Thursday, April 26, 2007

4.26.2007 Unknown Unknowns

[This article was originally published in the 4.26.2007 version of Metroland.]

Unlike most weeks, this week I’m gonna talk about what everybody else has been talking about: Imus and Seung Heo Cho.

Imus first. There was a time when I loved Don Imus. Rob Bartlett’s song parodies. Charles’ furtive straight man routine, always trying to calm Imus down. Bernard’s constantly going over the line, only to be pulled back and dismissed by Imus. Mike Breen’s or Patrick McEnroe’s sports reporting. Breen, reporting on a world cup soccer match once, announced blithely “Italy defeated France yesterday by a score of 2 to 1, in a contest that was much closer than the score would indicate.”

Then there was the skewering of public figures, usually grandly deserved. And some skewered themselves. During the O.J. trial, then-NY Senator Alphonse D’Amato tried to be funny while a guest on the show, and affected a phony Asian accent while criticizing trial judge Lance Ito. Good night Alphonse. Imus’s interviews with public and media figures, silly, cajoling, ribald and irreverent, were often the most revealing in all of journalism. There was no posturing, no sloganeering, no talking points allowed. To try to be anything but real at the alter of Imus was to risk being labeled, forevermore, as a “lying weasel” or a “two faced phony” or even a “two-faced phony lying weasel.”

The show was smart and aware and an anecdote to the pee-pee-doo-doo banality of Howard Stern.

I stopped listening when I stopped commuting a couple of years ago. Even then, the show seemed to have lost something; maybe it was the dip that all humor took in the post-9/11 period; maybe it was Imus’ inexplicable coddling of Bush during the same period; maybe it was the too frequent visits of the execrable Bo Dietl, the celebrity private investigator / buffoon, who was never funny, and often just plain embarassing.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Imus screwed up. What was supposed to happen, what normally happened, was that Bernard would make some shockingly rude remark (take your pick of sexist, racist, ageist, whatever) and Imus would break in and say dismissively, like a schoolmarm, “Bernard, that’s fine.” An overly polite way of saying shut up. Bernard would then continue with another remark, usually even more disgusting, and Imus would explode, this time telling Bernard for real to shut up, and branding him a “bald-headed stooge.” It was a time-tested ritualistic routine, and they had it down, and it worked.

But this didn’t happen this time. Instead of shutting him down, Imus merely parroted Bernard, actually enhanced the disgusting comment, endorsing it. Who knows why he did it? Maybe his mind was a couple steps in front of his mouth, maybe he was tired, maybe he’s getting old. It really doesn’t matter; he said it. When you walk on a speech tightrope like Imus, you’ve got to accept getting hurt when you fall off. There’s no net for that brand of speech.

I suspect Imus’ firing by CBS and MSNBC had much less to do with his bosses’ revulsion over what he said than the fact that advertisers were bolting in droves. The show was no longer going to be profitable, so he got the boot. I hope, after the requisite quiet period, Imus returns to broadcast radio, and doesn’t follow Stern to satellite. Stern went to satellite because he couldn’t do what he wanted on broadcast radio; this isn’t the case with Imus. Imus does what he wants on broadcast. And he screwed up.

As to the Seung Heo Chung tragedy, there’s so much to ponder, from his troubling lack of meaningful mental health care, to his easy access to guns, to the broadcast by NBC (and subsequently every other media outlet) of the strange videos and photos he mailed to NBC in the middle of his murderous spree. I’d hate to be a parent of a college kid right now.

What will happen, to be sure, is that eccentrics, especially those who gravitate toward the morose, are going to have a harder time than they already have now. I guess this is normal reaction from individuals, but I fear it will get institutionalized. Colleges, mortified over what happened in Virginia, will encourage students’ reporting on aberrant behavior by classmates, and follow up these reports with a hyper-active “counseling” program. Erring will be on the side of caution, and not on the side of leaving people alone.

The college years are a time to experiment, to be weird (often to one’s future embarrassment), to be rebellious, to figure out which boundaries work and which don’t. It would be a shame if one legacy of this awful, awful thing turns out to be the turning of students into rats in the pursuit of safety through enforced conformity.

And no, I don’t have any answers either.


At 9:07 AM, Blogger harry60 said...

I was interested to see the title of this article “unknown unknowns”, very close to part of a then ridiculed, comment of former secretary of defense, Rumsfeld. This is peculiar since the author is a lawyer specializing in intellectual property, since it was not, as it should be, attributed-in other words it is not original to the present author. It may not have been original to Rumsfeld and perhaps the words are different enough that it is not actually the same property-this is out side my field and perhaps my area of competence. Rumsfeld’s remarks were certainly from the viewpoint of philosophy quite correct, underlying the difficulties of knowing.

As noted Paul Rapp did not use the whole Rumsfeld quote "there are things we know we know, things we know we don't know, and things we don't know we don't know." As already noted a profound statement although if I recollect aright used rather inappropriately (i.e. in the sense of not relevant) to unexpected events in the Iraq war, which has been, of course, a series of problems of the second and third categories. As a professional research scientist and amateur philosopher, although of course, science is a branch of philosophy, I actually know how fundamental these categories are to the pursuit of any knowledge.

What I could not understand is what the title has to do with the article in anything but the most general sense, which seemed to be about the limits of free speech and the quality of some type of commentary shows on the public airways, and that acceptable eccentricity and experimentation among college and university students will be restricted because one student's increasingly aberrant thinking led him to purchase guns for the purpose of killing a number of his fellow students. We label such behavior pathological and completely illegal. I find the concern that this will lead to increased restricting of non conformity of amongst students as possibly the most trivial concern to emerge from this tragedy, and so imprecise that it truly is an unknown of unknown, but likely extremely minor, importance. I thinks in these respects the correct title should have been, known unknowns.

I have no comment on Imus having never listened to him or heard of him before. I might have missed something. The joke about the close football (soccer) match would have raised a chuckle in me and the OJ case never ceases to outrage, amaze and even amuse in a “gothic’ (gallows) humor sense. It needed to be parodied, since it could not be reversed. Oh this is my first comment on a “blog” site. I had some free time. It should be my last.

Harry 60, Albany


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