L’affaire Imus: a lesson in the function of democracy (or, Why do conservatives hate freedom?)

I’ve heard from some conservative quarters lately that the librul campaign to unhorse Don Imus is anywhere from hypocritical to a full-Monty assault on the right to free speech. In some cases there may well be some hypocrisy – I’m sure there are people on the “left” side of the aisle who have made comments that are just as egregious as Imus’ racial cheap shot at the Rutgers women’s hoops team and nobody here is calling for a double standard. If [insert librul mouthpiece here] cracks racist, let the chips fall where they may. You want to bust Al Sharpton’s balls? Go for it. Want to remind everybody about Hymietown? I just beat you to it. Nobody gets a free pass because of their partisan affiliation on this corner.

The problem I have is with the suggestion that there was something unAmerican about the siege on Imus, that in the Land of Unfiltered Democracy the I-Man would be eternally free to spout whatever the hell he liked. In fact, those who see this episode as anything but purely democratic are in need of a civics refresher.

For starters, yes, you have a right to speak freely. You have a right to be brilliant, iconoclastic, appalling, disgusting, witty, irrelevant, moronic, offensive, racist, sexist, homophobic – you name it. You have that right. If I’m your PR counselor, I might advise you not to wear out your right to be an idiot and I’d certainly encourage you to think about the responsibilities that attend civil liberties in a republic such as ours, but still…

However, others have the right to challenge you, and doing so is every bit as pro-free speech as what you said to set them off in the first place. If you say something that they disagree with – be it an opinion about race, a school board vote, a bond referendum, the appropriate penalty for buggering altar boys, etc. – they have the right to say you’re wrong. To offer their opinion. To call you names. To be brilliant, iconoclastic, appalling, disgusting, witty, irrelevant, moronic, offensive, racist, sexist or homophobic right back at you.

In fact, this is exactly how the system was intended to work. In the view of the Framers, drawing on the philosophical musings of Milton, everybody should be allowed to speak because in an informed marketplace of ideas all would be heard and the truth would win out. An Imus would speak and his ideas would be tested in public debate and consensus would emerge as to their merit. If his lone voice is drowned out by public opinion, then we have a verdict – just as the system intended.

Therefore, the librul attack on Imus wasn’t just okay, it was supremely American.

Now, let’s take it another step. They got him fired. Surely that’s an affront to our freedoms, right? Ummm, so, now my conservative friends (especially those of a libertarian stripe) are going to tell me that he has a right to a job?

The free market system works hand in hand with this little exercise in democracy. Imus worked at the pleasure of his employers. They have the right to hire or fire for any reason they like, as I understand market theory. Employers make these decisions based on fairly straightforward guesses about the best interests of the company. If Imus were, as of this moment, deemed to be good for CBS and MSNBC and WFAN and whoever else aired his show, by whatever standards they chose to employ, he’d still be employed. (And don’t kid yourself – he’ll be back, because somebody out there is going to run the numbers and realize that he represents an improvement in the ratings they’re drawing right now.) However, they sized up public opinion and made an informed, self-interested assessment that his continued employment was bad for shareholders. And isn’t there something essentially American about the role P&G and Staples played in the resolution of the controversy?

Stop me when I get to the unAmerican part.

If somebody were suggesting that the Federal government step in and deprive Imus of his right to speak, we’d have a whole ‘nother argument here (of course, this is broadcast and the airwaves are public property, so there is no absolute right to speak via broadcast and content regulation is an established fact of life – something that all my conservative friends who want the FCC to do something about indecency on TV and the radio actually know quite a bit about, right? But that’s not hypocritical…) That never happened. Imus has as much right to speak today as he did before he played the race card on those Scarlet Knight jigaboos. He has no right to an audience, though.

I’m glad Imus is gone, if only for a few weeks, and have explained why. Turfing the I-Man sends a message out what the majority of those who chose to speak out (you have a right to keep your mouth closed, too) thinks is appropriate, although I certainly understand those who argue that it’s a mixed message at best. Not a lot of bitch-and-ho-hatin’ gangsta rap in my CD collection, in case you’re wondering.

I have friends and colleagues who like Imus and think I’m wrong about the whole debacle, and they may convince me I’m wrong. I speak, they speak, and hopefully we’re all smart enough to figure out who’s right.

But arguing that this event was anything other than a case study in how the system was designed to work is going to get you nowhere. For better or worse, folks, Don Imus provided us with an archetypal demonstration in how free speech functions in the American democracy.

:xposted Lullaby Pit: