In 1996, I was a 21 year old junior enlisted MP deployed to Croatia and Bosnia to enforce the Dayton Accords under the NATO peace treaty. Some of the words I would use to describe myself at the time are the same I would use now: “Political.” “Opinionated.” “Argumentative.” “Extroverted.” One word I would not use to describe myself today that applied then is: “Liberal.”
For those who know me just a little, or who only know my writing, this may seem surprising if not downright shocking. But I have chronicled my transformation from a dedicated Democrat to recalcitrant Republican before. What’s even more strange about this story is how fundamentally different a person I was back then apart from mere politics: imagine me, the me you know and read now, minus 25 years of getting my ass kicked by life, minus the humility that age, mistakes and being wrong about any number of things has taught me. In other words: imagine the worst possible version of me, young, arrogant, full of myself, a supremely confident know-it-all. Or to put it another way: an average 21 year old.
Right about then, as I was deployed working long hours 7 days a week, with little to do when not actively patrolling a supply route, escorting a convoy, or guarding a blown up bridge, I needed reading material, desperately, and my Main Man From Minnesota, Al Franken, offered me just the sort of thing I was looking for: Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.
At the time I knew as much about Rush Limbaugh as most of his critics know today: basically, that he’s like, a big fat idiot, who says dumb stuff, and is, you know, really offensive. And is hateful because, you know, he’s a conservative a-hole, & stuff. That about covered it.
Of course, I had never listened to him. Why would I? Like I said, I thought I already knew everything about him, so I didn’t have to stoop to listening to what he said to know he was wrong, that he was dumb, and that I hated him. Of course, this was in The Before Time when you literally could not listen to someone on the radio or watch someone on tv unless you caught them live in the act, so it’s not like I could have just gone to YouTube and looked up what he said that day, or any day, on any subject, or just browse his content to see what he was about. I just knew what I heard in the news outlets I listened to and read, snippets of outrageous or offensive things that happened to make the news when I happened to catch it. But I knew enough to have a pretty strong opinion of him. We didn’t use the word “trending” in The Before Time, but the concept and phenomenon were still the same, just with different media.
Now on this deployment, I had a good friend, one of the sergeants in my platoon, who was in some respects my political mirror image. If I was a snarky, atheist liberal, he was a sincere, christian conservative. While we were deployed together for nearly a year, we talked about politics a lot, and were kind of the political wonks or nerds of the platoon. And since it was an election year, we had a lot of good material to discuss, debating Clinton vs. Dole vs. Perot (I was ardently pro-Clinton, but I also as a rule like outsiders and anti-establishment types, so was open to listening to Perot and hearing arguments for him). Also, while my book from Al Franken was keeping me company during downtime and after patrols, he happened to have with him on our deployment a book by the subject of Franken’s mockery: Rush Limbaugh’s second book, See I Told You So.
I don’t remember whose idea it was, I honestly think it was his, because I’m pretty sure it would never occur to me to read something by a person I’d already completely made up my mind about, and I’m also equally certain I would have been horrified by the idea and laughed in someone’s face if they suggested it (in fact I think I might have). But in any case, me and my Republican friend did something rare in any age of politics, and certainly virtually unheard of now: in a truly gentlemanly exchange of ideas, we agreed to read each other’s Rush Limbaugh books, and dedicate the time to read an entire book by someone diametrically opposed to us politically, and of course, discuss it afterwards.
I can’t say that reading his book entirely changed my mind about Limbaugh, or suddenly made me conservative, or even changed my opinion about any particular political topic. But what it did do was something maybe more important: it humanized him to me, it made me see him as a fully-dimensional human being, instead of the partisan caricature I had been holding in my mind of who Rush was as a person. It turned him, in my mind, from a simple political punching bag, representing not just himself but the entire political right that I disagreed with, but a person with strengths, weaknesses, intelligence, and flaws, just like any of us.
It was an important step for my own personal development as a human being, in forcing myself to listen to someone I very easily could say I “hated” as a person and political figure before I had done this, someone I considered vile and loathsome, and not really worthy of thinking of or listening to as a human being. I think this is a very important step that everyone can take to understand people who may seem entirely alien to them based on their view of the world, which is usually based on politics these days, but it can easily apply to someone of a different class, from a different part of the country, or with different interests.
The thing that stood out most to me was Limbaugh’s brutally self-critical honesty about his journey to broadcasting fame. It’s been a long time, and I don’t have the book handy, but something he said really stood out to me and has stuck with me through the years. To paraphrase, it began something like this:
I’ve had many different jobs, and many different careers…and I failed at all of them. I had been fired from almost every job I ever had [he listed maybe five of them], and I started to gain a suspicion that I had no talents to speak of with which I could have a successful professional career or even gainful employment.
In what I thought was a very open and vulnerable passage, detailing at length his many professional failures (which couldn’t have been that far behind him when this book was written), and his personal sense of complete worthlessness, feeling that he had no talent and nothing to offer, he went on to conclude in the following way:
I began to work in overnight radio programs, the only gig I could get, and I would say a few words or make a few comments about current events in the middle of the night and in the morning at the end of my shift as people were driving to work. I eventually started taking calls and having discussions with callers, many of whom disagreed with me or were angry about what I had said, some of whom wanted to actually fight and argue with me. It was then that I discovered that I do have one talent: insulting people. For some reason, for better or worse, this is my gift and my talent.
Of course that is a vast simplification and paraphrase, but to me, that was a startlingly human and relatable moment, and I was impressed with the fact that he was willing to be that open and say that about himself, both admitting that about himself as a human being, and being frank about the true cause of his personal success. I thought then and think now that is an incredibly brave and impressive thing to do. If you don’t agree, ask yourself this: how willing would you be to publicize the most embarrassing thing about yourself, your deepest flaw as a human being? Is that something you think you would be willing to do, especially in a book that will be read by millions, talked about by millions more, in an environment where you have millions of enemies who hate you and who live to destroy you? This one part of the book made me respect him as a man, even if I still believed that all of his political ideas were insane.
I think a modern equivalent of this sort of exercise could be what I call “The Donald Trump Challenge,” in which I ask people who hate Donald Trump to say three nice things about him, or three things he’s done right as president. To me, this kind of question gets to the heart of people’s willingness to see a political opponent, or even a legitimate political enemy, as a human being. A corollary for myself would be my one-sentence opinion of Barack Obama: “He’s a really nice, cool guy who’s a good family man and who I would love to hang out with, who has terrible, naive, misguided political beliefs.” The form is a little bit different, but the point is I can say several nice things about Barack Obama as a person, and even a few as a politician, even though I vehemently oppose his overall worldview, politics, and agenda. It’s important to me to do this, for myself as a human being, to keep a sense of perspective that politics is not everything, and to force myself to see my political opponent as a person too. I find it personally important to be able to prove to myself, on an ongoing basis, that I can see my political opponents as people, and find what common ground there is with someone I disagree with like Barack Obama, and not just view him as a faceless, one-dimensional enemy. I want to know that I can still see a president whose politics I hate as a real person, and forcing myself to think about things I like about him is something I can do to help prove that to myself (besides, you know, voting for him against my own party in 2008).
Apart from reading this one book of his, I was never a lifelong “Dittohead” or Rush follower. I didn’t listen to him on a regular basis, or read his regular columns. But there is another aspect of his persona and his work that stood out to me: his near limitless capacity to inspire outrage among his critics and enemies. Perhaps this helped prepare me for Donald Trump, but I long ago dispensed with being shocked and outraged by what media personalities say. I had an important realization on this topic when I was attending college in New York in my mid-20s, when some campus controversy had sprung up about Ann Coulter. She had been invited to speak at my campus, and, predictably, there was a group of students who were “outraged!” and “offended!” that she was even allowed to speak, and somewhere around that time, someone had tried to pie her in the face at another school.
I don’t know how you miss this, I guess I had until then, but it’s really very, very obvious once you point it out: when a media personality, whether a political pundit like Rush Limbaugh or a shock jock like Don Imus or Howard Stern says something “outrageous” that “offends” people, and a million articles start circulating about the “terrible!” and “insensitive!” things they said: that’s the bloody point. That’s what they’re trying to do. It’s such transparent manipulation, it’s kind of embarrassing when you take just one step back and look at it. Creating shock and outrage is what they do, it’s part of the formula.
I’m not in their heads, but it seems pretty apparent that these situations and comments are entirely calculated, that these folks are saying things they know are “offensive” (to some people) in order to provoke outrage, create some heat, get people talking about them (“get clicks” these days), and to promote themselves. It’s just a big media game, where the “offensive” person makes some news, the “news” outlets and pundits get their ready-made talking points for the day, the “offender” gets mountains of free publicity, and the “shocked and outraged!” columnists and pundits get some easy, ready-made content where all they have to do is talk about how people are offended, maybe run a short clip of the “controversial” content, talk to a guest about why it’s offensive and just how offensive it is, and *BAM*: you have x number of pre-packaged minutes of cut & paste content, possibly hours spread throughout a 24 hour news cycle, or over the course of a few days or a week. I’m not in the media business, but it frankly just seems like a big, transparent game when you look at it that way.
Once I noticed this pattern (the comments, the outrage, the media talking about it, the “controversy of the minute” with my friends, the demand for cancellation or apology, etc.), I really just stopped caring about any of it. And whenever Rush or anyone else said something offensive, and I’d see articles about it or hear my liberal friends talking about “Did you hear what RUSH said this week??,” I just wanted to ask them “Don’t you feel silly, when he deliberately says something to offend you and get you talking about him, then you spend a week running around like a chicken with its head cut off doing exactly what he wants you to do??” It’s like people couldn’t help themselves but react exactly how he wanted them to react, and do exactly what he wanted them to do: talk about him. Once I realized what a calculated ploy it was, I could no longer take any of the outrageous comments Rush or any of the others made seriously. Would you take Howard Stern seriously when he says something gross or offensive, or would you know that he’s doing it on purpose to get a reaction out of people and generate some publicity? It’s interesting to me that people on the left who would mock the outrage of conservatives and could see the obviousness of the ploy when done by Howard Stern fell right into the trap for Rush Limbaugh, and vice-versa.
One final point: as I admitted above, I was never really a big consumer of Rush Limbaugh, so as I got older and learned to be more circumspect with my opinions, I refrained from having an opinion about him, as I do now on all topics about which I know little or nothing. But there was a point about ten years ago where my curiosity got the better of me, and I spent some time reading some articles written by Rush and Ann Coulter. You know what I found? They were really good writers, really smart people, and they made really tight, highly logical arguments. All things you would never know if all you know about them was some offensive comments you heard about in the news. When you take the time to actually read their arguments, they are far more intelligent and nuanced than a handful of prime-time soundbites. What I gathered from reading their articles was that their formula for writing was something like this:
*[insert some hyperbole or offensive comment or terminology to trigger liberals]
It seemed like that was pretty much it: in every well-formed, intelligent political article about immigration, or health care, or taxes, there was a pre-made section designed to insult or offend liberals, like it was literally in the format of the outline or Word document. You may think it’s gross, or less than classy, I might not to do it in my own writing, but ask yourself this: did it work? I think the results speak for themselves, in their notoriety, their influence, and in their bank accounts. And in the very fact that we’re here talking about them, right now.
It’s not the most high-minded approach, but then again, I’ll bet neither is most of the news you consume. A writer hates to use cliches (a cliche in itself, I’m so meta), but I think this the perfect time to use the expression “It is what it is.” Human beings are just not always high-minded, or sophisticated, in our news and media consumption as much as in anything else. That’s our social and political reality, as much as our media reality. But if you take the time to really investigate the arguments of a person like Rush Limbaugh, you will find a lot more intelligence, nuance, sophistication, and humanity than you would expect as a mere headline-consumer of news. But really, who does that anymore? And who really did that to begin with? Rush Limbaugh gave conservatives what they wanted, cogent arguments for their positions, red meat in his rants against liberals, and a voice to a worldview many could not express for themselves. And he gave liberals what they wanted, a conservative boogeyman to rage against, and to caricature all conservatives with by his worst, most public, most offensive comments. So in a way, you could say that he did as much for liberals as he did for conservatives, that he was as important to them as he was to his fans.
Rush’s larger-than-life influence on politics and media is well-known, and has been well-chronicled by people far more familiar with his work and better qualified than I. But being a politically interested American in the last 30 years, I could not help but have been touched by his influence and his work, and I just wanted to share some of my own thoughts and experiences with his influence. I think the only thing I can comment or ask further at this point is: who will take his place in the domain of our politics, if anyone?
RIP to a great American.
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