Last week, right-wing radio show host Rush Limbaugh referred to Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and “prostitute,” adding that her advocacy of birth control meant she wanted the “taxpayer to pay for her to have sex,” as she was “having too much sex.”
Limbaugh, a syndicated bigot who uses violent rhetoric to promote the agenda of the top one percent from his mansion in Florida, is beginning to face what he deserves--getting kicked off air. A victory here would mark a shift in the trend of censorship that we currently sponsor in the United States.
Efforts to remove Limbaugh from the airwaves have focused on local networks and specific stations, boycotts against advertisers on his show, or even the source: the media conglomerate Clear Channel, which holds a 2008-2016 $400 million contract with the misogynist, racist, classist personality.
Clear Channel is the largest radio consortium in the country. It owns over 1,200 stations across the world. In the past week, MoveOn.org has collected almost 400,000 online signatures for a petition on its website SignOn.org, asking Clear Channel to drop the radio show. Many advertisers and radio stations have already discontinued their contracts and sponsorship.
VoteVets is among the groups organizing to stop Limbaugh’s vitriol from reaching the public airwaves. Members of VoteVets, including Katherine Scheriman, former chief of medical operations for the U.S. Air Force, have asked the Pentagon that Limbaugh’s show be removed from the tax-payer funded American Forces Network, which provides the programing our troops hear while abroad.
“When many of our female troops use birth control, for Limbaugh to say they are ‘sluts’ and ‘prostitutes’ is beyond the pale. It isn’t just disrespectful to our women serving our country, but it’s language that goes against everything that makes our military work,” argued the VoteVets members.
The only reason why he chooses those words is because of their embedded cultural significance, their demeaning and humiliating power. Limbaugh denigrates and intimidates with such disempowering words in order to promote the status quo. His attacks on ethnic minorities, women, the poor or the working class are well documented and far from new. What has changed is that we can organize so that censorship may be democratically determined, rather than dictated, blurred, and abused by the centers of power.
It is for the same reason that recent laws that require women to jump through obstacles, such as harassing ultrasounds, before she can decide to get an abortion (in states that protect that choice), require physicians to refer to these as “transvaginal” ultrasounds. The word is so intimidating, and anatomically misleading, that many women coping with the many other pressures on their freedom of choice are driven away from the process.
It is the same reason conservative lawmakers chose to use words that clearly alluded to rape and forced penetration to describe the pre-abortion “vaginal probing” procedure--these words are meant to sadistically shame the patient and punish her for her choice, instead of providing a safe and welcoming medical environment.
Many will point to the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution in defense of Limbaugh and friends. One could argue Limbaugh have as much of a right to say a female demanding health care justice is a “slut” as whistleblowers who refer to U.S. covert operations in Laos and Cambodia throughout the 1970s or in Central America in the 1980s as “state terrorism.”
However, there are types of discourse meant to expose injustice and promote healthy debate on diverse issues, and then there are bigotry, chauvinism, sexism and racism. The worst thing is that, sadly, the power of the one percent is used to silence the former and promote the latter, invariably for economic and political reasons.
Freedom of speech does not give anyone license to degrade another person’s humanity, especially for the sake of stirring political intimidation against dissenters or creating unequal power relations for groups in society through foul rhetoric. That is where political correctness--a notion that is both dangerous and arguably progressive--should draw the line.
“Rush Limbaugh has a freedom of speech and can say what he wants, but in light of his horribly misogynistic comments, American Forces Radio should no longer give him a platform. Our entire military depends on troops respecting each other – women and men. There simply can be no place on military airwaves for sentiments that would undermine that respect,” reads the VoteVets release.
It is regrettable that we would tolerate an assault on journalists across the world, but Limbaugh’s documented history of grotesque verbal abuse should go on, fully protected. But in the liberal democracies of the developed world, this irony is the norm and not the anomaly.
For example, consider the trial of Julian Assange and the ongoing onslaught on WikiLeaks. While the corporate media that run over 90 percent of the news distributed in the country have downplayed this, independent media continue to challenge the legitimacy of a government that claims to be founded on democratic principles, yet will use abusive punishment against those whose work was exactly to check power and inform the public about what governments hide.
What about Citizens United? Freedom of speech is not meant to protect the “right” of those with the most cash to buy politicians with secret and unlimited donations, as this is also antithetical to a democratic system. If government officials work for their personal checkbooks rather than to the benefit of the population, then everything we were told was “exceptional” about this country is a cynical lie.
In the name of “free speech,” media conglomerates and their bought politicians deregulate their expansive access to markets, and the things they can say to us; meanwhile, those whose responsibility is to speak for the voiceless are the victims of state-sponsored persecution, intimidation, convictions, and in many places, assassinations. In fact, that last form of silencing dissent is most common in countries where the United States is pouring the most military aid: Mexico, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia and Egypt.
If this country is going to live up to its promise, it must prevent this sort of language from infecting our political discourse. It would do us well to reverse the trend of what is censored, to do this democratically, and to bring to justice what is truly poisonous to our society, rather than persecuting those speaking truth to power.