Rush Limbaugh, as far back as 1989, named his fans “dittoheads”, though he is the chief dittohead himself. I’ve been listening to Limbaugh since 1996, when he played a role in a book I was writing, Campaign America ‘96: The View From the Couch, a book on the Clinton-Dole presidential race, from the consumer, not the producer, side. Happily, when I finished the book, I didn’t have to listen to him anymore and I stopped, except, occasionally over the years, when I turned him on while driving through radio-deprived areas of the country, where the only thing you could find were evangelical programs or Rush. None of my cars had the new satellite connections, where all stations are possible.
I am an absolute free-speech advocate for a variety of reasons. Though there are many people I would like to be able to shut up, let them all blather on is my attitude and that includes Rush. The transactions here are complicated. I grew up with George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” you couldn’t say on the radio, much less the TV. In 1978 the Supreme Court decided F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation in favor of censorship (aka regulation) in a 5-4 decision. Sound familiar? 5-4 is the current far-right censoring vote on the Roberts Court.
Now it’s Erectile Dysfunction ads on all the channels and what is on Cable is anyone’s delight or cause for dismay. OK, back to Rush. After my campaign book appeared I was on the Michael Feldman show, Whad’Ya Know? Feldman, a funny guy, was miffed I seemed sympathetic at times to Rush (and not to him, a misreading) and I replied, “I have a soft spot for overweight overachievers,” and Feldman shot back, “Oh, and not underweight underachievers?” Feldman is skinny. Rush, of course, is a big fat pig.
The young Rush had been the underachiever of a substantial mid-Missouri family, the almost ne’er-do-well son with successful siblings. Rush’s biggest job back then was working PR for the Kansas City Royals. He was one bloated bumpkin. Then he got on the radio and found his fortune and his shtick: finally an overachiever! When I caught up with him in 1996 he was close to the zenith of his influence. Bill Clinton had energized him, along with Newt Gingrich, the contract on America, etc., the first rising of the New Republican Party, the one that has now reached its apotheosis in 2012.
By the time I was on the Feldman show Rush had gone into eclipse and, as I told my host, that was cyclical: Rush would wax and wane. The waning included his drug scandal in 2003. A number of media figures have survived these life-style scandals (such as Bill O’Reilly), and Rush did too. His subsequent hearing problems seemed punishment enough to the general public. Now he’s been waxing again, during these crackpot months of the Republican primaries. But once again he’s gone too far.
Or so many think. I’m not for silencing people. Let Rush say what he wants. Let the people see it, hear it – judge it. Rush is listened to, mainly, by white guys who drive a lot, salesmen, truck drivers, God knows who? (And God and the ratings people do know.) Dittoheads. When Rush’s current victim, Sandra Fluke, expressed surprise that it seemed “acceptable in today’s society to say these things about women,” one wonders where’s she’s been the last twenty years.
Rush was doing his best to be clever, lecturing the “feminazis” (one of his earliest coinages which he employed during his current remarks) on the notion that free contraception was payment for having sex and he used the words “slut” and “prostitute” to insult Ms. Fluke. (Then he continued, really letting his id out, imagining videos on You Tube.) What struck me, hearing reports on what he said (I, thankfully, was not listening to Rush) was that was just what many others were calling sexually active women lately, given the debate over contraception waged by the Catholic Bishops, Virginia lawmakers, and the Republican candidates, especially Rick Santorum. Or, at least, what was implied, the unspoken words that traveled under the conversation, not above, except in the case of Limbaugh. Again, let free speech reign, let us hear what they really think.
The last First Amendment case I wrote about (in The Nation and elsewhere) was Barnes v. Glen Theatre, which was about go-go dancers in strip bars claiming that their dancing should be granted protection as speech. I agreed, but not the Rehnquist Court, which, in 1991, decided 5-4 (again!) in favor of police power, rather than artistic expression. Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion, but the swing vote then was Justice Souter, who held that Indiana’s (the case started in South Bend, of all places) statute helped prevent secondary effects, such as prostitution. Souter was more or less calling the dancers prostitutes, not to say sluts. But that was the implication. Since Ms. Fluke is a law student at Georgetown she should look up the case. If only one of the dancers had ended her routine making the black power fist, the Court would have been stymied.
Just as the public has profited from seeing the slap-stick show of the Republican primary candidates, it actually helps to see what men like Rush Limbaugh actually think – when he can be said to think. Sunlight is still the best disinfectant.