I can’t stop it I don’t know how it works!

The game of unspeakable fun (image from boardgamegeek.com)I watched Thank You For Smoking a few weeks ago, but I was so let down by the ending I didn’t know what to make of it. Surprisingly, the whole Don Imus scandal puts it into perspective.

Thank You For Smoking plays out as a well-produced, well-performed, cleverly-written story that seems to be building up to some incisive satire about lobbyists, politics, and the tobacco industry. It sets the stage, defines the characters, and takes a few detours for some really slick and well-done scenes that don’t really say anything remotely original. There’s a long and genuinely funny segment where the main character meets a fancy Hollywood movie executive and his fawning assistant; it ends having said nothing more than “Hey, aren’t LA people phony?” Afterwards is a scene with Sam Elliott perfectly cast as the original Marlboro Man; that results in the razor-sharp observation: “people are often motivated by money.”

The movie spends all this time with Aaron Eckhardt’s character, setting him up as a charming man who could talk his way into or out of anything, a man who’d built his entire life around the idea that there is no solid dividing line between right and wrong. And, like most smokers, he’s built elaborate networks of denial and self-delusion in order to maintain an addiction that he and everybody else knows is dangerous and lethal. As he explains to his son at one point: by changing the argument from “are cigarettes dangerous” to “do I have the right to choose for myself,” he moves the line, shifting it from an indefensible position to one where he’s the victim and he’s got the moral upper ground.

For over an hour, the movie builds sympathy for his character so that the line becomes blurred even for the audience. And then finally, one of his choices is turned on him, and everything in his life is ruined — his job, his only friendships, his relationship with his son, and he can’t even smoke anymore. We see a video segment where every thing he’d done in the movie up to that point is re-examined and described with a different spin — now, the actions and words we’d been led to believe were harmless seem cold, manipulative, and downright evil. He’d manipulated everyone, including the audience, and probably even himself, into believing his own spin. After seeing that, I became convinced that this movie was the best, most effective indictment of moral relativism I’d ever seen.

And then, of course, the movie works to undo every single bit of that. His friends and family come back to him, his son still idolizes him, those who had wronged him are shown getting their come-uppance, and not only is he offered his job back, he gets the greatest pleasure of being able to turn it down. I’ve said before that I don’t mind happy endings, and an ending that’s negative just for the sake of being negative or “edgy” is even more vapid than having Lassie show up and E.T. come back to life. But a happy ending is just deadly to satire. Without the edge — and especially the way this movie shies away from the edge so much you’d think it were a hemophiliac — you’ve just got a “character study.” Which is just a tactful way of saying, “a story with no point.”

So what does any of this have to do with racist comments from a radio shock jock? Not much, until you find this Time magazine analysis of the reaction to Imus’ comments, and in particular John Rogers’ response to that article.

The Time story is titled “Who Can Say What?” and asks the same question a lot of people are asking: where’s the line? Why is there such an outcry when Imus says the same things that [insert black celebrity here] has been saying for years? And why such a strong reaction to this incident, when Imus himself has been saying the same thing for years? Why is it okay for Sarah Silverman or Sacha Baron Cohen or “South Park” to say hateful things about blacks and Jews, but suddenly the offenderati comes out with White Liberal Guilt guns blazing whenever Don Imus, Isaiah Washington, Michael Richards, or Mel Gibson says them?

And the reason I like Rogers’ commentary so much is that he cuts through all the attempts at cultural analysis of a Very Complex Issue and says simply: it’s really not that complicated. (He goes on to describe it in terms of comedy and power brokering, which is fine but just a smaller part of the whole thing).

Like it or not, there’s still a line there, and it hasn’t moved all that much in the last 30 or 40 years. And shame on anyone who tries to make it out that it’s constantly in flux, being manipulated by some “cultural elite” of easily-offended liberals who, as part of their nefarious hidden agenda, are forever lying in wait to bait people into thoughtcrimes and discredit them.

You see that claim alleged over and over again, people forever asking, “So when exactly is it okay to be racist/homophobic/anti-semitic/misogynist?” The answer is pretty simple: “Never.”

“But wait,” they claim, “black/gay/Jewish/female people say that stuff all the time and they not only get away with it, they’re applauded for it!” And that’s the heartbreaking part. Because you realize you’re not just explaining comedy anymore. You’re having to explain basic human decency to a person who just doesn’t get it, and it’s like trying to explain algebra to a caveman. They don’t understand it, they’re never going to use it, but everybody keeps telling them that it’s important and they should be ashamed for not understanding it. And all they can ask is “Is this going to be on the final?” (Considering that intolerance and religious fundamentalism so frequently go hand-in-hand, I’m surprised more people don’t realize that yes, this is going to be on the final.)

One of the bits that the Time article seems to be bewildered by is from the Sarah Silverman show. There’s a scene in the pilot where she meets God, who’s played by a black actor, and she asks, “Are you God’s black friend?” Why is that acceptable, when Imus’ calling a bunch of college basketball players “nappy-headed hos” isn’t? Both are racist comments intended for shock value. And neither is coming from a black person, so you can’t say that it’s “taking back the word.” How can this be?

Some would say that it’s just because Silverman’s funny and Imus isn’t. Some would say that it’s because Silverman’s liberal and Imus isn’t (Silverman makes a comment against that in the article). Some would go into a long explanation about the political inequities of comedy and how it’s only acceptable when those of a lesser socioeconomic status are using words to negotiate an exchange of power with those who are traditionally in dominant societal roles, and because a Jewish woman can relate to a position of inequity better than a wealthy white male, Imus was perceived as a bully while Silverman isn’t.

Which is all just more White Liberal Guilt mixed with political correctness and pseudo-academic wankery. There are aspects of all that that are correct, but it all boils down to the same thing: Silverman can say racist words because she isn’t expressing racist ideas. One is saying, “look at how idiotic racist over-privileged white people are;” Imus was saying, “look at how scary and dirty those black people are.” It shouldn’t take a damn dissertation about “context” to explain that.

But why now? Why is “nappy-headed hos” such a colossal offense, when Imus has been saying the same type of thing for years? The problem is in thinking that the two are unrelated. That there’s some hidden dictionary only the offenderati have access to, where “suddenly” one phrase has been listed as objectionable, and the only way to know what’s offensive is to keep guessing until you get Al Sharpton to complain. A much simpler and more obvious explanation: maybe this shit’s been building for years. The context isn’t some weird imbalance of power between college basketball players, a radio shock jock, huge broadcasting corporations run by Rich White Men, and the liberal media. The context is that the guy’s been showing himself to be a racist for years, and he finally got called on it. Even shock jocks tend to have more intelligence than a puppy, but the media reaction to Imus’ case has been more like “you have to catch him in the act or he’ll never learn!”

The Time article has a quote from one stringy-headed ho in a passage about the escalation of offensiveness in the media:

Right-wing pundit Ann Coulter is probably the best example of this, playing a constant game of “Can you top this?” with herself, as in March, when she told the Conservative Political Action Conference that she would have a comment on Senator John Edwards, “but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word faggot.” Coulter is only the most egregious example — from Bill O’Reilly on Fox to Glenn Beck on CNN, offense is the coin of the cable realm.

As much as I hate to feed a boorish, skeletal lich with the attention she so desperately and transparently requires to feed her minions and wreak unholy vengeance upon this Earth, she makes it difficult not to, because she’s just such an obvious example of irresponsible evil in the media. Describing how to be a decent person without mentioning Coulter in contrast is like a game of Taboo where you have to describe “goodness” without mentioning the word “evil” or “badness.”

Coulter’s fans and fellow pundits — which is to say, “idiots” — would say that that one quote wittily and effectively counters so much of what’s wrong in today’s media: we’ve lost our edge and our honesty, we’re no longer able to say what we really think because the lines of acceptability keep being redrawn, and the weak and inoffensive are rising to power.

Bullshit. What that quote says is: “John Edwards is a faggot.” And if that’s what passes for incisive commentary from pundits on The Right, I don’t know why they’re crusing Beltway bars for cretinous sluts who’ll say anything you want if it means they get a sound bite and a book deal, instead of going directly to a fifth-grade playground.

I always assumed that Limbaugh, Coulter, and the others who I’m sure are every bit as offensive but don’t get as much media attention, were evil because they were so manipulative. They were just savvy enough to recognize what people are scared of and what they don’t understand, and were able to manipulate that to discredit the other side. But every time I see the outrage and bewilderment in the media over what should be obvious to anyone who had parents or a kindergarten that taught them how to treat people, I have to wonder — do they really just not understand? And which of those possibilities is worse?

The line is still there in plain sight to anybody with any intelligence. Contrary to what they’d have you believe, it’s not being moved by an unseen hand, and they’re not just saying what “everybody thinks” but is “too afraid to say out loud.” Most people can still see the line; the only question is whether they have the dignity or class or intelligence or have just plain earned the right to step over it. It’s not a case of “political correctness.” We matured past “political correctness” a long time ago, not long after it became a buzzword. And we didn’t do it by being proud of being “politically incorrect;” we did it just by being correct.