In Defense of the Campaign to Desponsor Limbaugh
On his show a few weeks ago, Bill Maher defended Rush Limbaugh. Not what he said, nor of course Rush himself, but Rush’s right to say outrageous crap. Maher pointed out that he himself had been the victim of exactly such a national furor and subsequent sponsor pullout, and he didn’t like that. For all the vileness Rush spews, Maher reasons, Rush should have the freedom to say it.
Now, I don’t believe Limbaugh should be yanked off the air for his political opinions. However, at the same time, I find myself in full approval of the sponsor pullout, and I believe it is quite consistent with the basic principle Maher intends to promote–Maher was, I believe, simply not specific enough in defining that principle. Maher’s removal was wrong because he was pilloried for a political opinion on a forum intended to promote open and free discourse. Rush’s case has nothing to do with that.
My line of thought came from Limbaugh’s excuse for an apology. He tried to use his familiar dodges to avoid responsibility–I’m a pundit, I’m a satirist, I’m a comedian. He loves these dodges, revels in them like a kid pulling a fast one on his parents. When a columnist used the two words “Magic Negro” in the context of thoughtful analysis, Limbaugh jumped all over it; his show was practically non-stop about “Barack the Magic Negro” for a week or two. His dodge: a columnist said it in a respectable newspaper and didn’t get criticized for it, so I can use it all I want, in whatever context I want.
Limbaugh tried the same thing in defending what he said about Ms. Fluke. He attempted to create several contexts, in fact, in which it would be acceptable to say what he said. That’s how we judge things, by their context. So, why, to me, did Rush’s context, which even Bill Maher viewed as acceptable, not sound right? Was it simply because I am a liberal and didn’t like what he said? Sometimes that’s what it boils down to and I withhold my criticism, and I wondered if this is such a case.
So I considered what context there was, and as such, had to figure out first–what is Rush? He claims that he’s a comedian, that’s one of his favorite dodges. Conservatives even used Maher as a defense, noting that Maher had used some pretty ugly epithets about people like Sarah Palin in his act. If you’re a comedian, then you can get away with it.
But Rush isn’t a comedian. Comedians tell jokes. They have setups, they deliver punch lines. They record albums or do live specials or go on tour. Rush doesn’t do any of this. He has what could be called a “monologue,” but it’s not a comedian’s monologue–nothing like it. What he has is more like a tirade. Maher himself even commented on this, pointing out that Limbaugh cannot stand on a stage for an hour and make people laugh through it. He’s not a comedian.
So, what about satirist? Rush hinted at this by noting that he was indulging in the absurd, which is what a satirist does–to take a point made by others and extend it to a ridiculous extreme, thus pointing out its absurdity. But that’s also not what Rush was doing. His tirade on Fluke did not really have a point, not one based upon the issue in question, at least.
If you were to satirize the fact that an issue like contraception was given significance at the presidential level, the point Limbaugh claimed he was satirizing, you would do something like suggest that the president would next concern himself with smegma. Rush could have done at least a whole show on it, reporting that Obama had set up a week-long International Smegma Conference; that Democrats had “put smegma into every new law coming out”; that the U.N. had jumped on the bandwagon by issuing a resolution against smegma; that the animal rights activists has jumped on calling for Dog Smegma (a great name for a rock band, by the way) to be put on the agenda, with Obama immediately bowing to their will. He could pillory those he wanted to criticize on the right wing, talking about how they took the bait and came to the defense of smegma, and how religious groups were called to testify on the issue–all while nobody paid attention to the economy.
In short, Rush had a huge field of satire he could have engaged in–frankly, I would have found the whole smegma thing funny myself–and he could have worked in jabs against virtually every group he doesn’t like, making valid points about the political system. It was a gold mine of material he could have wallowed in.
But that is not what he did. Instead he went on a multi-day rant about how Ms. Fluke has non-stop sex, wants us to pay her for it, and should give us a sex tape for our tax dollars (which, by the way, were not involved). Focusing on a young woman who spoke on the importance of contraception and calling her a slut and a whore is not “satire.”
So that leaves pundit, which most people accept as the correct designation. But after reviewing what I’ve heard Limbaugh say over the years–including listening to his full show from time to time, much to my discomfort–I would challenge even that designation. Punditry is when you opine on political matters, which is what it seems Rush is doing much of the time. The thing is, he goes beyond that. Pundits don’t wield the kind of power Rush does within the conservative political movement. Rush is not a pundit. It is a part of what he does, but it does not suffice to describe all that he is.
One clue to that is something that kind of confused me (while also sickening me) some years ago, when Rush didn’t like something that Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye had said or done. I forget what the issue was, because it is not what stood out in Limbaugh’s rant. What stood out was the puerile name-calling. Throughout the show, whenever he spoke of the senator, he made a point to call him “Senator In No Way.” Now, say that once, and it’s a joke, albeit a weak pun. But one can understand the usage, at least. But Rush didn’t do that. He repeated it. Again, and again, and yet again. He went out of his way to use the name, In No Way, In No Way, In No Way. Repeated, ad nauseam. That wasn’t comedy, satire, or punditry. It was similar to how Rush went off on his “Barack the Magic Negro” campaign.
So it struck me what Limbaugh is. He is a demagogue. Now, this won’t surprise anyone, really. But it is relevant. Because not only is he a demagogue, but he is the worst kind of demagogue: he is a demagogue who builds political support by dehumanizing those he opposes.
That’s why I couldn’t understand why Limbaugh kept using “In No Way” far beyond any comical effect–I didn’t see what he was really doing. He wasn’t really doing commentary; what he says about the politics is just window dressing, it’s not important. That’s why most of the criticism of his lack of rationality misses the mark. Demagogues don’t give a crap about making sense.
Limbaugh must giggle every time his critics point out that birth control doesn’t work by taking more of it every time you have sex. That was completely irrelevant to what Limbaugh was saying. His thesis statement was not “this is how birth control pills work.” His thesis statement was, “this Fluke woman is not human, she’s a slut and a whore, so you can disregard anything she says.” It’s the same reason why Limbaugh went on about “Barack the Magic Negro”; it didn’t matter that Obama did not fit the fictional archetype, criticism to that effect again missed the mark. Limbaugh sang that song for a week or more because its effect would be to dehumanize Obama.
When Michael J. Fox spoke eloquently about the need for stem cell research, his tremors speaking as loud as his words, Rush did not speak about stem cells in the context of people who are suffering, but instead ridiculed him and tried to claim that he was faking the tremors, going off his meds–even mimicking the tremors on video. Limbaugh was not trying to make people laugh, he was not satirizing anyone, he wasn’t commenting on the issue: he was attacking the message bearer, trying to strip him of human decency and integrity.
This is what Limbaugh does. He demagogues, doing so by dehumanizing those who say things he does not like, people he wants to discredit. He scapegoats, telling you things you should believe you should feel victimized about, and then tells you who to blame for it.
This is not public discourse. This is not the statement of opinion. And since he is not in fact a satirist, he cannot justify the libel he spews as tools of his trade. Calling Fluke a slut and a prostitute crosses that line, not that a lawsuit would be unjustified or successful.
All that said, outside of actual libel, I still approve of Rush’s general freedom to speak, if he can sell it. But here’s the thing: he has the right to say it, but he has absolutely no guarantee that he can make money from it. Rush is no more entitled to a radio program than is anyone else. If he can support it, fine; if not, then also fine.
So the question becomes, is it OK to run a campaign to scare off his sponsors so that he can no longer support his radio show?
This is where the comparison to Bill Maher becomes apt. Maher was run off the air a decade ago because he noted the fact that Bush’s using the word “coward” to describe the 9/11 hijackers was incorrect. Maher was not respecting the hijackers, nor was he trying to demagogue. He was simply making an objective comment which had a salient point. The problem was, he said something that was easily misconstrued–he was stating, in reference to President Bush, that it is cowardly to attack someone by lobbing missiles at them from a safe distance. No reasonable person, knowing Maher and understanding the context, could take that as an attack on soldiers. But it was easily presented that way, which the demagogues of the day instantly jumped on, and Maher fell before the onslaught.
That was the principle: it is wrong to silence someone for airing a political opinion. Maher generalized too much when he defended Limbaugh, reacting perhaps viscerally to the idea of anyone being pulled off the air by scaring off sponsors. But it was not the method which was wrong, only the reason.
Rush’s case is virtually the opposite of Maher’s in a qualitative sense. Limbaugh was clearly attacking a person, and had no salient point in doing so. Nobody criticized his opinions on contraception, or where public attention was focused; the furor was about the vicious personal attack. He was not being objective, and what he said was not misconstrued in the least. It was not an “opinion” he was expressing. He was not engaging in “discourse.” And he was not taken down by demagogues. He was the demagogue.
And I have no problem trying to yank a demagogue off the air, particularly one whose bread and butter is to empower himself politically and financially by dehumanizing others, in particular when he goes over the line in doing exactly that.
Frankly, Limbaugh has been around for far too long. He is an overcooked ham, dry and foul. His legacy is that he was instrumental in polarizing our political system, making demagoguery the order of the day–and in so doing, he played no small part in bringing about the ruin from which we now suffer. Although he deserves the same rights and basic decency that any human deserves, despite his own savage disregard for the same in others, he has no entitlement to a national pulpit for it, and there is nothing wrong in recognizing this or acting on it.