The Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke Ethics Train Wreck is over at last, but unlike with many such debacles, something positive occurred. I believe that an emphatic cultural standard was established that calling a woman—any woman, famous or not, liberal or conservative—a derogatory term designed purely to denigrate her by denigrating her gender will not be considered acceptable in political, quasi-political or arguably-political commentary henceforward. If such rhetoric occurs in a comic or entertainment context, no politician or elected official can appear to endorse the individual who utters the offensive words.
I’m not arguing right now whether this is a good or a bad development, but merely that it happened, and that it is a real change. For this to happen, a conservative radio talk show host had to use the terms “slut’ and “prostitute” to make the botched satirical point that a feminist law student activist who argued that free contraceptives were a woman’s right was the equivalent of women who wanted to be “paid for sex.” If pundits and bloggers had merely declared this statement uncivil and cruel, nothing more would have happened, and the incident would have been quickly forgotten. But sensing political points to be scored in an election year, and with the added incentive of being handed what was seen as powerful ammunition to attempt a frontal attack against a detested partisan critic, Democrats, progressives, feminists, activists, Obama strategists and left-biased journalists decided to cast the Limbaugh’s poor judgment in extreme terms.
Such rhetoric was part of an effort to silence women, to wage war on them, to reduce them to second-class citizenship, they said. It was hate-speech, and Limbaugh should be sued (Fluke), forced off the air (Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem), or prosecuted ( Gloria Allred). The Left, encouraged by the White House, organized a boycott to drive him from the air. And so certain of its firm grip on a double standard for progressive supporters’ misogyny were the Limbaugh attackers that they didn’t merely try to ignore the many instances when their allies employed equally or even more vile anti-female rhetoric, they continued to openly embrace these same vicious individuals while simultaneously vilifying Limbaugh.
Right before Limbaugh’s gaffe, Obama’s PAC accepted a million dollars from comedian/political pundit Bill Maher, though he had repeatedly used terms like slut, bimbo, cunt and twat to describe Republican women on his HBO show. As Obama strategist David Axelrod continued to slam Limbaugh in interviews, it was discovered that he was booked to appear on Maher’s program. The President piously injected himself into the controversy by saying, as he rallied to Fluke’s side, that he was thinking of his young daughters—as his wife, Michelle Obama, accepted a booking on the late night show of David Letterman, who has repeatedly denigrated the character of Sarah Palin and, despicably, her daughters.
MSNBC’s liberal echo chamber attacked Limbaugh, though one of its members, Ed Schultz, had called conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham a slut, and had been allowed to escape with a fictional apology on the cable network while, on the same day, he ridiculed the idea that he owed Ingraham an apology on his radio show, where he had made the statement in the first place. And still for a while the double standard held, as the media accepted the increasingly puzzling argument that Limbaugh calling a law student a slut was so significantly different in kind that he should be shunned while a TV satirist calling Sarah Plain a “dumb twat” could be embraced without shame.
The tipping point came when someone at the Radio & TV Correspondents’ Association decided to really rub the double standards in conservative faces by inviting comedian Louis C.K. to be the host of its annual dinner. The comic had earlier gone on an obscene misogynistic rant against—you guessed it—Sarah Palin, among other things referring to “her fucking retard-making cunt.” President Obama wanted to guard his daughters against people like Limbaugh, but would be in attendance laughing at C.K.? It was too much to pull off. Fox News host Greta Van Susteran called the Association out on its hypocrisy on her show, declaring that Loiis C.K. was “a pig,” that she would not attend the dinner if he was at the podium and that no one else should either.
That did it.
C.K. withdrew. A day later, Sen. Chuck Shumer sounded idiotic trying to explain to George Stephanopoulis why a political pundit/ satirist calling one Democratic woman a slut was infinitely worse than a comic/political pundit calling a Republican Vice-Presidential candidate a cunt. It had something to do with whose audience was bigger, Shumer theorized…or, he didn’t say, which party a misogynist favored. Amazingly, the media and the public wouldn’t let the double standard stand! Axelrod de-booked from Maher. Maher’s million dollars is an embarrassment to the President’s campaign, but there are plenty of others, so the money might stay put. I’ll be interested to see if Michelle keeps her date with Letterman.
At this point, any pundit, talk show commentator or political figure, regardless of party or ideology, that uses denigrating terms for women is taking a big risk, because the culture has made its decision. It took rudeness, gall, arrogance, hypocrisy, posturing, gracelessness, mean-spiritedness and stupidity—-along with some common sense and courage (Thanks, Greta!) to get there, but get there we did.
And that, my friends, is how cultural ethical norms get made.