A New Piece in Slate


And a Modest Explanation for the Quiet Here

Things have been a bit quiet here at SBR lately, and I am grateful for those of you who still tune in. I have been publishing the occasional article over at Slate.

Here is a link to a piece Dahlia Lithwick and I just wrote on the DISCLOSE Act and its antagonists.

Two weeks ago, Randy Cohen and I published this article on the unfairness of granting elite passengers preferred access to TSA security checkpoints at airports, and proposed a public policy solution that might speed lines while reducing inequality.

It is a pleasure to write with these old friends, whom I have known since we were teammates and partners (with Randy, at Harvard) and rivals (of Dahlia, from Yale) on the parliamentary debate circuit late in the 20th century.

Cleveland, July 23, 2012



Vogue’s Turn to the Right

By Thomas Vinciguerra

“In yet another twist in the escalating Marie Antoinette-ifying of Syria’s first lady, Vogue magazine has removed from its Web site last year’s highly flattering—and controversial—profile that hailed Asma [al-Assad] as a conspicuously under-accessorized modern woman. . . . The fawning 2011 Vogue purple-prose-and-photo spread . . . ‘coincided with the Syrian government’s crackdown on anti-regime protesters.’”

—Annie Groer in Washingtonpost.com, March 24.

It is a few minutes past noon and Eva Braun is scrambling around her gleaming Alpine kitchen, apologizing for not having lunch on the table.

“I’m so sorry,” says the tall, clean-limbed embodiment of Aryan womanhood, straining the liver dumplings into a rustic, Bavarian-style tureen. “We had such a late night. Hermann and Heinrich just wouldn’t leave!”

Domestic tranquility can be a challenge when you’re the consort of Europe’s most famous dictator. But Ms. Braun, who gave up a high-powered career as a photographer’s model and assistant for her man, has no regrets.

“I just adore Adolf,” she says, her golden hair shining like a nimbus in the early-afternoon Berchtesgaden sunlight. “I like to tease him about his moustache. Yet no matter how many times I make fun of him, he tells me, ‘Liebchen, you are the Schlag in my Schokolade.’”

   Spend even a few minutes with Ms. Braun and you find yourself wondering, How does she do it? Here she is, casually pouring the peppermint tea, slicing up the Stollen, apparently without a care. But she isn’t just your average rosy-cheeked Hausfrau. The burden of her front-row seat to the prospective destruction of Western civilization is never far from her mind.

“I guess I do see myself as Adolf’s partner in world domination,” Eva says, drawing her smiling, peaches-and-cream visage into an ever-so-pensive study in introspection for a moment. “He has so many countries under his heel and so many yet to conquer. He needs someone to unburden himself to. It’s not always easy. Sometimes I have to say, ‘Liebchen, I need my living space, too.’”

She looks at her guest conspiratorially. “Would you mind if I smoke? Adolf’s not around and he just hates it when I light up in front of him.” In a flash her pursed lips, elegantly daubed in a pale gloss—keep things modest, Der Führer insists—are puffing Gauloises.

“They’re French,” she titters. “I wonder what Adolf would think about that?”

Truth be told, Eva is not all that interested in international affairs Get her started on fashion, though, and she takes on all the animation and force of a blitzkrieg.

“I worship Hugo Boss,” she says, her lilt reminiscent of the thrushes that chirp outside the chalet-style Eagle’s Nest. “I mean, look at what they did for the SS—those smart black jackets and jodhpurs, those shiny jackboots, those adorable Totenkopf insignias! They’re so much nicer than those grubby brown Stormtroopers’ uniforms.”

Right now she is dressed for relaxing in the mountains—a rakish Tyrolean hat, dark green lederhosen, heavy stockings pulled up over her gazelle-like calves, at which Herr Hitler’s German Shepherd Blondi is busily nipping. “Oh, you rascal!” she says happily, tossing her a dumpling.

It’s a full, rich life, to be sure, and yet you have to ask: Will Adolf ever pop the question? Eva has been waiting practically since the Night of the Long Knives for her diamond; some of her friends are even quietly suggesting that she give her man a deadline. But she’s in no rush to get married.

“Oh, please,“ she says, pouring another cup of tea and throwing her head back in an exasperated laugh. “Adolf has a war to fight. He doesn’t have time for such nonsense!”

Thomas Vinciguerra is the editor of “Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from The New Yorker.” This article, which grew out of a Facebook discussion with Raymond Vasvari, first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Another Snip at the Shrinking Public Forum


A Little Change to an Obscure Federal Law Bodes Ill

Last week, the President signed a short bill, H.R. 347, that makes it easier for federal prosecutors to convict demonstrators who refuse to quit events where security is provided by the Secret Service. Some see the move as trivial, while others are calling it a significant threat to free expression. Dahlia Lithwick and I sort out the details in this newly published article in Slate.

How Not to Fight a Bully


Allred Is All Wrong About Prosecuting Limbaugh

The Limbaugh debacle keeps rolling. The number of advertisers to have abandoned his show has risen to 161 (according to Think Progress) or maybe 98 (if you prefer MSNBC), but either way, the chorus of on-line outrage generated by the sexist smear of Sandra Fluke has coalesced into the sort of loose-knit coalition that greeted the decision of the Susan G. Komen foundation to pull its funding from Planned Parenthood in January, and ultimately forced its reversal.

Limbaugh apologized – after a fashion – on March 3rd, but that seems to have done little to stanch the hemorrhage of sponsors. A timeline and article over at Media Matters underscores that the majority of defections came post-apology. Tuesday, Premier Advertising, which syndicates the show, took a two week hiatus from placing national advertising on the show, the “barter spots” which local stations run in exchange for the right to air Limbaugh otherwise free of charge.

With this much blood in the water, you might have expected sharks, and if you did, you were not disappointed. On March 8th, “celebrity/attorney/feminist Gloria Allred” entered the fray, when she wrote to the County Attorney in Palm Beach County, Florida, demanding that Limbaugh be prosecuted for his remarks against Fluke.

Allred alleged that Limbaugh, whose show originates in Palm Beach County, violated the Florida statute which makes falsely impugning the chastity of a woman a misdemeanor. Because Limbaugh called Fluke both a slut and a prostitute, and later denied that either accusation was true, he was self evidently guilty of criminal defamation, according to Allred, whose officious call for prosecution can be read here.

This is not the first time that Gloria Allred has interjected herself into a celebrity dust-up without a client to represent.

After Michael Jackson dangled his child from a Berlin hotel balcony, Allred, who was 5,700 miles away at the time, and who represented no-one involved, demanded that Santa Barbara County authorities strip Jackson of custody. Now, she is calling for prosecutors to charge Limbaugh under a law – Fl. Stat. § 836.04 – adopted in 1883.

To give some perspective, that was the same year in which the Supreme Court decided The Civil Rights Cases, which refused to apply the then-new 13th and 14th Amendments to bar race discrimination by private parties. That decision laid the groundwork for Plessy v. Ferguson, decided sixteen years later, which sustained “enforced separation of the races” in railroad cars, and provided the legal basis for segregation for more than seventy years.

This is not an idle trip down memory lane. It is meant to underscore the degree to which Allred is championing prosecution under a law enacted in what, for civil rights attorneys, were the dark ages; a prehistory, in which almost every working concept around which modern civil rights law is shaped had yet to take form.

The First Amendment is no exception. Ratified December 1791, it enjoyed a brief first flowering in the early 19th century, but remained largely dormant as a source of constitutional doctrine until the First World War. (Those interested in its long slumber could do worse than to read the pioneering work of the late Leonard Levy.)

The statute that Allred suggests be invoked against Limbaugh was adopted eighty years before the Supreme Court, in New York Times v. Sullivan, reconciled state defamation with the protection of public discourse afforded by the First Amendment. The statute provides:

Defamation.—Whoever speaks of and concerning any woman, married or unmarried, falsely and maliciously imputing to her a want of chastity, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083.

The law of defamation has long had a special concern for the sexual reputations of women. At common law, there were only four ways to commit defamation per se, one of which was to falsely malign a woman’s chastity. How such a rule fits into an evolving ethos of sexuality is a very good question, about which much has been written.

Whatever the outcome of that discussion, the suggestion that Limbaugh be prosecuted is asinine, for five reasons.

First, the law of defamation has evolved a constitutional dimension since 1883, which would complicate – and probably defeat – any effort to prosecute him under the statute at issue.

After Sullivan, a whole jurisprudence of “constitutional defamation” arose, limiting liability in cases involving a whole new stable of plaintiffs, including “public figures” and “limited purpose public figures,” and affording enhanced protection to even false statements made in the course of discussing matters of widespread public concern.

The takeaway here is the notion of “actual malice,” a term of art that has nothing to do will spite or ill-will. For a statement governed by the actual malice test to be defamatory, it must be uttered (verbally or in print) as a known falsehood, or with “reckless disregard for the truth.”

Fluke may already be a public figure; she is at least a limited purpose public figure for purposes of the controversy surrounding her testimony. And there is no question that her testimony itself, and the related controversy, represent matters of legitimate public concern. Liability in such cases requires actual malice.

Section 836.04 does require the state to prove malice in order to obtain a conviction, and to avoid thumping chests with the First Amendment, a Florida court would probably interpret that as meaning “actual malice,” in the Sullivan sense.

That said, Limbaugh would have a solid defense in claiming that his language was not literal but figurative, intended as hyperbole, and represented his opinion in any event. What is a “slut,” after all? The inherent subjectivity of the term would make an opinion defense robust. And the case for “prostitute” being hyperbole, in the context in which that allegation was uttered, would be equally strong.

Now, imagine the case at trial.

The second reason not to prosecute Limbaugh is that truth is a complete defense to a charge of defamation. It is a defense that would put the question of Fluke’s sexual habits squarely at issue.

The law shields victims of sexual violence from an airing of their erotic past. But the question of Fluke’s chastity – and whether it was wrongly sullied – would go to the heart of Limbaugh’s prosecution. Did Gloria Allred bother to check with Sandra Fluke before she suggested making her sex life a matter of protracted public inquiry?

Fluke has recourse to the courts in a civil defamation action, if that is the path she chooses to follow. She doesn’t need – and I am willing to bet she doesn’t want – Gloria Allred and the State of Florida making that decision for her.

Third: Such a prosecution would, of course, turn Limbaugh into the victim in this sordid saga, a role he would doubtless cherish, but one which he in no way deserves.

As I noted last week, the First Amendment is not implicated by the withdrawal of sponsors now unwilling to be affiliated with Limbaugh and his ugliness. Prosecuting the man for defamation would, by contrast, put free speech advocates and a certain measure of public sympathy, on his side. I really don’t want to end up rooting for Rush, and would appreciate Gloria not steering this sideshow in that direction.

Fourth: It is past time to retire laws which criminalize locker room slurs against women. Those proscriptions carry an implication that women are fragile beings, whose sensibilities need to be protected by the courts. They implicitly stigmatize sexual activity outside marriage, by portraying it not only as immoral, but as so uniquely immoral that its mere implication should be a crime.

Worse, they portray, with Victorian fustiness, women who engage in extramarital sex as somehow inherently damaged.

It is worth remembering the other ways in which libel per se could be committed at common law. The tort of libel was complete – without the need to prove damages – in only a handful of cases. In addition to falsely impugning the chastity of a woman, you could commit libel per se by falsely accusing someone of having a sexually transmitted disease, of having committed a crime, or of being incompetent in his profession.

In short, libel per se was reserved for life-shattering allegations that rendered their victims either unemployable or unmarriagable. Do we really want to keep premarital sex on that short list of vices?

Fifth: There is just no need to prosecute even vile speech, and doing so strikes at the heart of the First Amendment.

If the point Allred is trying to make is that Limbaugh is a bad man, whose ugly remarks should not go unpunished, she is a week late to the party. Limbaugh has suffered a massive defection of sponsors. His remarks have been dissected, almost universally criticized, and held up as an example of everything contemptible in contemporary civic discourse.

With the speed and suppleness that only the Internet can deliver, his past outbursts have been chronicled, footnoted and put on display to hammer home the point that what happened to Sandra Fluke was not an aberration. In short, Limbaugh has paid for his attack on Fluke’s reputation in kind. His own reputation has suffered grievously.

The modern doctrine of Free Expression was born in the aftermath of the First World War, during the first Red Scare, in which states and the federal government rushed to criminalize pacifist and socialist rhetoric. At the time, the legal consensus was that the state was free to punish speech which tended toward subversion and unrest, in order to prevent sedition from blossoming into revolution.

In a series of early opinions, Justices Holmes and Brandeis evolved a different view – known as the clear and present danger test – which limits the state to punishing only that speech which poses a (surprise) clear and present danger of inciting imminent lawlessness, and is intended to do just that.

That doctrine had its best early exposition in the concurrence filed by Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California, a case in which the Supreme Court upheld a conviction under a California statute which made it a crime to preach or incite terrorism “as a means of accomplishing a change in industrial ownership.” Brandeis voted to sustain the conviction, but only because, in his estimation, the climate in Alameda County in 1919 made the East Bay ripe for Red October.

I have a plea.

Every time someone suggests prosecuting someone else for something the latter has said, turn to the Brandeis concurrence in Whitney, and read it to him aloud.

Failing that, read it yourself, if you haven’t already.

The Brandeis concurrence is to the First Amendment what the Sermon on the Mount is to Christianity. It is poetic, concise, compelling, uplifting, and a shining and beautiful synopsis of all that is good and right and true. Here’s part:

To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.

The condemnation of Rush Limbaugh has proven once again that the best remedy for bad speech is more speech.

Should Limbaugh be prosecuted?  I cannot see how a lawyer, or a feminist could argue for that result. But then again, Gloria Allred wears three hats.

Cleveland Heights, 14 March 2012

A Salient Rebuttal

Michael Kelly offers a cogent response to the opinion I voiced in Point Counterpoint. He argues that as bad as Rush Limbaugh is, we should take a hard look at the testimony offered by Sandra Fluke.

You can see his post using the Featured Rebuttal tab above, or by clicking here.

Somewhere Becoming Rain welcomes your comments. With the permission of the writer, responses in essay form may be added to Featured Responses, to keep the discussion moving ahead, in what I hope will emerge as a collective search for the truth.

Thanks to Mike Kelly, and to everyone who comments here.

Point – Counterpoint

Of Ignorance & Sluts

If you are Bill Maher (and chances are, you’re not) the defection of more than forty advertisers from Rush Limbaugh must look like the French Revolution, as seen from the vantage point of George III. On one hand, to see so ancient and powerful an adversary brought low must come with a healthy dollop of schadenfreude. On the other, certain things should never be encouraged.

Maher was tweeting with the other hand Tuesday, when he urged liberals to accept Limbaugh’s apology for his despicable – and by now almost universally known – remarks  regarding Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke.

Maher says that to not accept Limbaugh’s (tepid) mea culpa would make liberals “look bad,” and with admirable candor, admitted that his discomfort was grounded at least in part in his own distaste for “intimidation by sponsor pullout.”

(Maher was himself the target of a boycott campaign last year, after he tweeted his disdain for Tim Tebow, whose notorious public piety had failed to save the Broncos from a lopsided loss to Buffalo.)

He gets an “A” for honesty, but that only serves to elevate his advice to the level of an honest mistake. Limbaugh sinned against both Sandra Fluke and the American people with his ongoing, puerile outbursts. The former has chosen not to accept his apology, and the rest of us should follow her lead.

Limbaugh has made a lucrative career out of being, for lack of a better word, an asshole. He didn’t invent the shock-jock genre, but he has perfected it, and outlasted many a lesser performer to become a wellspring of bilious ignorance, the best and most reliable champion of militant stupidity in a country suffocating under pretenders to that throne. His continued existence as a media force lends material support to Rick Santorum’s thesis that Satan himself is at work in American politics.

Limbaugh likes to say he is merely an entertainer, whose political views should not be taken seriously, but nobody believes that, least of all Limbaugh.

For two decades, he has been a centerpiece of the conservative movement. His radio show airs on 600 stations nationwide.  Justice Clarence Thomas officiated at his third wedding. He all but announced the obstreperous tone for the Republican response to the election of Barack Obama, when on the eve of the presidential inauguration, he publicly hoped that Obama would fail to turn around an economy devastated by recession. When Republican National Chairman Michael Steele had the temerity to call Limbaugh out on that sentiment – Steele called it, to his credit, “incendiary” and “ugly” – Limbaugh mocked his lack of conviction to the party. Two days later, Steele, who in the course of his remarks had called Limbaugh “an entertainer,” succumbed to pressure to publicly apologize to the de facto head of the Republican Party, Rush Limbaugh.

Even Mitt Romney – who claims that only God can at this point derail his inevitable nomination – tempered his criticism of the slut tirade, observing only that he “would not have used” words like “prostitute” in criticizing Fluke. Romney’s campaign has received generous support from the board at his old firm, Bain & Company, which owns Clear Channel communications, which in turn syndicates Limbaugh.

Stop to digest that: the inevitable Republican nominee, a straight-laced Mormon bishop who once headed the firm that owns Limbaugh as a commercial concern, can barely muster the courage to criticize an “entertainer’s” nationally syndicated, multi-day assault on the sexual reputation of a law student. Yeah, that’s entertainment.

Limbaugh – as much an anyone in the last twenty years – has set the tone of our national political conversation, and he has done a poor job of it.

His stock in trade is indignation. He goads an aging group of listeners whose place in the world has eroded, from born advantage to comparative equality, into confusing their self-pity with common sense. He is the latest incarnation of an old American demon, the anti-intellectual, happy to explain your present misfortune as the nefarious work of the Catholic, the Irishman, the Socialist, the College Boy, the Progressive, the Immigrant, and the Jew.

The labels change, but the trope never does.  The world was a straightforward place, until a dangerous group of effete and overeducated men, with soft hands and lazy backs, wrested the levers of power from decent folk to give away your jobs, emancipate your women, suppress your God, and raise up the Negro and the Mexican in your place. Oh, but what a country this was. Guys like us, we had it made . . . .

Unfortunately for Sandra Fluke, the altar of self-pity demands a steady stream of sacrifice. Inchoate resentment makes for a receptive audience, but only focused rage sells mattresses on the air.

When Michael J. Fox appeared in a campaign spot for then-senatorial-candidate Clair McCaskill – who supported stem-cell research – Limbaugh pilloried the actor, claiming he had exaggerated the symptoms of his Parkinson’s Disease for dramatic effect. Limbaugh mocked his tremors because – in a thorny debate involving science, the nature of human life, and the ethical implications of curing diseases with fetal stem cells – nothing cuts the gordian knot of complexity quite like scoring a cheap laugh off the cripple.

Limbaugh’s vulgar crusade against Sandra Fluke  – and as author John K. Wilson makes abundantly clear, it has been a sustained campaign of vicious derision – is a variation on the same play.

Confronted with a serious discussion of a sensitive and emotionally charged topic, Limbaugh – who has nothing like an original thought to add to the debate, but whose fame depends on his being able to reliably rouse the outrage of his listeners – chose to impugn the sexual morality of a third year student at a first tier law school 53 times over the course of three days.

He called her a slut. He suggested that she had had so much sex it was a wonder that she could walk to the hearing room in which she ultimately testified before an informal group of Democratic lawmakers. He repeatedly suggested that she used birth control in such quantities that it was making her broke – the sort of mistake that might be expected from a man with an incomplete understanding of the female reproductive system, whose own sexual experiences seem to require at least one pill each.

Limbaugh wondered aloud who bought Fluke condoms when she was in the sixth grade. He said he was entitled to see videos of her having sex. In short, he engaged in a prurient, vile, and morally reprehensible attack on a stranger, enlisting her in a seedy little fantasy designed to both incite and titillate his resentful hive of listeners.

Two weeks ago, Sandra Fluke was an anonymous third year law student. Now she is a bold face name. Her privacy has been decimated, her virtue called into question, and the thought of her as a sexually active woman has been twisted into prurient fodder.


Because last week, she had the courage to participate in a public discussion of whether religious institutions like Georgetown University, where she is a student, should be required to fund contraception under the Affordable Care Act. She had the moral courage to take an articulate and public stand on an emotionally charged and ordinarily private matter, the question of access to contraception in the face of religious and institutional barriers to that access. She had the moral courage to put not just a face, but her face, on an abstraction in an effort to affect change.

She did that in opposition to the tenets of the Church which runs her university. She did it despite Darrell Issa turning his back on her contribution, to solicit advice about the medical needs of women from the ranks of the male clergy. She did it though the topic was sex, which makes social conservatives squirm and, worse yet, the ability to have sex freely, an idea so repugnant that its stench can apparently only be cleared from the forum by the sweet incense of Rush Limbaugh, who speculates aloud about the manner in which a twelve year old girl might get access to condoms. That requires moral courage.

We need more Sandra Flukes.

We need more women and men not only willing to speak truth to power, but to put themselves on the line – publicly, rationally, and articulately – to infuse our public policy debates with something more than the empty oratorical bunting of Mitt Romney, the narrow manipulations of K Street, and the smoldering hatred that Fluke herself reaped as a reward for taking a turn in the public forum.

We need contributions to our national discourse that are factual, humane, and illustrate the effects that policy abstractions bring to bear in real lives. We need all this so much more than we need the irreducible kernel of bitterness that dwells in the hateful, shrunken hearts of the dittoheads.

Constitutional scholars as sagacious as Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman have emerged to warn us that criticizing Limbaugh imperils free expression for us all.

What Palin should remember, and Bill Maher seems to know, is that Limbaugh is facing the wrath of the market in the withdrawal of his sponsors. He has spent years calibrating the level of invective best suited to making him a suitable pitchman for adjustable beds. Now the good folks over at Sleep Number have gotten cold feet. That’s business, not censorship, and Limbaugh is a victim, if at all, of his own savage style.

He still has his defenders. Among the advertisers standing fast is Hillsdale College, which says that its been pursuing truth and defending liberty since 1844. To its credit, Hillsdale condemned Limbaugh’s remarks last week as “destructive to reasonable political discourse,” but it intends to keep advertsising on his show because

he and his large audience have proved themselves friendly to the College’s 168-year-old mission: to provide “sound learning” of a kind essential to maintaining “civil and religious liberty” and “intelligent piety.”

Forgive me for being cynical, but I suspect that when the human genome is finally sequenced, we will learn that cultural conservatism and an even rudimentary sense of irony are mutually exclusive traits.

The unwarranted cries of censorship fit perfectly within the worldview that keeps Limbaugh in business. Somehow – liberals are crafty – a nationally-known broadcaster who earns nearly a million dollars a week, owns his own Gulfstream and has fifteen million listeners has fallen victim to a law student with ovaries. It is just another riff on the only theme that Limbaugh really has: the uppity, the educated and the politically correct have once again managed to keep the white man down.

Before anyone else tries to turn Limbaugh into a Lenny Bruce for the Old Spice set, it might be prudent to question what, exactly, his self-proclaimed “absurdity” contributes to our national discussion. Here is my take: nothing of value.

The slut flap is a good example of why not. When Sandra Fluke finally got the chance to express herself on Capitol Hill, she explained, based on her own experience and the experience of students she knows, why extending contraception coverage is important to students at religiously affiliated universities. She explained the costs, the alternative medical uses for contraceptives (in addition to avoiding pregnancies), and recounted a number of stories of women forced to forgo those benefits because of poverty. She noted the position of various Jesuit universities with respect to the debate, and the choices faced by women at those universities as a result.

How did Limbaugh respond? With epithets, invective, and lurid speculation about the sex lives of “coeds,” a term that both dates him and suggests that he gets his information regarding university women from the covers of soft-core DVDs. Trimmed of its considerable fat, what Limbaugh had to say amounts to this: they have too much sex, they cannot afford their pills, and they want me to pay. Too bad (but, hee-hee, and aren’t I the outrageous one, I might just pay if I could watch them get it on).

Now, to be fair, there is the seed of an argument, or at least a legitimate public policy question, in there: maybe society as a whole should not publicly subsidize contraceptives for students, or compel religiously affiliated organizations to offer insurance coverage that does.  Those were the questions with which Fluke wrestled in her testimony. Her position admits of legitimate critiques and is open to valid counter-arguments. Limbaugh offered neither.

Fluke used her few minutes on the national stage to present a calm, informative and concise exposition of why coverage matters to her and others like her. Limbaugh, who returned obsessively to the issue over three days, seems not to have advanced a single cogent critique or counter-argument to meet the substance of her claims.

Limbaugh has a world view. But on this score, he doesn’t have an argument, just an unfocused sense of being put upon and an urgent need to be the center of attention. Limbaugh isn’t an advocate, he is an instigator, a professional heckler, a bully, and a scold. He wants desperately to be a part of a national conversation the honest conduct of which is beyond his intellectual capacity, and the tenor and subject matter of which have long since passed him by. Something inside him aches to be front and center when the hot button issues are being discussed. He has all the time in the world and an unmatched capacity to get his message out, but ultimately, nothing of substance to say. In this, he is pathetic, an imbecile perpetually trapped in the spotlight, striking the same pose of shocked outrage for more than twenty years, and contributing nothing of substance.

If that was all he was, then Bill Maher would be right. It would be best to accept his apologies, avert our collective eyes from the rhetorical train wreck that has been his career, and move on.

But that is not all. By using his pulpit to mock and deride, by heaping derision on those with the sincerity and courage to contribute to the national discussion in earnest, Limbaugh has become a sort of Brownshirt-in-Chief, always ready to intimidate and shout down those with whom he disagrees.

Personal mockery is not argument, and the power to mock mercilessly before an audience of fifteen million is the rhetorical equivalent of burning a cross on the lawn or throwing a brick through the living room window. It says only that we are legion, and we hate you, and that you speak out against us at your peril.

We should not forgive Limbaugh, because the Fluke affair was not a one-off, but just the latest, and the most vile, eruption in a career built upon fouling the waters of national discourse.

Thirty-six years ago – when Saturday Night Live was not only funny but cutting edge social commentary – Jane Curtin played straight-woman to Dan Ackroyd in Point Counterpoint, a mock debate styled after 60 Minutes.

On October 11, 1975, Point-Counterpoint “tackled” the question of changing sexual mores from the perspective of whether actor Lee Marvin owed his long time lover “palimony” when they separated.

Curtin laid out the argument for recognizing the realities of the relationship in court with a remarkably straight face, all the while setting up for the first line of Ackroyd’s sexist rebuttal, which began with what may be the most memorable line in SNL history: “Jane, you ignorant slut.”

The diatribe, which predated Limbaugh’s turn on the national stage by a decade, could have come straight from his lips. Execpt that it was parody, played for laughs, and intended to mock the wounded rage of a generation of men still making sense of feminism in its youth.

Ackroyd’s whole rant was brilliant, but the funniest line was the first, not only for its shock value, but for the inherent lunacy that a reasoned critique of sexual morality could be countered by calling one’s opponent a slut. It was funny because it was ridiculous. In 1975.

But here we are in the enlightened future. This time, I will concede, Limbaugh gets the better of Karl Marx. History is repeating itself, but the first time was farce. Lately, it’s tragedy.

Cleveland Heights, 9 March 2012

Deaths Elsewhere

Evgeny Morozov 0, Carly Simon 1 – These Are the Good Old Days

Messr. Flâneur - Based on Ten Minutes of Online Research and Courtesy of the Toulouse Lautrec Foundation

The nice thing about reading the New York Times is that you get an education in the process. Until the Sunday before last, for example, my grasp of French social pretensions in centuries past was limited to boulevardiers, salonnières, Beaus Brummel, an entire cuisine, a few score sommeliers and maitres d’ and one exchange student in high school. I lived in pitiful ignorance of the flâneurs but, thanks to the Grey Lady, no more.

Evgeny Morozov brought me to speed on February 4th. His editorial in the Times noted the coming demise not of the last Flâneur, who has long since shuffled off this mortal coil, but of the cyberflâneur, a latter days incarnation of the same spirit, who began to graze the Internet around the fin of the last siècle, and whose herd, it seems, is in danger of thinning. The news made me feel old and out of touch. I had never met a cyberflâneur, and here they were, on the way out.

The flâneur himself was the model of refinement, an eclectic sampler of the beautiful and the varied. I cannot help but him imagine him stepping, lean and graceful as a crane, from the green and white bottle of talc that sits beside my barber’s mirror.

Thanks to the French poet Charles Baudelaire and the German critic Walter Benjamin, both of whom viewed the flâneur as an emblem of modernity, his figure (and it was predominantly a “he”) is now firmly associated with 19th-century Paris. The flâneur would leisurely stroll through its streets and especially its arcades — those stylish, lively and bustling rows of shops covered by glass roofs — to cultivate what Honoré de Balzac called “the gastronomy of the eye.”

While not deliberately concealing his identity, the flâneur preferred to stroll incognito. “The art that the flâneur masters is that of seeing without being caught looking,” the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once remarked.

The cyberflâneur is just as hip, a diffident browser who roams the web, following his eye like a Toucan Sam debeaked in an industrial accident, with no agenda, no destination and no particular place to go. Morozov again:

The idea of exploring cyberspace as virgin territory, not yet colonized by governments and corporations, was romantic; that romanticism was even reflected in the names of early browsers (“Internet Explorer,” “Netscape Navigator”).

Online communities like GeoCities and Tripod were the true digital arcades of that period, trading in the most obscure and the most peculiar, without any sort of hierarchy ranking them by popularity or commercial value. Back then eBay was weirder than most flea markets; strolling through its virtual stands was far more pleasurable than buying any of the items. For a brief moment in the mid-1990s, it did seem that the Internet might trigger an unexpected renaissance of flânerie.

Morozov is exactly wrong, except to invoke the flea market, with its shabby, picked over eclecticism. The fractured, quirky web of 1995 was less Parisian arcade than small town thrift store. There is a difference between wondering through an endless cornucopia of content and wandering what to make of a random assembly of odd lots.

Does anyone else remember Geocities or CompuServe as “stylish, lively and bustling?” No one, I suspect, who isn’t depending of that characterization to lay the groundwork for a shaky analogy meant to make the Internet we inhabit seem coarse and philistine. Morozov has a bone to pick with a certain twenty-something billionaire, but the charge he has chosen to level does not fit the facts.

While I quickly found other contemporaneous commentators who believed that flânerie would flourish online, the sad state of today’s Internet suggests that they couldn’t have been more wrong. Cyberflâneurs are few and far between, while the very practice of cyberflânerie seems at odds with the world of social media. What went wrong? And should we worry?

I am worried that anyone would take seriously the comparison between Mark Zuckerberg and Baron Haussmann. The later was charged by Napoleon III with the most ambitious act of urban renewal of its age. Over thirty years, Haussmann, armed with geometry and sometimes cannon, cut the network of avenues, boulevards, squares and focal points that give modern Paris its character and shape. If you are like me, you imagine the dandy depicted above strolling the grand promenades of that city. Plainly the New York Times did, just look at the illustration it gave Morozov’s opinion piece. But you would be wrong. The Paris of Haussmann is precisely the development against which Morozov inveighs.

The city through which Haussmann cut his boulevards was a medieval warren, a sprawling amalgam of narrow streets and countless alleys. The imposition of geometric order on that was more than just a grand harmonizing aesthetic vision. In the wake of 1848, the boulevards and avenues that bisected the city vouchsafed its rulers the ability to rapidly deploy large bodies of troops in organized formations, ensuring political order as well.

It is wrong to compare the Internet of 1995 with the Paris of 1855 on a number of levels. The latter was already a great city, not a fledgling virtual community, for centuries the center of a great nation and sometimes empire, an urban crossroads that was nearing the end of its second millennium.

The Web of 1995 was nothing like that. It was a slowly connecting network of isolated frontier towns, growing together but still very much separated by the lack of bandwidth, the lack of speed, and the lack of a real reason for anyone to go there.

The flâneurs, we are told, “had all the time in the world: there were reports of flâneurs taking turtles for a walk.” We are invited to image the cyberflâneur, leashed to his 1,200 baud turtle, savoring the virgin web in demitasse sips.

But really, what was there to savor in the age of dial-up and bulletin boards? The pilgrims in that wilderness may have been drawn by the novelty of the medium, and its potential. But the offerings?

The reason the flâneur is “now firmly associated with 19th-century Paris,” and not the Provo of 1952 is because the “gastronomy of the eye” depended upon what the former could offer and the latter did not, a critical mass of culture, talent, learning and commerce drawn from the ends of the Earth and compressed within the confines of a finite space. Like the Internet, in 2012.

Aiming his own cannon at Facebook, Morozov warns:

Everything that makes cyberflânerie possible — solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking — is under assault by that company. And it’s not just any company: with 845 million active users worldwide, where Facebook goes, arguably, so goes the Internet.

The trouble is that everything that makes cyberflânerie worthwhile depends on a web fully populated by users with a diversity of interests, talents and obsessions as broad as human experience. Yes, the internet today is useful, and something to which we can turn for practical information and not just indulgent browsing. But that hardly negates the fact that the fields of content through which we can browse have expanded to the edges of human experience, and that the Internet has become what Paris, London, New York and few other places were in the 19th century – ganglions of information, crossroads of culture, the universality of which permitted collaboration, derivation and innovation like nowhere else.

Morozov never explains how the randomness and potential for surprise inherent in the Web, in all its vastness, will be undermined because Facebook has embraced a model of social browsing that encourages the user to share her own random walks with anyone who cares to hear. I am grateful for a way to share what I experience with those whose interest might be similarly piqued. But I am not compelled to share, nor to follow in their footsteps. Opacity, solitude and ambivalence are still there for the taking. Anyone who has lost an evening to a random walk through Wikipedia knows just what I mean.

If Morozov is right, something (the Internet) that did not exist in my prime (May 1988, for those of you keeping track) has now outgrown its golden age, and before long, I’ll be rambling on about what I saw on a black and white screen in my youth. At least my grandfather got to watch prize fights in bars. For me, the golden age was Prodigy.

Cyberflaneurs on an Outing, Circa 1998

But Morozov is wrong. He has constructed a sentimental past wistful for an imagined future that never came to pass. Mourning the passing of the cyberflâneur is like waxing nostalgic for the lost steampunk zeppelins. Surely such a thing was inevitable, and yet . . .

Billions now turn daily to the Internet as a means of edification, relaxation, social interaction, and knowledge. There is more than a slight note of elitism in mourning the loss of the day in which the Web was the province of a curious few, an avant-garde of adventurous dilettantes with nothing better to do than wile away the hours perusing the pickings on the fetal Ebay. The Internet is too big, too global, too common to be cool anymore. Too much a part of everyday life to validate the smug self-satisfaction of the sort of people who colonized it. It seems that colonists always resent the new arrivals. In America, in the latest warehouse block to gentrify, and now online.

So shed a tear for the lost Web, vanished in the impressionistic mists of a hazy golden age. It was our youth. Our Paris. Our moveable feast. No, mon ami, we will never be young again, but we’ll always have Prodigy. Au revoir cyberflaneur. This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you. Now excuse the rest of us. We have kitten videos to post on Facebook.
Cleveland Heights, 16 février 2012