It all started when Don Imus made fun of Hawaiian singing legend Don "Nappy-headed" Ho. Then, ol' Tiny Bubbles up and died! After that, things got crazy. The media went into a feeding frenzy, and Imus was ultimately fired from his gigs at MSNBC and CBS Radio.
At least, I think that's how it went down. But I could be confused. It's hard these days to keep track of all the stupid things people say into a microphone.
Let's review the action over just the past year: There was Imus' racial slur against the Rutgers women's basketball team; Mel Gibson slandering Jews after being arrested for drunken driving; Kramer (Michael Richards) attacking blacks in his standup comedy routine; Ann Coulter calling presidential candidate John Edwards a faggot in a speech to a conservative group; Virginia senator George Allen naming a young man "Macaca" during one of his stump speeches; and Rosie O'Donnell using fake Chinese words to make fun of Asians.
Is there anyone left uninsulted? Oh yeah, straight white people. But that could be remedied easily enough if you count the Duke lacrosse team players, who were called rapists and worse by MSNBC news-harpie Nancy Grace and the Rev. Al Sharpton (deacon of the Church of Shameless Self-Promotion). Or Memphis city councilman Edmund Ford, who suggested a couple of his councilmates should "get a white sheet."
So, why is it that all these folks got in trouble? I think it's because they dared to insult folks outside their peer group. Black rappers and comics use the same phrases Imus used without losing their jobs. Jewish comics make fun of their Jewishness all the time. Gays call each other slang terms that straight folks dare not employ. But let someone outside the fold do the same thing and it's racism or anti-Semitism or homophobia.
Is there a lesson here — besides the obvious fact that the difference between a joke and an insult often depends on who's talking and who's listening? I don't know. Maybe it's that free speech means just that: It's free for everybody, whether you like what you hear or not.
Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."