Political Animal


March 22, 2012 12:16 PM Going Numb

By Ed Kilgore

Bill Maher’s New York Times op-ed suggesting a moratorium on outrage was predictable, funny, and ultimately wrong-headed—kind of like Maher himself on more than one occasion.

Sure, a lot of offense-taking is excessive and passive-aggressive, and a lot of outrage is phony and calculated. Without question, those of us who dislike Rush Limbaugh can just ignore him, and we’ll all survive the ravings of racists and mysoginists and homophobes, not to mention people who say offensive things out of stupidity or carelessness rather than malice.

But the cure for poorly calibrated assessments of offensive public statements is not to suspend calibration altogether, and laugh it all off as part of living-and-let-living in a free society. Rush Limbaugh’s sliming of Sandra Fluke required “taking offense” not because he’s an obnoxious bully with an atavistic world-view, but because he exercises real political power in a way that affects real life and—if it were up to him—freedom itself. I don’t want to “silence” him, but I sure would like to see him neutered as a force to be reckoned with in American politics and government.

It is entirely possible to exhibit a sense of perspective—and yes, fairness—about these things without reducing all political and social expression to falsely equivalent mush. And we ought to be able to discard excessive sensitivity without just going numb.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • TCinLA on March 22, 2012 12:21 PM:

    I like Maher, but I sure hate having to defend him as some sort of spokesman for "my side."

  • zandru on March 22, 2012 12:29 PM:

    On "Just Ignoring Him"

    "Just ignoring" Limbaugh for the last 20+ years has directly led to his growing popularity, influence, and power. The more people hear his kind of filth and venom, UNCHALLENGED, the more it seems mainstream, conventional wisdom, common sense. Moreover, those who are inclined to think his way feel validated and empowered.

    Ignoring Limbaugh has enabled him to spread his noxious ideology from the backwaters of AM talk radio into television and print media and created a host of similar voices.

    The left has ignored distasteful ravings for far too long. Americans have basically forgotten how unacceptable and un-American these beliefs are. It's going to be hard, restoring a sense of decency and responsibility to our political discourse now.

  • schtick on March 22, 2012 12:31 PM:

    Mahar sounds like a republican. Move along. Nothing to see here.

  • Quaker in a Basement on March 22, 2012 12:35 PM:

    I, for one, agree with Maher, in that we should all leave the business of public discourse to our well-paid intellectual betters.

    In fact, I'm even ashamed of myself for writing this comment right now! I should be leaving this to someone vastly more intelligent than I, even if it is someone hopelessly jaded, cynical, and self-interested.

  • grammarGeek on March 22, 2012 12:47 PM:

    I understand that WaMo is probably more a labor of love than a profitable operation.
    But is a little spell-check app really all that costly?
    If nothing else, is it that tough to stop and think for a half-moment:
    "Do the women I know go to 'gInecologists' or to 'gYnecologists'?"
    (You do know at least one or two women, yes?)
    And, while we're at it, is the prefix signifying "poor / inadequate / negation" -- as in "misunderestimated" -- spelled "mys"? Or "mis"?
    When the Publicans and conservatoids demonstrate their ignorance, it's entertaining, encouraging, and unsurprising.
    When it's "our" side doing so, not so much...

  • beejeez on March 22, 2012 12:50 PM:

    I don't think Maher is saying Rush Limbaugh's advertisers don't have the right to pull their ads. He's saying Limbaugh's smarmy "apology," aimed at placating his sponsors, combined with the sponsors' sudden moral qualms after backing the asshole for years, is just too much bullshit to be taken seriously.

  • bdop4 on March 22, 2012 12:51 PM:

    Freedom of speech allows Rush Limbaugh (and Bill Maher, for that matter) the right to take their soap box into the nearest public square and say whatever they want. Nothing more.

    Limbaugh's ability to broadcast his filth over the airwaves is allowed as a privelige licensed to him by the public, who indirectly support his activities by patronizing his sponsors. As Maher well knows, when you cross the line, you pay the consequences.

    I find Maher and other HBO programming entertaining, so I pay the monthly fee. But if he were to engage in an escalating vitriol that ultimately became reprehensible, I would tell HBO that they keep him at the expense of my patronage. That's the reality and he needs to accept it.

  • martin on March 22, 2012 12:55 PM:

    kind of like Maher himself on more than one occasion.

    Kind of like Maher is on most occasions.

    There, fixed it;>

  • Snarki, child of Loki on March 22, 2012 1:07 PM:

    re: Limbaugh
    "...I sure would like to see him neutered..."

    yes, that would solve most of the problems.

  • Barbara on March 22, 2012 2:08 PM:

    Maher is asking people not to fight back when they feel they have been wronged, that is, to curtail their own speech so that he does not have to worry about whether his own proclivity for saying crude things might stop being so profitable.

    Not all outrage is created equal, a lot is invented to settle scores and so on, but on the whole, since this is basically our only means of getting back at someone like Limbaugh I really don't care, especially since I don't think Maher actually contributes all that much to the national discourse. Certainly not enough to offset Limbaugh's toxic effect.

  • David in NY on March 22, 2012 2:08 PM:

    I think Maher's right until we get to the point that the speech becomes intentionally and needlessly abusive. Most of his examples fall far short of this -- but Limbaugh's vicious, irrelevant, and prolonged assault on Ms. Fluke went well over the line.

  • worcestergirl on March 22, 2012 2:53 PM:

    I don't want to silence Limbaugh so much as see Republicans have to distance themselves from him. What fries me the most is that Republicans have gotten tons of mileage out of the red meat he throws to the great unwashed, yet have taken little or no political heat for this affiliation.

    Republican politicians and pundits get to go on the Sunday chats with their fine clothes and manners, while their party would have a hard time getting elected without help from Limbaugh. It really is unfair.

    It has been this way since the Nixon administration, and the media has been playing a game of pretend ever since.

  • Tramey on March 22, 2012 2:54 PM:

    I agree with you, Ed. It falls into that category of good news reporting... All statements do not require equal coverage, and when someone lies, takes out of context, or is abusive, they should be called out on it. Yes, that takes knowledge and judgment, but that's why we pay reporters and pundits the big bucks... Well, some bucks, at least.

  • Anonymous on March 22, 2012 3:27 PM:

    Rush Limbaugh's sliming of Sandra Fluke required "taking offense" not because he's an obnoxious bully with an atavistic world-view, but because he exercises real political power in a way that affects real life and--if it were up to him--freedom itself. I don't want to "silence" him, but I sure would like to see him neutered as a force to be reckoned with in American politics and government.

    I think we need to keep in mind that he was clearly trying to silence Fluke, and intimidate any others who dared to stand up for themselves. He is deliberately exercising the political power you rightly point to. None of this whole mess was about speech -- it was all about power.

  • Barbara on March 22, 2012 4:28 PM:

    Maher is also studiously ignoring the fact that where Limbaugh (or Maher) is concerned, the average voter can't fight speech with more speech (see, e.g., Justice Holmes) because of the unequal size of the microphones they have access to -- and that the next best thing is to do what they can to narrow that gap. Limbaugh can still say whatever he wants, he might just have a vastly quieter microphone. This just isn't our problem.