The Common Good

Don Imus and VA Tech - A Year Later

It was only a short year ago that "shock jock" Don Imus chose to refer to the accomplished 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 came as little surprise. He had a long history of slur and slander against Blacks, Africans, Asians, Latinos, Jews, Arabs, women, homosexuals, the poor, and just about anyone he considered unlike himself. And he had been paid handsomely to be so. The absurd brevity of his time spent off the air is perhaps only surpassed by the financial profitability of his return.


But the story that a middle-aged white man of means in the U.S. 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 was not news-worthy, but his misogynistic or otherwise bigoted views seemed almost beside the point to me.


The thing that captured my attention regarding the Imus coverage the first half of April 2007 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, who is now with ABC, at the time 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." 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 do what he had been doing. It was as if the unapologetically privileged got together and declared, "How dare you have a problem with us continuing to exercise our privilege at your expense? This is the way it's supposed to be. Haven't you gotten the repeated memos?"


They said it was a First Amendment issue, to which my only response can be: 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 nonviolent (particularly financial) backlash they get.


Then came the story of Seung Hui Cho. The Western world cried out in horror at the massacre Cho perpetrated on VA Tech's campus-"the single largest act of recorded handgun violence on U.S. soil in American history" (the qualifiers "recorded handgun violence" and "on U.S. soil" are important because they help to conceal our selective recollection and shocking history of violence, particularly that which has involved what we would call "state-sponsored terrorism" if it were directed at us from the outside).

And we wept. And so should we weep again in the upcoming weeks, but not just for Cho's victims. We should weep for Cho and others like him, who are victims as well ... of the Imuses of the world.


Seung Hui Cho's multimedia manifesto read like the diary of an oppressed who had finally been transformed to embody the rationale and methodologies of his oppressors. Having bought their propaganda, psychological abuse and mental illness demanded that, rather than joining them, he beat them with a ferocity commensurate to his own pain. What Cho and others like him fail to realize is that neither the methodology nor rationale of the oppressor is just, thus it is doomed to fail - immediately for the less powerful and inevitably for the more powerful. Though I confess to loving the whole V 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 April16, 2007. I just believe we need a good dose of "whole truth and nothing but the truth" as we try him again this year 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!"


Imuses behave as if their privilege (power and prerogative) entitles them to further marginalize and/or humiliate anyone they so desire. 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? 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, by declaring, "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 one VA Tech affiliate quoted by NPR:



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.


Such self-congratulations will only lead us blindly back into the thoughtless patterns of behavior that inspire this kind of violence. The only hope I see in overcoming this vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence is to abandon and subvert the rationale and methodology of anyone, any institution, 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 reinvent the wheel.

Melvin Bray is a devoted husband, committed father, learner, teacher, writer, storyteller, lover of people, connoisseur of creativity, seeker of justice, and believer in possibilities. As founder of Kid Cultivators, he lives, loves, and dreams with friends in Atlanta, Georgia.

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