Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Rush who?


About 20 years ago I was visiting a seldom-seen, old, good friend of keen intelligence and an earthy, wry humor. In earlier days we had spent many enjoyable hours discussing the things of life—personal, social, political, philosophical, spiritual and environmental—and were more often than not in accord on the significant issues. One day during that visit he insisted I listen to a new radio show by this brilliant new commentator. He gave me the station and time and I dutifully listened and had a good laugh at the great joke my friend had played on me. Ho ho ho. After just a few minutes of listening to Rush Limbaugh's bigoted, obvious distortions of half-truths and innuendo in the guise of objective if entertaining commentary, it was clear that he was a journalistic whackjob whose disdain and disregard for truth were worn as badges of honor. Ho ho ho. What a good joke my friend had played on me to waste my time listening to Rush Limbaugh's garbage. Sort of like taking a gullible friend on a snipe hunt.

Except it wasn't a joke. When my friend and I talked about it I was more than surprised to discover he was serious. Limbaugh speaks for him, and it was clear we were no longer in accord on the significant issues. Limbaugh speaks and writes for many people, and that's no joke. Limbaugh's contributions to the public discourse include: "It has not been proven that nicotine is addictive; the same with cigarettes' causing emphysema (and other diseases)," "The worst of all of this is the lie that condoms really protect against AIDS. The condom failure rate can be as high as 20 percent. Would you get on a plane—or put your children on a plane—if one of five passengers would be killed on the flight? Well, the statistic holds for condoms, folks," "Do you know we have more acreage of forest land in the United States today than we did at the time the Constitution was written?," "There are more American Indians alive today than there were when Columbus arrived or at any other time in history. Does this sound like a record of genocide?" "This is asinine! A Caesar Chavez Day in California? Wasn't he convicted of a crime?" "I mean, let's face it, we didn't have slavery in this country for over 100 years because it was a bad thing. Quite the opposite—slavery built the South. I'm not saying we should bring it back; I'm just saying it had its merits. For one thing, the streets were safer after dark," "Women were doing quite well in this country before feminism came along," "Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream" and "Now I got something for you that's true—1972, Tufts University, Boston. This is 24 years ago—or 22 years ago. Three-year study of 5,000 co-eds, and they used a benchmark of a bra size of 34C. They found that the—now wait. It's true. The larger the bra-size, the smaller the IQ."


To give Rush, whose formal education peaked with flunking out of Southeast Missouri State University after one year, more than his due, he was probably referring to circumstantial fluctuations in his own IQ.

That Limbaugh is the voice (and the face) of a significant portion of American citizens is a matter that warrants more attention than it gets, as does scrutinizing the content of what it is he is saying: the merits of slavery, misogyny, cigarettes and historical/environmental revisionism, among other things.

But Limbaugh is a high and right profile of an American tradition with which I, for one, am not in accord. In my lifetime that tradition of the right notably includes Joseph McCarthy, the alcoholic U.S. senator from Wisconsin whose name is rightfully associated with the unsubstantiated smear of political and/or ideological opponents. He was censured by his fellow senators and voted "the worst U.S. senator" by the Senate press corps, as he deserved.

In college I wrote a piece about Robert Welch, who founded the John Birch Society, and who was giving a speech on campus. I considered (and consider) his ideas suspect at best and certainly not in accord with my own. I was rewarded for saying so by some wonderfully imaginative hate mail from the president of the local Birch Society that I consider my introduction to discourse with right-thinking American citizens.

Several years ago I wrote a column that appeared in these pages about the right and dark ignorance of the Aryan Nations Church of Jesus Christ Christians, headquartered at that time in northern Idaho. I received in response a rambling, bigoted, really stupid letter from a man who titled himself "Maj-sturmbannfuhrer, Aryan Nations propaganda minister." The letter was threatening and alarming enough that it was added to the file of similar Sturmbannfuhrer missives at the local police headquarters. Not long after that, this same propaganda minister entered a local bar with a loaded gun to settle an earlier barroom discourse that had not gone his way. Luckily for everyone, the patrons took his gun away before he could use it and pummeled him a bit before turning him over to the justice system, which put him in prison for a few years, as he deserved.

The tradition exemplified by Limbaugh, McCarthy and the sturmbannfuhrer is not on a snipe hunt. The bra-size thinking behind it may be laughable, but the real-life consequences of it are no joke, as they so often end more violently and less felicitously and justly than it did for the Sturmbannfuhrer and his intended targets.

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