Celebrity bigots

Aug 2, 2000 at 12:00 am

Sex may sell, but in today’s jaded climate, it’s far more profitable to combine balling and bigotry. That way, you can rile up both the Christian faithful and the politically correct. Hate speech may horrify, but it’s irresistible to millions, much as pornography is, and for similar reasons. It’s a repository of fantasies that are shameful, even criminal, to act on. But they also turn a lot of us on.

Enter the celebrity bigot, a personality whose fame rests on expressing mass biases. I don’t mean baseball player John Rocker here — he didn’t set out to become a slurring superstar. But radio shock jock Don Imus knows what he’s doing, and so does Eminem, whose bloody, misogynist, homophobic ravings have made him America’s best-selling recording artist.

Then there’s Dr. Laura, the media shrink whose antigay tirades are her stock in trade. Bigger than Rush Limbaugh, this fall she is scheduled to host her own TV show, joining various haranguing judges in the dark vaudeville of calumny.

Not long ago, such banter was inconceivable. We were too close to World War II to be blasé about bigotry. But as the memory of fascism fades, so does any sense that hate speech has real consequences. There are still plenty of taboos on radio and TV, plenty of subjects that don’t lend themselves to commentary or comedy. The real question is why the line is being drawn where it is.

Insult humor isn’t new. It’s been a major vein in comedy since “Take my wife. Please!” But Henny Youngman’s quips had an edge of affection. Even the insults of a Don Rickles were cast as harmless hazing. Members of the audience were singled out for scorn, but not because of their ethnicity.

All that changed with Lenny Bruce, whose comedy confronted the hypocrisy of race relations, not to mention the absurdity of otherness in Christian America. An entertainer like Imus can trace his lineage to Bruce, with one crucial distinction: Lenny made fun of the powerful and their orthodoxies. You won’t find Imus mocking WASPs on a regular basis. Instead, this rude dude focuses on groups whose status is still contested, such as blacks, immigrants and gays.

The muckraker Philip Nobile has been tracking Imus’s rap for the Webzine
tompaine.com. When you take this patter out of laff-riot context, it’s strikingly similar to David Duke’s drollery. Imus and his buds have called O.J.’s lead attorney “chicken-wing Johnny Cochran,” Sammy Davis Jr. “a one-eyed lawn jockey,” Patrick Ewing “Mighty Joe Young,” Defense Secretary William Cohen “the Mandingo,” and his black wife “a ho.” Speaking of reporter Gwen Ifill, he’s said, “Isn’t the Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.” His sidekicks imitate Al Sharpton with botched grammar that would get them run out of town if they ran such shtick on whites (except for Rocker, whom Imus has called “a redneck goober”).

Many libertarians seem to think this clears the air for a frank discussion of race and sexuality, or vents the rage of threatened men. In this scenario, hate speech is right up there with military hair and big tattoos: It’s a show of strength designed to compensate for lost status. By providing an arena where jungle bunnies, bitches and fags can be insulted, Imus and Eminem make it easier for fans to bear life in a multicultural society. Your boss may be a woman, your sergeant African-American, your teacher gay, but when you put the earphones on, you rule. So why not think of celebrity bigots as lubricators of social change?

A poisoned well

But resentment and rage don’t necessarily dissipate when expressed in fantasy. A steady stream of invective can foster violence. The men who ran amok in Central Park didn’t take their marauding orders from Eminem, but the air they breathe is part of his repertoire. As in: “In a couple of minutes that bottle of Guinness is finished/You are now allowed to officially slap bitches/You have the right to remain violent and start wilin’.”

Would the culture of male violence exist without such anthems? Please! A survey of 10 organizations that deal with defamation produced no reliable data linking hate speech and crime. What seems obvious is that some people act on these messages, just as some people model violent sexual behavior on porn. But the effect on most of us is more complex. The real issue is how the culture takes shape around these rituals of casual abuse. This is where the lessons of fascism are worth heeding, for the ultimate uses of bigotry are political.

All in fun

Celebrity bigots insist they’re anything but. Imus has told “60 Minutes” he never utters the N-word (except in private conversation). Everything he says is meant in fun. That’s what distinguishes him from a shock jock like Bob Grant, whose description of David Dinkins as “a washroom attendant” set him up for a fall. “I mean, if he’s serious about it,” Imus told CNN’s Jeff Greenfield, “well, then, that is offensive.”

Eminem offered a street version of this disclaimer when he said he was merely “making fun of the world.” Though he recently slugged someone for calling him a fag, Eminem has “nothing against gay people.” He just thought it would be witty to rap this little ditty: “My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/That’ll stab you in the head whether you’re a fag or lez/Hate fags? The answer’s yes.”

Those who are bothered by lines like, “I was put here to put fear in faggots” or “Bleed, bitch, bleed” have no sense of humor, the worst sin of the politically correct. But behind the celebrity bigot’s wink and grin lies a lusty rebel yell. “I don’t apologize for offending people,” Imus proclaims. “I know it’s not politically correct, and I don’t care.” Eminem is even more trenchant: “My comical,” he notes, “is really political.”

So it is. Eminem and Imus draw from the same well of resentment that has nourished the Angry White Male. These stars are part of the backlash, and their reach into the mainstream shows how far this attitude has advanced. Bias is now a marketable commodity. Young males who feel deprived of sexual supremacy can take solace in the rapine arcadia of rap. Here, blacks and whites team up against bitches of all races. But for mature malcontents whose beef has less to do with sex than with loss of skin privilege, there’s the fellowship of shock jocks. Here, whites team up against other races; different strokes for different folks. But when you put these messages together, they add up to a powerful counterculture, a brotherhood of bigotry.

Irony gives this sensibility appeal. Where there’s irony, people can pretend that something other than hatred is at work. It’s just a fun house; you don’t confuse reality with the ride. And the more progressives protest, the more it seems they’re not in on the joke. Irony has accomplished what George Wallace never could. It’s now hip to hate.

The target: Gays

Celebrity bigots claim they’re equal-opportunity offenders. Imus insists he’s global in his jibes, but his audience would dwindle dramatically if he took on Mother Teresa or the international Zionist conspiracy. There’s no downside to joking about dead Haitians floating on the sea, as Imus has. He picks on the groups it’s permissible to mock.

It’s no coincidence that every celebrity bigot targets gays. They are the newest group to enter the multiculti fold. Gays are to America what Jews were to Europe a century ago: a newly emancipated — but far from licit — caste. No wonder politicians (like Dick Armey and Rick Lazio) can use homophobic slurs without risking their careers. The more precarious one’s social status, the more one is subject to casual slander and the more people are willing to regard these insults as harmless — or even worse, reasonable.

Which brings us to Dr. Laura. Aside from attacking feminism on a regular basis, she is infamous for resurrecting ideas about homosexuality that haven’t been heard since the 1950s. Like certain notorious shrinks of that era, she promotes treatments the Christian right calls “reparative therapy.” There isn’t a shred of evidence that homosexuals can be counseled into losing their same-sex desire. But the point of this strategy is conversion, not healing. That’s why most gays regard reparative therapy as a profound offense. It’s no different at heart from the age-old ambition to convert the Jews.

How ironic that Dr. Laura (Schlessinger) is a convert to Orthodox Judaism, since she attacks like an old-time anti-Semite. For example, she blithely asserts that “a huge portion of the male homosexual populace is predatory on young boys” — the homophobic equivalent of the ancient belief that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood for matzoh. Just as Jews were seen as powerful beyond their numbers, Dr. Laura sees gays as “deviant tyrants.” Just as Jews were accused of having no culture but money, Dr. Laura says gay culture is “just about sex.” Gay rights! she scoffs. “That’s what I’m worried about, with all the pedophilia and the bestiality and the sadomasochism. Why does deviant sexual behavior get rights?”

Yet, fundamentalists consider her a crusader, and libertarians have added to her mystique by casting her as a test case for free speech.

Not that Dr. Laura is a friend of the First Amendment. She sued a California shop owner for calling her a liar, and tried (ultimately unsuccessfully) to legally stop cybernauts who posted nude pictures of her. She advocates censorship of the Internet and attacks the American Library Association for “sexualizing our children.” Yet we’re urged to suffer her opinions. Even the New York Times’ Frank Rich has joined the chorus urging the gay community to lay off Dr. Laura. After all, the same free speech that spawns bigots like her also makes it possible for the gay community to be heard.

This is a noble standard, but it doesn’t apply to the world we live in. The clash of ideas in American mass media is not a cacophony but a hierarchy of voices. The ugly truth is that some forms of bigotry are more permissible than others, and some are not acceptable at all.

Boiling cauldron

Where were Rich’s columns urging Jewish groups to tolerate Khalid Muhammad? Why was his calumny considered more dangerous than Dr. Laura’s? (After all, Khalid never had a sit-down with the Black Congressional Caucus, but Dr. Laura has met with the Republican leadership.) Why were his ideas about Jews regarded as slander while her rants about gay people are taken as a serious, if debatable, critique? The answer goes to the heart of why some groups are more susceptible than others to hate speech.

Whatever some people may feel about Jews, you rarely find anti-Semitic epithets in the mass media. That’s not because Jews own the culture, whatever Khalid might think. They are largely exempt from public slander because most people have come to terms with the tradition of anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust. It’s a settled issue. But race is a very different cauldron, still boiling over on the American range. When it comes to sexual equality, the jury is definitely out. And gay rights are the most precarious of all. This unsettled agenda is accurately reflected in the vulnerability of various groups to hate speech. It’s a marker of one’s fragile social status, and it has a real effect on people who are constantly subject to this reminder.

In some, hate speech inhibits the ability to be assertive; in others it produces a chronic anxiety that becomes part of the personality, while still others are driven to outbursts of ferocity. In any case, the leaders who emerge are hardly the sort of people to soothe the savage breast. Just as postwar liberalism fostered the rise of Martin Luther King Jr., the backlash against civil rights has created Louis Farrakhan. This is the dialectic of bigotry many libertarians seem unwilling to face. Instead, they point out that the victims can speak out too — as if the media were willing to grant them equal time.

Yes, there are gays in sitcoms, blacks in action movies, and women in sports. But you won’t find these role models trafficking in slander, if only because the punishment for such conduct would be marginalization. Farrakhan may draw a million black men to Washington, but he doesn’t get a slot on Black Entertainment Television. Nor was Sistah Souljah played on MTV. We don’t live in a world where words like “whiteboy” and “breeder” are the coin of the realm. Indeed, the nature of being dominant is that there aren’t many epithets to describe you. When a gay shrink can become a national figure by calling heterosexuals an abomination, when a black shock jock makes a fortune mocking whites, when a female rapper can go platinum by boasting of slashing up men, then we can talk about a level playing field.

But there’s a better way. You can stand up and say: Hate speech isn’t hip; it’s wrong. And you can fight not by demanding that the government ban bigotry but by picketing those who profit from it, flooding companies with complaints, holding teach-ins on the culture of contempt. In the current climate, such protest is piecemeal and rarely involves a coalition like the one that built the civil rights movement. Prominent black journalists have refused to appear on Imus, but their white counterparts go on chatting with the I-Man. Self-interest has replaced the old ideal of common cause. Even worse, libertarians are chastising those who care enough to protest.

The First Amendment does not require silence in the face of outrage. On the contrary, freedom demands a constant assertion of values. We’ve seen what the absence of righteous anger can produce. Sixty years ago, a cadre of fascist thugs nearly destroyed our civilization. They would never have gotten so far if more people had taken their hate speech seriously from the start. Let’s not make that mistake in the name of entertainment. Stop the celebrity bigots before it happens again.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Village Voice. It was researched by Julia Gayduk