10.16.09

Rush the Race-Baiter

Limbaugh's fans say unfair charges of racism blocked his bid to become an NFL owner. Could be—but why don't they care when he's the one doing the race-baiting?

Rush Limbaugh maintains that his efforts to buy an NFL football team failed due to the pernicious influence of race-baiters. They are said to include professional demagogue Al Sharpton, the NFL players union, and a left-leaning blogger who falsely attributed a racist comment to the talk radio host, leading to its broadcast on CNN. "I have something in common with Clarence Thomas," Mr. Limbaugh claimed Thursday on his radio program. “I, too, have had my high-tech lynching.”

Mr. Limbaugh’s situation is unworthy of comparison to the ordeal Justice Thomas endured, but he is owed some sympathy. Even a thick-skinned celebrity must recoil when a national television network erroneously attributes a racist remark to their person. What isn't accurate are the broader defenses being offered by Mr. Limbaugh's fans. "It's no coincidence that Democratic Party outlets like CNN had to dredge up fake quotes to make their case," attorney John Hinderaker wrote on the popular conservative blog Power Line. "Nothing Rush actually said would do the trick, even though he's been on the radio three hours a day, five days a week, for more than twenty years."

Based entirely on statements made by Mr. Limbaugh in 2009, one begins to wonder whether he's been a bigger racial demagogue than even Al Sharpton during that period.

National Review's Andy McCarthy went farther. "So Much for the Post-Racial America," he wrote. "That's how Rush treats people — in the Martin Luther King aspiration that the content of one's character is what matters, not the color of one's skin. Yet, in the media narrative, he's somehow the one who's got a race issue — and the guys who trade on race, live and breathe it 24/7, are held up as our public conscience."

The error here isn't criticizing "guys who trade on race."

I share a powerful distaste for characters like Al Sharpton, who deliberately play on the racial anxieties of Americans. As one of the most powerful slurs in American life, "racist" is an accusation that ought to be made rarely, after careful deliberation, with incontrovertible evidence, and never merely to score points at the expense of a political adversary. So I join Mr. Hinderaker and Mr. McCarthy in asserting that Mr. Limbaugh has never been proved a racist, and that race-baiting is an awful feature of American public discourse. It damages reputations and undermines our ability to target actual racism. Those who engage in it deserve our ire.

But even a cursory review of Limbaugh’s radio archives reveal the talk radio host to be a frequent race-baiter, one of the guys who obsessively trades on race.

In fact, based entirely on statements made by Mr. Limbaugh in 2009, one begins to wonder whether he's been a bigger racial demagogue than even Al Sharpton during that period.

At the very least, he's been bandying about the ‘r’ word rather frequently.

Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates? "He's a racist," Mr. Limbaugh said. "He's an angry racist."

Sonja Sotomayor? "She's a bigot. She's a racist," Mr. Limbaugh said. "How can a president nominate such a candidate? And how can a party get behind such a candidate? That's what would be asked if somebody were foolish enough to nominate David Duke or pick somebody even less offensive."

President Obama? He's "the biggest reverse racist in history." On another occasion: "Just as he is ACORN, just as he is Van Jones, he is racism."On a third: "How do you get promoted in a Barack Obama administration? By hating white people." So implicitly Mr. Limbaugh is labeling multiple figures within the administration as racists too.

Democrats generally? "The racism that everybody thinks exists on our side of the aisle has been on full display throughout their primary campaign."

Liberals? "You know, racism in this country is the exclusive province of the left."

The media circa January? "We're witnessing racism all this week that led up to the inauguration. We're being told that we have to hope he succeeds. That we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father's black, because this is the first black president."

Minorities generally? "The days of them not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That's what Obama's about, gang. He's angry, he's gonna cut this country down to size, he's gonna make it pay for all the multicultural mistakes that it has made, it's mistreatment of minorities. I know exactly what's going on."

Oh, and don't forget the NFL. As of this week, it is "an outpost of racism and liberalism." (Strange that a league that is supposedly racist against white owner candidates has so many white owners.)

Remember, the foregoing examples are exclusively taken from radio commentary spoken in 2009.

Is there anyone in America who's accused more people of racism this year than Rush Limbaugh?

Of course, every race baiter must also cast someone as the aggrieved victim. There's the GOP: "They're moving to the back of the bus," Mr. Limbaugh said. "They're saying, 'I can't use that drinking fountain? Okay. I can't use that restroom? Okay.' That's the modern day Republican Party. The equivalent of the Old South. The new oppressed minority."

White people are victims, too. "Obama’s America, white kids getting beat up on school buses now. You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, 'Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on,' and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he’s white."

As for matters that only Mr. Limbaugh chooses to make about race, I'll cite only the most egregious: "You let George Bush's Navy gun down three black teenagers out there on the open sea and I guarantee there would be hell to pay..." he said. "If only President Obama had known that the three Somali community organizers were actually young black Muslim teenagers I'm sure he wouldn't have given the order to shoot." Of course, George W. Bush's Navy did shoot at non-white pirates without being accused of racism, and President Obama surely knew the pirates of Somalia's coast were minorities, but never mind.

If you're sympathetic to Mr. Limbaugh, but don't often listen to his program, perhaps you're surprised by how often he invokes race, racism, and racial victim-hood. Suffice it to say that knowing his program, it is utterly contradictory to complain about race-baiting and to hold Mr. Limbaugh up as a thought leader.

It is also understandable that a professional sports league wouldn't want to associate itself with someone who so frequently plays the race card. That doesn't mean Mr. Limbaugh is a racist. I take him at his word that he isn't. He is merely a racial provocateur whose ire at being called a racist doesn't prevent him from affixing the label to others with stunning frequency.

Why doesn't that bother his listeners?

Conor Friedersdorf, a Daily Beast columnist, also writes for The American Scene and The Atlantic Online's ideas blog.