On April 12th, 1971, I came into this world. On April 12th 2007, I entered a world without the voices of Kurt Vonnegut and Don Imus. Two very different men to be sure, but both with a profound influence on my life.
I vivdly remember listening to "Imus in the Morning" every day as a child while my father drove me to school. Being a kid, I didn't absorb all of the humor, mostly remembering and being amused by the colorful nature of characters like "Moby Worm" and "The Right Reverend Billy Sol Hargus." What I learned though, especially as I grew up and was able to better understand what was going on, was that it was okay, and even preferrable, to voice an opinion, even an irreverent one. Even one that might raise the ire of the establishment. For me, the firing (and presumably retirement) of Don Imus is the end of an era.
This is in no way meant to excuse the statements that got him fired. They were inappropriate and insensitive. They were racist although I do not think he said them AS a racist, meaning I don't think he was in his mind saying "I hate that these black women are succeeding and I need a way to express that." In fact, I don't think there was much going on in his mind at all when he said what he did. Again, that doesn't make it okay. He should be punished. His producer Bernard McGurk should also be punished, since he has made similar and worse statements without penalty, but he is not in the public eye, so he seems to have escaped scrutiny.
I can't help feeling though, that the Imus incident has more to do with its inherent "sexiness" than the quality of the statement. While Imus' referring to black women as "nappy headed hos" is horrible and racist, is it really worse than the way Howard Stern has denigrated women every day for over twenty years, making millions in the process? As long as you don't use code words, as long as it's women and not minorities, go crazy? I think there's some hypocrisy here. I also think the dirty secret is that there is a fine line between bigotry and comedy, that comedians like Sarah Silverman and Lisa Lampinelli (is it more acceptable for women?) make a living parodying stereotypes against blacks and other minorities, becoming caricatures of the racists they lampoon in order to do so. Don Imus, and to a much greater extent, Michael Richards, crossed that line. But I wonder if we can assign the same level of hatred behind a comedian's ill advised words of hurt as to, for example, the alcohol fueled tirade of a Mel Gibson?
Kurt Vonnegut's brand of controversy was more on the level of being labeled an anti-capitalist than of being guilty of any kind of bigotry, which is great for me since the man was one of my heroes (to my girlfriend's chagrin, why that is I'm not exactly sure). I first read "Breakfast of Champions" when I was 14 and was blown away. Although Vonnegut is labeled a science fiction writer, the tenor of his work was far different than the Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein I was used to reading. Here was irreverent, thought provoking social commentary. Here were literary devices (including sketches!) that I had never seen used as effectively before. I loathe reading books more than once; it often feels to me like wasted time I could be using to read something new. BoC remains one of the only books I have read more than twice. (The others being Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Trilogy" which I got into the habit as a kid of reading every time I became very ill, as a pick me up.) I devoured the rest of Vonnegut's books and was rarely disappointed, being particularly awed by Cat's Cradle and Bluebeard (interestingly, not as impressed by the favorite of most, including Vonnegut himself, Slaughterhouse Five). Vonnegut, along with authors like Joseph Heller, definitely and conclusively helped to shape the person I am today.
I was fortunate enough to hear Vonnegut speak at Adelphi University years ago. I was delighted to find he was just as charming, smart, funny and thoughtful in person as was reflected in his books. Here was one idol who didn't let me down.
Although Imus and Vonnegut came to very different ends, I think the common lesson they left us with was that it's okay, even preferrable, to express yourself. That it is by sharing our opinions and being willing to hear and integrate the opinions of others, even if we don't like them, that we become a stronger society, and better people. Eventually Imus abused the privilege of the national stage to do this, and Vonnegut's last novel was far from his best, but I prefer to remember them as they were. Entertainers who helped a young man learn to think for himself and demand to be heard.
So it goes...