Unacceptable, not unforgivable

WASHINGTON -- I'm an Imus fan and often tune in for headlines, a shot of guyness and a pinch of politics. He's sometimes funny, sometimes smart, and every now and then dumber'n a box o' rocks.

As recently, when he referred to the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." It was ridiculously unacceptable, mean and insensitive. But was it unforgivable?

Piling on is awfully fashionable at the moment, and while tempting, it's also awfully easy. Let's try something hard. Such as thinking.

The offensive remark was meant to be funny on a show that is a mix of serious and humorous commentary, irreverent and sometimes adolescent.

We all can agree it wasn't funny. As Mr. Imus has acknowledged during his Stations of the Cross, it was "repugnant, repulsive and horrible." It was also racist.

But the public scourging of Don Imus - and his "I'm a good person who said a bad thing" mea culpa - borders on the ridiculous. Most absurd was his lashing by the Rev. Al Sharpton on the latter's radio show.

Mr. Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and others called for the I-Man's firing, which CBS granted them yesterday. These self-appointed arbiters of acceptable speech seem to have made peace with their own racist remarks of the past.

In 1995, Mr. Sharpton organized a protest and called a Jewish landlord a "white interloper" after the man terminated the lease on a black-owned music store. Later, the landlord's store was burned to the ground, and eight people were killed.

Mr. Jackson called New York City "Hymietown" and Jews "hymies" in a 1984 interview with The Washington Post. When accused of anti-Semitism, he said, "Charge it to my head ... not to my heart." Fair enough for Mr. Jackson, but not for Mr. Imus?

What Mr. Imus said was not hateful, but it was thoughtlessly unkind to young women who are not, in fact, "hos." Anyone who caught the student-athletes' Tuesday news conference couldn't help being impressed by their maturity, integrity and poise - and feel a little bit sorry for the less-mature Imus. His chastening has been severe and his humiliation must be painful.

The strength of the country's reaction may suggest that our tolerance for gratuitous insult has reached a tipping point - and that is a welcome development. What would be even more welcome is if that news were to reach the places where the word "ho" is frequently used. Black hip-hop artists have been denigrating the women of their families and neighborhoods for years with terminology that reduces all women to receptacles for men's pleasure.

Meanwhile, the broader savaging of Mr. Imus seems disproportionate to the crime. There is in the air the unmistakable scent of schadenfreude - pleasure in someone else's misery - as some in the media have turned on the radio jock like pack wolves on a wounded puppy.

Otherwise, his takedown feels like hecklers gone wild. When the star is down, the heckler gets to be the star. Celebrity comes to the one with the loudest voice, the meanest jibe or, in this case, the pithiest piety.

In such an environment, punishment doesn't have to be equal to the sin; it has to be equal to the sinner. Because Mr. Imus is rich and powerful, the only appropriate punishment is death by a million apologies - followed by forced retirement.

Context has been ignored, meanwhile, by all but Mr. Imus' oldest friends. He has said a few dumb things in a decades-long career - as have we all - but he also has raised many millions for charities. Whatever his flaws - and however careless his recent blurt - he deserves a shot at resurrection.

He had promised to make a better show and to become an even better person. If that means no more racist jokes, the world will be better. It would be a waste, however, to permanently banish a reformed Don Imus from the airwaves - especially if an example of redemption and rehabilitation is what we seek.

But sainthood - please - is not required. In fact, a St. Imus would be a suicide bomb for sure.

Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is kparker@kparker.com.

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