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I don’t think I need to update anyone on Rush Limbaugh’s controversy, but briefly: Law student Sandra Fluke testified before Congress (but really just before Democrats because Republicans don’t let women testify about reproductive health) about requiring insurance companies to cover contraceptives. She said that it can cost a law student up to $3,000 for contraception. Limbaugh did a little sneaky math and calculated that Fluke would have to have sex over 2.5 times a day in order to spend that much. Of course, he was pretending that contraception means only condoms (estimated at $1 a piece). As a result of his numbers, he concluded that Fluke must be a “slut”. He did not literally mean that she is having sex that frequently, but he did mean to say that if a woman has over a certain amount of sex, she is a slut; he used this contention to draw his wider point that it was not that expensive for contraception. Outrage has ensued and now that Limbaugh is getting screwed by his advertisers, we’re all waiting for him to post the video on the Internet for all to see.
(Incidentally, costs for certain types of contraceptives which have other health benefits for women – benefits some of them clearly need, such as they concern cysts – can run close to the numbers Fluke has given. The highest number I’ve seen comes in around $900 a year, pre-tax.)
So let’s fast forward and see where we are. The Republicans in Congress have largely refused to say Limbaugh was wrong in what he said. At best they will admit that his language was a tad saucy for their politically savvy tastes. It’s pathetic: Limbaugh said there is a limit on how much sex women should have and if they exceed that limit, they are sluts. This should be a no-brainer, but Limbaugh is a fat god to the Republican orthodoxy, so no one wants to take him down a notch. Even if he deserves it.
In fact, one part of that orthodoxy has gone so far as to look for an off-setting penalty against the political left, as Jon Stewart put it. FOX Noise has been going after the language of comedian and talk show host Bill Maher in an effort to basically say, “Look! Your guy does it, too! If you don’t condemn him, you’re a hypocrite!” It isn’t a bad strategy. If someone says Maher’s language is reprehensible, FOX and other Republicans can say everyone says bad things and there’s no reason to get in such a huff about it all, plus it’s unfair to go after someone on the right when few ever go after those on the left. On the other hand, if someone defends Maher, whether successfully or not, the Republicans have diverted attention from Limbaugh’s admonishment of women who have ‘too much’ sex.
Unfortunately, I feel compelled to chime in and contribute to the Republican plot to distract people.
First, I want to point out that Bill Maher does not enjoy the status on the left that Limbaugh enjoys on the right. Hell, as an atheist I’m not even a big fan of him. Sometimes he’ll have a good quote here and there and I like that he can be brash, but he hardly represents the left at-large, especially when he barely represents mainstream New Atheists. Second, here is his defense:
I’m a comedian – not just a guy who says he is, like Rush, but someone who – well, you saw me do stand-up last year in D.C. There’s a big difference between just saying you’re a comedian and going out and getting thousands of people to laugh hard for 90 minutes. And the one I’m compared to most is Carlin, who also had these kind of problems. Edgy is my brand – everyone wants that, but they say, “but never go over the line.” It’s like telling Tom Brady, ‘Throw into coverage 40 times a game every game but never throw an interception.'”
FOX Noise, having randomly gone after Jon Stewart in the past, knew that “I’m a comedian” would be the first line of defense from Maher, so they went about declaring as much and saying that since they knew what the response would be that the response was therefore invalid. They claimed it is ‘hiding behind comedy’. They’re wrong. There is a different context to comedy and thus language has to be understood differently in that world. Let’s look at some parallels and examples.
Say I was to discuss these words: nigger, cunt, slut, fuck, asshole, and cock. Many people would be too PC to actually say them, but I would gladly use them. I presume that if I’m having an intellectual discussion on language and the taboo aspects of it that I am speaking with an adult. People should be able to deal. But even if they can’t manage to hear some naughty words, does that mean that I am at fault for using derogatory or demeaning language? Of course not. A discussion about “nigger” does not mean I have actually called anyone a nigger. A talk about “fuck” does not mean I told someone to fuck off. Context obviously matters. Now let’s jump back to comedians.
A comedian who says something incredibly offensive does not necessarily actually believe what he has said. When Daniel Tosh says that his girlfriend recording a game on regular ESPN instead of ESPNHD is a valid excuse for domestic violence, he doesn’t actually mean that. Context matters. In this case the context is that of comedy. If President Obama said the same thing as Tosh, it wouldn’t fly. He (and most politicians) aren’t afforded those sort of luxuries of comedy. He can crack some jokes, but he’s on a very short leash. We expect different language from different people in different environments. This isn’t that hard.
Now to switch gears just a tad, here’s another piece from Maher:
To compare that to Rush is ridiculous – he went after a civilian about very specific behavior, that was a lie, speaking for a party that has systematically gone after women’s rights all year, on the public airwaves. I used a rude word about a public figure [Sarah Palin] who gives as good as she gets, who’s called people “terrorist” and “unAmerican.” Sarah Barracuda. The First Amendment was specifically designed for citizens to insult politicians. Libel laws were written to protect law students speaking out on political issues from getting called whores by Oxycontin addicts.
Maher is wrong on some of this. Nothing Limbaugh said was libelous. He used numbers provided by Fluke to create a hypothetical scenario. From there he said she was a slut which, regardless of context, is simply opinion. He is just as protected by the First Amendment as Maher is when he goes after Sarah Palin. This is part of the reason I don’t think Maher can be said to represent anyone except himself.
He does sum things up nicely, though:
Of course if you take out of context over 10 years snippets inside comedy bits you can make anyone look bad – and sometimes, I have been! Not perfect, but not misogyny. In general, this is an obvious right wing attempt to dredge up some old shit about me to deflect from their self-inflicted problems. They are the kings of false equivalencies.