As the Limbaugh-Fluke flap dies out, the right wing blogosphere has fielded a number of diversion tactics, not the least of them being the good old fashioned tu quoque argument that liberals do it too. They have fielded several examples of putatively equivalent behavior, but Bill Maher’s comments about Sarah Palin seem to get the most mileage. He has used quite a few derogatory terms to describe Palin, several of which have sexist overtones every bit as vile as those of Limbaugh.
So, is there a difference? Well, yes.
Sarah Palin has a history of persistent dishonesty, malice, and utter stupidity, all committed in the public eye. Called out for her short-comings, Palin has consistently doubled down, blamed others for her failings, and produced one excuse after another for conduct that falls well short of basic human decency. Yet the pseudo-conservative machine that is Limbaugh, Fox News, and right wing radio supports her anyway.
Somewhere in the time since Palin first became a candidate for Vice President of the United States the public criticism ceased to be about demonstrating her faults and became an effort to shame her and her supporters for ignoring (and even celebrating) those faults. Insulting Palin may not be admirable behavior, and it certainly isn’t an adequate solution to the problem posed by a political base completely devoid of judgement. But the transformation of public criticism into outright abuse didn’t happen on day one, or even day three of her candidacy. It happened over time and in direct response to an extensive record of shoddy behavior on her own part.
Fluke, one the other hand, gave testimony in one (unofficial) public hearing. This and this alone was enough to warrant the attacks made on her character and (more importantly) a very deliberate misrepresentation of her actual testimony.
Furthermore, Rush Limbaugh did not merely call Fluke a slut, he supported that insult with false claims about her testimony and her actual sex life. His use of the terms “slut” and “prostitute” served not merely to indicate Rush’s contempt for the woman in question, but to promote a calculated misrepresentation of her politics and her behavior.
At the end of the day, Fluke wasn’t attacked for anything she actually said or did, but for a fantasy scenario having little to do with anything she actually said or did.
In short, Palin has become an object of ridicule, not because she is conservative (she isn’t), but because she has proven herself to be incompetent and shameless. Fluke became an object of ridicule for no reason other than that she was on the other side of this issue long enough to get public attention.
If neither attack is acceptable, each plays a very different role in the current discourse. Take away the insults to Palin and we still need a means of characterizing the public behavior of a person who has proven herself to be utterly irresponsible. Take away the insults to Fluke and we may just begin to evaluate her actual testimony.
That is one very considerable difference.