RUSH RETURNS TO A WARM WELCOME
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- Rush Limbaugh's warm welcome home from the detox center this week inspires the question as to whether conservatives are demonstrating liberal values of their own or, alternatively, have been reinventing something akin to a new Victorianism, that is to say, a socially accepted hypocrisy of the ruling class.
By rights, the honest and honorable reaction among conservatives to the revelations that Limbaugh has been swallowing opiates by the pound should be to revile and reject him. After all, his radio program has been an endless taunting of all liberal values, including an audible contempt for those who would excuse lawbreaking. Instead, they have been sympathetic, understanding and accepting.
Corey Deitz, reporting on PirateRadio.com, tells of a conversation between Rush's brother David Limbaugh and radio host Matt Drudge: "David Limbaugh also told Drudge that Rush Limbaugh was deeply thankful for all the support he had received since it first was announced that he was addicted to prescription painkillers and was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support."
Admittedly, some Limbaugh fans reacted in what can only be described as denial. A letter to the Sacramento Bee that is available on line begins, "I am thoroughly disgusted at the way the liberal media has treated Rush Limbaugh. He has become the victim of a vast conspiracy by liberals and militant feminists to discredit him. Most real Americans can see right through the lies about Limbaugh." This was particularly amusing in that the letter was published (http://www.sacbee.com/content/opinion/letters/story/7664427p-8604455c.html) October 25, 2003, two weeks after Limbaugh publicly admitted his addiction and went off the air.
The case has of course resulted in a certain amount of gloating on the other side. The Funny Times magazine (December, 2003; see www.funnytimes.com) has a front cover parody of the old "this is your brain on drugs" ad. It starts with "This is your right wing wacko talk show host" and quotes Limbaugh from his October 5, 1995 television program: "So if people are violating the law by doing drugs they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up." The second panel is titled "This is your right wing wacko talk show host on drugs" and imagines Limbaugh saying, "Unless of course they're a media God. Then what they need is rehab and a place in people's prayers!"
Still, the position of conservatives has been, by and large, that Rush has demonstrated all too human foibles coming from the aftermath of surgery and chronic pain and that this is excusable.
In other words, they are resorting to quintessential liberal philosophy. They are saying in effect that Rush deserves a chance, that nobody's perfect, that he is doing his best to clean up his act. That sounds pretty liberal to me.
They even go a step farther into current liberal practice by spinning Rush Limbaugh's resort to the illegal purchase and possession of powerful narcotics. They don't call it dope. They refer delicately to "prescription painkillers" or "prescription medications." If you accept the National Enquirer story on Limbaugh's behavior, he was taking enough narcotics to kill an average person but the right wing is trying to suggest ever so subtly that it was some sort of medical mishap.
Put it all together and the conservative party line on the Limbaugh affair is one of emotional acceptance of a self-destructive, illegal activity. Superficially at least, it comes across as a liberal island in the ocean of conservative thought. There are however enough internal contradictions in this conservative framework to suggest a deeper evaluation.
After all, the recent history of the conservative Republican Party leadership is mixed at best. Newt Gingrich was the first but not the last recent member of the House of Representatives to resign due to a marital scandal. What is important to note is that the resignations only happened in response to public revelations of these activities. While Newt was pontificating to the masses about our moral decline, he apparently had no compunctions about contributing to it on his own. William Bennett, author of a book on morality, fessed up to his gambling problem only after it became public.
At the superficial level it all comes across as terribly hypocritical. The same people who were obsessed with President Clinton's sex life had no such qualms about their own.
Consider the possibility that this really is the case. Suppose that this represents the real underlying philosophy among many self-proclaimed social conservatives. They preach endlessly about the need for unwed welfare mothers to mend their ways, they demand that our educational system preach the benefits of chastity and they speak gruffly about the dangers of drugs, but they do not accept the same limits for themselves.
They are free to drink and to chase women, to make a little money on the side through their political contacts, in short to pursue vice as they choose while all the while condemning such behaviors among the working classes.
What this represents is the restoration of a sort of ruling class morality, an acceptable level of hypocrisy for the rich we remember as characterizing the Victorian era. The nobility could carouse all night at their favorite club or brothel and speak in Parliament the next day on the need for a moral awakening among the working poor. How is this all that different from what we have been seeing recently with regard to Newt's womanizing, Bennett's gambling problem, and now Rush Limbaugh's drug problem?
Perhaps this is not completely the case, but it is hard to argue that the evidence is entirely lacking for a recognizable and recently growing cohort of conservative leaders.
One troubling aspect of this is its self-evident racism. The recognizable targets of all that conservative bile have been, in particular, inner city minorities. It is hard to get through a day without reading or hearing the sermonizing about the need to seek employment, abstain from intoxicating substances and engage in careful family planning involving marriage. This seems like good advice in terms of working one's way up from poverty, but as a moral imperative it is becoming increasingly contradicted by the behavior of the people giving the sermons.
Put more simply, it is a case of "do as I say, not as I do."
Or, to put it another way, it is acceptable to engage in vice if you are rich and well connected. Bill Bennett can gamble for high stakes and rationalize it in various ways (he didn't actually preach against gambling, and he didn't gamble away the rent money). High ranking Congressional leaders can abuse women and carry on affairs. Just don't get caught.
There is nothing new about hypocrisy, particularly substance abuse hypocrisy and sexual hypocrisy, in the American culture. What is troubling here is the emergence of something that is increasingly class based. If you are Rush Limbaugh, your behavior is treated with the proverbial wink and a nod. If you are an inner city crack user, it's hard time.
The Limbaugh episode also spotlights the hypocrisy of the drug war. Whether it is opium, morphine, or one of the synthetic prescription opiates, it is the same pharmacology, the same cell surface receptors in the brain. It is only the medium of ingestion and the wealth of the user that is different.
We should be asking, if Rush can take this much narcotic and carry on what the conservatives themselves view as a remarkably productive life, than why should the inner city poor be treated with less compassion?