In the wake of the uproar over Rush Limbaugh’s unwarranted personal attack on Sandra Fluke (and his subsequent so-called apology), the response from some on the right has been to say: “People on the left do the same thing.” This has led to articles, such as one by David Frum, attempting to show why what Rush did is more extreme than the norm — and why the criticism of him is “fair.” While there is much overlap between my viewpoint and that of Frum, there are a few differences as well. I’d like to go on record with my own take. Here it is:
1. I distinctly remember the incident regarding David Letterman and his jokes about Sarah Palin’s daughter(s). My first reaction to hearing Letterman was to cringe. I felt this was unacceptable, beyond the bounds of decency. And I was a David Letterman fan. So you get no argument from me on the point that there can be excesses on the left as well as the right.
As a minor aside, I doubt that my cringing is matched by the typical person listening to Rush’s comments — ever. But that’s another story.
2. Letterman apologized two nights later. It did not appear to me that the apology was given to stem the tide of advertisers who were abandoning ship. And his words were not chosen to sound like “I still think I’m right about what I said although I could have said it a bit more politely” — which is how Rush’s so-called apology came off.
3. Letterman is a comedian, not a political commentator. Dave’s job is to make people laugh. While listening to Rush may also make people laugh, his “job” is to espouse a political viewpoint and influence people. Republicans in Congress worry about what Rush says; the same is not true for Democrats and Letterman. Although this does not absolve comedians from their excesses (see point #1 above), it does give them more latitude in my book.
For that matter, I don’t think of Dave as having a unilaterally left wing slant. In a given week, he may poke fun at a left wing political figure as well as a right wing one.
In contrast, Rush is always on the extreme right wing and wants you to take his statements seriously. He wants you to believe that he really hates whoever he is attacking and that you should hate that person too. If Rush had made his comments as part of a skit on Saturday Night Live, for example, I would have been less appalled — although still upset.
4. For a closer left-wing match to Rush Limbaugh, I would look to Bill Maher. I readily admit that Maher too often goes off the rails. And when he does, I am critical of Bill, just as I am of Rush. I admit that I often agree with Bill’s criticisms and I find him funny. These lessen my negative reaction. But I still would not defend his excesses.
5. I give people more latitude when they comment on public figures, such as politicians and entertainers. Public figures are legitimate targets of satire and ridicule, much more so than “private” citizens. That’s part of what upset me about what Letterman said. At the time, I felt that Palin’s children should have been “out of bounds” as a target. The same is true for what Rush did regarding Sandra Fluke. I say this because comparing what Rush did to leftist insults of President Bush (or other politicians) doesn’t work at all for me. It’s not nearly the same thing.
6. It’s interesting that those on the right apparently needed to go back to something that David Letterman said almost three years ago to offer a counter-example to Rush. If David Letterman was regularly saying things like this, you’d think they could find an example from last week. From the times I’ve listened to Rush, he says outrageous and extreme things every single day. This is his raison d’etre. Left wing blogs seem to critically cite quotes from Limbaugh on an almost daily basis. I don’t see this happening with right-wing blogs and Letterman. The current uproar stems from the fact that Rush went beyond his usual extremes to something almost no one could support, not because what he said was an exception to his general tone.
7. Finally, I emphatically agree with Frum that whatever Letterman or Maher or others on the left may or may not have done is irrelevant to the current situation with Limbaugh. When I criticize Limbaugh, I never add: “…and no one on the left would ever do anything like that.”
To me, pointing out the excesses of the left as a rebuttal to what Rush did is a diversion, a smoke-and-mirrors trick to shift the direction of the discussion and put the left on the defensive. Instead of discussing the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of what Rush said, the argument becomes about whether or not those on the left may or may not sometimes be equally at fault. Great tactic. This is a much better debating position for conservatives than having to defend (or not) Rush. But it’s irrelevant.
To me, this would be as if a right-wing response to news that a conservative talk show host had murdered his wife was: “And so? There are liberals who have also murdered their wives.” Who cares? Anyone who murders anyone should go to jail. One murder should not be seen as an excuse to let the another off the hook. And the same is true for Rush’s obnoxious comments.
If conservatives want to attack a left-wing commentator for some beyond-the-pale statement he made, go for it. But it will have no effect on the fact that Rush’s comments regarding Fluke were inexcusable — and that whatever negative fallout results is well deserved.