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.

Why?

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

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A Thousand People in the Street: An Occupation Meditation

The Summer of Love Meets The Winter of Our Discontent

They are angry.

On that much, everyone agrees.

As the mainstream media wakes up to the Occupation of Wall Street and as that protest, and its growing collection of siblings around the globe, enter their second month, the inchoate nature of the whole enterprise is emerging as its distinguishing feature.

There are no recognized leaders. There have been no demands. There is no future agenda. There are only a growing collection of tents in cities around the world, filled with people, not all of them young, who seem convinced the present state of affairs can no longer be tolerated with silent acquiescence.

The lack of a formal agenda makes what by now deserves to be called (at the very least) a nascent movement unlike even its more open textured predecessors.

It is not a good-natured convocation of liberals gathered to call for a more civil discourse, like the Rally to Restore Sanity. Its not a coalition of disparate groups making common cause against a common adversary, like the succession of demonstrations and general strikes that rocked Paris in May 1968.

It is spontaneous and at least in part a creature of new communications technologies, like texting and tweeting, as were the vast rallies this winter in Tahir Square, but unlike those rallies, it lacks the focus of a single, clearly articulable demand.  It is not nearly as vast as the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989, but like that event, it seems to be settling in for a long haul, and to be evolving  an agenda as it goes along.

Michael Kimmelman noted as much in the Sunday New York Times, when he wrote that the demonstrators in Zuccotti Park have created their own polis, built on consensus and cooperation, a functioning, self policing community in miniature, within which protesters with different concerns and different messages are forging ties based on proximity and discussion.

How long that remains the case, and whether the ethos of shared endeavor can survive the growth of tent towns into tent cities, remains to be seen. Consensus born of collegiality works best in microcosm. New York cannot be run like a New Hampshire town meeting. But that those discussions are taking place at all provides an object lesson in what large scale democracy, managed from the top down, can seldom achieve, and what makes the Occupations unlike other recent acts of public demonstrations.

The Occupation, like a protest march, has taken hold of a public space to articulate its message face-to-face to the financiers against whom it is aimed, and the passers by who form its primary audience. Kimmelman, in his thoughtful essay, rightly noted that in doing so, the Occupation both joins a long line of American protests that have drawn symbolic meaning from the forum in which they were conducted.

What makes the Occupation different is the way in which it relates to the forum. Unlike, say, the Million Man March or even the various demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, the Occupation – despite its name – does not really occupy, to the temporary exclusion of other uses, its chosen forum. It is less an act of temporary occupation than it is the beginning of an ongoing vigil.

The idea of an encampment as an exercise in public discourse is not new. And the ways in which it differs from a march or a parade are worth considering.

Unlike the latter, which occupy a public forum completely, and exclusively, for a brief time, the Occupations inhabit the public spaces of which they have become a part less dramatically, but for an indefinite duration. The message they convey draws its force not merely from the force of numbers, but from the persistence of the messengers. Unlike a march, a vigil evolves: it is interactive, a teachable moment, an ongoing encounter. It is perfectly suited to the loosely joined complaints of its various participants, knitted together by a general sense that the nation has lost its way. It does not deliver an emphatic message so much as pose a persistent question. It is punctuated, if at all, not by an exclamation point so much as by a long trail of ellipses.

This is a sit-in, and like every sit-in, it carries with it a moral ultimatum. From the Bonus Army to the Freedom Riders, to the mock shanty-towns that urged colleges across the east to divest themselves of their South African assets in solidarity with the victims of Apartheid, every sit-in defies the powers to which it speaks truth to move it along.

When demonstrators in Times Square on Sunday reminded police that the “whole world was watching” they not only echoed the Grant Park of 1968, they also enunciated the central rhetorical reality of what was going on downtown.

The inchoate gathering encamped in Liberty Plaza Park may not have a focused message, but they do have the spotlight. Like the lunch counter demonstrators of fifty years ago, they are using it to insist that we answer uncomfortable questions to which answers are long past due. They are defying us to answer them, to engage them, or to move them along. They are doing it face to face. How we as a nation respond will define us at this moment in our history, whether we like it or not.

Next time, I will give some thought to the notion of a demonstration that evolves an agenda as it progresses, and what it says about First Amendment freedoms and the scale of civil discourse.

For those intrigued by such questions, it promises to be an interesting autumn, sandwiched somewhere between the summer of love and the winter of our discontent.

Cleveland, 19 October 2011

Incendiary, Indefensible & Wrong

Aside

Mr. Vadum’s Silly Screed Against the Poor

On Friday, a man named Michael Vadum published an article in the American Thinker, the title of which  provides a tidy lesson in how our national discussion has lost its way.

Registering the Poor to Vote is Un-American is a pretty good title, if your point is to get attention, carry water for your media mentors and make a name for yourself as a provocateur. It is, after all, bold, counter-intuitive and deeply provocative. 

It is also, facile, unsupported by anything like serious argument, and morally indefensible.

Draw your own conclusions from what Vadum has written, but this is a fair summary.

Liberals favor voter registration drives, he contends, because the poor, once registered, tend to vote themselves entitlements. Organizing the poor as a means of subverting democracy has been the fundamental strategy of the left since Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven argued, in an article published in the Nation forty-five years ago, that getting the poor to vote was the key to subverting capitalism.

That article, Vadum warns us, was no less than the domestication of a Trotskyite plan to end America as we know it. And, in a theory embraced by his media patron Glenn Beck, the unholy trinity of Frances Piven, Saul Alinsky and Barack Hussein Obama are putting the final nails in the coffin of capitalism using the hammer (somewhere in here there has got to be a sickle) crafted by Piven, a University of Chicago trained Ph.D. who teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

There are three problems with this.

First, Vadum assumes that the motivation to register the poor to vote is, consciously or not, a strategy employed in support of the Cloward-Pliven strategy, to force a crisis in the public welfare system that, through the recruitment of more participants than the system can bear, will bring concerted political pressure to adopt a program by which the poor are ensured a guaranteed income from the federal government. 

Whether that was a plausible political strategy at the outset of the Great Society is debatable. Whether  it is a plausible strategy now is even more so. 

What is beyond debate, however, is that there exist valid, independent reasons to register poor voters without preconceptions as to the social policies – existing or posited – which they will ostensibly embrace.

It strikes an odd note, in a country where voting rates in the 2008 presidential election peaked at about fifty-eight percent of eligible voters to suggest that expanding participation in the franchise to the forty-percent of the population who are eligible to vote, but chose not to do so, is not a good in and of itself. 

Low voter turnout  bespeaks a population disengaged from self governance, either by apathy, ignorance, or a lack of understanding as to its own capacity to affect change. If the point of America is to be a functioning, self-governing society, then encouraging those to whom the franchise has been extended to use their vote is a self-evident good.

(Indeed, back-peddling in the face of his critics on Saturday, Vadum assured us that it is neither his intention nor his wish to see anyone disenfranchised.  He seems content to allow the poor to vote in the abstract, provided they don’t actually go ahead and do it.)

Second, Vadum assumes a model of democracy that is wedded to preserving the distributional status quo: the present system, in which one percent of households control over one third of all wealth. 

That system, of course, is neither a social accident nor the result of a free market playing out over time. Rather, it is the result of myriad public policy choices, made over decades, regarding the manner in which income is defined, assets are permitted to accumulate, wealth is taxed, and public welfare priorities are set. Choices that, in America, are theoretically the business of the people.

Vadum rails against the inclusion of the unproductive classes in these decisions presumably because those who do not “contribute” to the wealth of the nation ought have no say in how it is dispersed. Until Friday, I naively believed that the question of limiting the franchise – in law or fact – to freeholders had been settled, but apparently there exist among us people so avaricious as to be willing to reopen that debate, or at least people so servile as to curry favor by reopening it for them. 

After decades of declining wages, aggressive attacks on organized labor, and the systematic export of our industrial base to Red China in the relentless search for a sweeter bottom line, the incapacity of the growing underclass to contribute wealth to the society in which they have been relegated to bystanders can hardy be laid at their poorly shod feet.

Third: Un-American. If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, Americanism is the rhetorical destination of choice for demagogues, a shiny bow wrapped gaudily round a box devoid of argument. Vadum can be forgiven for a view of distributive justice that would make Marie Antoinette blush, but I’ll be damned if he can be forgiven for wrapping it up in the flag.

The point of democracy is not to rig the game in favor of oligarchy. The point is to effectuate the will of the people. And when vast numbers of those people have been left by the wayside in an economy that rewards those who move money over those who create value, when their neighborhoods have been decimated by mortgage fraudsters and their cities bankrupted by financial schemers, when their jobs have been given to third world workers who toil like slaves for subsistence wages, when they have been reduced, year by year and cut by cut, from citizens to consumers to factors to be milked and discarded, not in the interest of America, but in the interest of those who have perfected the business of extracting wealth from Americans and concentrating it in ever fewer hands, it is altogether understandable that Matthew Vadum might be a little frightened as to what those inconvenient masses, if shown to the polls, might actually have to say.

Justice Louis Brandeis surfaces on the web these days – a good thing in its own right – to remind us that “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Until Friday, I would have guessed we could all at least agree on which of those two options counted as Un-American. 

Michael Vadum seems to think otherwise. 

Give him credit. In the battle for democracy, at least we know where he stands.

Cleveland Heights, 4 September 2011