At first I didn't know whether I’d yawn or puke when I read what Rush Limbaugh said reacting to the Georgetown Law student and self-described reproductive-rights activist, Sandra Fluke. “What does it say about the college coed Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says 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—the johns. No, that’s right—pimp is not the right word.”
All of this is offensive hyperbole—and the confusion of “pimp” and “john” is odd for the man whose idea of a good time is a week in the Dominican Republic with a bagful of Viagra. But it is little more than flapdoodle. Did anyone really think that the earnest, scholarly Sandra Fluke was a prostitute?
It will go away, I thought, and I can return to eating lotuses on my tropical island. But it didn't go away. The president of the United States called Ms. Fluke to tell her that her parents should be proud of her. The war in Afghanistan is deadlier than ever, Israelis are on the verge of bombing Iran, Syria is imploding, gas is inching to $5 a gallon and the president is bucking up a law student who was called a naughty name?
Projectile vomiting became a real possibility when Don Imus weighed in, calling Limbaugh a “fat gutless pill-popping loser.” “It’s the worst kind of cowardice,” Imus said. “Maybe he’s still jacked up on the Oxycontin, or whatever it is, but you can’t say stuff about somebody and not, one, own up to it, and, two, have guts enough to go sit down with her and say, ‘Look, I’m sorry and I won’t do this again.’ But no, he’s a punk.”
This was rich. Don Imus, as he says himself, spent years snorting cocaine, drinking himself into blackouts, and running a radio show in which he routinely insults people. A few years ago, called the black women of a college basketball team “nappy-headed hoes,” which was no surprise to his listeners. At the time his sidekick Bernard McGuirk did an impersonation of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, which anyone could have mistaken for his channeling Amos & Andy.
Virtually everyone in public life condemned Limbaugh, some mildly, some harshly, and none were more strident or hypocritical—as Sarah Palin was later to point out—than the hordes of liberals, Fluke-like in their sanctimony. Limbaugh had been offensive! Ms Fluke said she was contemplating a lawsuit—for what? Apoplexy was rife. The man whose whole career is based on offense and mockery had apparently touched a nerve. No one raised much fuss when he hauled out “Queasy” his pet name for Kweisi Mfume (born Frizzell Gray), or called Charles Barkley “Milk Dud,” and when he said that black quarterbacks couldn't rifle the ball he was merely admonished and lost a gig.
Limbaugh is referred to as “the virtual leader of the Republican Party.” Oh, really? If you believe that a cracker like Rush with a radio show is the “virtual leader” of the Republican Party, you need a good proctologist to reposition your head.
Limbaugh, like many mockers—and many successful populists—is a man with a mere high-school education who is able, partly through recklessness, partly through overweening self-regard, to reflect the justifiable anger of a large proportion of the white American public. This is the identical profile of Michael Moore. And by the way, both these semieducated men calling themselves men of the people are multimillionaires.
“Do you ever think you’re just a bag of hot gas?” David Letterman asked Limbaugh a few years ago, when he appeared as a guest. Limbaugh squinted and then, taken aback, denied that the thought had ever occurred to him, as Letterman to his credit said, “I certainly think I am!”
My gorge rose again when Limbaugh offered an apology, muttering about a poor choice of words, sorry, sorry, blah-blah, and of course no one believed him for a minute. Many of his sponsors bailed. Limbaugh’s spin to his listeners on this was “They don’t want your business!” The result was that he got even more listeners.
The whole affair has now begun to appear to me fairly interesting. The defense of Sandra Fluke is so shrill that it is almost as though many of her defenders actually believe there is a vicious taint of self-indulgence, if not sluttiness, in a female student’s clamoring for a federal mandate of subsidized contraceptives. How else to interpret such a welter of special pleading? They believe she actually needs defending. It occurred to me that in this fairly illiterate, irony-challenged country we have no notion of what satire actually is. Satire is merciless, unsparing, savage. It is not the genial teasing comedy of The Daily Show, or the fooling of Saturday Night Live. It is destructive and cruel. It is Jonathan Swift in “A Modest Proposal” writing of cooking and eating babies. It is Daniel Defoe in “The Shortest Way With Dissenters” speaking of killing members of a religious sect. It is Thomas Nast drawing pictures of hideous cannibalistic Catholic priests, or Horace making rhymes about buggery. It is John Collier mocking suffragettes by writing a whole novel about a man who marries an actual ape from the Congo in “His Monkey Wife,” and nearer to the present, it is Hunter Thompson’s “He was a Crook”—“ If the right people had been in charge of Nixon's funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles …” The mention of sexual matters in public life leaves us gasping and confused and irrationally indignant. The iconic figure in this respect is President Clinton getting a BJ in the Oval Office—a seismic event in the United States. What bothered many people—me included—was that he was enjoying, and early on defending something that was a dismissible offense to anyone elsewhere in the government. The Starr Report was dense with lubricious details. Clinton’s sexual proclivities were everything, but who mentions the cruel errand that Clinton went on in the fall of 1992, when—interrupting his campaign in New Hampshire—he flew to Little Rock to sign the governor’s execution order of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally deficient man, and a helpless victim of the system. Clinton in assisting in the murder of this man wanted to prove to New Hampshire voters that he was a hard-liner on crime, yet in the recent PBS four-hour documentary which is loaded with Lewinskiana there is no mention of this melancholy murder. Similarly, Newt Gingrich is the thrice-married man—and jeered at for being horny. The fact that he is a shill for a Las Vegas gambling king who paid him $11 million to claim that the Palestinians are “an invented people” does not matter at all. His dipstick matters more, as it mattered with Eliot Spitzer, the Anthony Weiner, and all the rest of them. “Slut” and “whore” have always been powerful words. Laputa (the whore) is the flying island in “Gullivers Travels.” “That great whore, reason,” Martin Luther famously said. In the Book of Mormon “the great whore of all the earth,” the Whore of Babylon, is the Catholic Church—words that must have tripped off Mitt Romney’s tongue many times, in his role as bishop in his readings to his flock. This most American of religions, cooked up by one of our more priapic prophets, had sex on the brain from the moment Joseph Smith crouched under a blanket and dictated the book to the first of his many wives. This whole Limbaugh business epitomizes our confusion and our hypocrisy. The folks who depicted George Bush as a chimp, and Sarah Palin as a skank, are indignant when these same words are used against their people in the virtue industry, and that includes the troopers in the Reproductive Rights Activist Service Corps. The trouble with Limbaugh is that he is not a satirist—hasn’t the brains or the humor for it—and his earnestness, and his vanity, always gets in the way. He seems to believe that he is an opinion leader, but even as a gas bag on the sidelines he has a role to play, because not many other people are playing that role. If only he knew more about the power of satire, how it can do more than mere mockery. But, as a mocker—the Fluke affair is proof—he has an effect, and I think it uncovered one of our greatest weaknesses and our weirdest tendencies. You have to give Limbaugh a pass, otherwise you lose the right to go on calling Gingrich and Eric Cantor pimps for Israel, and Rick Santorum a mental midget, and if you foreswear colorful, if not robust or wicked language altogether you might as well shut up.