When Bullies Apologize

“Apology is only egotism wrong side out.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

It was a strange weekend, but handled appropriately. When you want to bury a story that is a bit embarrassing you release it late Friday, just after the broadcast and cable news bureaus have moved to the weekend skeleton staffs and the major newspapers have been put to bed, and MSNBC has moved to its endless series of back-to-back one hour life-in-prison shows. Maybe no one will notice. And Rush Limbaugh knows this:

After a media and political firestorm, Rush Limbaugh issued an apology on Saturday for calling student Sandra Fluke a “slut” on his radio show this week.

Fluke, a law student at Georgetown University who was advocating for health insurance plans to cover the cost of contraception, became the target of a series of attacks by Limbaugh. Besides calling her a “slut,” he also called her a “prostitute,” said that he wanted her to make sex tapes and post them online, and speculated that she only had a problem paying for contraception because she was having “so much sex.”

Limbaugh’s comments caused advertisers to flee from his show, and even prompted President Obama to weigh in. The statements also became an issue in the Republican presidential race.

Of course they did. And by the end of the weekend the seventh major advertiser had pulled all ads from Rush’s show. But he’ll be fine. He has the ratings – ears to the speakers. His tens of millions of fans do buy things. They’ll just buy other things. He can still deliver a mass market, so the pull-outs were basically symbolic. They were more about brand indentity than anything else. After all, you really are selling the set of cultural cues and attitudes associated with your product, as much as the product itself – you’re really selling a life-style. Maybe his show wasn’t right for your product in the first place. Rush Limbaugh’s is one life-style, but there are others. Everyone will find a place.

But the apology itself was odd – oddly defensive. Limbaugh seemed stung by the idea people were accusing him of waging a war on women, and he likes women. He’s married four of them – sequentially, not simultaneously of course – and he was pretty much whining that everyone was picking on him for no good reason:

Amazingly, when there is the slightest bit of opposition to this new welfare entitlement being created, then all of a sudden we hate women.

Hey, maybe everyone should apologize to him, as the problem here was he used a few ill-advised words to make what he sees as a brilliant moral point:

I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities. What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit?

And others agreed:

At least one conservative commentator, Dana Loesch, appeared to back Mr. Limbaugh’s original sentiments, writing on Twitter on Saturday, “If you expect me to pay higher insurance premiums to cover your ‘free’ birth control, I can call you whatever I want.”

And this was predictable:

Bill O’Reilly has joined Rush Limbaugh’s sexist assault on 30-year-old law student Sandra Fluke. On tonight’s broadcast, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly attacked and mocked Sandra Fluke, claiming that Fluke was insisting the government pay for her “social life.”

But the Republican presidential candidates said next to nothing, and George Will summed up that situation as a farce:

Mr. Boehner comes out and says, Rush’s language was inappropriate. Using a salad fork for your entrée, that’s inappropriate. Not this stuff. I mean, and Rick Santorum says well, what he says was absurd, but an entertainer is allowed to be absurd. No. It is the responsibility of conservatives to police the right in its excesses, just as the liberals unfailingly fail to police the excesses in their own side. And it was depressing, because what it indicates is that the Republican leaders are afraid of Rush Limbaugh. They want to bomb Iran, but they’re afraid of Rush Limbaugh.

But bombing Iran is an easy call. Everyone but Obama and Glenn Greenwald and the Joint Chiefs wants to bomb Iran, yesterday if possible, even if it starts a world war and collapses the world’s economy and causes terrorists attacks in Altoona. What’s not to like? But this other stuff is about sex, and that gets tricky. Someone might be having more of it than you, and enjoying it – and they must be stopped.

But of course Limbaugh gets more than a few things wrong here, and Maureen Dowd hits the essentials:

Limbaugh said insuring contraception would represent another “welfare entitlement,” which is wrong – tax dollars would not provide the benefit, employers and insurance companies would. And women would not be getting paid just “to have sex.” They’d be getting insurance coverage toward the roughly $1,000 annual expense of trying to avoid unwanted pregnancies and abortions, and to control other health conditions.

And she adds this:

President Obama called Fluke and bucked her up, probably hoping to get Limbaugh to double down. El Rushbo, as he calls himself, obliged. “Did you ever think of backing off the amount of sex you’re having?”

No – because that’s not the point. The argument here is that birth control is part of basic healthcare – family planning assures that mothers and kids are healthy, as you can space things out for the best time, in terms of the mother’s health and the family’s economic circumstances, not just when whatever happens, well, just happens. And if you reduce unwanted pregnancies you do reduce life-threatening troubled pregnancies, and you reduce abortions of course. But yes, if slutty women – as they all are – would just not have sex at all, then you get to the exact same place. Responsible total abstinence – that’s the ticket. You’re poor. Do without. And maybe one method is as good as the other. Which you choose sort of depends on which side of the argument you find appealing – culturally.

And yes, the government isn’t picking up the tab anyway – at all. You and your employer pay for it all – every penny. The government just sets minimum basic standards for what constitutes a healthcare plan – for the good of everyone. All hot dogs must contain something like meat, and over-the-counter medications must do something like they claim for you, and yes, you can buy any car you want, but government says that it has to have seat-belts – period, end of story. It has to have headlights and brakes too. You, not the government, buy the car – and of course you don’t have to wear the seat-belts or turn on the headlights at night, if you’re willing to risk paying a fine. This is just like that. Limbaugh and all the other taxpayers – assuming Limbaugh actually pays any taxes at all given his massive income – are not paying for anyone’s birth control pills. Rush was just making-up-shit again.

But there was also this:

There are 18,000 married gay and lesbian couples in California and at least 131,000 nationwide according to the 2010 census, conducted before New York state legalized same-sex marriage in July. Rick Santorum says he’ll try to unmarry all of them if he’s elected president.

Once the U.S. Constitution is amended to prohibit same-gender marriages, “their marriage would be invalid,” the former Pennsylvania senator said Dec. 30 in an NBC News interview. “We can’t have 50 different marriage laws in this country,” he said. “You have to have one marriage law.”

The comments didn’t attract nearly as much attention as Santorum’s recent invocation of his Catholic faith to denounce government support for birth control, prenatal testing and resource conservation – which, in the last case, he attributed to President Obama’s “phony theology.”

What was that about? Who is harming him? Something else is going on here, and the New York Times’ Charles Blow looks back on an item from Rick Santorum’s past:

Santorum seems to have an unhealthy fixation with, and passionate disdain for, the 1960s and the sexual freedoms that followed. To fully understand Santorum’s strident rejection of the 1960s, it’s instructive to recall a speech and question-and-answer session he gave in 2008 to a course on religion and politics at the Oxford Center for Religion and Public Life in Washington.

The speech was interesting, but the answers he gave to the questions that followed were truly illuminating.

In response to a question about the kinds of words he had heard “attached to religion and politics” during his years in the Senate, Santorum ventured off onto sex:

“It comes down to sex. That’s what it’s all about. It comes down to freedom, and it comes down to sex. If you have anything to do with any of the sexual issues, and if you are on the wrong side of being able to do all of the sexual freedoms you want, you are a bad guy. And you’re dangerous because you are going to limit my freedom in an area that’s the most central to me. And that’s the way it’s looked at.”

But Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog thinks there’s more here than Santorum being obsessed with sex as practiced by anyone other than legally married heterosexual couples:

Santorum’s obsession isn’t just revulsion at the thought that people are doing sex things he wouldn’t do. It’s a demand for control. It is anger at the thought that people don’t respect his authority, both for its own sake and because he’s the self-appointed surrogate for God and the Founding Fathers.

Look at the quote above. He and his fellow conservatives, he tells us, want to say to people, hey, you don’t have the right “to do all of the sexual freedoms you want” – but when they do, those people say nasty things to Santorum and his friends! How dare they!

And Santorum also says this:

This is who the Democratic Party has become. They have become the party of Woodstock. They prey upon our most basic primal lusts, and that’s sex. And the whole abortion culture, it’s not about life. It’s about sexual freedom. That’s what it’s about. Homosexuality. It’s about sexual freedom. All of the things are about sexual freedom, and they hate to be called on them.

Steve M:

Again: “they hate to be called on them.” How dare they resent being “called on” these things! Santorum and his pals should be able to do that any time they want! And their worldview should prevail!

This reminds me of Rush Limbaugh arguing that, in return for contraceptive coverage, he gets to act like a misogynist high-roller waving $100 bills in a strip club – he gets to call the women sluts and prostitutes and keep a video as a souvenir. Why doesn’t he have that right? In a sane world, he’d bark orders and all the sex freaks would obey those orders. Rick Santorum feels exactly the same way.

He calls Santorum Limbaugh-in-a-Sweater-Vest. And of course the Woodstock comment covers it all. Someone is still angry that those damned hippies are having all the fun. It’s just not fair.

But one can be more measured in saying this is what’s really going on here, and Nancy L. Cohen does just that in her book Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution Is Polarizing America – and this compression of its main points in the Los Angeles Times:

If the pill had never been invented, perhaps American politics would be very different today.

Sex has consumed the political debate in recent weeks. To many it has been a surprising turn of events, given the near-universal prediction that this year’s election would be all about the economy. If the history of the bipartisan sexual counterrevolution were better known, no one would be surprised.

Conflicts over gay marriage, transvaginal ultrasounds, Planned Parenthood funding and insurance coverage for birth control are not isolated events. Rather, they are the latest expression of a forty-year-old shadow movement that has played an important role in fueling America’s political dysfunction.

And she asks us to consider what America was like only fifty years ago:

Americans could be arrested, fined and sentenced to prison for distributing birth control. Sex between consenting adults of the same sex was illegal in every state. Employment discrimination against women was pervasive and perfectly legal.

And then:

Everything changed in the space of roughly fifteen years. The pill went on the market in 1960. Then the sexual revolution, feminism and gay liberation, in turn, revolutionized the family, the workplace and popular culture. By the end of the 1970s, Congress had outlawed gender discrimination in most areas of American life. Half of the states had repealed their laws against sodomy. The Supreme Court had ruled that statutes outlawing birth control and abortion were violations of constitutionally protected rights.

Today, most Americans take sexual freedom and gender equality for granted. But these were epochal changes. Given that government had long been in the business of legislating sexual morality and underwriting rigid gender roles, it is understandable that those who opposed these cultural transformations took their battle to the political arena.

This is followed by a brief history of what she calls the sexual counterrevolution – from 1972 with a tiny group of women – “far-right Republicans and Protestant fundamentalists who had never been particularly politically active before” – out to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment – to today’s Republicans, and many Democrats who are still worried they’ll lose the hard-hat anti-hippie vote if they say too much. Obama might be one of those.

And there was a price to pay for all this, which we continue to pay:

One out of two of us live in a community where it is legal to fire a woman because she is a lesbian, or to refuse to rent a house to a man because he is gay. The Defense of Marriage Act denies married gay couples the economic benefits our government bestows on married straight couples. Women make 79 cents for every dollar earned by men, and only 18 Fortune 500 companies are run by women, a gap many experts attribute more to the lack of public support for mothers in the workforce than to gender discrimination in the boardroom. The U.S. is one of only nine nations that do not provide universal paid maternity leave.

But this is odd:

The sexual counterrevolution represents a minority view in American democracy. Today, a solid majority of Americans support abortion rights, gay civil rights and other socially liberal positions; by a 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 margin, Americans oppose the extreme positions staked out by the right-wing sexual counterrevolutionaries on abortion and gay civil rights. Even on gay marriage, the balance has shifted toward more liberty and acceptance.

The counterrevolutionaries discovered early on that the American political system offers many ways around public opinion – delay and obstruction can hold back or nibble away at policies the majority desires.

So the culture war lives on, the war against the damned hippies, long after Woodstock. It was lost long ago, but you can fight on. And these folks do.

And people say the oddest thing, like this from Pastor Joshua Genig – “Who is speaking up for the mothers who, under HHS mandate, have been falsely coerced into feeling that to be a woman means to have ‘control’ of their own bodies?”

What? But Andrew Sullivan in this item points out that Cardinal Dolan of New York embracing the culture war when Dolan says this:

We are called to be very active, very informed and very involved in politics.

And Dolan means it:

“It is a freedom of religion battle,” he said. “It is not about contraception. It is not about women’s health.” He added: “We’re talking about an unwarranted, unprecedented, radical intrusion” into “a church’s ability to teach, serve and sanctify on its own.”

The cardinal mocked a secular culture that “seems to discover new rights every day.” “I don’t recall a right to marriage,” he said, describing marriage, instead, as a “call.”

“Now we hear there’s a right to sterilization, abortion and chemical contraceptives. I suppose there might be a doctor who would say to a man who’s suffering some type of sexual dysfunction, ‘You ought to visit a prostitute to help you.’ “

Sullivan notes how Dolan sounds a lot like Limbaugh and doesn’t seem to care for the notion that all Catholics ARE the church:

At a news conference after Saturday’s speech, Cardinal Dolan said, “We kind of got our Irish up when leaders in government seemed to be assigning an authoritative voice to Catholic groups that are not the bishops.” He added: “If you want an authoritative voice, go to the bishops. They’re the ones that speak for the truths of the faith.”

Sullivan:

Yes, they did a great job ensuring that thousands of children were left at the mercies of child predators for decades, didn’t they? Just trust them. Don’t listen to the majority of Catholics who dissent, or those brave souls who exposed the network of pedophiles and pederasts. …

It’s in this context that you have to understand the recent cruel withholding of communion to a lesbian daughter at her mother’s funeral, or the abrupt firing of a gifted music teacher because he sought to marry the man he loves. As modern society shifts, and as its own flock shifts with it, the Church hierarchy has decided to double-down on its sexual absolutism. The cruelty comes with it.

That last sentence refers to Santorum vowing he will annul all gay marriages. Why?

Oh, and let’s hear from a mother:

You see, my 16 year old daughter came home from school on Friday in tears and has been in a state of utter despair since. She was told, in no uncertain terms, that she is a slut, a prostitute, a horny piece of trash that is out to sleep with every guy in school! The horrid little monsters that started harassing my daughter had the audacity to tell her their mothers were the ones who labeled her with these despicable opinions – they were just “telling it like it is, you know, like that guy on the radio! The one who isn’t afraid to tell the truth!”

Her daughter is on the pill for a medical condition, and here is the note that one of her classmates gave her:

Little miss innocent, huh? Whatever slut – you take birth control pills so you can f*&# every guy in school! What a joke – u are nothin but a whore! Pretty bad when some guy on the radio who isn’t afraid to tell the truth has to break it down for everybody- if u on the Pill u are nothing but a skank ass ho! My mom said girls on the pill are tramps who just wanna get laid and don’t care about nothing – is that how u are?

Well, kids will be kids, but David Atkins comments:

This is the consequence of the hate being peddled by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk. It’s not just “entertainment” or “humor” as he and his defenders like to claim. The bullying these folks do on the airwaves trickles down to bullying in the workplace and in the schoolyard. It has very real, very negative consequences to people’s lives – including to these “mean girls” bullies themselves, who are at significantly higher risk of teen pregnancy and doomed shotgun weddings due to a learned prejudice against basic birth control.

Maybe so – and famous bullies inspire wannabe bullies, and that give us The Bully Society – a new book by Jessie Klein, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Adelphi University. It is mainly about the nexus of bullying and school shootings, like the most recent one in Ohio, and changing attitudes towards masculinity, the explosion of “child-targeted consumerism” and “the erosion of our compassionate society” and so forth. Kids more than ever feel overwhelmed and helpless, and, in some cases, violence follows. But Klein also ties the rise of bullying behavior to our economic move to the right, and Thomas Rogers interviews Klein here, who offers this:

I think our whole society is more masculine. Capitalism as an economic system has become much more so. Our social services have been cut significantly. The media is much less regulated. They used to not be able to advertise to children, and now they advertise plastic surgery to them. There’s just so much in our society that’s concerned with how to perfect yourself, how to look, how to become as powerful as you can be, regardless of how it affects others. I don’t think that message was quite as prominent in previous decades, and all those values are related in some ways to masculinity. So what I show in the book is that masculine values of aggression, violence, dominance are not specific to men. Girls and women are increasingly pressured to demonstrate those values as well.

And much of this can be traced back to Reagan and the Reagan era:

He came to power talking about deregulating capitalism. There are many people who do believe that the more you help people, the less they will work, the more lazy they will become. There became an entire culture against people on welfare. Even Clinton after Reagan developed this program called Welfare to Work, where even if you were disabled or had six children you were forced to find some way to work 20 hours per week. And I think since then society has gotten more and more harsh in that way and I think people feel strongly in our country that that’s the way to get ahead. We’re the only country in the industrial world that doesn’t have a paid leave for women who have children, whereas other countries in Europe go out of their way to make sure there’s a long paternity leave. There are countries that help families to stay home for 3 years and they’ll pay 80 percent of the salary. For the most part, people here believe that if you make money you’ll get support but if you don’t make money, you’re pretty much on your own. And I think that’s what kids in schools feel.

But blame is actually difficult:

People want to blame somebody. Teachers are getting blamed. Parents are getting blamed because they’re not raising their children correctly. Certain students are getting blamed because they have the profile of a bully. These are all distractions because it’s not about individuals doing a certain thing it’s about a socioeconomic environment where people are pressured to act in particular ways.

Rush and Rick Santorum and the Bishops will tell you just what to do of course. But Klein is arguing that “we have to look at a much broader level to think about how we change a society that’s become so cruel and callous and dangerous.”

But Rush apologized – sort of. And bullies hate to do that. But he did. And we’re supposed to admire him for that, and for being essentially right about everything, really – which means bullies never actually apologize. It’s only egotism wrong side out, and a fight from the sixties, about sex and hippies, that was lost long ago. Losers always become bullies.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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