I’ve read a few things about Rush Limbaugh this last week or so. Of course, I shared my own thoughts on the man, and no, they were not be the kindest things you might read about Rush, but I meant every damned word of it. What I see in the way of praise for Limbaugh coming from the right wing blogosphere in the wake of his detah has me shaking me shaking my head and grumbling. No surprise there, of course, but it does bring to mind an extra thought on the matter of this awful man and his awful legacy.
I have often thought that people like Rush Limbaugh do more damage to conservatism than they will ever do to liberalism or progressivism. We still think what we think over on this side of the political spectrum. Professional bigots such as Rush Limbaugh may be able to drown out our voices from time to time, but they can’t force us to follow their own script, to think the way they pretend we do. Our politics remains what it is despite their best efforts to distort it.
The same cannot be said of conservatism.
More than any other right wing hack, Rush Limbaugh successfully redefined conservatism in American politics. He made it what it is today. This is what all the countless posthumous dittos written in remembrance of rush consistently amount to, a story about hoe he redefined conservatism and effectively made conservative politics the force that it is today. Throw in a couple gratuitous bits of pseudo-patrtiotism and some faux Christian sentiments, and you have the bulk of what is said to honor the man; he made conservatism what it is today.
Just think about what that means!
How it actually worked?
The Sandra Fluke debacle is a great example. It illustrates perfectly why Rush Limbaugh’s impact on conservatism is nothing to celebrate. Sandra Fluke’s testimony was about an aspect of Affordable Care Act, something conservatives generally opposed. There were plenty of things that could be said in response to Fluke’s testimony. People could have questioned her estimates of the cost. They could have pressed her to substantiate various anecdotes in her testimony. They could have argued any number of details, and at the end of the day, there would still have been one very serious question about whether or not a national policy mandating the details of insurance coverage for institutions like Georgetown is really the best way to handle any of America’s healthcare problems, let alone those that Fluke was talking about. That is the debate I would expect to have with conservatives on such a matter.
That debate did not happen.
Instead, we got a national dialogue about the sex life of a law student.
We got the debate about the sex life of Sandra Fluke, not because she invited it, but because Rush Limbaugh preferred that round of right wing gossip to the substantive debate we could have had – should have had! In dropping this gigantic red herring on the national stage, Rush Limbaugh did not merely silence Fluke, he also silenced the legitimate voices of conservatives who had something worthwhile to say about the matter. This was not the decision of a strong conservative voice; this was the preference of a cowardly man who had nothing to contribute on the topic hand. Limbaugh had to lie to get his version of the debate in the public sphere, and he did not hesitate, not this time or any other. That his intervention could be thought of as a strong expression of conservatism is damning praise for conservatives. A strong voice for any cause doesn’t start diverting attention from the real issues, which was always Limbaugh’s modus operandi.
In the end, we on the left still know why we support the ACA, some form of universal payer, or any other sweeping national reform, but the ranks of Republicans who can tell you anything more than sordid stories from the right wing gossip industry grow thinner with every passing year. They do so, because right wing media was remade in the image of Rush Limbaugh.
What Rush did for conservatives was to replace their best arguments with a range of cheap gotcha games like the one he played on Fluke. Of course, by the time of the Fluke affair, Rush already had countless allied pundits who desperately wanted to be him. Combined with Rush himself, their collective chorus of nonsense effectively drowned out any serious efforts to discuss healthcare. Instead we debated whether or not Obama was a socialist, a Muslim, or Kenyan. And then of course, there was talk of death panels. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this nonsense is merely a means to an end; it drives the public consciousness and narrows the options of those who rise to fame on the basis of such lies. To this day, countless Republicans think Barack Obama is a Muslim and that he is not a natural born citizen of the United States. I also hear talk of lizard-people, but anyway… This was the crap that filled our nations airwaves as some struggled to fix our very broken healthcare system.
This was also the crap that fed the imagination of the idiots who stormed our capital.
And the idiot politicians who stormed them on.
…and the idiots who don’t understand how the one led to the other.
We can lay this fact, the fact that conservatives all over America were so easily distracted then and now, directly at Limbaugh’s feet. It was Limbaugh who took diversions like the one he played on Fluke to the top of the media market and the stage for propaganda operations like Fox News. It was Limbaugh that crushed any hope that conservatives with anything substantive to say would find their way into the news cycle and replaced it with an endless supply of bobble-head pundits ready and willing to caricature themselves and their supposed politics.
The modern republican Party is an talent agency for right wing media. Folks run for office so they can command better speaker fees and maybe even land a spot on some cable television program pretending to be conservative. Thoughts of actual governance completely escape the modern Republican leadership. That’s why Ted Cruz ended up in Cancun while AOC and Beto went to work helping people through the crisis in Texas. Time was when we could have debated whose vision was better for America. Today, we are left with the simple fact that they tried and he didn’t. Hell, Cruz didn’t even come back to address the crisis killing people in his state; he came back to address his own PR crisis, no more and no less.
If you think that example an outlier in Republican politics, then you have not been paying attention.
Limbaugh certainly did redefine conservative politics; he transformed it into a form of low-grade pornography. It sells better than conservatism did before he came along, and it distracts voters and party officials alike from the real work that needs to be done in American government. But it does get ratings.
Our former President liked ratings.
He liked them a lot.
These priorities did not come from nowhere. They came from a right wing circus crafted in the image of Rush Limbaugh.
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.”
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.
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.
Believe it or not, there was a time when liberals were the civil libertarians of American politics and conservatives were the folks most likely to advocate repression of individual rights. I do not mean simply that this was the substance of our nation’s politics at that time. No. I mean, that this was largely the understanding of people across the board of American politics. Lest you think this makes liberals the obvious good guys and conservatives the obvious baddies, I should add that a good portion of conservative rhetoric stressed the excess and indulgence of civil rights themes in liberal politics. The Republican Party was also much more invested in a kind of Edmund Burke version of ‘conservatism,’ so they were explicitly concerned with the preservation of long standing traditions, even at the expense of individual rights. Hell, they used to tell you so!
I don’t know how far this pattern stretches back in American history, but as I came of age in the 80s, it was sufficiently common to be taken for granted by a good number of people on each side of the battles we then fought. Back then, liberals consistently played the underdog, a stance often granted without challenge. For their part, conservatives often spoke with the authority of the ages; they spoke on behalf of powerful institutions, and they were the voices most likely to wield power consciously at the expense of individual rights.
A lot has changed.
…at least in the way we Americans typically talk about politics.
This is all broad strokes commentary, of course, but I think you can see it in the general tenor of the times. William F. Buckley, Jr.s first book, for example, was an appeal to Yale to crack down on the damned unbelievers at that institution. It was liberals who fought the banning of books. It was liberals who defended artists in music and film facing censorship from government in one form or another. It was liberals who supported birth control, gay rights, and much of the sexual revolution. It was liberals who defended the burning of the flag, and so on. In those days, before the right wing learned how to tell stories of ‘political correctness’ there was a definite sense that in any political battle you could expect the liberals (and along with them, many on the far left) to side with advocates of individual liberty and conservatives would tell us why something else mattered more.
There were exceptions of course, the most significant ones lying in the area of economics, which threw actually skewed the normal response to power inn both liberal and conservatives politics. So, we could certainly find some battles where the dominant themes were reversed. Also, some of the battles outlined above still track the same way now, but even there, the vocabulary has changed. One topics such as racism, for example, even the moderate left is no longer interested in individual acts of discrimination. If it ain’t systemic, it ain’t racism in left wing circles anymore. Meanwhile, the right wing is happy to use individual acts of racism as a wedge in which to insert the word ‘reverse’ into any discussion of racism in which they willingly take part. If it ain’t reverse racism, it ain’t racism in right wing circles anymore. It’s an absurd situation, to say the least, and part of what got us here is a massive shift in the means by which left and right wingers frame the issues in American politics. The left (and here I am including moderate liberals) wants to talk about larger issues; the right just wants to talk about individual rights.
What we don’t talk, at least not with each other, is how these themes intersect.
How the left got to where it is today is an interesting question, but I am not going to talk about that in this post. I am more interested in how the right got to where it now sits, utterly blind to the public welfare and completely disingenuous in its sense of individual rights.
Suffice to say that I do not think this evolution has been a positive force in American politics. The right wing embrace of individual rights hasn’t done much to enhance them.
Far from it!
How did we get to the point where a significant portion of America’s right wing thinks it’s acceptable to set aside the results of an election on little more than rumors and pornographic conspiracy narratives? How did we reach the moment in which the President of the United States would incite a riot and shut down our government over this very thing? How did we arrive at the principle that protesters could occupy federal buildings with weapons on their person?
The extreme violence of this event has been repudiated, of course, even by those who helped to stir that very mob to its frenzy, and the great bulk of Republican leadership is still unwilling to see in this event – the bloodshed spilled in our government buildings on behalf of a sitting President – anything so significant as to merit impeachment or invocation of Amendment 25. Mike Pence, one of the very people literally hunted by the domestic terrorists at the head of this riot (people who would have counted him an ally just last month), even Mike Pence doesn’t think this is worthy of removing the lunatic from the office Trump trashes with his very presence.
And still concern trolls all about the country urge us all to try and understand the perspective of Trump and his supporters!
How did we get here?
I think a large part of the answer to that question lies in the way ‘conservative’ ideas about authority and individual liberty have changed over the last couple decades.
In a name, it was Bill Clinton!
No, I don’t mean to suggest that it was anything Clinton did that caused this change, though Goddammit he sure did enough to lend credence to the worst of his detractors. What I mean to suggest is that his own Presidency signaled a radical change in the way that conservatives approached our government. They didn’t like Carter before him, no, but they REALLY didn’t like Clinton. More to the point, they simply didn’t accept losing control of the White House.
During the administration of Bill Clinton, elements within the Republican Party abandoned any pretense to work with their opposition. Newt Gingrich led the charge in Congress, abandoning efforts to compromise on actual legislation and putting the GOP political machine on permanent campaign mode. He repudiated the very notion of putting country over party, and made it the norm to fight on any and all fronts, even at the expense of the American people.
I mean, what the Hell? You can always blame the other side, right?
That’s what Newt would do.
It’s what he did.
What happened to cultural conservatism was more important.
What happened there was Rush Limbaugh. First Morton Downy, Jr., of course, but after him, Rush Limbaugh. I still don’t think the majority of Americans quite realize how important Limbaugh was back in the early 90s. It was Limbaugh who taught countless bullies and bigots to call themselves ‘conservatives,’ people who weren’t really all that interested in politics but were happy to laugh at anyone supported by liberals and to berate any woman foolish enough to call themselves ‘feminists.’ Limbaugh entertained his audiences by attacking a parade of underprivileged people seeking help in various forms, and he gave his audience the weapons to hurt such people for generations to come. It was also Limbaugh who transformed the culture of conservatism from a Burkeian defense of tradition into the smart-ass voice of a teen rebel, or for that matter an internet troll. Limbaugh never really made a serious case for cultural conservatism, but he was relentless in his critique of liberalism and his challenge of any authority liberals might come to wield. Whether it was the campus speech codes coming into fruition at the time or inclusiveness in the academic curriculum, the authority of the Bureau of Land Management, efforts to enlist government in combating the AIDS epidemic (yes, Limbaugh made fun of that!), or any number of issues in the culture wars of the time, what Limbaugh did most was to poke fun at liberal pretense and tell stories about the abuse of authority by liberals. Conservative use of similar authority was never at issue on his shows, but this was simple hypocrisy. It was a conscious effort to equate liberalism with the abuse of authority, to delegitimize liberal use of authority in any form, and where necessary, to burn down the authority of any institutions then dominated by liberal voices. Attendant to this cause was a willful erasure of thought about conservative use of authority, and erasure of consciousness that that could ever really happen. Even when conservatives were in charge, their actions would be measured, henceforth, in terms of the response to liberal authority. Limbaugh’s audience bought that story to be sure.
It was through Limbaugh that countless Americans came to see authority as the domain of liberalism, so much so, that even a sitting president could count as an underdog, so much so that Hillary’s years in Washington could have made her responsible for everything that happened in government in the decades before 2016, that Biden’s years in office could now make him the new fall-guy for everything done by the Federal government over the last 40 years, so much so that Biden rather than Donald Trump could be the man most responsible for America’s failure to mount an effective response to the Covid outbreak.
So complete is the equation of authority with liberalism in right wing thought at this stage in our history that Joe Biden, a private citizen in 2020, was regarded by many cultural conservatives as more responsible for our nation’s disastrous pandemic response than the very President of the United States!
In right wing thought, all government power is liberalism. Conservative use of power is by definition the opposition to liberalism, the opposition to big government, even if the policies in question expand the power of that government. If a conservative is found to have expanded the power of the feds in the end, well then they were never really a conservative after all.
It takes cultural conservatives the time it takes to read a tweet now to wash their hands of one of their own.
Any of their own!
It was Rush Limbaugh that taught cultural conservatives these narratives. His message has been re-enforced, of course, by countless pundits in the echo-chamber, but no other voice in American politics could was ever so consistent, so loud, or so shameless in its repetition of this theme. He played the smart-ass in the back of the room mocking the liberalism as though it were a teacher hated by every student (American citizen) in the class, and he played that role so well, it became the dominant trope of right wing politics.
At least one other major development in U.S. politics helped to shape the rise of underdog themes in American conservatism, and that is a series of conflicts that reshaped the way conservatives thought about (or at least talked about) police power. Oh they are still happy to back the blue, of course, so long as we are talking about treatment of individual suspects, and certainly in relation to just about any conflict with persons of color, but during the early years of the Clinton administration, America’s right wingers added a new victim narrative to their own list of stories about police power.
They did this in the wake of Waco and Ruby Ridge.
I still think about this with a bitter sense of irony as I remember conservatives around me responding to the initial conflict at Waco by telling me how much they worried that the Clinton administration would simply let those bastards get by with it. Police had been shot, and they were deeply worried that a liberal softy might prove soft on the thugs who did it. After the travesty, I also remember conservatives laughing and telling me how glad they were that those idiots got what was coming to them.
That was before the Branch Davidians became martyrs to conservative politics, along with those killed at Ruby Ridge.
In the wake of these tragedies, Federal authorities doing much the same as they had under Republican administrations suddenly became symbols of liberal authoritarianism. The right wing folded in complains of a “New World Order” to be ushered in by Bill Clinton in with the horror stores about Waco and Ruby Ridge, all the while while forgetting that George Bush, Senior, had used that very phrase to help sell his war in the Gulf (a war most of these folks had openly supported). Everywhere fears of oppression by big government made their way into right wing rhetoric. G. Gordon Liddy spoke openly of shooting ‘jack-booted thugs” in the head, and countless cultural conservatives forgot that Liddy himself had been one of the worst of these thugs, the most openly corrupt.
Everything the Feds did under Clinton became fodder for these stories. When Elián González became embroiled in a custody dispute between relatives in Florida and his father back in Cuba, he too became a symbol of liberal excess. Countless Republicans declared Janet Reno’s determination to send González back to his father as the height of liberal abuse. How, they asked, could we send a small child back to a miserable life in Castro’s Cuba?
…as thousands of Haitian refugees, including their children, rotted in an internment camp at Guantanamo Bay.
The right wing wing spin on these events was shameless in the extreme.
And it worked.
A substantial portion of America’s so-called ‘conservatives’ embraced these themes about conflict between private citizens and “jack-booted thugs” serving the Federal Government. That these thugs were presumed to serve liberal interests goes without saying, not that that story makes any sense. All of this dovetails with the standard rhetoric from the NRA (“from my cold dead hands…”), and it must have been a real comfort to white supremacists to see otherwise mainstream Republicans taking common cause with them on conflicts with Federal authorities. If the KKK and its brethren had lingered in the wilderness of American politics for a time, this narrative about armed conflicts with the Feds brought them in out of the cold.
Today’s Republican Party gives them a place at the table.
On a personal note: it was this theme that led me to wash my own hands of the gun culture. I’d grown up with firearms, loved them at one point in my life, and still harbored a soft spot in my heart for firearms. Listening to the growing fanaticism of the gun lobby, back in the 90s, I came to see the gun lobby as a positive evil independent of the firearms themselves. Whatever the ins and outs of gun control, it just isn’t a good thing to have a substantial portion of the American public openly fantasizing about armed conflict with the Federal Government. In selling its products to the right wing through such stories, the NRA and their allies do us all a great disservice.
It’s one thing to talk about gong to war with the Federal Government, but that begs the question of just who will you be fighting when that happens. When Timothy McVeigh addressed that question in 1995, his answer was people in a government building in Oklahoma City.
Those people included children.
Anyone who couldn’t see this coming was beyond blind to the realities of right wing politics.
Then, as now, they talked about such things openly. One has only to take them at their word.
I still recall a leader from the very Michigan Militia which McVeigh had ties with speaking at a televised “Town Hall” meeting after the bombing. He cited a long litany of abuses by the Federal government as partt of the reason for his own politics. I still remember that one of the horrors he cited was the Sand Creek massacre, an event carried about by the Third Colorado Cavalry, in affect a local militia. The American public learned about events at Sand Creek largely through the efforts of Federal troops who refused to take part in it. None of this prevented the event in question from becoming fodder for the relentless story of big government run amok and the hope that militias could counter that.
The irony of that was excruciating!
I thought about all of this when I heard that Michigan Militia had recently plotted to kidnap and put Governor Whitmer on trial. I thought about that plot recently as I watched video of a domestic terrorist inside Congressional buildings with his face covered and police-style zip-ties in his hand. I try not to jump to conclusions, but it’s hard to escape the notion that he was looking to make his political enemies into hostages. And if that seems to extreme to think about, one has only to remember that McVeigh’s own efforts to put right wing rhetoric into practice.
It should not surprise us to find that people who speak of the government as their enemy would be willing to carry out violent attacks against that very government.
In the past few days I have been told by numerous people that the recent attack on our government was carried out by extremists, that the actual violence was done by Antifa, and that no-one, not even Donald Trump himself has sanctioned their crimes or their violence. Of course it isn’t the first time that right wing violence has been blamed on Antifa, but this is a particularly shameless version of that theme. Anyone who thought this was going to be peaceful would have been naive in the extreme to do so. Anyone who thought Trump wished it to be so was ignoring the extremism of his own rhetoric (and the precedent he set in encouraging people to beat protesters at his rallies back in 2016), Plausible deniability is an art form in right circles, and Trump is one of its greatest practitioners, but the extremist rhetoric used to sell the “wild” protest could hardly be thought innocent. Trump wanted a disruptive presence in Washington on the day his loss would become official. Nothing short of stopping Congress in its tracks would have served his purposes.
Anyone who says that Donald Trump or his supporters are not responsible for these events is a Goddamned liar.
I have also been told that one of the problems here is the degree to which the media, the courts, and the rest of us have been dismissive of concerns about the integrity of the election. This was an insurrection to be sure, but it was an insurrection led, so I am told, by people whose voice and whose votes have been silenced by the powers that be.
And here we have it!
This is the ultimate pay-off for all these years of underdogging right wing politics. An action carried out in the service of the President of the United States, a man born to wealth and sporting a long history of abusing it, will count for so many cultural conservatives as being done out of love for the common citizen. An effort to set aside the legitimate votes of 80 million Americans is, in effect, no more than an effort to protect the rights of the voters. And a mob full of people who literally attacked our nation’s government still counts as patriots! Those whose hatred of American government, of liberal politicians, and even of the newly demonized Vice President, still count as having acted out of love for their country.
I always thought Morton Downey Jr.’s cigarette would make a fitting symbol of the modern Republican Party. I remember seeing him blow the smoke into the faces of liberals he would bring on his show to shout at. I remember him using that cigarette as a symbol of defiance, a misguided token of individual freedom standing strong against a world of oppressive liberalism. The dangers of secondary smoke had finally sunk into the public’s mind, and people (not just liberals) were beginning to protect themselves from it. With Americans putting up ‘no smoking’ signs in institutions all across the nation, Mort smoked like a chimney just to spite them. He shared his smoke with others whenever he could, at least when the cameras were rolling, and this obnoxious act of self-destruction, discourtesy, and outright assault helped to define him as a ‘conservative’ voice in the ever more carnival circles of right wing politics. He became a shining star of right wing politics, for a time, riding a wave of support with a cigarette in his hand.
And then of course it killed him.
As I recall, it was Rush Limbaugh who replaced him when Downey got himself fired from a radio gig in Sacramento California. Rush also replaced Downey in his role as the most prominent right wing loud mouth. Rush got to keep that role way longer than Downey did, and he accomplished way more with it too. Rush substantially transformed ‘conservative’ politics in the age of Clinton (or more to the point, Newt). Through Rush Limbaugh, bigots and bullies everywhere learned to call themselves ‘conservatives,’ and through Rush conservatives learned to lean less on the authority of age-old traditions and enjoy the role of petulant children defying the authority of liberals whenever and whenever possible. Where old-school conservatives would invoke timeless truths as though speaking with an ancient voice, Ditto-heads mocked and sneered like the slackers from the back of the classroom.
Limbaugh also took on the role of the public smoker in chief. I don’t recall seeing him blow smoke in anybody’s face, but then again, I don’t recall seeing Rush ever spend much time in the company of those who didn’t share his childish pseudo-conservative politics. What I do remember is countless images of him with a cigar in his hand or in his mouth and a smug look on his face. He too wanted us to know that we couldn’t stop him from smoking. He too wanted everyone to know that we couldn’t stop him from killing himself. He was enjoying his personal freedom and there wasn’t a damned thing we could do about it.
It isn’t merely that these two clowns have smoked themselves into cancer. Were that the case, I really would consider it their own business. No, what makes this all a matter of public concern is their use of tobacco in fashioning their own self-image. Both used smoking to symbolize right wing politics, to cast their own personal dances with death in the guise of rebellion and to cast efforts to combat the tobacco industry as just so much arrogance by the left. Just as Mort before him, Rush minimized the threats of secondary smoke. He too denied the health risks that smokers impose on others as well as themselves. Limbaugh too celebrated a known health risk on a regular basis, and he too turned it into a disingenuous symbol of rebellion against authority.
To hear these professional morons speak, American smokers had become freedom fighters and accomplished healthcare professionals become just another form of meddlesome liberal out to take your freedoms.
Sadly, this is hardly an unusual feature of right wing politics, not just the self-destruction part; the taking the rest of us with them part as well. From pollution controls and safety standards throughout industry to the flagrant refusal to address climate change, right wing pseudo-conservative politics embraces countless risks to human health and happiness. They flaunt the half-based idiocy of Sunday-Morning Scientists in answer to the work of dedicated scientific professionals on countless issues of public policy. They consistently do so in the name of personal freedoms and stories about confrontation with left wing authoritarianism.
These fuckers will one day kill us all.
Mort’s cigarette and Rush’s cigar really are perfect symbols of what American ‘conservatism’ has become.
When you catch the other guy doing something wrong, most folks would say that’s an opportunity of sorts, an opportunity to correct them. For some though, it’s license. This is the basis for much of Rush Limbaugh’s schtick. His narratives rarely stray far from the Libs-do-it-too theme. He is particularly fond of saying that he is only “illustrating absurdity with the absurd”, which is a fancy way of saying that his cheap shots are really attempts to undermine some parallel logic on the part of his political enemies. Were such moments carefully tacked to some particular piece of liberal rhetoric, this might be a plausible angle, but this just isn’t generally the case.
If Rush Limbaugh is satire, then it is a particularly adolescent form of satire. Whether or not he is just kidding depends a lot on how much backlash he gets, and whether or not he and his fans feel like distancing themselves from a given comment. All to often, his cheap shots become gospel to a significant segment of the pseudo-conservative public. His game becomes satire precisely when Limbaugh is forced to deal with the absence of a rational case for his position.
Case in point, many people still seem to think Sandra Fluke testified about her own sexual activities and/or that she wanted the public to pay for her contraceptives. She didn’t.
But that’s a different rant. What has my attention today is a rather different gambit, Limbaugh’s efforts to spin the captivity and sexual abuse of three young women in Cleveland Ohio into a diatribe against the welfare state. Media Matters ran a story about Limbaugh’s comments here. The audio is painful to anyone with an ounce of sense, but it’s what I will be commenting on, so my apologies…
Limbaugh’s narrative is slick as Hell. He doesn’t assert that the Cleveland kidnapping has anything directly to do with welfare opportunism; he simply uses the coincidence of an episode of Hawaii 5-0 to field the story. The potential effectiveness of this meme is readily apparent, welfare as a subsidy for kidnappers, the mere thought of it may do more to combat aid to the poor than a thousand stories about the dreaded welfare mother. Limbaugh doesn’t need to assert the truth of his narrative; it is enough to generate the association. Much as he has done with one outrageous suggestion after another, Limbaugh settles for insinuation.
Limbaugh will of course cry foul (or ‘drive-by media’) if people call him on the claim, because of course he never quite made it. But that is a skillful propagandist for you. Long after his audience has forgotten the details of his particular presentation, they will remember the narrative he presented for them. The power of that narrative is what will matter in the long run, and neither the facts of the case, nor the logic of Limbaugh’s half-assed argument will matter in the long run.
But what really interests me is the disclaimer; “I couldn’t help but make the connection. I mean if everybody else in the low-information crowd is gonna use what happens on TV for reality, why can’t I?”
‘Low-information crowd’ is of course a reference to ‘low information voters’ which is how the right wing echo-chamber has taken to referring to liberals. That this summary judgement is utter nonsense has little to do with its value in pseudo-conservative rhetoric, and Limbaugh must know that his own less-than-impressive fan-base will love to think of their enemies as ill-informed. Of course this remark adds another ingredient to that theme, suggesting that liberals rely too much on TV for their information. He doesn’t need a reason to believe this is true, and neither will his fans. It is enough to assert it.
But all of this is the powdered sugar on the brownie, so to peak. The real work of this disclaimer is the suggestion that if there is anything wrong with using a TV show to interpret a news story about which Limbaugh admits himself to be ignorant, well then that fault lies with his liberal opponents. They are the ones who do this for real, Limbaugh is merely showing us how silly they are. This gambit is a tu quoque fallacy at best, or in terms with a little more widespread usage, it is two-wrongs-make-a-right. I think teh average third grader can understand the problem with this gambit, but it’s pretty much standard operational procedure for Limbaugh.
The particular particular utility of this you-do-it-too gambit lies in its conjunction with the inability to field a hard claim in this instance (and so many others). Limbaugh has no evidence that this kidnapping is a welfare scam; he just wants people to associate the two themes, preferably without thinking too much about the details. A quick they-do-it-too serves both to relieve him of responsibility for checking the facts before spouting off about them, and to shift responsibility for his own sleazy gambit to others. If it is shocking that Limbaugh would make (or almost make) such a wildly outrageous claim without any evidence, well then that is all the fault of liberals, because Limbaugh is only satirizing their behavior.
…except it isn’t.
This is Limbaugh advancing a narrative, and past experience has shown it is an effective strategy. Time and again Limbaugh’s fans have adopted his narratives as gospel truth long after the facts should have led any reasonable person to conclude otherwise. There is no satire in the successful propagation of such lies. The tu quoque gambit is there simply to cover his tracks in the event that the backlash proves too strong. When the public tires of answering this kind of idiocy, Rush and his fans stick to their guns.
This is not mere entertainment, and it is not satire. It is a propagandist doing what he does best, which is to deceive the public. The man has made quite a career out of it.
What do you do when someone on your side says or does something so utterly beyond the pale that it is completely indefensible?
Those Americans calling themselves ‘conservatives’ got a chance to show us their response to this sort of dilemma back when Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke, actively misrepresenting her testimony before an unofficial hearing and insulting her on his radio show. He would later retract the insults while leaving his lies about Fluke’s actual testimony uncorrected. His lies continue to circulate through the population, effectively replacing a responsible debate about the wisdom of mandatory birth control coverage and reasonable accommodations for religious objection with a fantasy battle over personal sex lives and government subsidies. The end result would seem indefensible, even outright embarrassing for anyone implicated in supporting Limbaugh.
One would think the responsible thing to do would be to say not just ‘no’, but ‘Hell no’, and refuse to back Limbaugh’s approach to the subject. One might even suggest that such an approach would help to distinguish the conservatives from the many playground bullies currently reveling in the delusion that their sundry bits of prejudice add up to some sort of political philosophy.
Suffice to say this was not the most common Republican response to the situation. The right wing echo chamber cried foul over liberal backlash against Limbaugh and quickly spun the story into a case-study in liberal hypocrisy. Liberals condemn Limbaugh, so the argument goes, but then look at Bill Maher and his comments about Sarah Palin! (I recall a few other examples, but Maher clearly occupied center stage in the right wing response to this issue.) Thus, Limbaugh’s disgusting personal attacks on a young student activist became proof of liberal misogyny?
How many of the right wing pundits jumping on the “what about___” response ever bothered to make a principled criticism of Limbaugh, one that went beyond merely disclaiming the insults to call him to account for his misrepresentations of her testimony? I wouldn’t say that the answer is ‘none’, but it certainly falls well short of the total commenting on the issue. Most of these ‘conservatives’ have simply been content to comment on liberal hypocrisy without making any serious effort to correct those in their own camp.
The focus on liberal hypocrisy enables conservatives to defend Limbaugh and complain about Maher without ever laying their own cards on the table. So long as the focus of thought rests on whether or not liberals have been consistent on the issue, right wing pundits never have to take responsibility for addressing the issues squarely themselves. And they can effectively work both angles of the debate just as they accuse liberals of doing, all the while laying responsibility for the inconsistencies of the entire national discourse squarely at the feet of those damned liberals.
And thus the charge of hypocrisy facilitates the same.
We could call this particular gambit the META-HYPOCRISY SHUFFLE. It consists of disguising your own inconsistencies by pretending you are just responding to those of someone else. There is nothing particularly new about this tactic, nor is it exclusive to conservatives. And of course the plot thickens when calling attention to this problem as well, because one can always add another layer to the house of cards by refusing to take a stand on the particulars while complaining about the inconsistency of the other guy.
…and on into infinity.
The problem is easy enough to identify. Untangling it is another matter, not the least of reasons being that the perception of hypocrisy is easy to manipulate in a variety of ways.
If you are not sure whether or not any particular individual is guilty of hypocrisy, you can always use the tactic of INCONSISTENCY BY ASSOCIATION. This consists of treating all of those who belong to a given group as though they are collectively responsible for producing a single ideologically consistent position. Thus, if I can find one self-described conservative who says that it is wrong to degrade women, quote him, then go find another self-described conservative who does just that, well then voila! I have proven conservatives inconsistent.
…unless I haven’t.
To make the charge honestly, I need one person who does both things, not two or more people who simply share the label.
And of course there is always the possibility of GAMING THE PRINCIPLE. This is really just another variety of the straw man fallacy. The tactic exploits a common weakness that typically accompanies expressions of outrage. When people are really angry over something, they often fail to state the principles they feel have been violated with any degree of precision, …or even at all. This makes it easy for others to come along and rewrite the principle in question for them. Even if the outraged individual has spelled out the specific principles they feel have been violated, a loose paraphrase can often lead readers to forget that inconvenient detail.
Someone who feels that Sandra Fluke did not personally deserve Limbaugh’s personal attacks, for example, could easily be construed as claiming that one ought never to insult a political opponent (thus confusing a claim about what is a reasonable criticism with a claim that some people ought never to be criticized). The point here is to supply a principle to one’s critic that puts him on the worst footing possible, even if that principle has little to do with their actual concerns. From there it is a simple task to demonstrate the individual in question has violated the principle they never actually endorsed, and that’s Q.E.frickin-D.
Except that it isn’t.
To make the charge honestly one must be sure that a person has violated a principle she herself has actually advocated, not one that sounds close enough.
And finally there is the very simple tactic of SKIPPING THE FACTS. Just because accusations and insults may be leveled in all directions does not mean that all of them have equal value. Sometimes party A really has done something wrong and party B hasn’t. It’s easy enough to flip the tables of accusation and say; “see how you like it?”…but if the claims don’t have equal merit, then this gambit is hollow as hell.
All of these tactics help to transform the sort of inconsistency that shows up under the scrutiny of critical thinking into one that will show up in a political narrative whether or not it is warranted on the facts at hand. These tactics did not emerge with the Limbaugh-Fluke controversy, nor will they be filed away in the wake of that dust-up. They are constant presence in the political landscape, and the right wing of this country is making very effective use of them.
In the long run, the problem here is not that questions about liberal behavior have been put on the table; it’s that putting those questions on the table has become a very effective way to get questions about right wing behavior off the table.
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.
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.