The founding elders no doubt foresaw the turmoil that would ensue and surely suffered nightmares about the wrong turns we would take in our efforts to meet just one of the towering challenges they were handing us – “to form a more perfect union.” That we’re still struggling to achieve it in the 21st century underlines the importance of a human quality I believe relevant to this collection of comment and criticism by Ishmael Reed (born 1938), an Oakland, California, writer.
particular human quality, I believe, deserved to be written into the language of
those amazing documents that formed the underpinnings of the fledgling nation. Think how we might’ve been better, more vigilant, less narcissistic citizens throughout our history had the “inalienable rights” invoked in the Declaration of Independence read, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of
indignation” rather than pursuit of happiness?
Why elevate “indignation” when many may consider it merely anger writ larger? Yet indignation-at-the-ready trains our eyes to spot injustices that might otherwise remain hidden and festering, strengthens our will to speak out, and expands our thinking from far too much “me, me, me.” A sharply honed sense of indignation surely forms a key motivational force behind the author’s activism and prolific portfolio of commentary accrued over many years (this collection spans a period from 1998 to 2008). A quote from a 1981 book by the late Claud Cockburn, British author-journalist, seems applicable to Reed:
“What arouses the indignation...is not the fact that people in positions of power or influence behave idiotically, or even that they behave wickedly. It is that they conspire successfully to impose upon the public a picture of themselves as so very sagacious, honest, and well-intentioned.”
Yet reading a single sampling of any productive writer’s work (Reed is credited with nine published novels, poetry
and plays, as well as some half-dozen previous nonfiction collections) gives, at best, a useful tutorial upon which to risk a review. For this novice to Reed’s prodigious output, it helps that he provides a detailed introduction. One of the book’s tasks, he explains, “is to challenge media bullies and encourage members of the underclass to do the same.” Though more typically employing words as well-aimed bludgeons rather than scalpels, he still manages to do some admirable dissecting of the largely white male media power structure.
I found the book’s best reading to be his take on how far America still is from the goal of racial sensitivity whose source is mutual respect and equity of opportunity. It’s a searing essay about media free speech profaned by a routinely foul-mouthed talk-show host protected for years by ratings-focused employers and backed further by a cadre of influential media cronies, sycophants, and sidekicks appearing to be more than willing to act as groupies. It centers on what seems breathtaking breaches of objectivity and ethics by such mainly male, big-media figures as they seemed to close ranks around talk-show host Don Imus after he and an in-studio lackey sniggeringly labeled as “nappy headed hos” a black women’s collegiate basketball team. Though the in-studio enabler of Imus’s worst instincts (the author calls him “the contemptible Bernard McGuirk”) rang obnoxiously real enough, Reed’s detailed piece allowed me to consider the graver breach – certain of the power-media privileged complicit in fostering, by their fealty, the concept that a serial offender in foul language and hate speech should be allowed to reap career success and wealth from misuse of the people’s airwaves.
What Reed calls “Imus’s stable of Celtic American commentators” or his “faux cowboy posse” included Frank Rich, Howard Kurtz, Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, Maureen Dowd, David Gregory, and David Brooks. Significantly, none of these appears to have suffered career diminishment from their association as willing sidekicks to the routinely scabrous Imus. In fact, David Gregory has since moved up the big-media ladder to the plum job of hosting “Meet the Press.” So much for rules of journalistic propriety as enforced at such rarified workplaces as
The New York Times, Washington Post, and NBC.
When primitives in attitudes and action such as Imus debase our national ideals and sensibilities and still accrue popular followings and powerful enablers from among those whose core profession, the press, is given unique status by the constitution, how can even the most dogged, dedicated, indignation-fueled writer like Reed keep on trying?
Perhaps just these few Reed words may help explain his resilience: “At one time, ideas were owned by the Church and the Crown. Up until recently media ownership was in the hands of multinationals. With cyberspace, the ownership of knowledge belongs to the people.
Writin’ is Fightin’!”