The case for Rush Limbaugh

Our political umbrage episodes are orgies of insincerity
March 7, 2012 4:58 pm

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The people who want to drive Rush Limbaugh off the air are not assuaged or persuaded by his apologies. They say he was not sincere: He only apologized, for calling a Georgetown University law student a "slut" and a "prostitute," because of pressure from advertisers.

Well, of course he wasn't sincere. And of course he was only apologizing to pacify advertisers - who were getting pressured to pressure Mr. Limbaugh by these very critics. Oh, there might have been a political calculation, too, that he'd gone too far for the good of his ratings or his celebrityhood. But any apology induced in these circumstances is almost by definition insincere. You can't demand a public recantation and then expect sincerity along with the humble pie. If they wanted a sincere apology, Mr. Limbaugh's critics would have had to defend his right to make these offensive remarks, and then attempt to change his mind using nothing but sweet reason. Go ahead and try.

These umbrage episodes that have become the principal narrative line of our politics are orgies of insincerity. Pols declare that they are distraught, offended, outraged by some stray remark by a political opponent, or judicial nominee, or radio talk-show host. They demand apology, firing, crucifixion. The target resists for a few days, then caves in and steps down or apologizes. Occasionally they survive, as Mr. Limbaugh probably will, but wounded and more careful from now on.

More careful means less interesting. Mr. Limbaugh is under no obligation to stop saying offensive things just to keep me entertained. Still, it's a pity.

Of course, the insincerity is on both sides. The pursuers all pretend to be horrified and "saddened" by this unexpected turn of events. In fact, they are delighted. Why not? Their opponent has committed the cardinal political sin: a gaffe.

A gaffe, as someone named Kinsley once said, is when a politician tells the truth. This is a bit imprecise. The term "politician" covers any political actor, certainly including Rush. And the troublesome statement needn't be the truth, as it certainly wasn't in this case: more like "the truth about what he or she is really thinking."

The typical gaffe is what they used to call a "Freudian slip." But, with all due respect to Freud, why should something a politician says by accident - and soon wishes he or she never said, whether true or not - automatically be taken as a better sign of his or her real thinking than something he or she says on purpose?

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for Bloomberg View.
First Published 2012-03-07 15:58:46

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