With regret I confess that when Rush Limbaugh first came on the air, I used to listen to him and find him amusing. This should not have been the case.
I was brought up in a religious family that stressed ethics, kindness, and doing the right thing regardless of the cost. I’d read the Bible from cover to cover several times, taught CCD, studied the Catholic philosophical and theological tradition. I never should have found Ruth to be amusing, let alone regarded him as a viable public thinker. Yet I and many others, including others even better educated than I was, did and still do.
In a truly humane and ethical society this would have been impossible.
It’s clear to us now, especially those of us who were once a part of the so-called “conservative” Catholic set, who were involved in pro-life work, and happy recruits in the culture war, that Rush Limbaugh initiated the trend of far-right media influencers, usually angry men spewing hatred and stirring up resentments against…well, everyone. Not just feminists (feminazis, he called us) and liberals, but women in general, non-white folks, liberals or any stripe, immigrants, the disabled, the mentally ill, and children who had survived school shootings.
As the years passed the willingness to blast vitriol at people already suffering or marginalized grew increasingly overt. Limbaugh was the wedge that began to open the door to vocalizing bigotry, but only because our populace was predisposed to take him to heart. Limbaugh gave us a script, but it was really more of a license to say the quiet part out loud. And so here we are today, with a nation-wide movement of grubby fascism on our hands, and the lunatic fringe of conspiracy theorists in tin-foil hats taking center stage.
Yes, the Overton window shifted. But only because these ideologies were already present.
Media disclosures have revealed that many of our iconic figures of the U.S. character, such as John Wayne and Ronald Reagan, were in fact appallingly racist. They were gentlemanly about it, however. They usually said the racist things only in private, and on rare occasions, because there was a general sense—thanks partially to the tireless work and even martyrdom of Civil Rights activists—that being a racist wasn’t actually very nice anymore.
Yet clearly plenty of people wished it was still considered nice. They felt oppressed when they were no longer allowed to make bigoted observations without being labeled as bigoted.
William F. Buckley praised Limbaugh—never forget that. Buckley might not have wanted to dirty his immaculate white hands with muck-flinging, but he was perfectly happy to have someone less fastidious do it for him.
In a just and decent culture, there is a place for vulgar humor. And a just and decent culture can not endure if there is not a space for questioning received wisdom. But whom we direct the humor at, and which received wisdom we question, matters.
Right-minded folks should never have responded to slurs directed against AIDS sufferers, non-white children, and the disabled with anything other than disgust and horror.
We would not have said “well, he’s saying what no one else is saying,” in an approving way. Saying what no one else is saying is not per se a virtue. Neither is “saying what everyone is thinking” (for which so many praised Trump) if what everyone is thinking is vile. If someone comes into our midst spouting bigotry, bullying the suffering, our only right response is to shut him up and, hopefully, see if we can get him to see sense and function as a decent person. Giving him a platform and paying him for his opinion is the work of a morally deranged populace.
It’s commonly understood among normal folks that when you punch, you punch up, not down. Good comedy, when it jabs at people, does not jab at those who are powerless to defend themselves. Good comedy is brave comedy, and brave comedians take on the authoritarian oppressors rather than siding with them and propping them up. It’s frightening how long it took me to make this distinction. My failure to do so immediately is partially my own personal failure, but partially the failure of what passes for Catholic education in many Catholic institutions.
In retrospect I realize that the tools I was given for dismantling my own edifice of bigotry and to work on my own racism were actually there in some of the ideologies we studied, but almost none of the thought-leaders I followed made use of them. I will make notable exception for my really excellent philosophy advisor who introduced me to Christian personalism and in whose home the voice of Limbaugh was never heard, for the obvious reason that what Limbaugh peddled was an attack on the essential dignity of the human person.
Rush Limbaugh succeeded because our society was insufficiently moral.
He succeeded because we already were disposed to lash out at the oppressed instead of at the oppressor, to blame all our problems on others, and to resent the centering of any other demographic in our drama of personal white grievance. Characters like Ann Coulter, Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro, as well as the entire field of far-right Catholic media, exist because Limbaugh tapped into a well of hatred that was already there.
This is why anti-racist work is so important. We need to acknowledge the extent to which our participation in institutions that grant us power and privilege is a participation in white supremacy. Those of us who reside in privileged demographics need to examine our own fragility, the fragility that prompts us to whine about being oppressed whenever we are criticized—while we were fine with the actual oppression of marginalized persons, for years and years.
I would like to end with the note that someone will probably respond to this piece by calling it hateful and judgmental. They will likely express outrage at my cruelty in speaking ill of the dead. I would bet good money that the same people who accuse me of hatred, for speaking realistically about how a bad person did bad things, cheerily applauded the entire rhetorical apparatus of hatred that Rush Limbaugh constructed. And that they proudly identify as Christian.
Just another instance in which right wing Christianity has lost any moral ground.
Image credit: 2/7/1986 President Reagan with William F Buckley in the White House Residence during Private birthday party in honor of President Reagan’s 75th Birthday