Rush Limbaugh passed away today.
I for one have no intention of dancing on Rush Limbaugh’s grave. Neither will I sit passively while the right wing echo chamber tries to fashion his memory into something worthy of respect and admiration.
Limbaugh consistently claimed to be doing satire. He was “illustrating absurdity with the absurd,” or so he liked to say. What this meant in practice was a good example of Schrodinger’s Asshole, the practice of saying something outrageous, then deciding whether or not you meant it based on the response you get. When Limbaugh got enough support, then he stuck to his guns. When he caught enough flack, then he was just kidding, and we liberals really needed to get a sense of humor. Teenagers do this. So did this professional bigot.
Often Rush would enter into a segment by noting some objectionable behavior carried out by someone on the left. He would ask, “What if I did that?” Then he would have a field day. The resulting rant could always be dismissed as a parody of liberal behavior, but that was only if such disclaimers were necessary. All too often what Limbaugh said following this kind of set-up became God’s own truth in the minds of his followers. What Rush did or didn’t mean by his comments on any given show was always up for revision. His ‘satire’ was never more than an exercise in plausible deniability, and his constantly insincere commentary carved a lasting place in the literal understanding of the ‘conservative’ mind of American politics.
So, what is Limbaugh’s legacy?
Let’s take a look at just one of the many interventions Limbaugh made in our national politics.
Limbaugh’s comments on Sandra Fluke.
This was part of the debate over The Affordable Care Act, specifically, a question about whether or not the Catholic University, Georgetown, was entitled to an exemption from required standards of insurance coverage for their students. The requirement in this case was the obligation to cover birth control. Sandra Fluke was one of several people called to testify before a Congressional committee on the matter in February of 2012, but she was excluded for for a number of reasons. A week later, the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee met and invited her to speak.
In her remarks, Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown, made the case for mandating full coverage of birth control at Georgetown. Her comments focused on the use of birth control to combat health problems such as polycystic ovary syndrome. Fluke told the story of a friend suffering from this condition, one who paid over a hundred dollars a month for birth control that was specifically used to combat this particular health condition.
At no point in her testimony did Sandra Fluke comment on her own sex life or any birth control expenses she herself might have had.
On February 29th, Rush Limbaugh commented on Fluke’s testimony with the following diatribe:
What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex — what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”(As quoted in The Huffington Post, emphasis in the original.)
Subsequent controversy focused on the rudeness of Limbaugh’s commentary, on his decision to call Fluke a ‘slut’ and a ‘Prostitute’. Many on the right wing of the political spectrum came to Limbaugh’s defense, but in this case the backlash was sufficient to threaten earnings for Limbaugh’s show. In response, Rush came out with the following apology.
For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke. I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress. I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities. What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit? In my monologue, I posited that it is not our business whatsoever to know what is going on in anyone’s bedroom nor do I think it is a topic that should reach a Presidential level. / My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.March 3rd, 2012, As quoted in Wikipedia.
Limbaugh later added that he had acted to much like a liberal in making such remarks (Wiki again).
To say that Limbaugh’s apology was disingenuous is putting it mildly. The sheer irony of a man denying that he meant to launch a personal attack on a woman he had described as a ‘slut’ and a ‘Prostitute’ while lecturing her on the importance of personal responsibility is beyond outrageous. Adding that the nature of his error was essentially that he had acted too much like a liberal doesn’t help much. In effect, Limbaugh’s apology was really a thinly disguised effort to press forward with his attack.
Naturally, Fluke rejected his apology.
What always struck me as the most important outcome of all of this is the fact that Rush Limbaugh never retracted the central deceit of his comments on the matter. Fluke had not been talking about her own sex life or that of anyone else. Her point had always been that medical conditions could generate the need for birth control and even drive up its expense. One could find a lot to dispute in Fluke’s testimony, and reasonable arguments could be made about the policies in question, but it is simply not true to say that she was asking anyone to pay for her personal birth control. If Limbaugh was ever confused about this fact, he surely knew it by the time he produced his pseudo-apology. Not only did Limbaugh leave that lie on the table, he pressed forward with it in the very way he worded his fake apology.
In fact, the lie stands to this day.
Limbaugh’s fans, and countless ‘conservatives’ all over the United States still think of Sandra Fluke as the woman who wanted a university to pay for her own personal birth control, the liberal who wanted Georgetown to fund her own sex life. Whatever ‘conservatives’ think of Limbaugh’s language and general conduct, his narrative still dominates the right wing take on this matter. The lie that Limbaugh used to drown out more reasonable efforts at debating the policy implications of the day has never been rectified. It still clouds the issues, and it still paints a bullseye on Sandra Fluke which America’s right wing will be all to happy to take shots at the next time she dares to enter the public eye one more time.
This is Rush Limbaugh’s legacy. This is the long term outcome of his rhetoric, the result of a juvenile game of “maybe I mean it – maybe I don’t.” In this instance, Limbaugh’s intervention served not only to harm an individual but to leave a lasting source of disinformation which he never corrected in any way.
This lie is Limbaugh’s legacy.
This lie and countless others like it.