One of the productive functions of both shock-jock radio hosts like Howard Stern and higher-order parodic texts like South Park and Jon Stewart's program is their often brilliant ability to check the powerful, the pretentious, and the haughty. They can put the absurdity and hyposcrisy of politicians and celebrities in sharp relief. At times, they use the tropes of, say, racism to strip racism's potency. Take, for example, the recent episode of South Park in which Cartman suspects the Arab-American family who just moved to town of terrorism and interrogates members of the family. Offensive? Some think so. But the show's humor worked on multiple levels: the dumb fart joke (which came into play thanks to Cartman's preferred method of torture), the parodic (the graphic illustration of how quickly a racist mob mentality can overtake individuals and communities), the signifyin' (the show's co-opting of racist logic--"Muslims are threats to public safety"--to signify how insidious and stupid racism is).
What kinds of humor, parody, and critique underscored Don Imus's use of the phrase "nappy headed hos" to describe the Rutgers Womens Basketball Team? Was Imus, at any level, engaged in signification? Was the joke funny?
One of the problems is the issue of power and agency. Howard Stern and the South Park guys deflate big egos and big pretentions. Mel Gibson, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Condoleeza Rice. Is there a racist and sexist element to parodies involving the latter two figures? Often, there is. But their powerful positions provide a context for the potentially offensive content. Does membership on a college basketball team constitute "public figure" status? As their press conference illustrated, these are young women, aged 18-21, who didn't necessarily sign up to be part of the Warholian media circus. Similarly, Rush Limbaugh used to say horrible things about Chelsea Clinton's physical appearance. Part of what makes the Don Imus line unfunny (among other things) to many is this issue of power and agency.
And on the other hand, that line of reasoning positions members of the team as disempowered victims--and I'm not sure they would want to be positioned as such. Drawing the line between who is and who is not a worthy target of parodic ridicule gets tricky. How about Sanjaya from American Idol? He's just a 17 year old kid who is called "Mowgli" on a regular basis and can log on to the web each week and read about how Americans hate him, fear and loathe what they perceive to be his sexual orientation, and think he lacks talent. "He DID sign up for such ridicule," most would say, "and he's getting rich and famous," but I wonder if he signed up for the racism or if the money and fame excuse the homophobia.
Of course the story of the Rutgers team has ceased being about members of the team. It never really was about them, although their press conference makes for a nice sidebar. It's not even really about Don Imus anymore. Mostly the story is about Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, both of whom have high-profile slurs in their own backgrounds. What does it mean for someone who called residents of Crown Heights a bunch of "diamond merchants" (shortly before an anti-semitic riot broke out there) and someone who showboated that he could even get votes from "Hymietown" and who said he's tired of hearing about the holocaust to enter the fray and call for Imus's firing? Neither Sharpton nor Jackson singled out individuals in their own slurs (the way Imus singled out members of the Rutgers team), but the hypocrisy remains.
And I'm not sure that firing someone sets a desirable precedent. Don Imus's "joke" lacked the funny, targeted a group not in need of deflation like many public figures, and generally was a weak example of the productive possibilities of blunt agonism. But who is qualified to be the final arbiter of any of those things? Not Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, certainly. Plenty of parody--again, most of it is admittedly much better than Don Imus's weak show--not only borders on the indecent but revels on the slimy side of that border. And even if Imus was to fail some kind of objective measure of what is and isn't "over the line" (the cliche used in every discussion of this flap), what justification is there for an outside body (of pundits or religious leaders) in a free society to insist on someone's firing?