Celebrity Bigots

Why Hate is Hot

So John Rocker played at Shea, and the fans booed him. By baiting the "hate hurler" (as Rocker was dubbed by one tab), they got to feel superior, basking in their sympathy for the huddled masses on the No. 7 line. But the morning after Rocker's drubbing, many of these same defenders of diversity tuned in to Don Imus, who never met an immigrant he didn't mock. Another hate hurler? Nah, it's just the I-Man funning.

What makes Imus a hero and Rocker a target? The answer, as with so much else about New York, is location. The I-Man is one of us, but Rocker is the ultimate outsider. He's a Southerner, part of a group every New Yorker can dis. The same tabs that bristle at his bigotry call Rocker a "redneck" without blinking. He's a perpetrator and a victim of hate speech.

Every few months, it seems, another athlete is punished for making some comment that, from the mouths of shock jocks, would sail right by. But that shouldn't come as a surprise. We live in a time of intense ambivalence about group slander. On the one hand, using hate speech in the commission of a crime can get you extra time. On the other hand, defamation is a potent form of entertainment. The old etiquette of discretion about religion and race has given way to what might be called surrogate slurring. Everything you can't say on the street is being blasted on the radio, in record stores, and all over the Internet.

Insult is a driver of ratings in a media world with so many choices that it's harder than ever to stand out. They used to say that sex sells, but in this 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 be horrifying, 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 these thoughts also turn a lot of us on.

Enter the celebrity bigot, a personality whose fame rests on expressing mass biases. Not talking Rocker here—he didn't set out to become a slurring superstar. But Imus knows what he's doing, and so does Eminem, the white rapper whose bloody misogynist and 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. She's bigger than Rush Limbaugh, and this fall she makes her TV debut, joining various haranguing judges in the dark vaudeville of calumny.

Not so long ago, such banter was inconceivable. We were too close to the knives of 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. Mind you, there are still plenty of taboos on radio and TV, still 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 is nothing new. It's been a major vein in comedy ever since "Take my wife. Please!" But Henny Youngman's quips had an edge of affection, heightened by a Jewish comic's exemption from empty pieties. Even the tummler's art of insult, honed for a mass audience by comics like Don Rickles, was cast as harmless hazing. Certain members of the audience were singled out for scorn, but certainly 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 racist rap in a series for the webzine tompaine.com. When you take this patter out of laff-riot context, it's strikingly similar to the drollery of David Duke. 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 do imitations of Al Sharpton with the kind of 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 ritual slandering is constructive. It clears the air for a frank discussion of race and sexuality, or it 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 with impunity, Imus and Eminem make it easier for their fans to bear the real conditions of life in a multicultural society. Your boss may be a woman, your sergeant an African American, your teacher a gay man, but every time you put the earphones on, you rule. So why not think of celebrity bigots as lubricators of social change?

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