Home > Right-Wing Extremism > In Defense of the Campaign to Desponsor Limbaugh

In Defense of the Campaign to Desponsor Limbaugh

March 18th, 2012

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, not to mention the fact that his statement was misrepresented. Rush’s case has nothing to do with any of 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 with at least a fair amount of knowledge on the subject, which is what it seems Rush is doing much of the time. However, Rush commonly ignores the facts of the matter; he is usually about invective and rage than fact and mere opinion. Rush is not a pundit. It is a part of what he does, but it does not suffice to describe all that he is. He does some punditry, some satire… but none of these are central to his theme. So, what is he?

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, pausing for effect before each repetition, ad nauseam. That wasn’t comedy, satire, or punditry. It was similar to how Rush went off on his “Barack the Magic Negro” campaign. Neither was handled like a joke for comedic effect; instead, they were pounded home. You don’t do that with comedy or satire.

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.

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  1. Troy
    March 19th, 2012 at 10:21 | #1

    well, that’s a complicated way to say we need to somehow dial-back the bullshit.

    Maher was actually trying to address Bush’s bullshit about the suicide terrorists being ‘cowards’ but he made the mistake of impugning the institutional honor of the US military, which caused a reactionary bullshit backlash from that community and their hangers-on as well.

    When 40%+ of the country is immersed in industrial-grade bullshit — American Exceptionalism, Christianism/Creationism, Militarism, “Supply-side” economics — it’s pretty much a lost cause. We’ve devolved into Team Red showering bullshit across the country and a wide swathe of Americans are Big Believers. As long a Republicans get the votes to remain either in power — Team Red controls the SCOTUS 5-4, statehouses 5:4, Governorships 3:2 and still might win the Senate this year — things are just going to continue circling the bowl.

    Great thing about Japan is that I could live somewhere and not really be affected by the BS. Hell, American’s continued moral fall probably helps out Japan’s economy, though actually figuring that out would take a very sober analysis of the various inter-relations.

    Need to get me one of those PR thingies.

  2. Tim Kane
    March 20th, 2012 at 01:56 | #2

    The old saw in law was this:

    “If the law is on your side, pound the law; if the facts are on your side, pound the facts, if neither, pound the table.”

    The Republicans have a few other tactics. If you can’t win the debate on the merits, assassinate the opponent – either verbally against their character or by innuendo or subtle but real threats against the persons safety (the so called ‘second amendment solution’). When you can’t do that, just lie about the facts.

    When Gabrielle Giffords was shot, there was an immediate outcry for more civil dialogue. Eventually Limbaugh chimed in, to the effect, “they want us to surrender the argument.” You see, right away, he saw that one of his chief tactics was being removed from the table. He associated the inability to assassinate the opponents character or threaten their safety, as tantamount to losing arguments.

    This was the tactic he was employing Fluke when it blew up in his face. In calling her a slut and a prostitute, he called every women who ever used contraceptives, which is 98%, (which probably means you or your mother, sister, daughter, wife, and so on). He was so excited about his ability to rhetorically correlate the use of contraceptives with being a slut and a prostitute and applying it to his opponent that he didn’t stop to think about the ramifications.

    What do Republicans do when they can’t win by assassination?

    Well in this morning’s column, Krugman points out that the Republicans are out right lying about facts surrounding the Affordable Care Act.

    By assassinating their opponents, misleading and outright lying to the public, the Republicans deserve and will get NO consideration from me. They have a duty to not mislead the public. They have a duty to exercise civility.

    Maher is a STAND UP comedian. He has an act. Limbaugh is the head of the Republican party. If a democratic politician criticizes Maher, he doesn’t have to apologize to him later. Maher critiques politics in pursuit of comedy. These two people are not in the same line of business.

    I think that it’s fair to want to chase Limbaugh off the air because of his assassination style politics and dishonesty. EIB stands for Excrement In Broadcasting. Same with Fox news. If boycotts and chasing away sponsors does the trick, then by all means, have at it. This is fighting evil in its den.

  3. Tim Kane
    March 20th, 2012 at 05:27 | #3

    By the way, Bill Maher is not the liberal counterpart to a conservative Rush Limbaugh, he’s the liberal counterpart to a conservative Dennis Miller, both are stand up comics by trade with opposite political biases that are central to their act.

  4. kensensei
    March 21st, 2012 at 01:59 | #4

    Hooray for those sponsor who finally knew where to draw the line.

    I agree with your definition of Limbaugh as a demagogue. Here is another term to define him: “propagandist”.


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