Rush Limbaugh and the Free Market of Speech

by A. Jay Adler on April 3, 2012
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It’s hard enough sharing the country with a bunch of jerks, why do so many of them have to be so full of shit? (Or is that a contradictory complaint?) The jerks, of course, are those who stand for everything you detest.  You know – the other side. The full-of-shit are fairly equally distributed, though some shit smells sweeter than the rest.

Rush Limbaugh, let’s be clear about it, is a jerk. He may be your jerk, you may like the way he jerks, you may forgive his jerknsess because the people he attacks are, in your expert opinion, jerkier than he is, but he’s a jerk. If you won’t admit that, I’m sorry – you’re full of shit.

Some people, when they are told that Rush Limbaugh is a jerk, and why, say, “So’s your Mom” “So’s Bill Maher.” Okay. I’ll give this some credit. What do the two have in common? Do they both talk about politics? Check. Are they both entertainers? Check. Yeah – check. I’ll give that some credit. But this is where we need to start making some distinctions, and making distinctions, you know, is the beginning of thought. If you won’t acknowledge distinctions, you’re a jerk. If you try to prevent other people from perceiving distinctions, you’re full of shit. Either way, I’ll bet you think this post is about you.

Limbaugh and Maher both talk politics. Check. (I said that, right?) Neither is an actual politician or office holder or official party functionary. Limbaugh is a radio talk show host. Maher is a standup comic with a cable television show. In his focus on society and politics, he is in a tradition of humorists that extends back through George Carlin to Mort Sahl to Will Rogers. (Rogers, by the way, is the author of my all-time favorite political joke. Asked his political affiliation, he declared, “I’m not a member of any organized political party – I’m a Democrat.”) With his sometimes foul and provocative mouth, Maher is in another tradition, too, one that has dominated contemporary American comedy for years, from Richard Pryor and Carlin, again, to Chris Rock, and which goes back to Lenny Bruce. Bruce was actually tried for obscenity. Some people may have considered him a degenerate (and worse – a jerk), but there was no doubt, too, that he was a comedian. In contrast, ABC’s This Week once tried sitting Maher at its storied “round table” at the end of the show, and the only redeeming element of the appearance was watching George Will’s head nearly explode at the indignity.

Limbaugh, now, in addition to being that radio entertainer, has also been, perhaps, the most dominant and dominating voices in conservative politics for two decades. He is nearly coronated each time he appears at political conferences – yes, he speaks at political conferences – and GOP politicians and presidential contenders are afraid to criticize him. These are vital distinctions that separate Limbaugh from Maher, and if you will not acknowledge them, I have only two things to say to you. (Jerk, shit; full of.)

The most significant point about this discussion so far, however, it is that it is all beside the point. It is all a part of the grade school level of American political discourse, in which grown people with pretensions to maturity, wisdom, and qualities of leadership respond to argument and criticism by protesting Tu quoque.  (That’s right; they say it in Latin. And you thought the U.S. is in decline.) The “you, too” defense, a fallacy of the lowest order – which is why five-year olds are able to employ it – may establish hypocrisy (and that’s a revelation), but it does not refute an argument.

The first genuine issue in the Limbaugh slut and sex tape fantasia is in whether what he said is offensive. Oddly, one’s judgment on that score seems to depend in significant degree on whether he is your jerk or someone else’s. Much of the hypocrisy (since that term has arisen) in home-jerk defense of Limbaugh’s insulting Sandra Fluke is that the core of Limbaugh’s audience and ideological base is found in those who consider the U.S. to have suffered, in multiple ways, a cultural decline over the past four decades. Central to that perceived decline is a diminishment in the standards of decency, sexual mores, dress, comportment, respect for authority, religious commitment, and speech. It will all be the end of us. But, you know, if it’s in the service of calling out one of them Feminazis, well, then, you know, fuck it. Trash the bitch.

People will always have different degrees of personal tolerance for foul language, crude behavior, and insult, as will whole communities, and the second, truly crucial issue in the affair, which arises time and again in these public disputes, is when, if ever, those community standards may impose themselves on individuals.

Liberal forces have been calling on Limbaugh’s sponsors to drop him, in the hope, ideally, of driving him from the radio waves, certainly of diminishing his brand and influence. Conservative defenders have responded by calling this an attempt at politically motivated “censorship.” Let us acknowledge that of course it is political. Everything about Limbaugh is political, both attack and defense. No one is calling in with “notes” on Limbaugh’s entertainment stylings. To call the effort political, though – the effort to diminish the power of an ideological foe – is not to refute the genuineness of the motivating principles or the argument in support of the effort.

As to censorship, there are probably few more misused terms, especially in the political context of free speech rights. In the most general, yet most essential sense censorship is any suppression of thought from reaching expression as speech. One can self-censor by refraining from telling another what one thinks of him. An editor who cuts anything from an article censors the writer. The Global Internet Liberty Campaign (GILC) offers a fine brief consideration of the range of what censorship can mean.

Not all censorship is equal, nor does all arise from government or external force. People self-censor all the time; such restraint can be part of the price of rational dialogue. The artist Ben Shahn’s poster illustration reads: “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.” Silence can indicate a forced assent, or conversely, it can be contemplative, a necessary part of dialogue that rises above the din of quotidian life.

As a political consideration – of the suppression of free speech rights – censorship must be externally imposed by a controlling body, particularly by the government, or with the acquiescence of the government. An editor cutting my article, or even declining to publish it, is not censoring me – infringing on my constitutionally guaranteed free speech rights. I have the right to speak my mind – I do it here on this blog – I have no right to be published in any magazine.

As usual, most of those who have cried that there has been an attempt to censor Limbaugh, in this political sense, have no idea what they are talking about, such as Bill “Where’d the moon come from?” O’Reilly,” or are full of shit, such as Brent “tu quoque” Bozell. Bozell even links at the end of his Fox piece to a page with a definition of censorship taken from Wikipedia. The definition, in fact, references the need, in a political sense, of censorship “by a government, media outlet, or other controlling body” that Bozell, in all of his second grade you tooing, never considers in his senseless invocation of censorship.

There are, indeed, people, such as Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem, who never learn and have actually called for government censorship of Limbaugh. But they have been a distinct minority.

What prominent opponents of Limbaugh like Media Matters and the #Stoprush Twitter campaign have, instead, been trying to do is pressure businesses to end their sponsorship of Limbaugh. Rather than censorship, by a “government, media outlet, or other controlling body,” it is economic pressure: politics attempting to work in the marketplace. One may think this a good or a bad thing. It no doubt depends a great deal on your sense of personal ownership of the jerk. But Limbaugh, who, like you and I, has a right to cry “slut” and “feminazi” and “magic negro” on almost any street corner, has no right to be on the radio. He is there because the economics support him in being there: he has enough supportive listeners to earn him his commercial sponsorship. Should he earn sufficient unsupportive foes willing to hurt his sponsors by withdrawing their business in the marketplace, that might create financial incentive for sponsors to withdraw their support.

In one sense, this is, indeed, the marketplace, and a marketplace of ideas and speech too, and conservatives should have no difficulty with it in principle. It is also one expression of community standards for sufficient numbers of Americans to come to feel so offended by Limbaugh’s influence on the culture and the body politic to wish his presence in them diminished. Explains the GILC,

“Censorship through consensus” is also a real possibility. There are countries where the adherence to a shared social, though not religious, code is a fact of life. Understanding that entails discerning where the boundaries of expression are, and where they might be interfered with in a consensus situation.

It could be argued that the U.S. is no longer one of these nations. Anything, sadly, goes. Isn’t that Rick Santorum’s complaint? Conservatives like community standards. They want a return to community standards. Might that include one of their own most prominent standard bearers (don’t tell us he’s not – bullshit) not calling women sluts on the radio and conjuring for millions of listeners the prospect of watching sex tapes of her?

It might be reasonably argued, too, that an economic sponsor war aimed at each side’s commercially financed favorites would not be any boon to American society or its body politic, but the war would be, in a nation where even the Boy and Girl Scouts are battlefields, an extension of the politics by other means, a symptom, not the cause. It might be, too, that what is needed, in some small part, is some of that self-censorship, in which we develop anew some sense of what a healthful form of political discourse is, while not forgetting that there has always been excess.

Let’s just not seek to really censor, or call what isn’t censorship censorship. You jerk. You’re so full of shit.


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