Bill Maher defended Rush Limbaugh’s freedom of speech, and then defended his defense of Rush Limbaugh’s freedom of speech. He did not defend Rush Limbaugh himself; he says he still thinks Rush is an asshole. And there is an important distinction to be made here, between defending somebody’s right to say something and defending that person. But in defending Limbaugh’s freedom of speech, was Maher defending the indefensible?
I’ll get to what he said in a minute, but it is important to point out here that free speech is an ancient tradition, highly valued in the polytheistic world of Greece and Rome until Paganism was outlawed and Pagans banned from government. Free speech was not valued in the so-called Judeo-Christian world, which functioned on a list of “don’ts” rather than on the idea of freedoms. I was not until the European Enlightenment that freedom of speech again saw the light of day,this time championed by secularists, after being punished with arrest, torture and bonfires for the better part of fourteen centuries.
To put it bluntly, free speech is a liberal, not a conservative ideal and if anyone is going to value free speech, it should be liberals because without free speech, change will never take place and progress will never be made. Things will simply remain the same – conservatism’s ideal of the status quo. But let’s look at Maher’s words.
This is what he tweeted on Tuesday, March 6:
“Hate to defend #RushLimbaugh but he apologized, liberals looking bad not accepting. Also hate intimidation by sponsor pullout.”
The thing is, Rush did not apologize. What he said was pretty far from an apology. And if you look not only at his words before but also at his words after, you can see he meant none of it. Limbaugh said it was humor, not slander that was intended, and Maher agrees that Limbaugh’s words amount to an “unfunny joke” with a “disgusting sentiment.”
It can be wondered if Maher actually listened to what Limbaugh said. If there was a joke or intended humor in his hateful words, they are beyond detection. Sandra Fluke certainly didn’t accept the “apology” and said so the day before Maher’s tweet, on The View. Is Maher, the one who was not attacked, a better judge of what’s a sufficient apology than Fluke, the victim of the attack?
Remember, this is what Limbaugh originally said on February 29:
“What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex — what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”
Then, rather than apologize, he doubled down on the hate on March 1:
“If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is: We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”
He also had this to say:
”I will buy all of the women at Georgetown University as much aspirin to put between their knees as they want.”
Only after this did he finally “apologize”. When Fluke did not accept it, he tried again on March 5, making his apology as much an attack as an apology. Reports Reuters:
“I acted too much like the leftists who despise me. I descended to their level, using names and exaggerations,” Limbaugh said. “It’s what we’ve come to expect from them, but it’s way beneath me.”
But then think about what Rush said next, not to Fluke this time, but to a female investigative journalist, Tracie McMilian, author of a book on America’s food system, The American Way of Eating. This, on March 6, the same day Maher defended Limbaugh’s right of free speech:
“What is it with all of these young, single, white women, overeducated – doesn’t mean intelligent.”
This was another, if indirect attack on Sandra Fluke as well, student at prestigious Georgetown University. It doesn’t sound to me as though Rush regrets – or is sorry for – what he said at all. He still believes it and is still saying it. What about this does Bill Maher not understand?
An insincere apology places no burden on the person offended to accept that apology. “Ooops, my bad” is as weak a mea culpa as can be imagined but one Rush did not even come close to approaching it since he did not admit doing anything wrong. His so-called apology was more along the lines of “I’m sorry you didn’t see the humor in what I said about you.” An apology without an admission of wrong-doing is without value and no therefore no apology at all and any value an apology might have had disappears if the person continues to say the same thing afterward – we’ll get to that in a minute.
As Yellow Dog Yankee wrote here yesterday, Bill Maher is wrong.
We must keep in mind when considering Maher’s words that he has also been accused of misogyny, not only by the right but by the left.
Is it possible he is defending Rush as one misogynist to another? Maher says he is not a misogynist but then Rush Limbaugh also claims to be a “defender of women” and Rick Santorum says he is a champion of religious freedom. Anyone can be a misogynist, after all, even atheists, and liberals have to be careful to avoid idolizing their own icons too much, as conservatives tend to do theirs. A wrong is a wrong, no matter where it comes from, left or right. The weight of evidence is against both Limbaugh and Santorum. Is it also against Maher?
This much is clear: Rush Limbaugh was wrong. Bill Maher was wrong.
Caught between left and right, Maher spoke to both:
“I don’t like it that people are made to disappear when they say something, or people try to make them disappear when they say something you don’t like. That’s America. Sometimes you’re made to feel uncomfortable, okay?”
So it is permissible for Limbaugh to make Fluke and other women uncomfortable, but not fair for the rest of us to make Limbaugh uncomfortable? Actions do not have consequences? There is such a thing as cause and effect, and Limbaugh certainly must recognize this. We all, after all, have freedom of speech, not just Rush Limbaugh. He used his to ruin Sandra Fluke. We used ours to ruin Rush Limbaugh. Is there something somehow unfair about this?
Not from a Heathen perspective, I can tell you, where the rule of thumb is not “turn the other cheek” (which in any case should be Rush’s position) but “return what is given.” From a Heathen perspective then, Rush Limbaugh got exactly what he deserved.
“And I hear people saying when they put pressure on his sponsors, ‘Oh, the system is working.’ No, it’s not. That’s the system being manipulated.”
Is it possible that Limbaugh was also manipulating the system when he tried to destroy Sandra Fluke’s life and reputation by calling her a slut and a whore? He is a powerful and influential figure on television and radio. He obviously took advantage of his position.
Now the thing is and this is a thing often forgotten, that if Limbaugh has a right to say the things he says, we have an equal right to respond, and an equal right to be offended by what he says. If Limbaugh has the right to slander a young woman who has done nothing but speak her own mind (and without slandering anybody, by the way) then we, as concerned human beings, have a right to respond.
What people also need to understand is that hate speech can be a form of violence. Where do we draw the line? Is it appropriate for Rush Limbaugh to call Sandra Fluke a slut for no other reason than she is in favor of contraception being a part of women’s health care?
Should a person be excused from the consequences of their words, however hurtful, whatever the consequences? A person’s life can be ruined, their career, their marriage, everyting they love and value and hold dear. Is that permissible? And if it is permissible, is it impermissible to take affront at such actions? It is hard to see how that could be.
Obviously, Limbaugh has a right to his opinions and Maher to his, and me to mine. That is how the system works. But there are certain standards of conduct with regards to civil discourse that should be observed, and insulting somebody simply on the grounds that they are a young, intelligent woman seems to me reprehensible. Rush’s words might have been appropriate had she said that she took sex for money, but if insurance-supported contraception is prostitution then so is insurance-supported Viagara, isn’t it? Aren’t there then tens of millions of sluts of both sexes in this country?
I don’t think most of us would agree. Rush violated accepted standards of conduct and simply put, he got what he deserved as a result. Maher might have had an argument were he arguing against a law against free speech, but no such law has been passed. What Rush faced was the voice of the people – vox populi – the essence of a free people and ironically enough a term often used in broadcasting. As I said, if Rush had a right to say it, we had a right to take offense and say something in response, and take offense we did, and then some.
Take that, Rush.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.