The fuss this past months over the Don Imus firing for sexism and racism brings to mind a lot of questions. Most important of these is why him and why now. There are worse bigots on the air. Lots worse. Limbaugh, Prager, Savage, et al, are typically worse. And Imus has been more of a bigot over the years with no repercussions including his continuing to get high-profile political guests. So, why him and why now?
I think it can be summed up by the April 26, 2002 Dry Bones cartoon. It isn’t that we, as a people, are suddenly less bigoted than we were. It isn’t that Imus is worse. It’s that he violated the only real unforgivable sin for a public figure. He was unfashionably bigoted.
We, in the US, and likely virtually everywhere are not very good at avoiding bigotry. Appeals to justice tend to fall on deaf ears. What does matter and what influences lives is fashion.
There has been a huge perceptual growth in anti-semitism in the US over the last few decades. This growth hasn’t been something visible in the ADL studies. It’s been something more subtle. It hasn’t been an increase in anti-Jewish violence or swastikas painted on synagogues. It’s been a gradual lack of distaste when anti-Semitic events occur.
In our society, great changes in bigotry happen slowly. It wasn’t that the people who hated Jews before World War 2 suddenly became all tolerance, sweetness and love afterwards. It was that after the horror of the Nazi death factories, anti-semitism became unfashionable. Where it was once acceptable in the social leadership to make Jew bashing comments, after the war it was now looked down on as bad taste. And while people are, apparently, quite willing to be bigots, they’re not willing to look unfashionable.