National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Don Imus

My question of the week is: What do the recent days’ stories of Joshua Bell fiddling at a Washington, D.C. subway stop and radio talk show host Don Imus’ racist remarks have in common?

The Bell story by Gene Weingarten has been picked up all over the globe since being published in the Washington Post Magazine last Sunday. The virtuoso violinist, decked out like a typical “starving artist” subway stop entertainer, performed a difficult Bach piece with a $3 million violin recently at one of the busiest stops for educated federal employees.

The subject of the story was the lack of recognition he received for his extraordinary talent, taken out of context, so to speak, as it was. He was virtually ignored by over 1,000 commuters, whereas he is accustomed to playing to sell-out crowds of similar demographic types when he’s advertised and performs in a tux at a concert hall.

The Imus story, of course, has become familiar to everyone. Unbelievably crass and degrading remarks by Imus and others participating in his wildly popular morning radio talk show have created a well-deserved firestorm of outrage. He’s been suspended, major advertisers have pulled out of the show, and MSNBC has cancelled its simulcast of the show. Imus is headed for an ugly little asterisk in history.

There seems to be a growing trend of high-profile, unchecked outbursts reflecting deep-seated prejudices lately. Names like pro basketball player Tim Hardaway, actor Mel Gibson, comedian Michael Richards and right wing hack Ann Coulter come to mind. What’s going on here?

At least it’s heartening that few such comments go unchallenged these days. Harsh checks against all such expressions of racism, sexism or homophobia are, at least on the high-profile level, immediately punished with fines, disgrace and lost employment.

Underneath, however, they are testaments to the fact that inclinations toward prejudices persist widely in the population, even among the most civilized societies on the planet, and in some cases the higher-profile expressions deliberately and knowingly play to that.

Still, society through long and arduous struggles has reached a general consensus that discrimination and prejudice are not tolerable. It is even coming to be that way for gays and lesbians who constitute the last class of society still striving for at least a legal commitment to full equality.

This, as we all know, did not come by accident or mere good feeling. It came through education over time, through cultivating, as Abraham Lincoln called them, the “higher angels of our nature,” in a myriad of ways. They are eventually accented by the passage of laws that exact punishment for derogatory and prejudicial behavior.

To say the least, expressions of prejudice can be called lacking in sensitivity.

This brings me back to Joshua Bell. Like social inclusiveness, sensibilities for art and music are taught. This, of course, is considered heresy by many these days who consider “tastes” in such things to be strictly matters of personal preference.

But we’re talking about the cultivation of the senses here, of the five physical senses and the proverbial sixth-sense, which in my book is pure thought. Nurturing the capacities of these is not only possible, but constitutes the core of progress in civilization.

Taste, smell, touch, seeing, hearing and thinking: they can all be taught to incline in different ways, generally tending either toward more universal notions associated with compassion and acceptance of differences, or toward the self-absorbed obsession solely with satisfying personal appetites. The latter is the context in which differences and prejudices get magnified in the pursuit of perceived limited resources.

It is often argued whether or not objective “beauty” exists. Certainly, to the architects of the kind of modern societies that have evolved toward democracy, it does, as in the metaphor of Dante’s “Beatrice,” in the Fibonacci Series and the Golden Section in nature, and how they coincide with the aesthetic pleasure they bring the trained human senses through art, architecture, music and even the hypothesizing process in science.

We are taught how to discern fine wine, really good cheese and the world’s best asparagus and tuna melt recipes. When we are taught grace and virtue, the sounds emitted by Don Imus are genuinely painful to the ear, and to the mind behind them.

And those by Joshua Bell genuinely pleasing.