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 with my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke. — Rush Limbaugh, in apology to Sandra Fluke, May 5, 2012.
The Rush Limbaugh Radio Show is taking something of a battering – at least in the sponsorship stakes. The sparkling Oscar Wilde was one to know the nature not to mention the effects of negative publicity, though he ventured that the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about at all. That said, the negative chatter for Limbaugh has proven more negative than usual. Because his moneyed, lashing tongue aches for sponsorship, the exodus over the Sandra Fluke case demonstrates that words, once released, do have a particular destructive quality to them.
It’s all about Sandra, the third-year Georgetown University Law student who testified before Congress that the university’s health insurance scheme should cover contraceptives. She expressed her views to members of Congress. Limbaugh reacted strongly:
‘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 prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.’
This is vintage Limbaugh – crass, crude, shock jock personified. In the US, the truly righteous are the corporate giants – and the giants have had second thoughts about backing the Limbaugh express. Those who have jumped the Limbaugh train are AOL, Sleep Number, Quicken Loans, Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team, Citrix Systems, Tax Resolutions, Pro Flowers and Legal Zoom. The list continues to grow.
This is the land of political theatre, demonstration, exaggeration. Limbaugh’s reaction to Fluke is atrocious, but hardly exceptional. There are no Queensbury rules in such engagements, though the corporate sponsors would like to imagine there are. The problem here remains that attacking Limbaugh obscures the debate about what health insurance schemes should or shouldn’t cover. We might well think that the right is totally ‘clueless about how birth control works’, as Adam Serwer writes in Mother Jones (Mar 5), but that counts for many things.
In a country where God and inequality bestride like colossi, fictional or actual, the arguments of Limbaugh still resonate with a good portion of the populace. Rushing to the defence of Fluke, publicising presidential calls because fathers would be disturbed by such remarks, is a smokescreen. It shows the true hypocrisy of groups who, having backed Limbaugh in every other way, have now decided to switch midstream.
In the end, it’s not just sponsors but radio stations that give Limbaugh his demagogic life. Suddenly, Limbaugh is too hot to touch, the man who ‘went too far’. When Peter Gabriel found out that his ‘Sledgehammer’ was being played with strategic effect to the robustly aggressive attacks of Limbaugh, he proceeded to withdraw his music from use on the program (Hollywood Reporter). On Monday, WBEC in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and KPUA in Hilo, Hawaii, announced that they would stop showing his program. More cancellations are being promised.
There is, however, something oddly squeamish about stations that were very happy to go with the Limbaugh juggernaut when it suited them, bumping up their ratings. Now, everyone is a carefully treading moralist keen to avoid offending people’s sensibilities about sex, contraception and the state. Take the words of KPUA President Chris Leonard, who sounds almost like a media boy scout. ‘The most recent incident has crossed a line of decency and a standard that we expect of programming on KPUA whether it is locally produced or a syndicated program like the Rush Limbaugh show’ (Huffington Post, Mar 6). Given that decency has never been Limbaugh’s strong suit, KPUA was evidently aiming low.
WBEC general manager Peter Barry was somewhat more honest. ‘The nature of Rush’s programming has always presented challenges for us and he’s always pushed the envelope. But this time he he’s taken it too far.’ Cant is alive and well.