The lesson for Limbaugh may be not to stop being a bigot, but to stop insulting white women with epithets pegged to the news.
I make it a policy to ignore Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio commentator who has been a thorn in the side of liberals for years. Still, when national headlines quote his comments and my inbox is flooded with petitions and press statements, I sit up and take notice. Why are people freaking out about his attack on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke? Out of every outrageously bigoted thing Limbaugh has said over the years, why did this one prompt the president of the United States to call his target on the phone and pledge his support?
Let's review what Limbaugh said over the past few days: He called Fluke—who was initially barred from the all-male House hearing on birth control and later expressed her views about why Georgetown should cover contraceptives—a "slut" and a "prostitute" who "wants to be paid to have sex." (He also said "[s]he's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception," as if that's the way birth control works.) When called out on his misogynistic comments, he doubled down, saying, “If we’re going to have to pay for this, then we want something in return." His request? Videos of "all this sex posted online so we can see what we’re getting for our money.”
Progressives are feeling triumphant, positing that Limbaugh has "finally gone too far" or "hit a new low" or has tread on "new territory." But these are lazy, nonspecific explanations. In the past 20 years, he's accused Michael J. Fox of faking Parkinson's disease, said Jesse Jackson looks like every mug shot he's ever seen, and repeatedly told his 15 million listeners that the president is conspiring to destroy our economy so he can win the votes of blacks on welfare. This moment had different results, through, for four major reasons:
"Slut" is an epithet. Limbaugh, like many conservatives, has learned to talk in code. He'll say NFL players are "Bloods" and "Crips" rather than calling them "spics" and "niggers." Even though he played a song called "Barack the Magic Negro" on his show, he didn't actually use the word to refer to Obama. But when he blurts things out like "prostitute" and "slut," it stops people in their tracks. It's the kind of thing that makes advertisers jump ship. It's a move even Speaker of the House John Boehner condemns—he distanced himself from Limbaugh by saying the radio host's "words" were inappropriate.
Limbaugh's comments were sheer hypocrisy. Some liberal commentators have intimated that the GOP has emboldened Limbaugh to run off at the mouth about sex tapes and slutty co-eds. This is tempting, but false. Whatever their true intentions, Republican politicians have taken great pains to couch their argument against the birth control mandate in a narrative of religious freedom. They have not followed the same logic as Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives, which is about how the government (or insurance companies) shouldn't have to subsidize your sex life. Let's set aside for a minute that nobody is subsidizing your health insurance but you; even your employers chip away at your salary to afford the group care they provide. But if our tax dollars were going into others' health plans, we'd all be subsidizing Rush Limbaugh's sex life by covering his Viagra—which, unlike birth control, is used entirely to facilitate boning.
Sandra Fluke is a white, female law student—the "perfect victim." When Limbaugh assails a public figure, we don't get too angry; criticism, even the vicious kind, goes with the territory of a high profile. When Limbaugh rails against a group of people like welfare moms or Muslims, it comes across as garden-variety racism rather than a pointed attack. But our protective impulses kick in when someone disparages an innocent, stand-up citizen, especially if that person is a white, educated woman. As writer Amanda Marcotte told me Friday, Fluke "is the good daughter distilled," the kind parents can be proud of. This same principle holds with "perfect" rape victims, in which our culture believes the rape story of a virginal cheerleader getting attacked behind the bushes rather than, say, an immigrant maid of color. Do you think there'd be the same outcry if Sandra Fluke was a poor, unwed mother from the projects?
Limbaugh spoke at the wrong place, wrong time. Think about the last month or two: We've witnessed the Komen Foundation blowup, the all-male panel on birth control, the Foster Freiss aspirin comment, the transvaginal ultrasound scandal, and the Rubio-Blunt amendment that would have allowed employers to decide whether to cover birth control (or any medication). The national media is poised to pick up on any comments relating to women's health. Besides, Limbaugh's view is squarely counter to public opinion. Sixty-three percent of Americans agree with the administration's recommendations for birth control. Even 42 percent of conservatives agree. Limbaugh effectively called virtually every sexually active American woman a slut, since 99 percent of them will use contraceptives at some point in their lives. (Meanwhile, Limbaugh's hate speech against Obama finds more sympathetic ears: One-fourth of Americans still think the president is a Muslim, and 51 percent of GOP primary voters think Obama is foreign-born.)
It's not likely Limbaugh will realize the error of his ways anytime soon. Sadly, the biggest lesson for him may be to stop insulting white women with epithets pegged to the news.