Outrage Overload

Uproar Over Limbaugh’s Sandra Fluke Attack Should End Because He Doesn’t Matter

We need to cure our Outrage Redundancy Syndrome over the radio host’s Sandra Fluke attack and move on, says Jesse Singal.

Ethan Miller / Getty Images

If there’s a just and merciful God in heaven, hopefully we are about to reach the end of Flukegate, which started two weeks ago today when Rush Limbaugh launched a bizarre, misogynistic tirade against Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, calling her a “slut” for arguing in testimony to Congressional Democrats that the same health-insurance plans that cover Viagra should also cover birth control (what a floozy!).

In the wake of prolonged and protracted outrage and Limbaugh’s rather tepidapology,” advertisers are fleeing the radio host and some commentators are claiming victory. But in the meantime, we’ve spent two weeks talking about someone who doesn’t deserve a scintilla of the attention we’ve showered on him.

We shouldn’t misinterpret the flight of Limbaugh’s advertisers as a victory. Rather, we should take a long, hard look at why we let ourselves get so worked up about him and whether his vile babbling nonsense matters.

We need to do a thorough self-exam and ask whether we may have contracted a severe case of Outrage Redundancy Syndrome.

Outrage Redundancy Syndrome, or ORS, is a disease that causes outrage—in this case, justifiable outrage—to multiply uncontrollably into a sea of dudgeon that becomes subsequently pointless, if not counterproductive. It is by no means unique to left-leaners—just mention Jane Fonda to your conservative uncle the next time you see him. But they’re a particularly at-risk population, since the sea of demagogic punditry that covers our land like a discharge of unknown provenance is still dominated by conservatives.

Flukegate has been ORS central. Two weeks later, we are still expressing outrage, talking about our outrage, talking about why it’s important to talk about our outrage, trying to get the FCC to kick Limbaugh off the air, and, it can only be assumed, drawing nasty pictures in our diaries of the host getting eviscerated by eloquent law students.

“But wait,” I can hear the skeptics saying. “It worked! The advertisers are tucking tail and running!”

Well, yeah. But is Rush Limbaugh going anywhere? Is his paycheck? What about his 15 million weekly listeners? One of the hardest things for human beings to do is to make peace with the facts that there are and always have been jerks in the world, and that there isn’t always anything that can be done about this. Rush, the platonic ideal of the jerk, is a prime example, whether or not Geico is sponsoring his show. If Clear Channel dropped him tomorrow, he’d be raking in millions on a satellite show by Friday. And when he dies or retires, there are dozens ready to take his place. Reactionary conservatism may be the most popular human pastime other than sex, and it will always have a market.

“OK,” I can hear other skeptics saying, “But what he said was really, really out of line, and it touched upon some of the ugliest aspects of misogyny in America today.”

It absolutely did. But the fact is that Limbaugh, even with his millions of dollars and listeners, doesn’t matter. Those listeners account for a small, ideologically hardened percentage of the population. They’re not going anywhere, but they are not representative of how Americans feel about birth control or anything else.

If we really want to attack the countless social ills preventing women from reaching full equality in the U.S., Limbaugh should be somewhere near the bottom of the list. Yes, he deserved to be tarred over what he said, and yes, it was worth a conversation about what it means that one of our most popular pundits felt he could launch such a vicious attack with impunity.

But if a 10th of the people who wasted more than a couple days’ worth of outrage on Limbaugh instead spent that time discussing and circulating Jenny Deam’s heartbreaking Los Angeles Times article about the valiant—and, so far, futile—efforts of the slain Dr. George Tiller’s successor to provide abortion access to women in and around Wichita, Kan. (who today, in 2012, have to drive hundreds of miles to get an abortion), then we could have discharged our anger in a much more productive way.

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The problem is that it’s tough to mobilize anyone around the real public-policy flash points. They’re lower profile and harder to understand and less sexy, and often exist at the less glamorous state and local levels. (I’m guilty, too! I’m writing about Limbaugh when I could be learning about how Medicaid works, or something.)

Limbaugh, on the other hand, is an utterly irresistible target, and fits right into ORS pathology: the disease tends to arise when its victims come face to face with big, socially prominent figures who elicit the sort of primal rage usually reserved for someone threatening your kids. But in this case, the level of rage dwarfs that figure’s actual influence.

It is very hard to internalize, but we should be repeating it like a mantra: Limbaugh isn’t the guy making it almost impossible for some Americans to get abortions. He isn’t contributing to the number of rapes that go unreported on college campuses. He has very little to do with the fact that women hold less than 17 percent of the seats in Congress. He’s a nonfactor, except among his ill-informed, right-wing listeners—and on those occasions when he bludgeons his way onto the national scene by saying something offensive and we respond obligingly with an ORS epidemic.

So for those who really care about Fluke’s fight, but who have found themselves swept up in the furor over this small, small man’s idiocy, there’s only one way to cure your ORS: let Rush go. You’ve got real work to do.