Thursday, April 19, 2007

Hot Air Vipers

Unless you’ve been living in a wilderness cave, you’ve heard that radio and television personality Don Imus, recently lost his job for making racist and sexist comments about the Rutgers Women’s Basketball Team. There has been something of a national discussion going on ever since. Some folks think that Imus made a “mistake” and his apology should be enough. Imus certainly did make a mistake in calling those young women “nappy headed ho’s” – but it wasn’t a one time event. Don Imus has been polluting the airwaves with sexist and racist commentary for the last 30 years. He just happened to go too far this time.

Imus once referred to respected African American journalist Gwen Ifill as “a cleaning lady,” when she worked at the NY Times. He called the paper’s sports writer, William C. Rodhen a “quota hire.” He once called tennis player Amelie Mauresmo “a big old lesbo.” The people who appeared regularly on his show were not immune. He called Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz a “boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jew boy,” and frequently accused NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory of being “drunk or queer.”

A mere apology was unlikely to teach Mr. Imus a lesson. In 2001, Imus fired sportscaster Sy Rosenberg from his show for calling tennis star Venus Williams “an animal” and saying that she and her sister Serena had a better chance of posing nude for National Geographic than Playboy. At the time, Imus called Rosenberg a “moron” and a degenerate.” After Rosenberg apologized, Imus rehired him. Apparently there was no lasting lesson learned from that incident – because 6 years later Imus was the one making moronic comments.

What happened? Why the outrage? Why, after 30 years of insult, did the public suddenly care? I believe there are two parts to that answer. Imus insulted the wealthy, the famous, and the powerful – and he was allowed to get away with it. Many people who ought to know better were guests on his show. It was like a high school clique – where everyone wants to be friends with the popular kid, even though he/she is mean, because in spite of the mean, they’re the cool kids. When Imus tried using the white version of homeboy slang on a women’s basketball team – young women who aren’t rich and powerful, just fine athletes, and smart, dignified women – he went too far. Abusing the powerless from his lofty corporate media pulpit proved one racist/sexist statement too many for Imus.

The second part has been building for a long time. Most of the people in this country are sick to death of the nasty, divisive crap spewed on the airwaves. We are sick of the ugliness of our national discourse – whether it’s radio, television, or politics. I heard that repeatedly during the 2006 elections from folks all over the state. It may be that we the people have reached a near saturation point after years of Imus, Limbaugh, Coulter, Beck, Savage, O’Reilly, Boortz, and the rest of the hot air vipers. This could be a window of opportunity – the first step in bringing back some civility. Make no mistake - Imus is hardly the only offender. The African American community needs to take the young misogynist rappers in hand, and impart to them the error of their ways. That, however, is a different discussion and one for a different day.

Sexism and racism are staples of conservative talk radio. In 2005, radio personality Glen Beck called the Katrina survivors who didn’t evacuate from New Orleans, “scumbags.” On May 17 that same year, he also announced he was thinking about killing Michael Moore. On March 31, 2006, Neal Boortz said that US Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney’s “new hair-do” made her look “like a ghetto slut,” “an explosion at a Brillo-Pad factory,” and “like Tina Turner peeing on an electric fence.” On October 21, 2005, Boortz suggested that a Katrina survivor living in an Atlanta hotel turn to prostitution. “It beats the hell out of sucking off of the taxpayers,” he said.

On March 2 of this year, hot air balloon Rush Limbaugh discussed Senator Barak Obama on his nationally syndicated show. He said, “Since Obama has – on his mother’s side – forbears of his mother had slaves, could we not say that if Obama wins the Democratic nomination and then wins the presidency he will own Al Sharpton?” On March 1, 2005, Limbaugh opined, “women live longer than men because their lives are easier.” In April 2005, he announced, “women actually wish for sexual harassment.” I think that might be a case of transference, Mr. Limbaugh.

On April 6, on his nationally syndicated radio show, Bill O’Reilly said that Virginia Beach mayor Meyera Oberndorf “should be baking pies, not running a major city.” On June 11, 2004, he told his then co-host Lis Wiehl that she was on his show “because you’re good looking, so I got somebody to look over” while on the air.

There are endless quotes showing the contempt that these men have for women, and people of color. Now, before the defenders of free speech get all bunched up and head to the keyboards, I’m not suggesting that these idiots don’t have the right to free speech. They absolutely do. But we the people who “own” the public airwaves also have rights. We have the right to insist on a higher level of discourse.

There is one more way to look at this situation – one that many of you should agree with. Don Imus was a product. The market forces (i.e. the public) determined that they were no longer interested in this product. The advertisers learned that the product was no longer viable in the marketplace, so the product was removed from the shelves. In short, a veritable triumph of capitalism, and the free market system.

“Live by the shock – die by the shock.” Bob Edwards, speaking of Don Imus

Friday, April 06, 2007

Stonings, Beheadings, Executions - Oh My!

It’s springtime, when many a not-so-young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of execution, here in NH. Last week the legislature voted down a proposal to repeal the state’s death penalty. Despite the fact that NH hasn’t executed anyone since 1939, apparently our legislators want to keep the option open, so that state sponsored murder will be available in the future.

The shooting death last year of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs brought this issue back to the table. Attorney General Kelly Ayotte told legislators that repealing the death penalty so soon after Brigg’s death would be “an insult to law enforcement officers.” Governor John Lynch said he’d veto the repeal if it passed. The state is pursuing the death penalty in the case of Michael Addison, who is accused of killing Officer Briggs. It’s the first capital case in NH in over a decade.

We can all agree that the shooting of Officer Michael Briggs was a terrible crime. By all reports he was a good cop, and a nice young man with a family. He isn’t the only person who was murdered in NH during the last 10 years. In 2004, thirteen NH women were murdered in domestic violence cases. A little over a month ago, Brenda Hewey-Barnum was murdered by the father of her child. Jacob Smith entered the home of some friends, shot and killed Hewey-Barnum, wounded one friend, and shot and stabbed his own son, Matthew Smith, before turning the gun on himself. Jacob Smith saved the state the expense of a trial. Still, if we look at history, Smith wouldn’t have faced the death penalty, since no one has for a decade – a decade that includes the murders of 13 women in 2004. The message seems clear – that some lives are worth more than others, which means that the State of NH will pursue the death penalty accordingly. If NH is going to murder its murderers, shouldn’t justice be equally applied?

This year in Colorado, the House Judiciary Committee voted to abolish the death penalty. They voted to use the savings to help solve 1200 unsolved murders in the state. During the last 3 decades, Colorado spent $40 million on the death penalty. During that time they carried out one execution. There are 2 people currently on death row in Colorado. That’s a pretty hefty price tag for just one execution. The state of New York estimates a cost of $23 million for each person sentenced to death. One murder case in Georgia has bankrupted the public defender system, which has already spent $1.4 million on the case. A 2005 report found that the state of New Jersey had spent $253 million in a 23 year period on death penalty cases – while executing no one.

Our NH courts are already dangerously under-funded, and have backlogs of civil cases. It’s hard to imagine where, in revenue starved NH, the money will come from for a death penalty case. The only certainty is that some other program will be robbed so that the state can engage in macho vengeance. A far more sensible course of action (and a better tribute to the slain officer) would be to generate some money to hire more police officers, and ensure that our courts are running properly. The average stay on death row is about 13 years. Does anyone really believe that an execution in the distant future will act as a deterrent to a potential murderer? When your dog pees on the rug, do you wait thirteen years to rub his nose in it?

According to Amnesty International, 94 percent of all known executions in the year 2005 took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the US. Whoo-hoo – we’re keeping company with the human rights violators of the world – there’s a real feather in our national cap. Since 2000, executions performed by these club members have been carried out by: beheading, hanging, shooting, lethal injection, electrocution, stabbing, and stoning. Here in the civilized USA, we opt for electrocution or lethal injection. Does anyone really think that conducting an execution in a pseudo-medical backdrop (lethal injection) somehow puts us on a more moral high ground than the beheadings in Saudi Arabia, or the stonings in Iran?

NH is always looking for new revenue sources, and perhaps our newfound interest in execution could be a money maker. Beheadings could be a prime revenue source – far more vengeance than a sissy faux-medical execution. They could also be available on pay-per-view, just to up the ante. Stonings could also be exclusive, ticketed events, with the added bonus of a lottery to choose a few lucky folks to cast those stones. Firing squads would undoubtedly be very popular given the gun culture we have here in the live free or die state. Hangings – well, hangings might be a little too understated to generate much extra funding. Hangings would probably become the option for the low wage execution fans in our state. If we do it right, we could use the proceeds to fund all the executions, and maybe have a little left over for the General Fund.

Do we really want to join the ranks of Texas and Louisiana? Is this who we want to be as a state? Do we want to teach our children that some killing is okay? Is an “eye for an eye” the kind of new motto we want to adopt for our state? This is worth thinking long and hard about – both the intended and the possible unintended consequences.

“For centuries the death penalty, often accompanied by barbarous refinements, has been trying to hold crime in check, yet crime persists.” Albert Camus

In the interest of full disclosure - I have recently taken a job with the Kucinich for President Campaign. The views expressed here are not neccessarily those of the candidate. My writing gig is separate from my campaign job.