Rush Limbaugh's Needlessly Divisive Speech in Joplin, Mo.

While he strives to make Midwesterners feel more put upon than is justified by reality, his own lifestyle is that of a coastal elite



Rush Limbaugh was born in Missouri, briefly attended Southeastern Missouri State University, and has always identified himself with Middle America, where a sizable portion of his audience lives. This Fourth of July, he returned to his home state in order to speak to the people of Joplin, a city that was ravaged by tornadoes on the evening of Sunday, May 22, 2011. Rather than try to characterize the extent of the devastation, see this interactive graphic and Alan Taylor's photo collection. In addressing the victims of that tragedy, Limbaugh's heart was in the right place.

In his 10 minute speech, the talk radio host avoided partisan politics, and instead shared his views about American exceptionalism, his roots, and the courage being shown by Joplin residents. It was as inoffensive a monologue as you're likely to hear from him. "I talked to the people of Joplin about who they are and how they define the greatness of this country. They are the kind of people who make this country work," Limbaugh said, looking back on the event. "It was 100 percent uplift. There was no separating people out. There was no identifying people group-wise or any of that."

That's almost true.

The talk radio host tried to keep things positive, and mostly succeeded. Implicit in the speech, however, and explicit in the radio segments that followed, were the usual mythologies about the heartland of America, the virtues of the people there, and the superiority of their values. I don't deny that they're wonderful people. My objection is the separation of the country into the heartland and the coasts, elites and real Americans. It's always the folks on the coast who are cast as the inferiors in this relationship. Thus divided, however, it's folks in the heartland who lose. When pols like Sarah Palin and entertainers like Limbaugh exploit regional differences in their rhetoric, they're playing on Midwestern insecurities, and causing people who live there to overestimate the degree to which they're disrespected. Contrary to the impression given on his radio program, the average Californian, New Yorker, and Washingtonian are neither antagonistic toward denizens of Joplin, nor are we bereft of locals who embody what's great about America.

To see what shaky ground the Ditto-head worldview is built upon let's look to specifics. Start with the host. He is wealthy enough to live anywhere in America. He requires only a house big enough to accommodate a studio. Does he live in Missouri? Or anywhere in the heartland? Nope. He lives in a multi-million dollar Florida mansion, surrounded by his many luxury automobiles. There isn't anything wrong with his doing so. But neither is there any denying that he is a coastal-dwelling media elite. Presumably he didn't choose as his home a place where he regards the people to be inferior. So right there, he ought to know better than to stereotype folks on the coasts.

Now ponder some of the rhetoric one hears on his show.

Rush, I believe all of the newsies fled Joplin and they dumped all the coverage on it because of the type of people that are in Joplin, Missouri.  They are doing it themselves, of their own accord, and they're not demanding the taxpayer do this for them.  They lost so many friends, family, and private and commercial property there.  I don't know if the amount is larger than that of New Orleans, but they're not demanding anything of anyone, and that's why they left, because the news is an idiocracy.  And sadly, this culture, this Midwestern culture of taking care of yourself and making things better for your neighbor, they're never gonna understand it in Washington and a lot of other big cities, ever.

Isn't it enough to compliment the people of Joplin? Must they be made superior to the people of New Orleans? Must we have aggrieved assertions about a supposed media conspiracy to stop covering the tornado victims due to a supposed ideological antagonism to self-sufficiency? It's an absurd narrative. Demonstrably false, too. The day before the Limbaugh speech, The New York Times published a major article about recovery efforts. A few days prior to that, The Today Show did a recovery segment told through the lens of an injured dog. The wire services have sent out dispatches from the city consistently ever since the disaster struck.

What the caller should've been told is that Americans in every state, journalists included, admire the people of Joplin who are showing resolve and trying to rebuild their city. That's the truth! Here's what Limbaugh said instead: "I know what you mean, the elites, you're talking about the ruling class elites, you're exactly right." Once again: He's making Mid-westerners feel more put upon and estranged from the values of their fellow Americans than is justified by the facts.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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