The Sunday morning talk shows had a real Rush Limbaugh bash-fest this morning, and that’s fine: he earned it, with his ill-considered and vicious attack on Sandra Fluke for stating her opinion. This is a real career crisis for Limbaugh, I think, and he knows it. His initial reaction to the furious criticism of his offensive comments about the Georgetown Law student was to refuse to back down, as has been his response to controversies his entire remarkable career, and it has served him well. Then he realized that this controversy was different. He had crossed a line of decency, fairness and civility that the culture as a whole, not just political adversaries, would not tolerate. He apologized, saying.
“For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke.
“I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress. I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities. What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit? In my monologue, I posited that it is not our business whatsoever to know what is going on in anyone’s bedroom nor do I think it is a topic that should reach a Presidential level.
“My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”
Was it a “real” apology? I’m going to discuss the issue of apology ethics in the next post, but yes, it was as real as most apologies. If one’s definition of apology is ” a statement of contrition and regret freely and sincerely given,” the answer is no. Very few apologies meet that high standard, if only for the reason that few of us will apologize unless an apology benefits us in some way or is unavoidable. Rush’s reputation is based on daring, outrageousness and his refusal to back down from the ‘truth” despite assaults from the “drive-by” media and the politically correct; he, of all people, would never apologize for anything he said on his show if he had any choice in the matter. In this case, I assume that Limbaugh was hearing from his affiliates, his sponsors, other talk show hosts, and political figures that he was courting disaster if he didn’t back down.
Nevertheless, I think the apology was sincere at its core: Limbaugh did not intend to launch a personal attack on a private citizen. He intended to use her as a prop (which is unethical enough) to ridicule a position he disagrees with and to set up some over-the-top jokes. Based on my observations of Limbaugh, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole, nasty rant began with one joke popping into his head, the idea that if “we” had to pay for this woman to have sex, “we” should “get something out of it,” so her sexual encounters should be placed on YouTube “so we can watch.” Har. In pursuing the joke, however, he lost sight of the fact that he had a real human being, not a political figure but a private citizen, in his cross-hairs. Rush began riffing and free-associating on a theme, which is what he does, and went too far. His apology acknowledges that, and he says he’s sorry for it—not “sorry if it offended anyone,” not “sorry because I’m in big trouble,” but sorry because he hurt Fluke. He apologized directly to her, as he should have.
Now, I don’t expect Limbaugh-haters and partisan warriors on the left to accept that analysis, and I can’t guarantee it’s the correct one. I do know that progressives, liberals, Democrats and everyone who Rush has been poking in the eye for 20 years has an interest in framing this incident as decisive proof that he should be driven from the airways. There is no benefit in their being gracious or forgiving. Forgiveness would be ethical, but here powerful rationalizations usually hold sway, like “he has it coming” and “he’s never fair to us“…and especially the reverse Golden Rule argument, “If he were in our position, he’d never show us any mercy!” That’s true. It’s also not the Golden Rule.
It would be impressive if Ms. Fluke publicly forgave Rush, and possibly a gesture with lasting cultural importance. Imagine if she came before the cameras and said,
“I want to say to Rush Limbaugh that I accept his apology for his cruel words about me earlier this week, and I forgive him. I also want to say that we have an opportunity to use this unfortunate incident to take a step back, and examine what extreme rhetoric and hyper-partisanship are doing to this country. We should be able to disagree about the important issues facing us without adopting the rhetoric of hate; we have to be able to do that, or we will never thrive. All of us must learn to respect dissent and opposing views, no matter how misguided we may think they are, or how passionately we oppose them. We have to break the habit of resorting to ridicule, denigration and personal attacks as our tactics of choice, and instead master logic, language, civility and reason. This doesn’t mean that we have to abandon advocacy, debate, humor, or satire. It only means we have to remember that we are all human beings and Americans, and that all of us—men, women, progressives, conservatives, Rush, and I—want the same thing: a strong, prosperous, human and free United States. And part of remembering that requires that we forgive each other.”
Sandra has a great opportunity, for a very short period of time. I am not expecting her to take it, but I wish she would.
Returning to Rush, I have two somewhat contradictory but related observations. The first is that it is amazing that this hasn’t happened to Limbaugh earlier. His act is a dazzling one that perhaps only those of us who speak extemporaneously for a living can fully appreciate. As his statement said, he does engage in three hour monologues every day, improvising jokes, barbs and political satire while mixing in substantive commentary, intentionally getting as close to taboo subjects and opinions as possible without getting singed. He does this articulately, energetically, often cleverly and sometimes profoundly with remarkable success; it really is a virtuoso performance. Even if you violently disagree with him, you should be able to appreciate what a high-wire act it is, and how talented Rush is at it. I believe he is absolutely accountable for what he said about Fluke, but I also believe that people who work without a script at a high level of difficulty deserve some level of sympathy, understanding and forgiveness when they crash and burn as they inevitably must. As Limbaugh knows better than anyone (except maybe Don Imus), you can’t aggravate people for years on end and expect them to give you a break when you finally give them an opening by saying something really stupid. I am saying, however, that since mistakes are inevitable in the profession, forgiveness is appropriate.
Only, however, if the mistake is accompanied by change. Rush Limbaugh shouldn’t be as prominent a cultural force as he is. He is not especially brilliant or well-educated; he has no managerial, policy or leadership experience. He has one significant talent, and some useful tools and character traits: a good voice, a quick mind, diligence and a strong work ethic. None of that qualifies him to be an opinion-leader, a policy-maker or an icon. Limbaugh is aware of this; he frequently protests that the media and Democrats, as well as his listeners, attribute excessive power and influence to him and his opinions. Jon Stewart has made similar objections to the weight given to his commentary. Like Stewart, however, Limbaugh knows the truth: he does have influence, and he likes it. The perception that he is influential, moreover, is what drives his unique popularity. Rush has power—more than he should, maybe even more than he wants, and certainly more than he is qualified to have. But he has it, and he knows he has it.
With great power comes great responsibility, and when you know, or should know, that a joke or rant that misfires can have national significance and do serious damage to public discourse, you have an absolute obligation to take care. Your ethics alarms must be in perfect working order; your judgment must be sound. If, like Rush, your methods involve risk, you must be sure that you can mitigate the damage that results when your dice roll comes up snake-eyes. And if you feel this is unreasonable, since the very nature of what you do guarantees the occasional fiasco, then either make sure you don’t have excessive influence and power, or do something else for a living. Does this sound like strict liability?
It is. Whatever happens to Rush Limbaugh as a result of his Sandra Fluke meltdown, he is completely accountable, and has no one to blame but himself.