Rush Limbaugh Seizes a Chance to Violate the N-Word Taboo

The talk-radio host exploits the racial anxieties of Americans to be provocative, and reaps the rewards even when criticized.
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Over the years, Rush Limbaugh has raised his profile by deliberately violating various taboos. This excites his fans, who process transgressiveness as bravery, especially if it angers the left. It garners attention from Limbaugh's critics too. Outraged, they declare that he is racist, or sexist, or homophobic -- charges that prompt conservatives to rally around him, insisting that their favorite radio host isn't a bigot, just another victim of political correctness. The cycle has characterized Limbaugh's career for decades.

Limbaugh isn't always in the wrong. Sometimes his pointed satire is unobjectionable, at least insofar as it isn't racist, sexist, or homophobic, but his eager ideological antagonists declare it it to be anyway.

But too often his commentary, whether bigoted or not, is clearly odious, and for a distinct reason. At his very worst, it is beside the point to adjudicate whether Limbaugh is guilty of prejudice, because he guilty of something much worse: exploiting the racial anxieties of Americans for profit. He deliberately provokes racial controversy, both for his audience and the blowback.

Here's an example from a 2009 Limbaugh monologue:

It's Obama's America, is it not?

Obama's America, white kids getting beat up on school buses now.

You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama's America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, "Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on," and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he's white. Newsweek magazine told us this. We know that white students are destroying civility on buses, white students destroying civility in classrooms all over America, white congressmen destroying civility in the House of Representatives.

Does President Obama's tenure have anything to do with violence on school buses? No. Are white kids getting beat up more? No. If they were, would everybody say that they deserved it? No. Would Newsweek? No. Limbaugh is just fabricating an epidemic of black-on-white violence and implicating the first black president in it. It is an entirely irredeemable piece of talk radio.

And it is useful context for the latest Limbaugh provocation. As ever, Media Matters has the clip:

The transcript:

LIMBAUGH: Stick with me. Keep your eyes on the radio. CNN informs us via Rachel Jeantel that Trayvon called Rachel and said that he was being followed by a "creepy ass cracka," which we have now learned, that is a person acting like they are a police, like a security guard. So then, Piers Morgan, the ever-penetrating inquisitor, said, "So was there anything you wished you'd said when you were in there?" meaning as a witness on the stand.

[Begin audio clip from CNN]

JEANTEL: Nigga.

MORGAN: Why?

JEANTEL: People, the whole world say it's a racist word. Mind you, around 2000, they changed it around, I think. It starts spelling "n-i-g-g-a."

MORGAN: What does that mean to you, that way of spelling it? What does that word mean to you?

JEANTEL: That means a male.

MORGAN: A black male?

JEANTEL: No, any kind of male.

MORGAN: Black or white?

JEANTEL: Any kind. Chinese you can say "nigga." That's my Chino, "nigga." They can say that.

[End of CNN clip]

LIMBAUGH: This was between 9 and 10 p.m. last night on CNN, who is in a quest to become the, again, most respected news organization in the country, perhaps even in the world. So, "nigga," with an "a" on the end, well I think I can now. Isn't that the point? 'Cause it's not racist. That's the point. I could be talking about a male, a Chinese male, a guy at the Laundromat.

I could be talking about a man. That's what she said it means. 

Any longtime observer of talk radio knows what happens next: Critics complain that Limbaugh said "nigga" and thinks he can use the word now; his defenders accuse the critics of humorousness, and insist that Limbaugh was obviously being satirical and mocking Ms. Jeantel. 

What actually transpired is more subtle, and is hinted at if you listen to a subsequent Limbaugh show clip:

The CNN clip wasn't a focus on Limbaugh's show because he has some fresh, penetrating point to make about the role of "nigga" in the American lexicon. Rather, he calls attention to instances of people -- usually black people -- engaging in culturally sanctioned uses of "nigga" because it affords an opportunity: it's a perfect setup to (a) use the world and violate the taboo; (b) trigger criticism; (c) call the criticism unfair by claiming that he wasn't seriously declaring "nigga" an appropriate word for him to use, just drawing attention to and mocking someone else's notions.

Here's the point: This only makes for successful radio because of the extreme sensitivity around that word, the racial anxiety some whites misguidedly feel about the double-standard surrounding its use, and the understandable sensitivity blacks feel whenever a white person uses it. I'd actually have no problem defending earnest debate about the use of the n-word and its varieties, misguided positions included. But that isn't Limbaugh's intent, as evidenced by his approach and the subsequent caller who thinks he's found a very clever defense of Paula Deen.

Like a child who finds out a donkey is also called an ass, "nigga" is uttered so that, afterward, they can say, "How can you get mad at me? I didn't even say a bad word, just what the lady on CNN said."

You understand the dynamic -- it's just that you outgrew it at age 8.

This is the approach he has chosen in the aftermath of a fraught trial that has divided Americans on racial and ideological lines, even as there is widespread upset and even minor unrest in the streets. The sensitivity of race as a subject, even at a raw moment like this one, shouldn't preclude anyone from arguing an earnest position. In recent days, I've read excellent pieces from a dozen different perspectives. Nor would I ever suggest that any opinion, no matter how offensive, ought to be censored. I'd just say that, for Limbaugh to pull his usual schtick in this moment is particularly odious -- and that it's an embarrassment, for his fans, the Heritage Foundation, Hillsdale College, and everyone else who deliberately ties their reputation to his. 

The most popular entertainer in the conservative movement has picked the aftermath of a trial adjudicating the shooting death of an unarmed black kid to muse on the appropriateness of his own use of "nigga." This is what he's chosen to add to the American conversation, violating a taboo not to articulate some vital conservative principle, but to exploit n-word sensitivities. Calling this "racism" doesn't get at the problem, and permits Limbaugh defenders too easy a defense. Calling it exploitative, irresponsible, and discrediting and odious comes closer.

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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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