Monday, May 7

Panning Parodies: Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh has seemingly revived the Don Imus debate despite coming under fire for very different reasons.

Whereas Imus made racially insensitive statements that some consider bad humor and others call rampant radio racism, Limbaugh has been airing a parody song entitled “Barack the Magic Negro,” a piece about African-American Sen. Barack Obama’s popularity with many white voters. While Obama's campaign has dismissed the parody as dumb and not something "anyone takes this too seriously,” some Limbaugh critics are attempting to do just that.

“We take these things seriously because there’s a consistent pattern of them making their way into the mainstream media and then the mainstream consciousness,” said Karl Frisch, a spokesman for Media Matters, as told to the Chicago Tribune. “It’s important to shoot these things down.”

The parody, which began in March, is receiving more attention now primarily because of the recent Imus case as well as increased threats with racial overtones being received by Obama. Such threats have prompted a special security detail to be assigned to him on the campaign trail.

The parody seems to poke less fun at Obama than it does Rev. Al Sharpton. The comedian singing the parody imitates Sharpton, bemoaning Obama’s popularity with whites who will, the lyrics predict, “vote for him and not for me ‘cause he’s not from da hood.”

As difficult as it is to do, an objective view might find that the parody is neither funny nor racist. It seems to be insensitive (perhaps ignorant and certainly offensive to some people) in its attempt to draw attention to presumed differences between the two men (Sharpton and Obama). Obama's campaign calls it right: it is not to be taken seriously.

In fact, taking the parody seriously, as Media Matters attempts to do, seems to risk more tension than the parody might generate on its own. It also seems to add more weight to a revived "PC" argument that censorship works. It does not.

No, I've never been a fan of name calling (especially along racial, religious, and economic lines), but I am a fan of the First Amendment. As such, I am predisposed to look at such issues differently.

Although name calling and unwarranted labeling causes an emotional reaction in all of us, I also think it makes more sense to let such rants stand because the words say a lot more about the name caller than the person or people being called a name. And if we overreact to other people's mistakes, it might say even more about us.

Case in point: I like Limbaugh all right, but perhaps he lost a little credibility airing this parody for so long. I used to like Media Matters somewhat, but it is becoming more and more difficult to like them when they pay a disproportionate amount of attention to what "people they like" say vs. what "people they don't like" say. It's silly at best and hypocritical at worst.

More importantly, we best serve ourselves by not giving in to our own fears by overreacting to people who call us names or poke fun at our faith, heritage, values, politics, professions, or even the color of our skin. Anytime you experience anger over what someone says, it might be worth considering where that anger comes from. Are we afraid they might be right or that other people might think they are right? Hopefully not; but often, sadly so.

I'm not saying we should ignore name calling or hate speech, but rather suggesting that there are ways to address ignorance without labeling it as racist (unless it is on its face). That might be more effective than censorship.

You know, at the end of the day, I'll probably disagree with Obama on politics, but today I agree with his dismissal of the parody. It was smart on his part. As for his heritage, it's as irrelevant to me as President Kennedy being Catholic or President Bush being from Texas. Try as some might to prove otherwise, labels and other nonsense sidebars really don't mean that much.



MK on 5/7/07, 2:34 PM said...

Mr Moustache, here's a good intro to the topic which I hadn't heard of till I read your posting.

Limbaugh's critics apparently don't dispute idea contained in his song just the manner in which it is being handled.

The Magic Negro appears to be a term invented by sociologists after the integration of schools in the South. It refers to a new post-racial image for black men typified by Sidney Poitier.

Allegedly, it appeals to whites because it spells the end of racism. But critics see it as the bland and shallow product of an inept attempt to pander to white liberal tastes and their desire for a quick and happy ending to racial problems.

Rich on 5/7/07, 3:05 PM said...

That's an excellent addition of context. Very nice.

I'm not so sure I know where I would fall on "The Magic Negro" as a sociology label. On the quick, I don't really like it ... but that could be a copywriter thing. :)

I might agree that minimizing "white guilt" over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history might not be a bad thing (nor would teaching African-American kids that the system is NOT necessarily stacked against them).

These concepts are taught with the best intentions, but not always best outcomes. My son was introduced to the guilt concept in the first grade. After 6 years of being color blind, he came home to ask me why his ancestors (and white people in general) were mean to African-Americans. It really bothered him — too much emphasis on the context of MLK and not enough emphasis on the message, IMO.

Well, our ancestors came over from Europe after slavery, l explained to him. And not everyone on the planet (or in our country) sees race like some people do in America. We have to hope it will get better. For me, it doesn't make a bit a difference, largely because of my personal experiences and background, and I hope he carries that forward.

As far as Obama, as a political consultant I would be naive not to consider voting blocks based on heritage. As a American voter, however, I only see him as a political candidate.

Geoff_Livingston on 5/7/07, 6:56 PM said...

Limbaugh is an idiot, and any comment in public or private that includes the word negro (with the exception of MLB honoring the Negro Leagues) should be consider racist. Also consider the source.

Rich, just got your comment approved. Was along day. Thanks for chatting it up.

Rich on 5/7/07, 7:48 PM said...

Thanks Geoff. Great job on the top 15 PR Blogs too. Very glad to see Media Orchard made the cut!

I won't argue the Rush point. Like most shock jocks, left and right, he has his moments. ;)

MK on 5/7/07, 8:23 PM said...

The wikipedia entry is most informative.

The Magical Negro term was popularized by Spike Lee. It refers to blacks in movies who help whites overcome their problems, often personal failings.

The problem is that the black role, though positive, is still secondary.

Rich on 5/8/07, 6:49 AM said...

Good reference, especially since it adds context that Limbaugh prefaced his usage of the term by explaining that the title came from Ehrenstein and/or the LA Times.

While unfamiliar with the term, I am familiar with the concept. Although popularized by Spike Lee, it seems disparaging to me for the reason you cite: it's positive, but secondary. In film, I think we're moving past that. In life, some African-Americans are criticized for supposedly embracing the role.

It's one of the reasons I'm predisposed to toss out labels. Labels are limiting; we are not our labels.

While I admit it is not the same as racism, I spent the first 10 years of life limited by labels in the form of corrective shoes (starting with toe-to-hip casts) to fix a handicap. After that, three years in tennis shoes was all it took before joining a track team. I wasn't supposed to be able to run a mile. But that's the funny thing about labels, sometimes they are the only thing that hold people back.

Maybe that's why Albert Einstein said imagination is more important than knowledge. The prevailing knowledge suggested I would always be limited. It took imagination to prove otherwise.


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