Limbaugh rhetoric and the national dialogue

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

I wonder how Rush Limbaugh the man wrestles with Rush Limbaugh the entertainer.

I wonder if the man ponders his legacy; if he ever, in his quiet moments, considers how he'll be remembered. I wonder if the man ever considers how he is being thought of in his hometown here in Cape Girardeau. I wonder how often the entertainer thinks about his last name and the brilliant Limbaugh lawyers who came before him.

I wonder if Limbaugh the entertainer had a daughter or a niece who petitioned her government and disagreed with his sentiment on access to birth control, if he'd call her a "slut" or a "prostitute," too.

For those of you who missed it, Rush Limbaugh III (not to be confused with Rush Hudson Limbaugh Sr., for whom the federal courthouse is named) got caught up in a political funnel cloud of his own making last week by making disparaging remarks about a Georgetown University law student, Sandra Fluke, who had testified to congressional Democrats in support of their national health care policy. In addition to being a student, Fluke is also an activist for women's rights.

Limbaugh, last Wednesday, said, "What does it say about the college coed -- who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex."

A day later, he reiterated, "If we're going to have to pay for this, then we want something in return, Ms. Fluke. And that would be the videos of all this sex posted online so we can see what we're getting for our money."

Limbaugh was trying to be funny. He did it for ratings.

It begs the question: Of these two people, the Georgetown student activist and the talk show host, who, really, is the sellout?

I think Limbaugh's advertisers have already answered that question.

After six advertisers had dropped by Saturday (11 had dropped by Tuesday morning), Limbaugh apologized on his website, saying, "My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices."

Does anyone really think Limbaugh is sorry for what he said rather than for the money he lost?

Rush Limbaugh has made millions, piles of millions of dollars, on his words. He dissects words people (especially Democrats) say down to the syllable every day on his radio show. He is as persuasive of a communicator as we've seen in our lifetime. The man says what he means and means what he says. He's been saying it and meaning it for more than 25 years.

Many find his satirical style humorous. I find Limbaugh at his best when he is making his case for conservatism, which is most of the time. But I find myself tuning out and rolling my eyes when he resorts to the name-calling, which I try to teach my own children not to do.

I have been working in community newspapers since I was 19 years old. One of the many aspects I've come to love about community journalism is the small-town activism. It makes me proud when individuals or groups of people approach their school boards or city councils and make their cases. Participation in government, from all sides, is one of the core freedoms that makes our country great. Regardless of whether Limbaugh agreed with this college woman's (or activist's) point of view, it is her right and responsibility to engage in the process. It's the responsibility of her government to listen, weigh the information and make a decision. Limbaugh has made his case why he disagrees with the government's role with churches' insurance policies relating to birth control. He needn't have stooped.

Our public officials are under intense pressure. I respect them for their service and the difficult decisions they make. Having said that, our government must be criticized. Limbaugh has provided an incredible voice in challenging our government and society over the years. I join him in frustration and disgust of how our leaders have not governed our nation well in the last decade or so. Limbaugh fills a valuable niche in holding our government accountable. But surely this can be done without playground-style belittlement.

Our government was formed by intense compromise. It was structured to have checks and balances so that all voices could be represented fairly. It was set up specifically so a law student, and especially activists, could weigh in without fear. Can anyone imagine our forefathers even joking about watching intercourse as a payment to taxpayers?

The trouble with Limbaugh and other copycat pundits is that they sacrifice respect for ratings. It's not that they don't forward the debate, they do. But it must be harder to ramp up the base without calling the opposing side "retards" or "kooks" or "sluts" or "prostitutes." It's an attempt to make individuals feel like part of a team, part of an us-versus-them mentality. It's easier to rally the troops when you have an enemy, right? And it's not just conservatives. How many times have you heard the phrase "nut jobs" in reference to the tea party? Liberal MSNBC commentator Ed Schultz was suspended last year for calling conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham a "right-wing slut." Many have found it ironic that Schultz was one of the first to interview Fluke about the situation.

Sometimes I wonder whether Limbaugh and the commentators are a reflection of society or if the masses are mimicking what they hear on the radio and see on TV. I suspect the talk show circuit has a lot to do with the polarized nature of our country today. Last week, moderate conservative Senator Olympia Snowe said she will not seek re-election. She said she's tired of the bickering and posturing from the extremists, essentially saying there's too much shouting to reach a consensus. Well, that sounds about right.

Anyone who has read Internet comments and blog posts in the past several years, has witnessed the parroting of mean-spirited and demeaning phrases of political opponents, many of which I've heard in talk show land. It's easier for people to latch on to the names and labels than it is to make their own arguments.

We learned on Monday that a bust of Rush Limbaugh will be included in the Hall of Famous Missourians. The timing couldn't have been worse for those who made that decision.

When we look back at Rush Limbaugh's legacy, what will we remember? Will we remember him for his immense talent and hard work? Will we remember him for being one of the best communicators of our time, for his humor and quick wit? Will we remember him here in Cape Girardeau for being an ambassador and great representative of our town?

Or will we remember him as being a bully who pitted the country against itself? Will we remember him for calling a college woman/activist a prostitute in front of a national audience or for any number of disparaging comments he has made over the years?

The embarrassing moments and personal failures are mounting for Cape Girardeau's most famous son. I wonder if he thinks about his legacy. I wonder if he even cares.

Bob Miller is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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