Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. (Rm 12:19)
If you haven’t heard about the recent kerfuffle with Don Imus yet, you probably would’ve made a great juror for the OJ Simpson trial. For those of you who misses the excitement, let me summarize (from here):
DON IMUS: “That’s some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos …”
BERNARD MCGURK: “Some hardcore hos.”
DON IMUS: “That’s some nappy headed hos there, I’m going to tell you that.”
And now the half the world is up in arms, demanding Imus’ head. People could care less about the raging misogyny that came out of the mouth of Mr. McGurk, but Imus has to go. Why is that? After all, rap artists use this sort of language all the time. But the ever-so-eloquent Snoop Dogg would have us believe something different. He notes, “We’re [rap artists] talking about hos that’s in the ‘hood that ain’t doing (bleep), that’s trying to get a (bleep) for his money. These are two separate things.” As Snoop notes, “First of all, we ain’t no old-ass white men that sit up on MSNBC going hard on black girls… I will not let them (bleepers) say we in the same league as him.” Although, I’m sure that Snoop would make an exception for Marshall Mathers (aka Eminem) to spew as much misogyny as he wants, even though Mr. Mathers is also white. I somehow doubt this is because Mr. Mathers is neither “old-ass” nor on MSNBC. This is what we in the chattering classes call a “double standard.”
To clarify my person position, let me state for the record: I disapprove of Mr. McGurk and Mr. Imus’ comments. Their comments were both offensive and not funny. Misogyny is never a good thing and the world would be a better place if rap artists like Snoop Dogg and Eminem paid even lip service to respecting women. If Mr. McGurk and Mr. Imus wanted to insult some public persona, you might be able to argue that their comments were humorous, but this was a college basketball team, and a Cinderella story at that. Not funny.
But this entire episode illustrates something deeper and darker, and I’m not talking about the inherent racism of either Mr. Imus or America as a whole. I’m talking about what I’ll call the Culture of Vengeance. Normally, the shrill voices of intolerance, such as Ann Coulter and her friends on the right wing blowhard circuit would have us believe that this is just another example of the plague of political correctness sweeping America. But even Ms. Coulter, in a rare moment of lucidity thinks that Mr. Imus’ comments were unwarranted and that he owes an apology to the basketball team. This is not about political correctness, and despite what Ms. Coulter feels, the demand for Mr. Imus’ head (on a pike, as a warning to the next ten generations) is not about political correctness either.
It’s about how our post-modern (post-post-modern?), post-Christian culture has become unable to forgive.
Back in the age of the Puritans, the penitentiary was a place for well, penance. It was their that you reflected on your wrongdoing and turned back to right living. Punishment was not the goal, repentance and reconciliation were. On the other hand, in the Culture of Vengeance, any sin (real or imagined) warrants the maximum sanction. Forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation are forgotten. We can’t blame the left for the origin of the Culture of Vengeance, it comes firmly from the right. The intellectual framework of three-strikes laws, mandatory sentencing, capital punishment and post-prison confinement are all rooted in a “Culture of Responsibility” taken to its extreme. You are responsible for everything and when you transgress our shibboleths you will be punished. Thanks to the intellectual framework of the right, the left has now retaliated by using the same logic to enforce their own rules. And now Mr. Imus will be paying for his sins, not just with an apology, but with the loss of his radio show. You see, conversion and contrition is insufficient (and perhaps even irrelevant). Vengeance is required. Harsh punishment must be rendered.
J. Michael Straczynski, writer of the show Babylon 5, writes that his understanding of atheism makes forgiveness impossible: “So I cannot forgive. Which makes the notion of writing a character who CAN forgive momentarily attractive… because it allows me to explore in great detail something of which I am utterly incapable.” He speaks, I think, not just of himself, but of our society. We find forgiveness fascinating on the big screen, but we find ourselves utterly incapable of it ourselves, no matter the words of history’s most important Rabbi on the subject (Matt 18:21-22).