TIMOTHY NOAH MARCH 6, 2012
We're hearing a lot from conservatives about how Rush Limbaugh's attack on Sandra Fluke, offensive though it may be, occasions a second look at all the offensive things liberals get away with saying. "Liberals" is defined pretty broadly in this instance to include rappers (I guess because they're usually black). More plausibly, it includes Matt Taibbi calling Andrew Breitbart a "douche" in his obit, Keith Olbermann calling Michele Malkin a "mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick on it," Bill Maher calling Sarah Palin a "cunt" and a "dumb twat," and some guy I've never even heard of called Ed Schultz calling Laura Ingraham a "slut." How is that any different?
It's different in two ways.
First, all of the people who were subjected to verbal abuse by the liberal- or left-leaning blowhards and smart-asses mentioned above are public figures. If you follow politics you know who they are. Fluke, on the other hand, though a political activist, was not really a public figure. If you follow politics you probably didn't know who she was until Limbaugh attacked her.
Second, and more important, none of the rappers and liberals and leftists mentioned above is so feared by President Obama or any other Democrat that said Democrat would hesitate to criticize him if the occasion warranted it. That isn't necessarily because Democrats are braver people. It's because there is no rapper or liberal or leftist commentator or talk-radio host or comedian who commands anything equivalent to the knuckle-dragging army of haters that Limbaugh leads on the right.
We're talking about a guy who seriously considered himself a plausible successor to William F. Buckley. That was admittedly somewhat delusional, but Limbaugh was right to consider himself a serious political force in America, and that says a lot about what's wrong with the Republican party. Mitt Romney tread so carefully in saying Limbaugh's was "not the language I would have used"--well, okay, that was cowardly--because Limbaugh exercises outsized influence over primary voters. (The only major Republican leader who's properly condemned Limbaugh's remarks is John McCain.) Democrats have their Sister Souljahs, but they don't let them run the party. Republicans do. That's why we all heard about Limbaugh's rude comments about Fluke right away but didn't hear about these other comments until conservative commentators started Googling.
If Limbaugh were willing to settle for a level of trash-talk influence on par with Taibbi, Olbermann, et. al, he'd have much greater leeway to call Fluke a prostitute and a slut. I look forward to the day that happens.
Update, 6:15 p.m.: Nick Gillespie of Reason seems to have gotten it into his head that I think it's fine for Taibbi, Olbermann, Mahar, and Schultz to have said the vile things mentioned above. I'm afraid he misses my point. It very clearly is not fine for them to have said these things. It's deplorable. (If I wanted to protect them I wouldn't have repeated verbatim the offensive things they said.) So lets be clear: Shame on the lot of them!
But people say deplorable things all the time. Right now, as I'm typing this, some liberal somewhere is saying something unforgivable about Michelle Bachmann or Ann Coulter. I condemn you, whoever you are! But I'm not going to conduct a house-to-house search to find you.
The unacceptably vile things that Taibbi, Olbermann, Mahar, and Schultz said may imperil their immortal souls but they don't warrant as much attention from the rest of us as the unacceptably vile things Limbaugh said. That's because Taibbi, Olbermann, Mahar, and Schultz have less influence. When Limbaugh tells conservatives what to think a lot of them obey and a lot of politicians take care to steer clear of contradicting him. When Taibbi, Olbermann, Mahar, and Schultz tell liberals what to think few of us even hear what it is they're saying and no politician pays them any mind. (Sorry, fellas, but it's true.) It matters more to society what a person with a big following says than what a person with a small following says. I would have thought this point was obvious, but apparently it isn't.