In Defense of Rush Limbaugh

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In the name of civility, I rise in limited defense of Rush Limbaugh.

Unless you've been vacationing this week on Uranus (heh heh heh), you surely know about Limbaugh's latest leap into a cow patty. In an on-air rant about a Georgetown law student's congressional testimony in favor of mandatory insurance coverage of contraception, Rush dropped this:

"What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute...She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We're the pimps."

And this:

"If we're going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."

Which, after all of the many outrageous things that he's said over his many years, appeared to have actually located a line Limbaugh should not have crossed. Several of his sponsors announced they were dropping his show. And even some GOP leaders were been moved to offer relatively gentle condemnations. By my money, the most on-target was Rick Santorum from the campaign trail:

"He's being absurd, but that's you know, an entertainer can be absurd," Santorum told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "He's in a very different business than I am."

(Would that Limbaugh's many fans and supporters always recognize that he is, in fact, an entertainer. But that's another column.)

Many entertainers do outrageous things that are applauded yet strain the boundaries of civility. So that is a valid defense. Limbaugh's failure here was not so much against the standards of civility but against the rules of entertainment:

By most people's taste, he was neither civil nor funny. And that's the cow patty into which an entertainer like Rush should never step.

Was Limbaugh's language really outside the norm of modern political satire? Senator Santorum would beg to differ. He's been an incredibly vulgar human punch line for several years now. After the senator compared gay marriage to "man on dog" to an Associate Press reporter, columnist Dan Savage came up with a revenge that was unique to the digital age: Savage developed a grotesque definition for "Santorum" -- "The frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex" -- and was able to get search engine algorithms to put the definition at or near the top of any search for the senator's name. (Do a search for "Santorum's Google Problem" to find many full explanations.)

Political commentators and satirists piled on, using or referring to the joke. Including the top-ranking clowns on the Left, such as Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. Which boosted the jape still further into the Interwebs and public consciousness.

Outrageous? Ubetcha. Uncivil? I'd say so. Funny? That, too.

Which is where we need to discuss the broad rules of humor.

Most jokes have a butt. That is, there's a victim who suffers as the result of the joke's narrative. Here's a classic joke, at least 70 years old, that illustrates the form:

On a busy sidewalk, a Jew accidentally bumps into an anti-Semite. The anti-Semite draws himself up in anger. "Swine!" he spits. The Jew nods politely. "Cohen," he replies. And walks on.

Now imagine the joke with the characters reversed. Would not be funny. Because an inherent part of our understanding of the humor is that the anti-Semite deserves the put-down.

Here's another example: Imagine a silent film (easier to do in the year of "The Artist"). A shabby man walks down the street and trips into a puddle. An obviously wealthy man snickers at the poor man's plight as he walks by. And then trips, himself, into the next puddle.

The first fall? Not particularly funny. The rich man's pratfall? Funny. Because we sense he deserved it. And that what happened to the rich man was a punishment appropriate for the "crime."

Satire traditionally goes much further and nastier than most humor, so satirists get much greater license to offend. Jonathan Swift set the bar very high almost 300 years ago with his classic "Modest Proposal" for how to deal with too many poor children:

"I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled..."

To be clear, Swift wasn't attacking the poor. He was smacking down the wealthy who so dehumanized the poor that eating them seemed an outrageous but "logical" next step.

In the Santorum case, the rules of satirical humor generally apply. He set himself up for the reaction. The response was tailored to the perceived offense. The outrageous shock value was part of the desired effect.

And there's this: Santorum was asking for it, at least in one sense. When you knowingly poke a giant anthill, it's hard to complain when you get stung. Santorum was -- and is -- a big-time politician seeking the brightest possible spotlight. He was no rookie when he made his comments about gay marriage. There was an implied "informed consent" that made it hard for most people to imagine him as an innocent victim -- which would have blunted the potential humor.

Shift to Fluke. For Limbaugh -- whose personal moral history is anything but unsullied -- to dump on her this extreme way seemed about as funny as kicking a puppy.

She's not exactly a naïf. According to a bio on the Georgetown website, Fluke has been an activist for one liberal cause or another for several years: Co-founded the New York Statewide Coalition for Fair Access to Family Court, the Development Editor of the Journal of Gender and the Law, and served as the President of Law Students for Reproductive Justice, and the Vice President of the Women's Legal Alliance.

But her Congressional testimony was her first time in the full glare of the national spotlight. While she surely knew she was wading into a major controversy, she was likely unprepared for being personally attacked. So Limbaugh pulling out the maximum-bore bombast felt unfair. For one of the most famous mouthpieces of modern conservative politics to call her a slut felt like an overreach. And to have him then demand a sex tape went beyond even the broad license that many of Limbaugh's listeners have been willing to give him.

It was hard to feel as if Fluke deserved the piling on. In a historical context, it was as if Swift was actually calling for the cooking of babies. Dumping on the victim is not appropriate. And not funny.

(Let's acknowledge here that there are folks who found Limbaugh's attack on Fluke to be appropriate and totally high-larious. Y'all appear to be in a fairly small minority.)

Other conservative commentators managed to be just as critical of Fluke without leaping into the rhetorical abyss. Bill O'Reilly and Michelle Malkin made much the same points without the use of the offensive personal attacks.

Rush is a well-paid professional entertainer. So he lives and dies with the fate of all professional entertainers: If the cheering stops, so do the dollars. In this case, several of his sponsors announced that they were no longer buying ads on the program: Sleep Train and Sleep Number mattresses, Legal Zoom, Carbonite, ProFlowers, and Quicken Loans.

But let's give credit where credit is due. On Saturday, Limbaugh issued an apology. And not one of those "I'm sorry if people were offended..." things that aren't actually apologies at all. This one had the proper form. He said:

"My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices."

Which indicates that he understands that he failed the humor test. Maybe that's enough to recoup his sponsors and recover anything lost to his reputation. And maybe it's even a small teaching moment about the limits of civil discourse in 2012.

But I'd still like to imagine Limbaugh and the target of his invective running into each other one day on a busy sidewalk.

"Prostitute!" Limbaugh spits. "Fluke," she replies politely. And walks on.

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