For purely academic reasons, I’ve never understood the argument that we should ignore Rush Limbaugh because he’s simply an entertainer who says outrageous things that millions of people are merely entertained by. I didn’t read the complete works of Silas Weir Mitchell because they were good—they are almost uniformly awful—I read them because they were popular. I was interested not in the content of his thought—it is almost uniformly mediocre—but in why his contemporaries found it so wildly appealing. If you want to learn which ideas and ideologies literate Americans in 1900 found comforting, you do not consult Henry James: you turn to the inartistic novels that parroted their prejudices back to them in a language they already understood. So when people say that we should dismiss Limbaugh on the grounds that he only says outrageous things to sell his product, I’m never quite sure why they’re more concerned with Limbaugh’s motivations than the fact that millions of Americans are buying what he’s selling.
Ignoring whatever millions of Americans are buying distorts your understanding of the American political scene whether it be 2009 or 1909. If you work on popular culture in 1909, you are limited to tracking the flight of a given idea—but if you track a given idea in 2009, your work can actually change its trajectory. You might not know exactly where exactly that idea will land yet, but you can do the political calculus required to figure out where it came from and where it’s likely to strike. If it feels like you’re tilting window fans at cannon balls from half a continent away, remember what they say about rare Chinese butterflies flapping their wings: they are less likely to be minuten-pinned by mad lepidopterists—which is beside the point. The point, as one prominent Beatles apologist recently argued, is that cultural studies can be an important fan so long as we aim it at the right cannonball.
In this case, the important issue is not that Limbaugh is a racist who makes racist statements, but that those statements resonate with his audience so powerfully. Consider, for example, that he feels no compulsion to qualify his sarcastic call for segregated busing:
RUSH: Well, did he say why, in Obama’s America, that incident with the white kid getting beat up on the black school bus was not racially motivated?
CALLER: I didn’t hear him comment about that. No, sir.
RUSH: Because we’ve seen the videotape. Have you seen the videotape?
RUSH: We can’t hear what’s being said.
RUSH: So we don’t know what obvious taunts this lone white student was dishing out to the whole bus.
RUSH: We don’t know what obvious taunts.
RUSH: Worse than the obvious verbal taunts, we all know the racism that was in the kid’s mind. I mean Newsweek magazine says he was born a racist. So you know the white kid is sitting there thinking N-word and all kinds of things being surrounded by these black students. They knew that. They knew that and so they just descended on the kid and beat him up. We’ve seen the videotape. What did the police chief investigate?
CALLER: He did not comment on anything other than he said more investigations shows that it was not racially motivated.
RUSH: I think the guy is wrong I think not only was it racism, it’s justifiable racism.
RUSH: I mean, that’s the lesson that we’re being taught here today. Kid shouldn’t have been on the bus anyway.
RUSH: We need segregated buses. It was invading of space and so forth. This is Obama’s America.
CALLER: Yes. Could I ask another question, not related to this issue?
RUSH: By all means, since you’re here.
Most of the liberal outrage at his remarks strip them of their relevant context: the Newsweek article “See Baby Discriminate” that claims, by Limbaugh’s reckoning, that white people are born racist. Given that all white people are racists, he argues, the silent tape didn’t capture the racist epithets the white kid shouted that make his beating justifiable—because it’s not racist to beat down someone who’s being a racist—and that it would be best to segregate similarly racist white kids before they provoke their non-racist black peers into beating them down. He and his defenders will read those expressions of liberal outrage, note that they decontextualize his sarcastic remarks, and dismiss as stupid anyone who believes Limbaugh actually called for the return of Jim Crow.
Punishing the straw-Limbaugh not only provides him plausible deniability, it obscures the actual, non-sarcastic racist assumptions underpinning his remarks—foremost among them, that black people are inherently violent and lack self-control. They are justified, he unwittingly argues, in expressing their violent tendencies because the white kid in his hypothetical said something racist. Instead of talking with their mouths like hypothetical white kid, black kids speak with their fists, an idea that is so firmly entrenched in the minds of those who loudly claim to not be racist that even when black kids are talking with their mouths, they are “technically thugs” forever on the brink of expressing their innate violent tendencies. Don’t believe me? Watch the development of the pronoun “it” in this bit by Dan Riehl:
It went on but not really to a level that was so loud, or so confrontational that it needed to be addressed.
We just ignored them without much trouble at all.
Yeah, they were technically thugs. But the reality was they were still wannabes really, pretty young, not that big, or many. And if the several adults there for 9/12 actually needed to do something about it, the kids wouldn’t have lasted very long. Maybe if they were bigger, or more numerous, it might have been worse.
That first “it” refers to a conversation that was “not really to a level that was so loud, or so confrontational that it need to be addressed.” But the second one lacks an obvious antecedent and could, if you’re feeling charitable, refer back to the conversation; more realistically, “it” refers to the general situation in which young black kids are quietly saying things in a non-confrontational manner, and Riehl immediately concludes that that “it” might be a situation that he and his white companions might need “to do something about.” Let me repeat that: Riehl believes that black kids quietly saying things in a non-confrontational manner is a general situation that, through no fault of white people, typically escalates to violence. That third “it” is even more damning: the general situation in which black kids quietly say things in a non-confrontational manner “might have been worse” if they were bigger or there were more of them because, had the people with innately violent tendencies been larger or more numerous, Riehl and company would have been powerless “to do something about it” after the inevitable escalation. The implication here is that the physical and numerical superiority of the white adults kept those black kids in check. They wanted to beat Riehl down, but like the President they admire, they are pragmatists who avoid fights they can’t win—but put a white kid on a bus full of black kids and what happens?
Riehl answers that question by the simple act of pairing his experience on 9/12 with the video of the school bus beating; Limbaugh answers it by unwittingly revealing the beating racist heart within his sarcastic straw-compatriot; and the commenters at Michelle Malkin and Gateway Pundit answer it by voicing their belief that it’s no longer safe to be a white person in America anymore:
We are seeing a new culture of hate and terror coming from Washington to feed violence. This would never have happened under Bush. Obama behaves more like a common street thug than a leader of a country, and [g]iven the overbearing sense of racial entitlement that most black people in America have, and the encouragement offered to their worst aspects by the liberal establishment, these kind of incidents are going to become much more frequent and much more severe.
It[']s open season on whitey. Blacks can say anything, do most anything without so much as a burp of backlash. This is what we get for paying this parasitic underclass to breed. We’ve been watering the weeds for 50 years, and it’s only getting worse. We should be very careful of where this is going. It will end ugly. We need our laws to step in and stop this crap before white folks feel a need to take the law into their own hands. How long are white people supposed to put up with this? We could solve the problem in no time if we treated them the way that they would treat us if we were only 12% of the population.
Can you tell me there is no race war going on? While white people sit around shaking their heads and looking the other way black people have made every possible issue about race and their anger is erupting more daily. It’s only going to get worse. That’s why we are clinging to our guns and religion. When you start the war, we finish it. You want a race war? You have no idea of what is about to hit you. You are sowing the wind and you will reap the whirlwind. You are outnumbered, you are surrounded, and you have made the grave mistake of awakening the sleeping giant.
Limbaugh knows his audience—he’s priming it for the moment when he needs to justify a preemptive strike against an innately violent party or parties, and the message is trickling down the airwaves to bloggers like Riehl and those who read him. It behooves us not to ignore such developments solely because their provenance is contemporary instead of historical.