I tuned in Rush Limbaugh’s radio show because I was interested in his response to the question of whether he shared some responsibility for leading the deluded young assassin in Arizona over the edge—on the face of it an unanswerable question, though many on the left have been very quick to answer yes, in thunder.
Limbaugh’s first line of defense was to aggressively deflect blame onto others, including the sheriff in charge of the investigation into the killings, Clarence Dupnik. Sheriff Dupnik came across, to me anyway, as the absolute best of America, an official who spoke authoritatively about how he sees the present sorry state of civility in this country. Dupnik reminded me a little of the lawman in Cormac McCarthy’s novel “No Country for Old Men,” almost overwhelmed by new forms of evil but still willing to stand and deliver.
The day I listened, Limbaugh immediately went on the attack against the sheriff and others he perceives as adversaries with hardly a nod to the victims of the Arizona tragedy. It was an oddly self-centered display. The parents of the little girl who was killed provided an instructive contrast. Holding themselves together with heroic composure, they made sure the story was not their own pain and loss, but what a remarkable person their daughter had been.
It is difficult, maybe impossible, to write about Limbaugh without being sucked into the battle dynamic which Limbaugh is paid multi-millions to sustain. No doubt Rush Limbaugh has some good ideas about how to improve our political, economic and cultural institutions. But they are drowned out by one meta-idea that thoroughly undermines his effectiveness as a conservative change-agent—his desire to preserve at all costs an oppositional modality, “us against them.” That’s what keeps his loyal supporters coming back for more and his advertising sponsors underwriting his mega-riches.
While there is no causal line to be drawn between Limbaugh and the tragic schizoid alienation of Jared Loughner, it is not unfair to assert that Limbaugh contributes to the general degradation of civic discourse in our nation.
What is clear is that this very talented broadcaster is paid to be a panderer. The Encarta dictionary defines the verb “to pander” as “to indulge someone’s weakness or questionable wishes and tastes.” In this case the weakness is the jumble of helplessness, fear, and anger that many citizens feel in the face of huge powers that they perceive to be stealing their autonomy. The questionable wish is the desire to fix blame on an “other” and lash out. This is a further paradox of Limbaugh’s oppositional spirit, what is sometimes called a performative contradiction: it cries at the same time for taking responsibility and for the irresponsible helplessness of blaming someone else.
Limbaugh’s universe is very similar in its narrowness to another seductive universe of pandering, pornography, where the complex and deep encounter of sexuality is reduced to the simple dimension of scratching a fantasy itch.
Limbaugh remains stuck in a frozen limbo of self-defined authority and radio-booth isolation, where the price of admission is toadying agreement—from which authentic relationship can never come. Real relationship includes respectful listening, acknowledgement of the validity of other points of view, openness to multiple perspectives. There is a poignant irony in the fact that Limbaugh has become totally deaf in both ears.