Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Left-Handed Defense of Don Imus

Today, as I was parked outside my bank, a young white man of about nineteen or twenty years drove past in a half ton Chevy truck. On the rear window of his truck were the foot tall words: FEAR THIS, BITCH. (The comma is mine.) Attached to the truck's trailer hitch were a pair of large plastic testicles, no doubt to show this was a very masculine vehicle. There was nothing else about the pick up or its driver that was extraordinary. This could have been one of thousands of local yahoos on his way to work in the oil patch or in one of the machine shops that service the oil fields. Some trucks I have seen bear more provocative messages than this particular truck did, and indeed there are probably local women who have nastier messages tatooed on their shoulders. So common are insulting words on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and rear windows I may be the only one who saw the truck today who paid it any mind.
Neither the words on the truck nor its artificial genitalia were homemade; they had been purchased at some truckstop or in a convenience store and stamped on ready made. Which means several things: First, there are tens of thousands of other trucks in America that must have the same attachments or else the industry producing them would not exist. Second, there are factories--I expect they are in some dark corner of southern Asia--wherein workers crank out moronic catch phrases and plastic testicles. (What must the people inside those factories think of Americans? What do those same workers tell their children they do all day? Would a father or mother really tell the kiddies they make little replicas of bull glands so rednecks on the other side of the world can put them on their trucks?) Third, there are creative people, people of the sort who are in marketing departments or in the research and development segments of major corporations, who decided what American consumers want are large curse words and plastic testicles they can use to deminish the resale values of their forty thousand dollar pick ups. Lastly--and I realize this makes me sound like the middle-aged guy I am--there was a time when a young fellow driving down the main street of a small western town in the middle of the day with the word "BITCH" emblazoned on his vehicle would be running a considerable risk; such a daring young fellow might, in times past, never have grown to be an old fellow, for before he reached the end of the main street some other yahoos would have pulled him over and used his callow head for a football. Today, everyone, even here in the boondocks, pretends not to notice.
Which brings me to Don Imus.
Unless the reader (if I have any readers) of this blog has been on the Space Shuttle for the past two days, the reader will know that radio shock jock Don Imus is in trouble for calling the black women basketball players at Rutgers University "nappy-headed hos." Now, I do not want to defend such rascist, sexist and downright mean words. Mr. Imus was obviously wrong to say them. But, in the modern culture we have created, rather I should say, in the modern civilization we have created, wherein casual vulgarity is unremarked in even the smallest and most provential of towns, it is hypocrisy on steroids to point to an aging radio personality with a loose mouth and declare that his vulgarities are unbearable while so much else is. Nor will it do to say that because Imus is white he cannot say what rappers and stand-up comics say every day. The rappers and comics may be black, but their audience is mostly white, and lots of those white people consuming their product are getting a dirty little thrill every time they hear black people speak ill of themselves. It is those same same easily thrilled people that Imus also panders to, the great boobisamoi who support the rappers, the comics, and, yes, the companies that make nasty things to stick on their oversized trucks. Unless we are willing to condemn the great ocean of vulgarity we have sailed upon for the past fifty years, it will not do to condemn one small puddle Imus has made. Those who say otherwise are akin to the French policeman in "Casablanca" who proclaims in mock horror that "there is gambling going here!" inside Rick's casino, and then pockets his usual share of the winnings.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Ed Sullivan and other Shared Cultural Moments

On Sunday nights forty-five years ago, three fourths of all the television sets in the United States were turned to a variety show broadcast from New York. The host was a famed local gossip columnist with a horse face who had the charm of a coat rack who had never in his long career ever said or wrote anything that has lived beyond his death in 1974, nothing that is, other than his tag line: "really big show," which he pronounced: "really big shoe." The first feature on the variety program was meant to appeal to the very young; quite often it would be an Italian puppet mouse named Popogigio (sp. ?) who was no more witty than old Ed himself, but who always declared his love for everyone and would give Mr. Sullivan a kiss before he disappeared behind the stage's sequined curtains. Next would a series of adult entertainments, some of them conventional (Steve and Eddie, Jewish comedians named Shecky, members of the Rat Pack, British actors doing readings from Shakespeare) and some of them quite strange (Hungarian jugglers balancing stacks of plates, Chinese acrobats riding bicycles through flaming hoops, intoxicated ball players introduced in the audience, the intoxicated Liz and Dick introduced on the stage, the sober Walter Brennan narrating the tale of "Old Rivers"). Then, in the last ten minutes, there would be a celebrated act for the teenagers (Sly and Family Stone, the Supremes, and--most famously--the Beatles). Just before the final applause died out Ed would say "good night" and blow an awkward kiss to his vast audience.
An adult--or as we called them in those days, a partent--watching the "Ed Sullivan Show" got a taste of what their youngsters were listening to when Mom and Dad were not about, and youngsters learned what the folks would go to see if the folks ever took a vacation in Vegas. Everything that could be considered popular culture, anything that appealed to anyone and sometimes odd stuff that no one had ever heard of, got presented once a week in every American household for our consideration. It was difficult to be underground or counter culture in the late 1950s and early 1960s, back when Ed was about. Beat poets appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show," as did Charles Mingus and Lenny Bruce. Nor was there any irony (at least none of the intentional variety) in throwing these different personalities in front of the American public. There were only three networks then, and it made sense to put everything the country had to offer on a single program in hopes that something would shown appeal to everyone.
By the late 1960s, only two years after the Sullivan show was canceled, no truely hip band or singer would have appeared on network TV. Most with-it musical acts were only on FM radio, as AM was left for the likes of Glen Campbell and Anne Murray. The Rat Pack and the Jewish Comedians went back to Vegas and stayed there. The actors went to the movies. TV became sit coms and cop dramas that offended no one and attracted only a targeted spectrum of the total audience. The drunken actors and jocks had to stay in their lonely hotel rooms, where they watched TV rather than appearing on it. Today, all of the acts that graced (if that's the right word) Mr. Sullivan's stage would be on different cable networks, and no one person would know of them all, and they would not even know of each other. The only TV show that draws anything like a percentage of the nation's viewers Mr. Suillivan brought in every Sunday is the yearly Super Bowl, and because I never heard of them, I do not know what singers my students enjoy. I did not even know the groups my daughter liked when she was young and still lived at home, for as is true of so many other aspects of modern life, there is no longer any part of popular culture we, the sundry Americans, share in common, and other than the carnage of the grid iron, there is apparently nothing left that all of us can enjoy.