Who Is More Transgressive, Chris Rock or Rush Limbaugh?

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That's just one topic Andrew Breitbart and Yippies co-founder Paul Krassner debated in a left-right showdown of provocateurs

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On Playboy's website, there is a fascinating debate between Paul Krassner, the legendary liberal satirist, and Andrew Breitbart, the conservative publisher who wants to "take down the institutional left." It runs three Internet pages and features too many noteworthy moments to mention them all.

Here are three particularly interesting exchanges.


ON FREE SPEECH AND CULTURAL CRITICISM

KRASSNER: In your book you write, "Man, how I long for the days of Sam Kinison, Richard Pryor, Abbie Hoffman, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, and today the only people upholding their free-speech legacies are conservatives like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh." At first I thought you must be kidding. What about Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Lewis Black, Margaret Cho, Marc Maron, Rick Overton, Harry Shearer, Kathy ­Griffin, Wanda Sykes, Richard Lewis, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, ­Stephen Colbert, Larry David, Rachel Maddow, Paul Provenza? The place is overflowing with liberals upholding their free-speech legacies.

BREITBART: I would say that they exist within a protected class for the most part. As long as they adhere to liberal orthodoxy, they're protected and can say anything against anyone at any time. It's the conservatives who are challenged by the reigning order of political correctness. There's nothing transformative or dangerous about a liberal in Hollywood or a Sarah Silverman or a Chris Rock being offensive, because they know they're granted a "get out of jail free" card, whereas Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter exist outside that comfortable order. So I'm rooting for those people over the ones like Jon Stewart, who are in a protected class.

When Breitbart talks this way, it's evident that he grew up in Los Angeles, has spent most of his life among liberals in coastal enclaves, and still grants them the power to define "the reigning order." Why? Sure, there are places where it's more comfortable to quote Chris Rock doing standup than a Rush Limbaugh monologue. But where I grew up in Orange County, Chris Rock was considered far more transgressive than Rush Limbaugh. I was 13 years old when CB4 came out, and I certainly wasn't allowed to see it. Whereas I could hear Limbaugh any weekday ... at my grandma's house. This is someone who wouldn't have taken me to a PG-13 movie.

In Orange County, as in much of America, Rush Limbaugh very much exists inside "the comfortable order." Parents urge their kids to listen to him. His radio show is proudly carried by large corporate radio stations. He's been invited to the White House in multiple administrations! And in many places where Limbaugh is popular, Wanda Sykes would be booed off stage.

There isn't anyone on the left or right that is a modern analogue to free-speech heroes of old, because free speech won. Comics don't go to jail anymore. As far as I can remember, Maher is the only person listed above who lost his main gig (ironically, it was as host of the show Politically Incorrect) for being politically incorrect. That isn't to say that there aren't excesses of liberal political correctness or subcultures where it prevails (college campuses are the obvious example), but Breitbart ascribes more relative power and cultural cachet to liberals than they actually possess.

This is not America.


THE TEA PARTY AND SOCIAL ISSUES

Krassner states, "In your capacity as Tea Party protector, you must be aware of the blatant disconnect between its plea for small government and its desire for social issues to be controlled by the government ... how do you react to the conservative movement's inconsistency about less government in their lives?"

Says Breitbart in his response:

I don't know what evidence you're offering that the Tea Party is focusing on any of those issues. The Tea Party is a bizarre amalgam of independents, conservatives and libertarians who have surgically excised the social issues from the table, and the people in those crowds have diverse opinions on all the things you mentioned. I happen to be pro-marijuana, certainly marijuana decriminalization, but I'm not asserting myself and my social views in this current environment.

If you can't see and if the media don't want to see that the Tea Party is about financial restraint and has nothing to do with social issues--­nothing, nothing, nothing--to the consternation of the social conservatives. I've had rifts and schisms with social conservatives over my stances on these issues. They can call me a libertarian if they want. I don't care what labels they call me. But the Tea Party is abused by the mainstream media ... we're putting our children in economic peril, period. It has nothing to do with marijuana, it has nothing to do with abortion, it has nothing to do with gay marriage. There are gay people in the Tea Party. There are people of all different social stripes within the Tea Party who have a singular focus on restraining government debt and applying constitutional principles.

Both men are being earnest in their analysis, and neither is entirely right or wrong. It's true that the tea party has focused on economic issues and size of government in its rhetoric. Visit the various tea-party websites. You'll find precious little, if anything, about social issues. On the other hand, the tea party is disproportionately made up of social conservatives if you judge affiliated voters by their beliefs.

I prefer to judge them by their influence on elections, but that doesn't provide a clear answer either. In the 2010 primaries, for example, the tea party helped propel Rand Paul of Aqua Buddha fame to the Senate, and its affect on the House has certainly been to focus it on Paul Ryan's budget.

But in the 2012 presidential primary, tea-party voters were among the voices excoriating Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels for suggesting a truce on social issues; most of the actual presidential candidates that the Tea Party has elevated, from Sarah Palin to Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry, are social conservatives who've emphasized social issues in addition to economic ones; and there's been less support for Ron Paul and almost no support for Gary Johnson, despite the fact that both of them are uncompromising champions of the tea-party economic vision. In different regions, the impact of the tea party on congressional races varies, but at the national level the tea party seems to have done a better job elevating religious conservatives than libertarians. 


THE RECORD OF JUSTICE CLARENCE THOMAS

Here's the brief exchange:

KRASSNER: As a Supreme Court Justice, Thomas has declared that the Constitution gives states a right to establish an official religion, that prisoners have no constitutional right to be protected from beatings by guards, that a school official is allowed to strip-search a 13-year-old girl to look for two extra-strength ibuprofen pills, that a key part of the Voting Rights Act giving blacks political power in the South should be struck down, that an American citizen could be held as an enemy combatant with no charges and no hearing. He announced a decision that threw out a verdict in favor of a black man who had been convicted of murder and nearly executed because prosecutors hid evidence that could have proved his innocence.

BREITBART: I don't know the answers to these things. If you had given me this detailed information, I could have come back with my detailed response. This is like the Sarah Palin "gotcha" question on Paul Revere. I'm not able to answer this because you are coming to me armed with data, and I don't have the ability to see whether there is a rational argument to defend it or not. 

KRASSNER: Well, it's all a matter of record.

It is perfectly understandable that Breitbart doesn't know, off the top of his head, the case law Krassner mentions. Few people do. For the record, however, Krassner is mostly accurate in his summary.

  • In Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, Justice Thomas did indeed argue that the establishment clause most likely doesn't prohibit any of the 50 states from establishing an official religion.
  • In Hudson v. McMillian, Justice Thomas argued that "in my view, a use of force that causes only insignificant harm to a prisoner may be immoral, it may be tortious, it may be criminal, and it may even be remediable under other provisions of the Federal Constitution, but it is not 'cruel and unusual punishment.' In concluding to the contrary, the Court today goes far beyond our precedents." In other words, though he is theoretically open to the possibility that prisoners have a constitutional right to be protected from beatings by prison guards, he's rejected the only argument of that sort brought before him, and hasn't said that there is such a right.
  • After a 13-year-old girl was strip searched by school administrators who accused her of hiding ibuprofen, Justice Thomas did indeed argue that "the search of Savana Redding did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The majority imposes a vague and amorphous standard on school administrators. It also grants judges sweeping authority to second-guess the measures that these officials take to maintain discipline in their schools and ensure the health and safety of the students in their charge."
  • In Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, Justice Thomas does indeed argue that a key part of the Voting Rights Act that gives blacks political power had outlived its usefulness, writing that "the lack of current evidence of intentional discrimination with respect to voting renders Section 5 unconstitutional. The provision can no longer be justified as an appropriate mechanism for enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment."
  • In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, Justice Thomas did in fact argue that an American citizen could be held by the executive branch as an enemy combatant with no charges and no hearing.
  • Finally, as my colleague Andrew Cohen wrote about in March, Justice Thomas did indeed write a majority opinion wherein the Supreme Court "threw out a verdict in favor of a black man who had been convicted of murder and nearly executed because prosecutors hid evidence that could have proved his innocence." It should be said that the verdict they threw out was his civil claim for redress, not the judgment he won to get released from prison.

I'll refrain from offering commentary about the merits of these decisions, but they all did in fact happen. They're worth highlighting because even avowed champions of Justice Thomas, like Breitbart, often aren't familiar with the details of his decisions, and might be surprised by them. I should add, as a frequent critic of Breitbart, that he deserves credit for participating in the whole exchange. And that the answer to the question, "Who is more transgressive, Chris Rock or Rush Limbaugh?" is more often than not, "It depends on the state or even the neighborhood where you live."

Image credit: Reuters

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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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