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I suppose the furor over Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Sandra Fluke is dying down. The smoke is beginning to settle, and some on the left might be thinking we have gained a victory of sorts. But I wonder.

Ten years from now, how will I remember Sandra Fluke’s testimony? Will I remember what she actually said? Or will I remember Rush Limbaugh’s flagrant misrepresentation of her testimony? Something tells me that most folks will remember Limbaugh’s take. They might not like his insults, but they won’t really remember just how far off the mark his interpretation of her testimony was to begin with.

It’s a common pattern. Folks tend to remember the headline even after the have forgotten the article. They remember the outrageous accusation long after they have forgotten the reasoned rejoinder. They remember the error long after the correction has faded from memory.

And that is of course the point of Limbaugh’s politics. It doesn’t really matter whether or not his critics prove louder than his supporters, much less whether or not they are right and he is wrong. What does matter is that Limbaugh has replaced a substantive debate over the merits of an insurance regulation with one about the imagined sex life of one particular college student.

Rush Limbaugh characterized Fluke’s testimony as a plea for public assistance with contraception to help sustain her personal sex life. The fact that Fluke made no mention whatsoever regarding her own personal sexual activities seems to have escaped Rush Limbaugh, or at least his public comments on the issue.

Subsequent outrage has focused primarily on the ethics of Rush’s personal attacks on Fluke. That Limbaugh has apologized does little to help matters. The apology was limited to his use of two words. It was followed immediately by renewed attempts to misrepresent Fluke’s testimony and eventually stirred into a narrative about sinking to the level of liberal rhetoric (because apparently such tactics are distinctively liberal).

Really, there are too many errors and lies in Limbaugh’s take to correct them all. One hardly knows where to begin!

But herein lies the central problem. What Fluke was actually doing was trying to show the need for the availability of insurance policies that cover contraception. She explained the financial needs for such policies and she testified to the existence of medical uses of contraception beyond birth control. Her testimony only begins to touch upon that latter subject.

One can certainly question Fluke’s presentation. A critic can double check her math on the cost of birth control. He can ask for documentation of the actual cases she mentions (or others like them). He can even raise questions about the total impact of laws requiring the availability of coverage, or the acceptability of Obama’s present compromise with Congress. All of these might be reasonable questions to which reasonable answers might be offered.

We could have such a debate.

And of course some of these arguments are taking place, but they must now take place in the shadow of Limbaugh’s personal attacks. Long before anyone on Fluke’s side of the discussion can begin to answer the real criticisms of Obama’s policy and Fluke’s testimony, they must first wade through the poisoned waters of Rush’s lurid imagination. And the real problem here is that imagination, perverse as it is, remains far more vivid than the details of the actual political decision at hand.

This is a victory for Limbaugh and the right wing echo chamber. One may pray that it proves to be a Pyrrhic victory, that he and those who have joined in Limbaugh’s tactics will pay dearly in lost advertizing revenues and diminished public status.

But that is a vain hope.

What Rush and his ilk do best is to inject this kind of personal invective into an already difficult subject. He brings public support for the conservative cause, not by appeal to conservative principles, but by triggering the anger of those with little real grasp of conservative politics (much less those of liberals). And those with but a thin grasp of fiscal conservatism or the ironic politics of Federalism may yet be moved by contempt for the morals of a loose woman. This the bet made by Limbaugh and others mocking Fluke.

It is unfortunately a sound bet.

In the end, Limbaugh’s story will prove more compelling than Fluke’s, not because it is the more sound argument, but because it is the more psychologically moving.

This is the power of Limbaugh, of Oreilly, of Hannity, of Savage, of Coulter, of Beck, and of all the other professional bigots working the right wing echo chamber. It is a force for which the left has never found an adequate solution.

But the problem is not simply that the din of slut-shaming, race-baiting, and liberal bashing keeps the left on the defensive (and often beats left wing defenses outright), it is that these voices have also beaten the conservative thinkers of the nation as well. Those who might have sound reason to question left wing politics have long since fallen to the way side in American politics, their own points just as difficult to hear above the thunder and clash of the right wing hate-machine.

And what passes for ‘conservative’ comes ever closer to the living caricature that people such as Limbaugh embody.

The United States has been shifting steadily to the right, led not by the Republican party leadership or conservative intellectuals so much as the shrill voices of folks such as Limbaugh. Voices that are always happy to tell us this woman is a slut, that man is a communist, or that those on any form of public assistance are as undeserving as the day is long. It is frustrating to see how often these herders of prejudice have defeated the left in one political conflict after another.

It is still more alarming to see that people calling themselves “conservative” are increasingly unable to recognize their own political heritage, or take note of established political compromises. Cap&Trade (a free market counter-point to environmentalism) is now a socialist ploy. Because it is a Federal rather than state policy, Obamacare is a radical effort to destroy the free market. And Obama’s current compromise proposal parallels that offered in 28 states. While right wing bigots do their best to convince the public that the President’s new policies constitute an unprecedented attack on religious freedom, it is in fact a variant on policies already established in other jurisdictions.

Far from a demand that the public pay for her private sex life, Fluke sought to explain the benefits of covering birth control under insurance plans. The wisdom of such provisions has already been born out by the insurance industry itself which recognizes the option as a long-term cost saving measure. That private individuals, particularly those struggling their way through school, may find it difficult to pay for contraception should come as no surprise to anyone who has actually tried to live on a student’s budget. But insurance companies can discount the present cost of contraception against the savings it generates. It is for precisely this reason that such coverage need not lead to extra cost for anyone, much less the fantasies of public assistance touted by Limbaugh and his fans.

For women such as Fluke, the issue may well be the chance to get through school before finding themselves at the mercy of their own bodies. It is well enough to tell these women they should take responsibility for their own choices, but men do not have the choice pressed upon them with quite the same degree of urgency. Of course an accidental father may be required to pay child support, but that still falls far short of the consequences for a woman who must bear the child (and who will be far more likely to raise it). Insurance coverage makes possible a degree of protection from unwanted pregnancy (among other things) which would otherwise be unavailable to them. In practice, it can mean the difference between a successful education and dropping out of a program.

Limbaugh’s slut-shaming is nothing other than an attempt to dismiss the value of such benefits, to ensure that they are not weighed against the value of religious freedom as conservatives are now defining it.

Of course institutions such as the Conference of Catholic Bishops will argue that providing such policies contradicts their faith. This too is a value demanding our attention. But how far does the right of religious freedom extend? Does it really entitle an institution such as Georgetown to deny the option to its students? The requirement that insurance companies serving their students provide such coverage on their own is a reasonable compromise on the issue, one well established at the state level. Whether or not a co-payment would prove necessary or even acceptable remains an outlier in this discussion, but it is needn’t prove to be a deal-breaker.

If the Obama administration has shown unusual aggression on the issue, so has the Council of catholic Bishops, and so have the Republicans. Time and again, Boehner and other Republicans have sought to preserve the religious liberties of institutions to discriminate against individuals on religious grounds. (Witness the Head-Start debacle of 2005.) If their is an argument to be made that such policies protect the religious liberties of corporate entities, another argument can be made that they threaten the liberties of those that deal with such entities. Ultimately, the Republican vision of religious freedom is most salient to the interests of those with significant political power. It has little to offer the individuals who may for one reason or another find themselves doing business with such entities.

The public must now weigh the value of preserving religious freedom for entities such as Georgetown against the possible costs to women such as Fluke and her classmates. There is every reason to hear the testimony of both sides, and to find a solution which facilitates the interests of all concerned.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee heard the concerns of those in religious institutions. What Fluke sought to do was explain the concerns of women who must deal with those institutions. There is no reason that testimony could not have been given due consideration.