Why Speak Up When Rush Limbaugh Lies?

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His latest outrage, over the Lord's Resistance Army, proves once again that he has no shame. Perhaps the only recourse is shaming the people who elevate him.

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Is it useful to object when Rush Limbaugh says something particularly odious on the radio, where he is one of the most successful and influential broadcasters alive? Or does reacting to his screeds have the perverse effect of empowering him? In the past, I've ignored him at times, but more often I've spoken up. I've drawn attention to Limbaugh's shameful habit of falsely accusing people of racism, the way he compromises his craft to ingratiate himself to powerful Republicans, and his habit of deliberately inflaming the racial anxieties of his audience by lying to them

Today the Internet is once again asking itself, "Has Rush Limbaugh finally gone too far?" It's a reaction to a statement he made about the Lord's Resistance Army, "a notorious renegade group that has terrorized villagers in at least four countries with marauding bands that kill, rape, maim and kidnap with impunity." President Obama has sent American troops to help stop the outlaws. It's perfectly defensible to wonder, as I do, whether we ought to be intervening militarily in yet another country. (I'd say no.) But that wasn't Limbaugh's controversial objection. Consistent with the item on his website, "Obama Invades Uganda, Targets Christians," Limbaugh told his substantial audience that the president is sending 100 American troops "to wipe out Christians."

Predictably, the Obama-is-killing-Christians-on-behalf-of-Muslims meme began to spread among rank-and-file conservatives, until Erick Erickson, the Red State founder, found himself forced to respond:

It is ridiculous that I'm even having to write about this, but I am. In the past 72 hours, I have gotten lots of emails from lots of people who should know better asking me if I've heard about Barack Obama sending American troops to Africa to go after the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The people hearing the name assume it is a Christian group fighting radical Islamists in the Sudan or some such. It is no such thing.

What Limbaugh said is odious, irresponsible, offensive -- but what are you going to do? The man has long since proved that he has no shame. I've corresponded with people who've been persuaded, by past posts I've written, to stop listening to his show, but they're an unrepresentative few. Are a miniscule number of converts enough to justify talking about his oeuvre?

Perhaps not, unless there is a larger point to be made than the old news that he says indefensible things. In that spirit, I'd like to conclude this post by remarking on Limbaugh's corrupting influence. We've witnessed more than enough controversies like this, where no one is willing to defend the talk radio host's words, to know his public character and effect on political discourse. We're not talking about a couple slip ups for which he's apologized and should be forgiven. The man willfully traffics in odious commentary and has for years and years. 

Shame on him, but that isn't where it ends. George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush ought to be embarrassed that they invited Limbaugh to the White House.  The Claremont Institute, whose work I often respect, ought to be mortified that they sullied their Statesmanship Award by bestowing it upon Limbaugh. Shame on National Review for celebrating one of conservatism's most controversial figures in a symposium that didn't even acknowledge his many critics on the right. In it Heather Higgins remarked on "Rush's long track record of accurate predictions and analyses," Kathryn Jean Lopez commented on his "graciousness and humility," Mary Matalin said "he epitomizes what we all aspire to be, both as citizens and individuals," Andrew McCarthy claims his message is "always" delivered with "optimism, civility, and good humor," and Jay Nordlinger asserted that "he is almost the antithesis of the modern American, in that he doesn't whine." Every last claim is too absurd to satire, let alone defend.

Shame on The Heritage Foundation for sponsoring Limbaugh's radio show, and on the Media Research Center and Human Events for honoring Limbaugh's excellence ... and the list goes on, including the millions of people who support his radio show because they agree with Limbaugh's ideology, even though they'd be outraged if a liberal trafficked in similarly poisonous rhetoric.

Many conservatives complain, with good reason, when they're caricatured as racially insensitive purveyors of white anxiety politics who traffic in absurd, paranoid attacks on their political opponents. Yet many of the most prominent brands in the conservative movement elevate a man guilty of those exact things as a "statesman" whose civility and humility ought to inspire us! In doing so, they've created a monster, one who knows that so long as his ratings stay high, he can say literally anything and be feted as an intellectual and moral role model. So the outrages arrive at predictable intervals. And Americans hear about them and think badly of the right. Movement conservatives, if you seek integrity in American life, if you seek civility, if you seek converts, tear down this man's lies! He hasn't any integrity or self respect left to lose. But you do. 


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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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