A Bitter Pill
Winston Churchill is supposed to have said “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Thanks to Rush Limbaugh’s recent verbal assault on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke over her defense of mandated insurance coverage of contraception, it’s now that much harder for the truth to even get its pants on at all.
When I heard about this whole controversy the Friday before last, I figured when Limbaugh returned to the airwaves he would lamely excuse his awful behavior as an attempt at satire – simply “illustrating absurdity by being absurd” – as he so often has over the years. But lo! We didn’t even have to wait until Monday for him to say this! For Limbaugh graced his website last weekend with what is dubiously being called an “apology“; The statement begins:
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.
No, I think he must have meant at least a couple dozen personal attacks on Ms. Fluke, actually. From that problematic opening, Limbaugh went into a short flurry of self-justification, briefly apologizing at the very end “for the insulting word choices”. He continued his non-apology on Monday’s radio show, demonstrating his fondness for pointing the finger at the other side – aka: psychological projection – aka: not owning one’s shit. He said “his error” was that “in fighting [the left], I became like them …I descended to their level”. Democrats, Limbaugh went on to explain, used Sandra Fluke “to create a controversy”, and Fluke “used them to advance her agenda”.
So, you see, clearly the left started all of this. How could Limbaugh not make irrelevant, slanderous, sexual accusations about Sandra Fluke three days in a row after they started it? This you may well recognize as the well-worn, yet not very effective, deflect-in-an-effort-to-minimize-responsibility-for-the-shit-you-just-pulled tactic of children the world over.
A further problem with Limbaugh’s “apology” is it was merely for his use of “those two words” (slut and prostitute) to describe Sandra Fluke. While his use of those words was shameful, what’s worse are the foundational lies he used to prop those words up and link them with birth control. Limbaugh pretended that Sandra Fluke’s testimony before members of Congress about the importance of female contraceptive coverage involved her own, supposedly hyperactive sex life. It didn’t. At all. She mostly provided anecdotes of friends who need contraceptive pills for medical purposes beyond preventing pregnancy.
Yet, Limbaugh either didn’t read / listen to her testimony, or he simply lied about it in order to make baseless and cruel accusations (feigning total ignorance of the workings of female contraception in the process) about how much non-stop sex Ms. Fluke and her friends are having and want “us” to pay for (yet another lie that misrepresents both Fluke’s statements and insurance coverage).
For those who can stomach it, I’ll embed a compilation of his three-day verbal abuse at the end of the post. The video makes clear that even if he hadn’t used “those two words”, this would’ve been every bit as harmful and perverse. Yet, in his apology for “insulting word choices”, Limbaugh still stood by his overall false premise that this was about “discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress”, “activities” he does “not agree that American citizens should pay for”.
Sure, Limbaugh stirring up controversy and saying awful things is nothing new. But this time just feels somehow different, somehow the crossing of a line, and not just because dozens of advertisers are removing their ads from his program in response to the uproar. What seems clear to me is this was a new low in our tribal, culture war politics that Limbaugh has done so much to encourage. Unless the consequences for this last, it seems now nothing is safe. No issue or person can be spared sudden ginned up controversy. No would-be consensus and social progress can be left in tact in the war that Limbaugh wages. No rational argument or reasonable policy debate can be allowed to cut through the fog of this culture war.
You kind of have to marvel really at the trench that’s been dug over this issue. Catholic bishops and their new-found Republican culture warrior allies suddenly decided to take on birth control coverage and frame withholding it as a critical matter of religious freedom. As if that weren’t quite a bold enough women-alienating strategy for his taste, Limbaugh, with no such shred of pretense, went whole hog to flat out attack women over simply wanting equal access to birth control. And he did this in such a shockingly obtuse way (“she’s having so much sex she’s going broke”) that now many have felt the need to stop and explain that birth control pills are not like Viagra or condoms. It’s just stupefying, and we’re probably all a little dumber for it.
Putting Limbaugh’s likely issues with women aside for a moment, I think he does this general sort of stuff purposefully in order to drown us all in sound and fury, entrench tribal division, and make sure both sides see each other in that much more of a dehumanized light. In this case, for his listeners, he didn’t just call Ms. Fluke bad names. He called her bad names in order to destroy her message, change the subject, and transform her into an enemy of the tribe, an “immoral”, unreasonable, out-of-control moocher who wants everyone else to pay for her “irresponsibility”. In the process his attack provided his opponents with more ammo to claim that this really is a war on women just as they already assumed.
So to recap, Limbaugh said inappropriate words, but more importantly, destroyed the facts, attempted total character assassination, outrageously insulted and demeaned women, intentionally sought societal division, derailed and defiled the already dubious public discourse, and entrenched another culture war battle line, and probably much more. But hey, I’m sure the left did all of that first and never gets in any trouble.