Only You Can End the Tragic Cycle of Rush Limbaugh's Trolling

Rush Limbaugh is a distended gout-ridden white supremacist who ruined his hearing with illegal prescription pain-killers. He said a bad word. Everyone is mad at him. On the internet, they call this trolling. It must stop.

I am sick of spending all my time talking about how we talk about what we talk about when we talk about policy, instead of talking about actual policy. I am sick of recriminations and demands for retractions and counter-retractions and shocked outrage and line-drawing and line-crossing and apologies and non-apologies and boycotts and petitions. I am tired of watching every national debate inevitably pirouette out of the realm of morality, or merit, and into a rhetorical funhouse where insults bounce from mirror to distorted mirror. It's our dominant mode of political debate now: We don't evaluate arguments for their logic or elegance or force (or lack thereof), but for their appropriateness relative to metrics of racism, sexism, patriotism, religious bigotry etc.

So here comes Rush Limbaugh—a media entity who has repeatedly, almost monthly, reveled in a transparent strategy of uttering whatever racist, sexist, homophobic slur comes to mind for the explicit purposes of riling his antagonists—to utter a sexist slur for the explicit purposes of riling his antagonists. And his antagonists got riled! This dynamic is very, very old. (And I have certainly fallen for it). It used to be a somewhat sloppy process. Limbaugh would say things, and maybe some people would notice and write an angry newspaper column. Over the years the calumnies would build up until Al Franken cataloged them in book form.

But Limbaugh and his enemies have, with the help of the internet, evolved toward one another like an insect and flower that become intimately bound together over millenia in a pollination ballet that only their species can perform. The trolling-outrage cycle is ruthlessly efficient—the outraging entity, under constant pressure to seek attention by fomenting outrage, foments outrage. The outraged entity, under constant pressure to seek attention by being outraged, is outraged. The outraging entity counter-charges that the outraged entity is unfairly biased—"You weren't outraged when so-and-so said such-and-such!" The outraged entity calls for a boycott of the outraging entity. The outraging entity accuses the outraged entity of censorship. And so on. All this happens nearly instantaneously now, with Limbaugh and Media Matters (and their various cohorts) locked in a sort of perverse mindmeld, each anticipating and reacting to the others' preprogrammed routines.

The lure of these outrage moments is that they can reveal something essential, and previously hidden, about your enemy—information that you can then use to undermine the validity of his arguments. Revealing someone as a racist, for instance, is useful inasmuch as you can invalidate their arguments against welfare entitlements as motivated by a hatred of black people rather than public interest. Limbaugh claims that he does not hate women. But his critics know that he does. So when he lets slip a "slut," it can become valuable evidence in proving your case. ("He claims that he doesn't hate women, but look! He calls them sluts.") The trouble here is that Rush Limbaugh obviously and unambiguously hates women. His utterance of the word slut in the present context adds no new information about Limbaugh or his beliefs. Pre-"slut" and post-"slut" Limbaugh are identical in all respects.

Adding fuel to the firestorm is the fact that Limbaugh is a de facto leader of the GOP, and its easy to tar the entire party with his vileness (or try to force them to reject it). So there's an added incentive for Democrats to keep it alive for as long as possible. Barack Obama's phone call to Sandra Fluke last week was essentially a memo to the few news entities out there that hadn't paid attention to the non-controversy: "Here's another reason to write about it."

As an act of trolling, the "slut" remark has obviously backfired a bit. Intended merely to injure, provoke, and scandalize, it has been seen as sufficiently worrisome to launch an advertiser boycott. Quicken Loans, Citrix Systems, Legal Zoom, Sleep Number, Sleep Train, Pro Flowers, Carbonite, and most recently AOL have all pulled their ads from his show. All of them are hypocrites and most of them are liars. AOL, for instance, announced today that it was ending its relationship with Limbaugh because his "comments are not in line with our values."

This is preposterous. It would be tedious to rehearse the endless parade of deeply, calculatedly racist and sexist things that Limbaugh has uttered over the years. But suffice it to say that there is no conceivable rational value system for which the epithet "slut" is out of line but every other horrible thing Limbaugh has said in the past is "in line." Each and every one of Limbaugh's advertisers made a deliberate decision to underwrite the show and career of a man who does things like call a 31-year-old law student a "slut" for discussing her family planning needs. The fact that he has done so is neither surprising nor noteworthy, and their decision to pull their advertisements is disingenuous pandering.

So the next time Rush Limbaugh says something awful, take note and move on. Don't give him and the right-wing media establishment an opportunity to nurse a grievance over "censorship" or "bias" because "the media" didn't indict Bill Maher, or rappers, for the same crimes.

Image via Getty.