THE OUTRAGE over the last few days surrounding Rush Limbaugh's shameful and nauseating remarks about Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke suggests that he has finally crossed a line. Even leading Republicans and other conservatives are condemning him (sort of -- see below) and some advertisers are finally abandoning the show.
This is, of course, as it should be. A civil society is one in which decent people push the indecent ones beyond the margins and keep them out of the public square where serious and respectful discourse happens. It's about affirming and sustaining a standard of what is right and good. I'm not talking about government censorship. No, I mean reasonable people speaking up to put the actions of the people like Limbaugh in their proper context. Without those voices, everything is acceptable, even the unacceptable. There's far too little of that.
But the big question for me is, how is this latest outrage much different from any other Limbaugh has made over the years?
I was going to starting citing a few examples just to make the case that Limbaugh has been at this game for years, that this is nothing new. But I realized that would be like proving water is wet. Can't we -- people from across the ideological continuum who might not always agree on policy -- stipulate that his brand is outrage, intellectual dishonesty and the sort of nastiness he turned on Sandra Fluke? Isn't that why millions of people (including many who disagree with him but enjoy the nuttiness) tune in to Limbaugh, to be provoked? Is that what he consciously delivers? So stipulated?
Besides, there's such a mountain of examples of Limbaugh's vileness it's hard to know where exactly to begin. This is what he does every day. Okay, just two examples:
- To one apparently African American caller, Limbaugh once said: "Take that bone out of your nose and call me back."
- About the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib: "It's sort of like hazing, a fraternity prank. Sort of like that kind of fun."
He's 'gone too far' many times before. So what's special about this particular incident? I mean, why wasn't he drummed out of decent society long ago?
Sure, there have been plenty of liberal voices that have tried to expose and oppose Limbaugh for years. Heck, there's even an organization -- Media Matters for America -- devoted to documenting everything he and the other right-wing radio shouters say.
But, all of the sudden, we're hearing from conservatives and Limbaugh's advertisers. All of the sudden, it's not enough just to dismiss him as "an entertainer" and leave it at that -- knowing full well that his poison and distortion (and that of the Limbaugh copycats, who seem to be everywhere) have been useful in tearing down anyone to the left of Tea Party, which presumably has been good for Republicans.
About those condemnations. Some have been absolutely honorably full-throated denunciations from well-known conservatives/Republicans, such as David Frum, Kathleen Parker, Scott Brown, Carly Fiorina and others.
Beyond the political class, Most Honorable Mention goes to John DeGioia, President of Georgetown, who sent a letter to students and faculty supporting Fluke's congressional testimony. "She was respectful, sincere, and spoke with conviction," he wrote. "She provided a model of civil discourse. This expression of conscience was in the tradition of the deepest values we share as a people." And this from the guy whose university policy Fluke was disagreeing with. His letter was truly inspiring and the mark of moral leadership.
In contrast, much has been made in the last day or two of similar denunciations by Republican leaders. But when you look much more closely, they seem kind of restrained to me -- lame, to put it another way.
A spokesperson for House Speaker John Boehner (not even Boehner himself) commented: "The Speaker obviously believes the use of those words [by Limbaugh] was inappropriate, as is trying to raise money off the situation."
That last bit is an attempt to turn it around and blame Democrats and liberal organizations for supposedly using this incident to raise money from their supporters. First of all, these organizations probably don't have to even ask. People are so pissed they're likely expressing their ire by helping the organizations that do battle on women's issues. Second, if someone called Boehner's daughter a slut and a prostitute, do you think he would issue a meek and morally compromised statement like that -- much less through a surrogate?
The current Republican Party candidates for the GOP presidential nomination sounded similarly subdued, though they can technically say they 'went on record' against Limbaugh.
"That's not the language I would have used," Romney said, adding they he is just out there to talk about jobs. That was it.
Mr. Morality, Rick Santorum, offered a Rush-being-Rush rationalization: "He's being absurd. I mean, you know, an entertainer can be absurd." In other words, don’t take him seriously.
And Ron Paul just punted it back to Rush: "You'd have to ask him about his crudeness."
(Let's see what they say on the Sunday morning shows tomorrow, where this issue is sure to come up, and hope there's a little more courage.)
Timid responses, but I guess pretty forceful considering that these guys have never said much to put the Limbaugh’s of the world in their proper place. Indeed, they’ve been happy to let the shouters fire up their base and tear down the Democrats.
And advertisers have been happy to keep supporting Limbaugh so long as he keeps delivering to them big numbers and good demographics.
I would like to believe that they reacted now because, in their hearts, even they were disgusted by Limbaugh’s attack on Fluke, and maybe that’s the case.
A more cynical explanation is that the politicos know that Limbaugh has said something that even some of the more hardcore base of the Republican Party, and certainly a large number (women and men) who tend toward the center, find enormously offensive. As it is, Republicans have played with fire in recent weeks by appearing to be dictating what women can and can’t do with their bodies – which is way off the message of jobs and debt that has been the core of their campaign for Congress and the White House. This could burn them.
I’ve been waiting for at least the last 20 years for all this ugly, dishonest garbage, spewed by the Limbaughs and tolerated (sometimes embraced) by conservative supporters, to come back and haunt both - because Americans are good and smart. I say that not because I disagree with conservatives on many, but not all, policy issues but because so many have conducted themselves shamefully and so many others have been perfectly happy to let them off the hook as long as it delivered votes for the party (or audiences for advertisers).
But, much to my amazement, time and time again over the years, the support for such crap seems only to have deepened and further distorted our politics. I truly hope this time it’s different, that this story won't just come and go. But, then, I’ve thought that before.