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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why Rush Limbaugh Won't Be Stopped

As the author of a book attacking Rush Limbaugh, I know how vile and stupid his ideas are. But I also believe that the effort of many on the left to silence Rush Limbaugh is deeply misguided, contrary to progressive principles, and doomed to failure.

In reposting the latest essay of StopRush's Richard Myers, Kos writes on the front page: “It's amazing that Rush may be undone by the very same vulture capitalistic system that he's been defending.” That would be amazing. So amazing that it's not going to happen. Here's what Myers is claiming: Bain Capital is sucking money out of Clear Channel, which will go bankrupt. Myers concludes, “what irony that the very cutthroat capitalism Rush Limbaugh so strenuously champions may pound the last few nails into the coffin of conservative talk radio.”

This is all complete nonsense, and fails to understand how capitalism works. Even if Bain Capital did suck the life out of Clear Channel and cause it to go bankrupt, the effect on conservative talk radio would be negligible. Radio stations don't disappear or shift format just because a parent corporation goes backrupt. Rush Limbaugh doesn't depend on Clear Channel stations for most of his listeners; Clear Channel owns his syndicator, but that doesn't mean much at all. Rush Limbaugh succeeds because he has massive numbers of loyal listeners, not because some evil corporation allegedly on the verge of bankruptcy is forcing his voice upon an unsuspecting public.

Myers argues, “Rush Limbaugh is extremely useful to the conservative cause, and is likely to survive (even while bleeding advertisers) through the next election, and possibly for many months beyond.” Months? Try, for as long as he wants to stay on the air and make boatloads of money.

There's certainly an argument to be made for organizing a boycott of Limbaugh and his advertisers. No  one on the left who said such offensive things could ever hope to get prominent advertisers on a radio show. And there's no doubt that the boycott against Limbaugh has hurt him and cost his syndicator and stations millions of dollars. When Limbaugh's contract is renewed, the boycott will probably cost him millions, too. But for a man who makes $55 million a year (with the corporations making even more), losing a few million dollars isn't going to drive him off the air.

But is the boycott against Limbaugh a good thing? First, it violates progressive ideas about freedom of speech. Yes, boycotts are perfectly legal and nobody is violating Rush's First Amendment rights with a boycott. But using economic threats to drive an offensive person off the airwaves is wrong. And, no, calling them the “public airwaves” doesn't make censorship any more palatable. When conservatives use boycotts to silence progressives, it's wrong on principle, not just because the other side is winning.

Second, Rush Limbaugh is the perfect anchor to wrap around the neck of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. If radio stations replace Rush with some less prominent right-winger (as is almost certain to happen if the boycotts succeed), the result will not be a more enlightened, educated world. Instead, progressives will simply lose an easy target for criticism. When Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” it did more to undermine the Republican Party and draw attention to the war on women than anything progressives have ever organized. If we didn't have Limbaugh around to say incredibly stupid things, how would we expose the real conservative agenda?

So what should progressives do in response to Rush Limbaugh? Criticize his ideas, and push his supporters to debate those beliefs. And ask questions of Republican officials who are scared to offend Limbaugh and his fans. Ask them if they agree with Limbaugh when he hoped for President Obama to fail and dreamed of economic disaster in America. Ask them if they agree with Limbaugh's conspiracy theories and bigoted remarks.

The problem with today's conservative movement is not that Rush Limbaugh has the freedom to speak out to a wide audience. The problem is that his ideas are taken seriously and rarely criticized. We need Rush to be critiqued, not silenced.

None of this is easy. It's far easier to imagine that Limbaugh doesn't really have a lot of listeners, to imagine that the loss of a few advertisers will bring him down, to imagine that his vast presence on radio is just the evil plot of right-wing corporations who will soon be destroyed by enormous greed. None of that is true, and wishing it were so won't make this fantasy come true.

Rush Limbaugh is not on a “downward spiral” to obscurity. He's not going to disappear because of any boycott, no matter how well organized. And when the Stop Rush movement inevitably falls short of its fantasy, and Rush continues spewing his hatred and misinformation on a daily basis, what will we have accomplished?

We need to use Rush Limbaugh as a symbol of the American conservative movement's destructive embrace of bigotry, anti-intellectualism, and irrationality.

Crossposted at DailyKos.

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