For the last week my Facebook feed has been full of outrage and petitions (and, like every week, photos of people’s dinner). The outrage and petitions, if not necessarily the dinners, have been directed at Rush Limbaugh, the radio talk show host who despite various moral failings, intellectual shortcomings, and a glaring honesty deficit over a 20-year career has suddenly come perilously close to hitting bottom (if he actually has one).
Rush managed to wriggle his way into a slow news week by saying a number of unchivalrous things about a young law student called to testify before a Democratic subcommittee on health insurance and birth control. These hearings were purely symbolic, called to draw attention to the fact that the Republicans’ own hearings on the matter forgot to invite any women, and to get at least a couple of female opinions on the matter on record.
Limbaugh’s rantings on the matter were coarse, and insulting, and illustrated a disturbing, deep-seated hostility to women, and I don’t intend to quote or repeat them. Suffice to say, they were ungallant enough to prompt an online campaign to boycott his advertisers and get him pulled from the airwaves.
I certainly understand the impulse, and I wouldn’t miss Rush if he were gone. I never listen to his show, except on long drives when I lose NPR and can’t get a good classic rock station, and even then I never last longer than one 7-minute segment. Even though I’ve never agreed with anything I’ve heard him say and I find his know-it-all tone insulting and obnoxious, I do find him compelling in a weird way. Even so, the 7-minute bile eruptions he calls segments are punctuated by 19-minute blocks of ads even more annoying and unlistenable than Rush himself, and it is they that usually drive me to change the channel.
But of course those ads are Rush’s bread and butter, so pressure is being put on the advertisers to bail from Rush’s “Accounts Receivable” ledger in protest of his comments. While I don’t disagree with the sentiment, I’m not sure I see the point.
“Get Rush Off The Air.” Does that even exist anymore? Let’s say these petitions succeed and all of Rush’s sponsors pull out and Clear Channel fires him. Is there anyone anywhere who thinks that would be the last we hear of Rush Limbaugh? He would go from being the highest-rated political commentator on the radio to being the highest-rated political podcaster on the Internet in about four seconds.
Because even if you get rid of Rush, his audience is still going to be there, and is there anyone who thinks that his audience would not follow him to whatever media he chooses, be it Sirius, iTunes, or smoke signal? It’s not like these people are waiting for all the facts to come in on Rush — their minds are made up. Because while Limbaugh seems to be losing advertisers, I’d be more interested in whether he’s lost any listeners and I would bet a steak dinner that he’s lost close to none.
The things Rush said about this woman were pretty gross, but I’m not particularly bothered by them because they’re consistent with his entire career. I don’t know that he’s ever gone quite so overboard before, but the only time anyone notices him at all is when he goes overboard, so he does it on purpose — everyone knows that, right? — so it’s only natural that he would eventually go too far.
What I find interesting here isn’t his lapse in taste and honor in discourse, because he’s always been an asshole. It’s how completely he exposed himself has having no understanding whatsoever of what he’s talking about.
The woman he insulted so mercilessly, Sandra Fluke, is a law student at Georgetown University, and as a student at that private institution, buys into the private health insurance plan offered by the University. Her appearance before the Congressional subcommittee was to argue in favor of the University continuing to include birth control as part of the insurance plan that, once again, she pays for. At issue was whether a (it bears repeating, private) Catholic organization should be obliged, as all other health insurance providers are obliged, to provide birth control, even if that coverage is at odds with the school’s own religious doctrine to students and employees not themselves Catholic. Ms. Fluke spoke eloqently of the various non-reproductive applications of the pill for women, and did not mention herself or her own sex life at all.
Somehow, Rush contorted that innocent, benign, wholly sensible argument into a harpy’s craven demand that the the government, and thus the taxpayers, fill her own bottomless demand for morning after pills to abort the babies that she is conceiving with a platoon of faceless partners every night and twice on Sunday.
The insult to Ms. Fluke’s character is one thing — it’s gross, and childish, and creepy, and totally undeserved — but the total distortion of the issue at hand is something else. Because when you put it the way Rush put it, no, I don’t want my tax dollars to pay for hooker abortions! (Actually, I wouldn’t really have a problem with it, but I can at least see that point of view.)
But that is not remotely what Ms. Fluke was arguing, and taxpayer dollars accounted for no part of her testimony, and had nothing to do with the issue at hand, which begs the question: Is Rush Limbaugh misrepresenting the facts on purpose, or does he just not understand them? Whatever the answer, he’s been doing this for a long time on a wide range of issues, and it’s only dumb luck that this is the issue that finally blew up in his face.
But it doesn’t really matter. Short of appearing in a three-way gay porn video with Barack Obama and Saul Alinsky (whoever that is), there’s nothing Rush can do to lose his audience now. They have drunk the Kool-Aid and remade themselves in his image — they proudly call themselves “Dittoheads,” for God’s sake. If Rush dropped dead of, say, an oxy-induced food coma, is there any doubt at all that his people would find another stridently xenophobic, misogynistic, racially hostile blowhard to listen to?
His remarks may have turned off a few new listeners, but that raises another question: how many new listeners do you really think Rush is picking up these days? Is his cultural influence ongoing, or is it more or less complete? Are his people getting dumber by continuing to listen to him, or do they continue to listen because they’re dumb?
All of which is to say that I don’t see his firing, if it were to happen, having a very big impact in the world at large. As Rush himself loves to say derisively of left-wing goals, it would make everybody feel good for a minute, but accomplish little else. Those of us who never listen to him will continue to never listen to him, and those who do will either find another asshole to hitch their wagons to, or, more likely, follow Rush to his next enterprise.
Seems to me the best thing we can do to Rush is ignore him, even (and especially) when he goes this far overboard, and if we really want to apply pressure somewhere, apply it to the news outlets that spent a week breathlessly repeating and deconstructing his remarks and telling us something everyone already knew — Rush Limbaugh is hostile to women and women’s interests, and is either too stupid or too mendacious to argue an issue on the merits. Thanks, Woodward and Bernstein, but that’s not exactly news.
Incidentally, Congress passed a bill last week that would outlaw the right of citizens to assemble or demonstrate at any public event attended by someone receiving Secret Service protection, which would include presidential candidates.
So while we’re all shrieking about Rush Limbaugh’s First Amendment rights (which are in no kind of danger, by the way — his beloved free market is merely doing what it does), our own First Amendment rights are in actual jeopardy, and nobody’s paying attention. I Googled “HR 347” and look at what came up (note who’s covering this story, and more importantly, who’s not) :