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.

And it hurts them more than journalists, or "the elites."

Then there's this exchange:

RUSH:  FEMA's in there with a lot of temporary housing and so forth.  It's just, you're right, the citizens of Joplin are not caterwauling every day on television making a story out of it, and that's your real point.  But people can forget about Joplin because they know exactly what you said is true, the people of Joplin are gonna take care of themselves, they're gonna do this, they're gonna use their self-reliance, which they're in the process of doing. Not that they don't need help, I don't want to confuse anybody here.  But you won't find a news story of a Joplin citizen looting or making a general nuisance of him or herself to attract a camera in order to attract attention there, and as such, you're right, nothing going on in Joplin; they're rebuilding, big whoop.
CALLER:  I'll tell you what, it speaks highly of their character and I think there's a lot of places here in the country that can take a valuable lesson from this.

Take that, New Orleans! For goodness sakes, admirable as Joplin's resolve is they're hardly unique. Rebuilding, not mugging for cameras, and being as self-reliant as possible is what you'll see most Americans do in the aftermath of a natural disaster. I've seen it among wildfire victims in greater Los Angeles, we've all seen it after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington DC, and it happened after the Bay Area earthquake in San Francisco too.

To be fair, there are rare instances when wealthy media elites do mock victims of natural disasters, despite their good behavior, admirable composure, and resolve. So that the people of Joplin, Missouri know what that looks like, and can verify that they aren't its objects, I offer this example:     

Rush Limbaugh: The Japanese have done so much to save the planet. They've given us the Prius. Even now, refugees are still recycling their garbage, and yet Gaia levels them [laughs], just wipes them out. Wipes out their nuclear plants, all kinds of radiation. What kind of payback is this? That is an excellent question. They invented the Prius. In fact, where Gaia blew up is right where they make all these electric cars. That's where the tsunami hit.
All those brand new electric cars sitting there on the lot. I like the way this guy was thinking. It's like -- it's like Gaia hit the Prius in [inaudible]. It's like they were in the crosshairs, if we can use that word, it does. What is Gaia trying to tell us here? What is the mother of environmentalism trying to say with this hit?

There are also rare instances when media elites target some regions of the country for praise while exaggerating the pathologies of others:

Rush Limbaugh: I want to know. I look at Iowa, I look at Illinois---I want to see the murders. I want to see the looting. I want to see all the stuff that happened in New Orleans. I see devastation in Iowa and Illinois that dwarfs what happened in New Orleans. I see people working together. I see people trying to save their property...I don't see a bunch of people running around waving guns at helicopters, I don't see a bunch of people running shooting cops. I don't see a bunch of people raping people on the street. I don't see a bunch of people doing everything they can...whining and moaning---where's FEMA, where's BUSH. I see the heartland of America. When I look at Iowa and when I look at Illinois, I see the backbone of America.

It is Limbaugh who needlessly divides people, creates tensions where none need exist, and exacerbates regional anxieties. If anyone ever talks about the people of Joplin in the way that he speaks about folks in New Orleans (or Japan, for that matter) I'll be first to object. Meanwhile, his rhetoric will continue to do the most harm to the folks on whose behalf he claims to speak.

That's too bad.

He has the capacity to be a force for good in their lives, but mixes his genuine affection for them with poisonous ideas. Despite all that, Limbaugh and I can agree that the people of Joplin need help. A Facebook page set up by a local school district there is soliciting donations as they rebuild.

If you're interested, it's here.

Presented by

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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