Limbaugh: Censor or Censure?


My post on “Rush Limbaugh and the Free Market of Speech” drew a comment from JP that is thoughtful and challenging, and I think my responding to it at length can deepen the exploration and understanding of what opponents of Limbaugh are doing in the media campaign against him and of what it is or is not to censor someone. I agree with much of what JP writes, but it is in the spaces that remain between us that I think the deeper understanding lies.  JP begins with a point of agreement.

I won’t argue the point that Rush is a jerk. Of course he is.

It is actually far worse than that. I went with the word “jerk” in my post as a humorous conceit around which to build some entertainment into the post. (Ah, see – I’m just an entertainer too!) What a happy fancy it is to imagine all of our political opponents – if only merely the electoral variety – as nothing more than jerks. In truth, I think Rush Limbaugh to be a cancer on American society, a vile befouler of its social relations and its body politic. To draw a term from Martin Luther King, Jr. – a very great man who was not in his lifetime spared the disgraceful attacks of his foul inferiors, and who would doubtless be the target today of the lowest forms of mockery by Limbaugh – Limbaugh “degrades human personality,” he diminishes human dignity, and our public life is the lesser for his presence in it. By asserting this, I clarify JP’s misapprehension below.

But what is the real problem you have with Rush? It’s not that he lies and defames and spouts hateful nonsense and that he is a bully behind a microphone. No, the real reason that people get so upset at Rush is because you are afraid that other people will listen to him. (And of course they will, we know they will and do. Millions of them.)

So let’s be honest. It’s not about what he said. I agree that what he said is terrible and offensive, but as a culture we set the bar ridiculously low for those types of things. A crazy old man ranting about sluts and birth control is disturbing- I wouldn’t want to listen to it- but I also don’t think he is breaking any new ground. He may be a little more high-profile and get invited to fancier events but the difference between Rush and Howard Stern is an arbitrary classification. We’ve established that you can call women sluts on the radio in America.

I don’t imagine that the “you” in JP’s commentary is specifically me. I think it is the plural “you” of all those who are pushing the current appeal to Limbaugh’s sponsors to drop him or who merely sympathize with it. That is a lot of people, and they all as separate people have motivations that cannot be individually identified and accounted for. But that is not required. JP asserts what I already acknowledged in my post – that this is a political campaign. I wrote,

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.

In truth, the “genuineness” – as an affect – of the motivation does not matter at all, but only the principle, the idea in argument. We can speculate and assert from our own experience and insights about human motivation and feeling – it is the most common and convenient form of political argument – but those speculations are irrelevant to the inherent terms of the argument, in this case about what reason may be found in the notion of community standards, or as I’ll term it now, censure, and what constitutes censorship and what does not. The reasoning remains valid however anyone may advance it in bad faith. I have made clear nonetheless that my motivation is genuine – my disgust with who Limbaugh is and with how he is and not just with the political ideas he represents.

JP reasonably assumes, because there is so much reason to make the assumption, that all of political contention is just that, and no more – political: Democratic and Republican operatives – the people who run candidate and issue campaigns –all using the same tactics with the same real world cynicism, just for different sides, with all the moralizing merely posturing. Whatever very great support there is for that belief, it misses an equivalent truth, that many people really are offended by Limbaugh and not only in political disagreement with him. If you want to know how it is that Tea Party demonstrators could hold up or view posters of Barack Obama dressed as an African witch doctor with a bone through his nose and fail to see in them the vilest degrading racism, look no further than the man who played “Barack the Magic Negro” to the world. JP said above,

I wouldn’t want to listen to it- but I also don’t think [Limbaugh] is breaking any new ground. He may be a little more high-profile and get invited to fancier events but the difference between Rush and Howard Stern is an arbitrary classification. We’ve established that you can call women sluts on the radio in America.

I agree, but – Limbaugh did break some new ground. The degradation of American culture did not begin with him, and it did not begin, even, with conservatives. Howard Stern is a product of liberal culture, not conservative. One can even argue that the degradation of American political culture did not begin with conservatives, but on the left, represented, for instanced by the Yippies. But Howard Stern is a problem to be overcome; Rush Limbaugh is the operational inability to overcome it. Once the degradation enters the political process itself, and not only the culture to which politics should be responsive, the very devices of our correction and improvement are corrupted. How do we achieve anything? Look at the present legislative governance of the country. American conservatives may have been rightfully outraged and disgusted by the Yippies, and the era and culture they represented, but in the conservative Yippie James O’keefe and in Limbaugh, as two examples, conservatives have well demonstrated their general operational superiority over liberals – they have far surpassed in effectiveness anything the far left has done in the United States – and the same base human willingness to rationalize any form of behavior in defense of one’s outrage. American conservatives, in Rush Limbaugh, and others like him, now enact on the American scene all of the defilements of human decorum and decency to which they felt subjected by the left counter culture and to which they thought themselves superior.

I did not raise in my earlier post the subject of community standards only for the pleasure of hoisting conservatives by their own philosophical petard. The past forty years in the United States demonstrate how we debase ourselves in the absence of standards, just as surely as the preceding centuries revealed how we degrade ourselves through standards that suppress human dignity and personality. That is not the subject of this post, but it is a basis for arguing that the effort to drive Limbaugh from radio, or diminish his reach on it, is an effort not to censor, but to censure. Communities have a right to say to their members that they have gone too far, that they have offended sensibilities, and that while the community should not and cannot remove that right to offend, it can spurn the offender.

All ideas live in the tension of their insufficient and excessive realization. The spurning by community can be an awful and heartless act. It can also express a rightful moral opprobrium. Seeking the justness in our acts is the work of our lives. The difficulty of the work is not an argument against doing it.

The worst possibility in the effort against Limbaugh is in JP’s very challenging conclusion.

So what you are ultimately doing (if you support this tactic) is trying to suppress ideas and control thoughts and actions of other people. You realize the dialogue in this country is hopelessly polluted (it is) and that reasonable people can’t be heard because the masses are attracted to passionate windbags and extremest (they are) and that it makes constructive debate impossible (it does) and we would probably be better off if people like Rush didn’t have syndicated radio shows (we might be) and so you use those points to rationalize and justify doing something which, if you remove it from this context, I think you would agree is not a good thing to be doing.

Going after the sponsors and capitalizing on offense comments (again, I agree that he is an unrepentant slimeball) is a form of bullying. You are bullying a bully, and maybe you think that makes it ok, but I think that in the longview it is not a good thing for us. We need to get past the outrage, like Mahr says. We can’t prevent people from saying offensive things (on the internet, on TV, out in the world) so we have to stop trying to muffle them and start working on acceptance. We need to stop bad ideas with good ideas. And if millions of free people won’t listen to reason? Well, we can’t accomplish our goals by force and intimidation. That’s just not the foundation for a workable future.

This is a charge to be answered. It does challenge. I did acknowledge that such campaigns are not an ideal of political activity.

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.

JP’s words, “suppress” and “control” and “bully,” are strong ones, with clear messages, but they are not necessarily as precise as might appear. Arguably every communicative act is a rhetorical one, however unrefined, and rhetoric is the art of persuasion – in Kenneth Burke’s formulation, “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation.” Reason is the highest form of inducing cooperation, but not the only or even the most universally effective. But even restricted to reason, is not the attempt to induce cooperation an attempt, in one sense, “to control”? Do we not, in some sense, “suppress” Mein Kampf? We don’t censor it. It may be read. It can be found in published form. (And how and why it is published – by whom, for what purpose – is a consideration in how we respond to the publication.) But do we not think its argument settled? We do not promote its further public hearing, its continued debate. Is the lack of promotion suppression?

In the Citizens United decision, in the opposition to public funding of campaigns for government office, conservatives have upheld the claim that the expenditure of money is speech and may not be restricted. Liberals reject this claim, but must live, for now, in that land. In the full rhetoric of political contention, money – who has it and who wants it, what they will do for it and what they spend it on – is part of our language of inducing cooperation. It is what purchases Limbaugh his megaphone when other, better, smarter, more constructive voices are without it. It purchases his megaphone, not because he is making better arguments, but because he popularly plays, like all demagogues, to fear and anger, and the customers a sponsor has, with their purchases, speak louder than those the sponsor doesn’t know it is losing in the quiet withdrawal of their business.

The StopRush campaign is its own form of cash-bought megaphone in the free market of political speech and contention. Would that it were different, that the conservative icon of the age represented something higher and better – there are conservative arguments to be made – but opposing a bully only with the intent to stop him is no form of bullying I know. There is no reason, no good reason at all, why being liberal must mean being a high-minded loser.


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