Rush Limbaugh ignited another attention-getting furor by calling a college student who testified before Congress a prostitute. This incident reveals nothing new about Limbaugh, who makes millions by being nasty to anyone who does not share his extreme politics. But we can learn about the state of political discourse in today’s America.
Here’s how it all began. Democratic members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform asked that Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke testify at a February 16 hearing on the controversial new government rules requiring employers to cover contraception in their insurance policies. Fluke is a law student and former president of Law Students for Reproductive Justice.
The chair of the committee, Rep. Darrell Issa, Republican from California, refused to let Fluke or any other witness requested by the Democrats testify. The only testifiers were leaders of religious institutions who opposed the contraception coverage requirement and who supported Issa’s contention that the issue was one of religious freedom, not women’s health.
The Democrats held an unofficial hearing on February 23, where Fluke criticized the lack of coverage of contraception by her Georgetown University insurance policy as harming female students.
Conservative commentators jumped on Fluke as a symbol of “sex-crazed co-eds” who wanted taxpayers to “pay for us to have sex”. Then Limbaugh piled on, repeating that fabricated version of this health-care issue, and escalating the attack on Fluke. On his February 29 broadcast, getting her name wrong, he said: “What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that 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.”
The next day, March 1, Limbaugh described Fluke as “an immoral, baseless, no-purpose-to-her life woman”, who is “having so much sex, it’s amazing she can still walk.” He wondered, “Who bought your condoms in the sixth grade?” Limbaugh liked this so much, the next day, March 2, he repeated it: “She's having sex so frequently that she can't afford all the birth-control pills that she needs. That's what she's saying. . . . I'm not making any of it up.”
Even advertisers who had previously accepted Limbaugh’s crude tirades decided to abandon him for slandering this young woman. By now over 50 sponsors of his radio show have canceled their advertising.
On March 3, Limbaugh posted on his website: “I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke. . . . in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”
Two days later, Limbaugh explained exactly what he meant: “those two words were inappropriate. They were uncalled for. They distracted from the point that I was actually trying to make, and I again sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for using those two words to describe her. . . . The apology to her over the weekend was sincere. It was simply for using inappropriate words in a way I never do.”
By limiting his apology to “two words”, Limbaugh let all of his other words stand. Rush was apparently upset that saying “slut” might distract anyone from the point he was making: “she and her coed classmates are having sex nearly three times a day for three years straight, apparently.”
What is political talk like in America? Some people talk nasty and nastier, hoping to prevent the next Sandra Fluke from expressing herself. Bigmouths thrive in the silence of others. They can’t be changed by shame or correction. When they get called out by a few, they back off, lie about what they said and meant, and try again.
Some people say “tut-tut”. Romney said, “I’ll just say this, which is, it’s not the language I would have used.” Boehner let his spokesman say, “The Speaker obviously believes the use of those words was inappropriate.” Since they said nothing more, do they agree that Ms. Fluke needs sex three times a day, but would have used a more refined vocabulary? Rick Santorum said that Limbaugh was “being absurd. But that's, you know, an entertainer can be absurd.” How does that entertainer square with his family values?
We need a functioning democracy, not a political reality show. It goes beyond turning on or off, buying or boycotting someone’s products, acting privately on one’s principles.
Only if we the people speak out, enter the public arena even in the most modest way, let our voices be heard, can we take back our polluted political culture from shouting loudmouths and their sycophants.
Here’s an example to follow. Georgetown University President John DeGioia released a letter with this plea: “In an earlier time, St. Augustine captured the sense of what is required in civil discourse: ‘Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth. Let us seek it together as something which is known to neither of us. For then only may we seek it, lovingly and tranquilly.’”
Some people talk nasty and nastier, hoping to prevent the next Sandra Fluke from expressing herself. Bigmouths thrive in the silence of others.
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