’s probably just another rumor).

    I can’t think of anything that would be more devastating to fans of Ann Coulter than hearing that she had been fired and kicked off the airwaves (other than maybe finding out that their “girlfriends” had been slaughtered and made into pork rinds).

    (Does Ted even bother to read these things before he let’s them through?)

  28. angelo Says:


    Comics are not opinion pieces. They are depictions from a point of view. The comic needs to be taken in the context Rall’s concurrent writings on the matter.
    He was the ONLY guy who dared to say that we were fighting in he wrong country. And he did not just say it once, he said it over, and over , and over and over again.
    This put Ted in a different universe than the the rest of the world.
    Many of us had a hard time even questioning the war on terror, let alone condemn its very prosecution. Many great works simply call attention to the absurdity of a particular situation. Ted’s Tillman comic was just that.
    If you have read Rall’s comics throughout the years, going back to his work with Soft Scull, you will notice that when he wants his opinions known, he states them in the top bar of the panel or in his column. In Terror widows, he makes his opinions known in the top bar. In one of his first comics called Trickle Down Economics there is a homeless guy taking a wallet from a dead rich guy. The point of the comic the first time I read it was “its okay to rob dead, rich people.”, which is kind of funny, but not the point of view of Rall.
    There are no good explanations for soldiers volunteering to fight in the wrong country. Especially when they are college educated.
    Pro war friends of mine (4 of whom are in the military), agreed with that infamous Rall comic character that Tillman was an idiot. Their reasoning was that he gave up the American dream for a shitty job.

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