Free speech is everyone’s, even Rush Limbaugh’s
Rush Limbaugh made an incendiary and offensive remark? Stop the presses! This is the big one, you say? A comment so hurtful and misguided that he may have just shown himself to be outside of the bounds of civil discourse in this country?
Oh, wait a minute. He has been a torch-bearing demagogue for years, a rhetorical extremist since this humble writer was but a wee lad.
Nobody who wields office takes Limbaugh seriously – except as an inexhaustible gold-mine for Democratic politicians eager to draw a stark contrast. Nevertheless, he is the voice of a significant cultural segment of this country, and he could be just the spark to ignite the explosive cultural divide that grows ever deeper in these United States. It’s time to douse this guy with proverbial cold water; actual cold water, too, to cool his ardor for webcams. But this sort of thing requires great patience and historical perspective. Denying him his right to express his opinion is not the proper course.
As it always seems to go in these sorts of affairs, many are calling for Rush’s head on a platter, or as a more humane alternative, for his ouster from his radio show. This line of thinking is misguided and counterproductive. To paraphrase Evelyn Beatrice Hall: I think Rush Limbaugh is a creepy, bitter old man, but I will defend to the death his right to say whatever he damn well pleases.
First of all, Limbaugh will have to deal with any non-legal consequences that his comments have garnered, whether they be financial or to the detriment of his reputation. Perhaps there will be no repercussions, with new advertisers filling the gaps – companies that seek the lucrative, untapped market of misanthropes. But ultimately, that’s none of our business. If we don’t agree with Rush, we can express our distaste by avoiding those companies who associate with him.
Let me now interject that about a month ago Ellen DeGeneres, that ray of sunshine in popular culture, was made the official spokesperson of JCPenney. In response, a group with the slightly exaggerated title of One Million Moms called for a boycott. They sought the dismissal of Ellen due to the supposed “anti-family” message that she represented. Well slap my Grandma, but Bill O’Reilly of all people came to her defense! His message was pretty simple: boycott the store if you want, but what right do you have to tell a private company who its spokesperson can be?
In a rare moment for O’Reilly, he arrived at the heart of the issue. Playing the morality police only distracts from the debates at hand. In the case of Rush, it is exactly what a demagogue like him wants – he can refer his listeners to his lambasting in the public sphere, citing it as evidence that he must be doing something right.
But this is all gravy compared to the real meat and potatoes at stake here. Free speech is the cornerstone of American civil life, the fountainhead, the big enchilada. Free speech, freedom of religion and the other civil liberties enshrined in our Bill of Rights are exactly what make American political culture so distinct. It is precisely this culture of liberty that makes America such an attractive and accepting country for immigrants to make their home here, as they always have.
It seems that America is often compared to “enlightened” European nations, with America always on the losing end of the comparison. But for all of our flaws, the liberty-centric orientation of our public life gives rise to a few examples that show the advantages of the American tradition. The banning of minarets that happened a few years ago in Switzerland, or the ban of public burqa-wearing in France would never happen in our country, because of the primacy of individual liberty enshrined in the U.S. Constitution that prevents any such law from taking hold.
What does all of this have to do with Limbaugh? It’s simple, really. You have to take the good with the bad. Consider people like Limbaugh as a testament to the continued health of free speech in America. He’s only playing on prejudices that his audience already has, he’s not inciting anything that wasn’t already there. In fact, he’s exposing the deep, dark recesses of American misogyny to the light of public debate, so those like Jon Stewart can show the deep inconsistencies in his thinking. Contest his views in the court of public opinion, but don’t undercut his right to have those views in the first place.
In this humble counterpoint, let it not be supposed that I have made Limbaugh into some kind of hero. He is more an antihero in this drama, but one whose presence renews the vigor of that benevolent deity, the goddess of liberty. Shine on, thou chaste cherub of talk radio! So long as your hateful vitriol spews forth, we can be assured that free speech in America is alive and well. Culture can and will change over time, but it requires the immovable firmament of free speech to do so.
Gavin Beeker is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.