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Offensive Girths

It must be happening all over the country in the wake of the Don Imus lynching: local radio chat and zoo hosts make a comment too crass, too racist, as they inevitably will (the medium and its audience demand it), and the fire-them-now brigades immediately mobilize to score one more hit. We’re hosting one of those circuses now in Daytona Beach.

The local radio host in question is a man of enormous girth, ego and capacity for being offensive pretty much toward anything that moves. He’s smart. He can be funny. He can be popular enough to win elections, as he did to the county commission a couple of times. An initial slew of insults aside when he first met me some years ago—my cuff links were to him a sign of effeminacy or some such cretinry—I’ve never paid much attention to the guy and must have heard all of a combined six minutes of his radio show, spread over five years. I vaguely remember something about him being a tire salesman, although I may be confusing him with the product. At any rate he has a talk show on a local AM station. Listeners call in. He either rails at them or they join in and they rail together at some local bigwig or smallwig.

On May 25, he was going on with a caller about a man called Dwayne Taylor, a Daytona Beach city councilman with an ego rivaling Big John’s, but not quite the smarts or the capabilities. Taylor is running for mayor. He’s also black. Big John is off-color in all but skin tones. The caller was saying something insulting and vaguely racist about walling off a section of the city if Taylor was elected mayor. Big John joined in in the disparagement. Then he said, referring to “the only good thing” some man ever told him, “the higher the monkey climbs, the better you can see its ass. And we’d really see Dwayne’s butt if he got to be mayor.” It’s as ugly an image, as vulgar a metaphor as one can conjure up about anyone. In this context, it’s also unquestionably racist no matter how un-racist the guy saying it might be. The Taylor forces rallied and by this week they were calling for Big John to be fired. “This is not about me as a candidate,” Taylor was quoted by the News-Journal as saying. “This is about me as an African-American man living in the United States.” The words don’t mean anything when you give them a moment’s thought, but he specifies: “It’s like we’re still living in a slave society.”

Of course, racism doesn’t need a nation’s legacy of slavery to endure. It just needs imbeciles to ensure that it does. And vulgarity, the sort generated by fattish egos especially, is one of those universals that may get more airtime in the United States only because this country loves to splash it all over its media, and has the means to do it. (The vulgar impulse isn't exclusive to the United States, to be sure. It too is a universal. But most other nations haven't yet developed the sort of next-door media access this country has. In time.) Inevitably, Taylor compared the incident to Don Imus’s nappy-headed hoeing of the Rutgers basketball team, forgetting that the Rutgers athletes were young students unfairly and stupidly targeted while he is a public figure, an elected one at that, who hunts limelight. Meanwhile the local NAACP got in on the act, and the radio manager, never missing an opportunity, extended an invitation to those paragons of humility and temperance, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, to come down here and help the community “heal.” You’d think we’d just been hit by a socio-political hurricane, a shattering riot, a traumatic event requiring counselors in every classroom and a truth commission in every board room.

It’s obviously nothing of the sort. But political opportunism has no bounds, and combustible headlines are easily generated on slow news days. The zoological quality of talk radio should be its own natural constraint. But it doesn’t necessarily work that way, although for all the crassness I prefer to know where and who the bigots and the reactionaries and the demagogues are, and what kind of audiences they have (hence the necessity for Fox-like gutters). Banning them or even firing their approximations of on-air personalities will always be the far greater offense than whatever idiocies they peddle.

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