The Autumning Empire

Culture, Politics, Etc.

Bring Rush Limbaugh Down: Protect His Right to Free Speech

I don’t personally know Rush Limbaugh, and that suits me fine. I am quite familiar with his words and actions, and I find them both contemptible. Look at the freakshow shoutfest that passes for civic debate in our Autumning Empire. You’ll find his fingerprints everywhere. To understand what this man has done to public discourse in our country, imagine what a nuclear waste site would look like under the stewardship of an insolent and dangerously unbalanced toddler.

He is not, as Rick Santorum and others have suggested, merely “an entertainer”. Virtually every piece of progressive legislation blocked in this country since the early ’90s can lay at least a little bit of blame at Rush Limbaugh’s chubby feet. When Newt Gingrich led the Republican takeover of congress in 1994, the freshman class rewarded the radio personality by making him an honorary member of their caucus. In the past twenty years, America has had at least two excellent chances at getting reasonable and affordable healthcare, only to be stymied (or at least seriously thwarted) by the shock jock’s immeasurable summoning power of the far right. Rush Limbaugh is a misogynist, a racist, a homophobe, and a liar. He is America’s mascot of shame, and in the words of Eugene Ionesco, “a perfect example of what not to do.”

Wouldn’t it be great if we never had to hear that blustering voice again? If somehow, he could just disappear, or forever be silenced? The day we never hear his hateful lies will be a great one for this country, and I would like nothing better than to be the one to hasten its arrival by silencing Limbaugh once and for all – by legal means if necessary.

But I can’t. And I shouldn’t. It’s not my right. It’s not my right to silence him or anyone else who disagrees with me or my opinions.  Limbaugh, like every other person living in this country, is guaranteed the right of free speech and press under the First Amendment to the United States constitution.

Now in 2006, the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum conducted a study which revealed that most Americans know more about The Simpsons than our First Amendment rights. So I guess I wasn’t surprised when I found out that there is an effort to get the FCC to take Limbaugh off the air. But I was shocked when I learned who is calling for it: actress and activist Jane Fonda, founder of Ms. Magazine Gloria Steinem, and former editor of Ms. and Sisterhood is Powerful, Robin Morgan.

These are educated women. More than that, they are model citizens who have performed invaluable political and public services for our country by advancing the causes of equality for women and reproductive rights. And believe me, if my mother knew I was publicly disagreeing with Fonda and Steinem, she would rise up from the grave and eat my brains for breakfast. In all my life, I never met a more committed feminist than Mom, whose life changed in the early seventies upon hearing Betty Friedan speak in Iowa City, Iowa. Empowered with a new understanding of “the problem that has no name,” my mother went back to grad school and got her PhD in English. Mom was chapter president of the National Organization for Women in Bloomington, Illinois, where she fought tirelessly for many political causes, including the Equal Rights Amendment. Her work as a teacher at Lewis and Clark College (chronicled, with the efforts of many other educators, in Frances A. Maher and Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault’s The Feminist Classroom)imaginatively and courageously critiqued the dominant gender paradigm from almost every possible angle. We all have our role models; Steinem and Fonda were Mom’s. So my stance in the current debate puts me in a rather awkward position. When questioning the wisdom of my mother’s idols, I do so with great trepidation, and maybe even a little bit of fear.

But Mom also taught me to revere the First Amendment. When I entered an oratory contest in middle school, she encouraged me to use that opportunity to defend the right of speech, even of American Nazis who had planned on marching in the largely Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois. I was understandably reluctant to go that far. But Mom helped me understand there is a difference between defending a person’s views, and that individual’s right to express those views, even when they are unimaginably contemptible, and are put forward by enemies of democracy and justice.

Which brings us back to Limbaugh. His latest rhetorical outrage is only one of many over a long career of shame and infamy. In addition to calling Sandra Fluke, a law student advocating for health insurance coverage for birth control, a “slut” and a “prostitute,” here are some truly despicable things the blubbering right wing demagogue has written and said:

Look, let me put it to you this way: the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and Crips without any weapons. There, I said it.

[Regarding the video taped humiliation of Abu Gharaib prisoners by American soldiers in 2004]: “It’s sort of like hazing, a fraternity prank. Sort of like that kind of fun.

 If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, then we want something for it. And I’ll tell you what it is: we want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.

To call Rush Limbaugh an “entertainer” is to liken him somehow to the guy who spins plates at children’s parties.  Limbaugh’s own defense that he uses “absurdity to highlight absurdity” is equally disingenuous. What, is he now America’s reactionary Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett? (Sorry, Rush, I think that David Mamet’s already competing for that title). The ’94 freshman caucus had it right: Limbaugh is a shaper of our national conversation, and to pretend that he isn’t dangerous is, well…dangerous.

But legislating him off the air would be even more dangerous, and that’s essentially what Fonda, Steinem, and Morgan are advocating in their call for an FCC ban.  To be fair, the three co-founders of the Women’s Media Center write in their CNN column that Limbaugh “is indeed constitutionally entitled to his opinions, but he is not constitutionally entitled to the people’s airways.” But that isn’t quite right: the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee freedom of opinions. It guarantees the freedom of speech to express those opinions. The Federal Communications Commission is an arm of the United States federal government. Using it to shut down Limbaugh’s program would be a textbook infringement of constitutional law.

Besides, if these three want to use the FCC to clean up the airwaves, why not work to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, which the Reagan administration repealed in 1987?  Prior to that, broadcasters had been required to present multiple perspectives when granting access to the airwaves.  The absence of this doctrine is what has allowed Limbaugh and his ilk to dominate AM radio and the tenor of our national debate. The remedy to Limbaugh is more free speech, not less.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s for a moment say that Fonda, Steinem, and Morgan are correct, and that a Limbaugh overthrow is morally and constitutionally defensible. It is still bad, bad politics, and all three of these activists should know better. To have feminists ask the federal government to take Rush off the air risks enabling every delusion of white male victimhood that Limbaugh cynically peddles on his program. Why make him a martyr of a so-called “feminazi” attack? The playbook of the right sounds something like this: “Look at the liberal elite of this country, trying to make the government bigger, and silence ordinary working Joes like us!”  Advocating for an FCC shutdown of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program is one dangerous step towards making that fantasy of victimhood just a little more real.

Besides, the law of karma is finally playing out: over 100 advertisers have abandoned his program, and even House Speaker John Boehner has taken pains to distance himself from the “entertainer”‘s remarks about Fluke. Polls show a drop in Rush’s favorability among even Republican voters, which suggests that Americans are wising up to the possibility that Limbaugh actually means what he says. Fonda, Steinem, and Morgan have forgotten one of the most important principles of chess: the most powerful piece on the board is the queen. Don’t make her capture a lesser piece, only to have her be sacrificed in the very next move.

Infringements on the First Amendment are like boomerangs: they will always come back, and when they do, you’d better prepared to catch or duck. Seriously, are you ready to have the FCC take down Rachel Maddow? Stephen Colbert? Jon Stewart? Should a Romney or a Santorum win the Oval Office, voices of dissent will be crucial for the left, and I think we’d all hate to hear, “Well you tried it with Limbaugh! Now…it’s our turn!”

U-uh. No way. Nobody’s ever accused me of being rah rah rah America, but I love our First Amendment, and I’m proud to live in a country where it’s upheld (at least most of the time) with even a modicum of fairness.  Rush Limbaugh deserves to go down, but not at the expense of our constitution.  Mom always told me that the means don’t justify the ends; the means are the ends. And I hope, if she were still here, that she’d send that message loudly and clearly to her sisters in arms.

Then again, she might turn it back on me. And I’d be ok with that, too. We’d just have ourselves another family political debate. Aaah, memories. Those debates could get pretty gnarly sometimes. But no matter how heated they got, we all understood that we were free to have them in private, and in public, under the full protection of the First Amendment. And that’s something that is always worth fighting for.

David Berkson



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