I read this article by Kirsten Powers on the Daily Beast. It’s being circulated on the internet by conservatives in response to the uproar over Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut. Powers’ premise is that it’s hypocritical for the left to call for boycotts of Limbaugh for his sexism when she can cite sexist comments by left-leaning pundits like Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Ed Schultz, Bill Maher, and Matt Taibbi.
Surprisingly, I don’t entirely disagree. I do give Bill Maher something of a pass, because rightly or wrongly, I think of him primarily as a comedian. Howard Stern is way too the right of me and I give him a pass as well because his sexism, racism, and homophobia are at least funny. I also think it’s a stretch when Powers cites Matt Taibbi calling Michelle Bachmann “bat-shit crazy” as proof of sexism. There’s nothing gender-specific about “bat-shit crazy,” so it’s only sexist if all things being equal, he wouldn’t use the same language about a man. Anyone who followed Taibbi’s coverage of the Bush administration or John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign would agree that there’s nothing unique in his treatment of Bachmann.
As far as Powers’ criticism of the Matthews, Olbermann and Schultz, well, I’m the last guy to defend them. Anyone who follows me on Facebook or Twitter probably knows how useless I think the non-Rachel Maddow line-up at MSNBC is. Although I will say, there is one glaring omission in Powers’ article. All the examples of sexism that she points to by left-leaning pundits, indefensible as most of it is, is directed at politicians or other pundits: Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Michelle Malkin, etc. Not exactly shrinking violets, these ladies; all of them entered political and public life of their own free will, all must have known that taking slings and arrows came with the job and all have thrown their own jabs at their political opponents. You won’t have to look hard to find equally inflammatory remarks from right wing pundits against Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Michelle Obama or Rachel Maddow. Lou Dobbs once called Maddow a “tea-bagging queen, “whatever that means.
I think the difference in Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke is that she is neither a politician nor a pundit. I don’t think that testifying before congress is the same as entering public life in a professional sense. She attacked no one, she simply told her story and those of her classmates. For this, a young woman whose name none of us had heard before and most would have forgotten thereafter, gets called “slut” and “prostitute” by a nationally syndicated radio host with an audience in the millions. The relevant comparison here is not to left pundits insulting female politicians but to Don Imus’ famous slur against the Rutgers University women’s basketball team.
Rush’s sin was not just sexism (most of Rush’s constant sexism is ignored by the left, less we get angry at him on an almost daily basis), but a huge miscalculation. What Rush didn’t learn from Imus’ mistake is to pick on someone his one size (metaphorically speaking). When a media giant picks on a private citizen who is a non-combatant, the game changes. It’s the difference between a boxer hitting someone who willing gets in the ring and just randomly punching an innocent bystander on the street.
Also, Powers accusations of hypocrisy would only hold water if we look at each incident of sexism by pundits as an isolated case. Matthews, Olbermann, and Schultz have all been called out by left for their sexism. They have also been champions for women’s issues. Schultz featured Fluke on his talk show to give the testimony that congressional Republicans apparently did not want to hear. Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh has engaged in a decade’s long campaign of sexism, calling feminists “feminazis” and female journalists “info-babes.”
To suggest that the difference between the response to Limbaugh’s (latest) transgression and the response to pundits on the left is hypocritical is to divorce the incident from all historical context.
As a final aside, to my friends on the right who are defending Limbaugh on free speech grounds, I repeat my refrain: Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. Not for Limbaugh, the corporation that broadcasts his show or the corporations that advertise on it. Rush Limbaugh can say whatever he wants, no one is trying to silence him, but the public can decide whether or not to vote with their dollars with regard to those who choose to associate their brand with his. This is the reason that Harper Collins scrapped plans to publish OJ Simpson’s book. I don’t remember folks on the right jumping to defend Simpson’s right to free speech.