Sharpness and abuse

Culture | What does a shock jock have in common with C.S. Lewis?

Issue: "Walk the Talk," Nov. 15, 1997

At one point in C.S. Lewis's novel Out of the Silent Planet, the protagonist, Dr. Ransom, finds himself a guest on the planet Malacandra. The planet has three intelligent species that interact in this comic way: "The sorns seldom got beyond irony, while the hrossa were extravagant and fantastic, and the pfifltriggi were sharp and excelled in abuse." Lewis, it turns out, liked humor in which irony, extravagance, and abuse interacted.

Like the pfifltriggi, Don Imus is sharp and excels in abuse. The banter in which he, his newsman Charles McCord, and his producer Bernard McGuirk indulge consists largely of pomposity deflating barbs aimed at everyone from their fellow media cohorts and politicians to movie stars and professional athletes-at anyone, in short, whom Imus and his crew perceive to be full of himself.

The popularity of this approach is clear. Ratings are high for Mr. Imus's radio show, and MSNBC now telecasts three of the show's four hours daily.

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One of the ways they avoid becoming gratuitous is that they sharpen their abuse on themselves and each other. Mr. Imus's actress wife (who is 30 years his junior) and Mr. McCord's hair color (which may be 30 years his), for instance, serve as the background for running gags.

Mr. Imus's favorite guests and favorite victims come from all over the pop-cultural spectrum. The former include Tom Brokaw, Willie Nelson, Terry Bradshaw, and Gov. Mike Huckabee; the latter, O.J. Simpson, Al Gore, Frank Gifford, and anyone who's ever published a ghost-written book under his own name.

The show has major problems. Mr. Imus interjects into some discussions a compound blasphemy. Nevertheless, some truth shines through. In one segment last spring, Mr. Imus and the columnist Mike Barnicle launched into a vigorous defense of the pro-life philosophy in the context of discussing abortion and Dr. Kevorkian. The "I-Man" also frequently hosts Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman-a.k.a. the "God Squad"-the sentimental but morally no-nonsense clergymen who've made the sanctity of life a main part of their public message.

Granted, C.S. Lewis notwithstanding, American Christians have never warmed to sharp and abusive humor. ("Thou shalt not be mean" is our unspoken 11th commandment.) That we haven't, however, may have more to do with our aversion for sharpness in general than with God's refusal to use it to wake up a culture that needs all the sharpness it can get.


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