Our political Quote of the Day comes from Bloomberg News columnist Michael Kinsley, who looks at the move to get conservative talk show titan Rush Limbaugh to apologize over remarks he made about Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke and calls to boycott Limbaugh sponsors.
These umbrage episodes that have become the principal narrative line of our politics are orgies of insincerity. Pols declare that they are distraught, offended, outraged by some stray remark by a political opponent, or judicial nominee, or radio talk-show host. They demand apology, firing, crucifixion.
The target resists for a few days, then steps downs or apologizes. Occasionally they survive, as Limbaugh probably will, but wounded and more careful from now on.
More careful means less interesting. Limbaugh is under no obligation to stop saying offensive things just to keep me entertained. Still, it’s a pity.
Of course, the insincerity is on both sides. The pursuers all pretend to be horrified and “saddened” by this unexpected turn of events. In fact, they’re delighted. Why not? Their opponent has committed the cardinal political sin: a gaffe.
A gaffe, as someone once said, is when a politician tells the truth. This is a bit imprecise. The term “politician” covers any political actor, certainly including Rush. And the troublesome statement needn’t be the truth, as it certainly wasn’t in this case: more like “the truth about what he or she is really thinking.”
And on the sponsors:
Nevertheless, the self-righteous parade out the door by Limbaugh’s advertisers is hard to stomach. Had they never listened to Rush before, in all the years they had been paying for commercials on his show? His sliming of a barely known law student may be a new low — even after what he’s said about Nancy Pelosi and Michelle Obama — but it’s not a huge gap.
Consumers who are avoiding products by Limbaugh’s advertisers are engaged in what’s known in labor law as a secondary boycott. This means boycotting a company you have no grievance with, except that it does business with someone you do have a grievance with.
Secondary boycotts are generally frowned upon, or in some cases (not this one) actually illegal, on the grounds that enough is enough. There’s sense to that outside the labor context, too. Do we want conservatives organizing boycotts of advertisers on MSNBC, or either side boycotting companies that do business with other companies who advertise on Limbaugh’s show, or Rachel Maddow’s?
As we all know, Limbaugh’s First Amendment rights aren’t involved here — freedom of speech means freedom from interference by the government. But the spirit of the First Amendment, which is that suppressing speech is bad, still applies. If you don’t care for something Rush Limbaugh has said, say why and say it better. If you’re on the side of truth, you have a natural advantage.
And if you’re taking on Rush Limbaugh, you’re probably on the side of truth.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.