What Imus and Cho Have in Common

Posted by Melvin Bray on April 20th, 2007 filed in Useful Perhaps

A few weeks ago “shock jock” Don Imus consciously, intentionally, knowingly chose to refer to women playing in the NCAA Basketball Finals as “nappy-headed hoes” later billing the match-up for his listeners as the “jiggaboos” versus the “wannabes.” Imus’ disrespect comes as little surprise. He has a long history of slur and slander against Blacks, Africans, Asians, Latinos, Jews, Arabs, women, homosexuals, poor and just about anyone he considers not like him. He’s an equal-opportunist xenophobe, as the always incisive and insightful Dr. Cornel West points out. And he was paid handsomely to be so.

But the story that a middle-aged white man of means in America showed himself to be (or made his living as a) racist and sexist is not news to me. He is not the first, nor will he be the last. Not that what he did is not at all news worthy, but his misogynistic or otherwise bigoted views seem almost beside-the-point to me.

The thing that did capture my attention regarding the Imus coverage the first half of April was the power dynamic. You see, power matters, and Imus had plenty of it, which he used unrepentantly to pummel with impunity the dispossessed, disenfranchised or otherwise already marginalized. Don Imus had a nationally syndicated CBS radio show that was simulcast on MSNBC (how much money was he making?), which NPR reporter David Folkenflik further characterized as attracting “an educated, affluent audience” (I wouldn’t know; I’ve never listened to him). Most interesting to me, again, was not that this was the case; however, I was floored by the sheer number of “educated, affluent” folks who unreservedly championed Imus’ “right” to continue to do so. It was as if the unapologetically privileged got together and with one voice declared, “How dare you have a problem with us continuing to exercise our privilege at your expense? Your indignation is absurd. This is the way it’s supposed to be. Haven’t you gotten the repeated memos?”

And I’ve had my fill of those so indoctrinated by an imperial agenda that they are too blind to see: neither hate, discrimination nor any other form of exclusionary practice or language is a First Amendment issue. Freedom of speech does not guarantee one the right to be heard. Hate does not deserve a publicly facilitated audience (e.g. radio and television air waves), and those who resource it privately deserve whatever peaceful (particularly financial) backlash they get.

Then comes the story of Seung Hui Cho to redirect our attention. The Western world cries out in horror at the massacre he perpetrates on VA Tech’s campus–“the single largest act of recorded hand-gun violence on US soil in American history” (the emphasis on certain phrases is important because the Western world has made a habit of selectively recording its dubious history, particularly that which has involved what we would call “state sponsored terrorism” if it were directed at us from the outside). And so we should weep, but not just for Cho’s victims. For he was a victim as well… of the Don Imuses of the world.

The portions of Seung Hui Cho’s multimedia manifesto released to the public heretofore read like the diary of the oppressed who had finally been transformed to embody the rationality and methodologies of his oppressors. Having bought the Imuses’ propaganda, rather than joining them, he purposed to beat them with a ferocity commensurate to his own afflictions and pain. What I believe Cho and many others like him fail to realise though is that neither the methodology nor rationality of the oppressor is just: thus it is doomed to fail: almost immediately for the less powerful and for the more powerful sooner or latter inevitably. Though I confess to loving the whole V is for Vendetta fantasy of striking a crippling blow to the imperial system on behalf of the oppressed while somehow avoiding harm to any innocents, that’s all it is: fantasy.

Don’t misunderstand, I am in no way defending, justifying or excusing what Seung Hui Cho did. I just believe we need a good dose of “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” as we try him in the court of public opinion. In so doing, I hope we see the need to indict ourselves as well.

If you’re struggling to connect the dots, consider this quote from one of Cho’s high school and college classmates, Chris Davids, as reported on npr.org:

In an English class during high school, a teacher threatened Cho with a failing grade for participation unless he read aloud as the other students had. Cho [a Korean immigrant] started to read in a strange voice that sounded ‘like he had something in his mouth,’ Davids said.

‘As soon as he started reading, the whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, “Go back to China!”‘

Don Imus behaves as if his privilege (power & prerogative) entitles him to further marginalize and/or humiliate anyone he so desires. Isn’t that what happened to Cho–by his own admission and the admission of others?

Well, you might say, “Crowding someone out–pushing him to the margins–doesn’t give him the right to lash out.” Sure. Yet I ask along with Langston Hughes, “What happens to a dream deferred”–dreams of belonging and significance, security and prosperity, dreams of equity? What is one to do when she runs out of space at the margins? How do we critique his or her means of survival (those with less power and prerogative) without also critiquing our own (those with more)?

I’m reminded of the closing scenes of Malcolm X, the movie, in which a series of persons from all over the globe (ending with Nelson Mandela) stand up and declare, “I’m Malcolm X!” It seemed to spawn a whole genre of “I wanna be like ______” commercials. We are so quick to associate ourselves with the best and the brightest. Perhaps it would be cathartic to own our demons as well: “I too am Don Imus!”

What I’m afraid will happen instead is that we will disassociate ourselves from both Imus and Cho, choosing to see ourselves as the unwitting victims of both, much like VA Tech affiliate Marissa Itte:

‘In a lot of ways it makes it better to know he’s just a crazy person. That is just completely not our university’s fault. This has nothing to do with anyone else. This is just his issue’ (npr.org).

The only hope I see in overcoming this inevitable, vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence is to abandon and subvert the rationality and methodology of anyone, any institution and/or any system that seeks to justify or legitimize gain at the expense of others as a valid means to an end. But wait a minute… wasn’t abandoning and subverting the dominant power structures the way of Jesus?

Well, at least we don’t have to re-invent the wheel.

[To continue the conversation of abandoning and subverting the cycle of violence and counter-violence and its relationship to the way of Jesus, be sure to check out author Brian McLaren’s forthcoming book Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a
Revolution of Hope (Nelson, October 2007).]

3 Responses to “What Imus and Cho Have in Common”

  1. Misty Says:

    I’ve been waiting for this post:0)

  2. Cindy Says:

    Melvin! I’ve been trying to check in and say hello. How are you?

  3. David Says:

    Great post, Melvin. Man, you really hit the same note as a talk I heard recently and just posted on today actually. Interesting how people of color understand that power principle much more intuitively than the dominant majority. But you’re absolutely right, with no Christ, we are destined to “fester” and retaliate. We must emulate something greater, someone with a different narrative. Kenneth Eng, an Asian American journalist, who is known for his anti-white, anti-black, and even anti-Asian statements, called the VT tragedy “hilarious” and “funny” because he enjoyed seeing an Asian creating a scenario where others ran away in fear, as though there was a sense of justice in that act.

    There is a lot more anger beneath the surface and I believe that VT tragedy was a good wake-up call for everyone, especially where the church has dropped the ball. 75% of Koreans living in America are churched, how long are we going to let our shame-based culture assume that addressing the wound and the dysfunction needs healing? How is that we are churched and not transformed, neither are we transformative! Lots of work left to do…

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