Last week in these pages, Andrew Klavan, a conservative who writes for the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, addressed himself to liberals, insisting that "whatever you claim, you still haven't listened to Rush Limbaugh."
He concluded with a proposal: "I am throwing down my gauntlet at your quivering liberal feet. I hereby issue my challenge -- the Limbaugh Challenge: Listen to the show. ... Ask yourself: What's he getting at? Why does he say the things he says? Why do so many people of goodwill -- like that nice Mr. Klavan -- agree with him?"
We asked four local liberals to take that challenge, and one fallacy in Klavan's argument quickly became clear: They all had already listened extensively to Limbaugh.
Here's what they concluded from the experience:
Marc CooperDirector of Annenberg Digital News at the USC Annenberg School for Communication
"I have been listening to Rush Limbaugh for years, and it's usually under the same circumstances: When I'm barreling through some Godforsaken desert in the dark of night and the only thing on the radio is a repeat of that morning's Limbaugh show bouncing off the ionosphere and into my car from 10 different directions.
"I don't find Limbaugh even remotely entertaining, and certainly not thought-provoking. But I also don't consider him offensive or even dangerous.
"Mostly, Rush Limbaugh is depressing. Deeply depressing. Which might explain precisely why I choose to listen to him during those lonely, lonesome and alienating drives through the darkness. The emptiness of the show makes a perfect audio companion for the barren landscape that surrounds me and the grim mood that sometimes immerses me during those travels.
"He's certainly got some genuine talent for radio. He knows how to viscerally and directly engage his listeners. But other than that, what's the attraction?
"Simple, really. The ditto-head audience relies on Limbaugh the same way that a drunk uses a lamp post or the way a fundamentalist zealot relies on Scripture: not for illumination but rather for something to lean on.
"Call Limbaugh's rants offensive, racist, extremist or just plain intellectually insulting, if it makes you feel better. I think it's more useful to understand him instead as a form of religious experience, one of the more dogmatic strain. He's a completely reliable inspiration and reinforcement for those who are embittered and battered and who confuse their natural allies for their enemies. He's an electronic opiate for the masses.For Limbaugh's audience is not a happy lot. They are completely convinced that an unholy coalition of liberals, homos, feminazis and overly entitled minorities are responsible for the mess of their own tiny, dead-end lives.
"But I will grant Limbaugh one slim glimmer of genius. Unlike similar demagogues (I'm thinking of Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity), Limbaugh makes no claim to be a little-guy populist. Instead, he's a perfect mouthpiece for the most elite portions of our society. He's a virile defender of wealth, privilege and greed. The rather fabulous trick he pulls off is to attract millions of little-guy listeners and make them believe that their interests are somehow the same as those of the jillionaires Limbaugh idolizes and celebrates.
"Herein lies my own confession. Like the ditto-heads themselves, I also listen to Limbaugh strictly to reinforce my preconceived views. When I am feeling most powerless, most misanthropic, most suspicious of the ability of humanity to think clearly, when I'm flooded with fears that we might be living in the twilight of the bipeds, there's absolutely no one better than Rush Limbaugh to reaffirm my views. Thanks Rush."
Laurie OchoaEditor in chief, LA Weekly
"Any real ditto-head can tell you that liberals have always been an important part of Rush Limbaugh's audience. They may not get a lot of caller airtime -- "Rush babies," budding right-wingers with, as Limbaugh likes to put it, "perceptions beyond their years," and flirty female conservatives will always get on the show before cranky lefties -- but Limbaugh loves to lecture and tease his liberal listeners. I know this because I am a longtime listener who needs no Limbaugh Challenge to tune in.
"I learned the value of seeking dissenting views back in the fifth grade, when I had my first political rude awakening. My friends and I were certain that George McGovern was going to be our next president -- and we weren't progressive-school pinkos either. We were God-fearing Baptist-school kids from Whittier, the very town where the man who defeated McGovern, Richard Nixon, went to high school and college. How could I have misread the clear signs of Nixon's landslide? I realized then that I had to open my eyes to a world beyond my own.
"This past election cycle, I listened to Limbaugh almost every day -- switching to Jim Rome or the safe haven of NPR when I needed a break from the bombast. As a member of the non-mainstream media, I find it useful to hear conservative attack strategies being shaped on the air. Less interesting to me are the over-hyped skirmishes between Limbaugh and the Obama administration, which are mostly about ratings and political posturing. I listen for the subtler themes that worm their way into our national dialogue. It was morbidly fascinating to hear Limbaugh plant his father's anti-FDR bias into the bailout debate. The contrarian idea that Franklin Roosevelt actually made the Great Depression worse found its traction on Limbaugh's show and quickly spread to cable news' talking heads.
"You could call Limbaugh our national toxic asset. But if an essential part of being an American is the ability to consider all sides of an issue (a truly liberal thought), then listening to Limbaugh might just be a patriotic act."
Norman Lear Writer, producer and founder of People for the American Way
"Hi, there, Mr. Klavan. I hate to call you wrong from your very first sentence, but I read the L.A. Times and listen to Rush Limbaugh. In fact, I pay what El Rushbo & Co. charge to get transcripts of his show every day, so I can be sure to see in context those 'selected excerpts spoon-fed' me 'by the distortion-mongers of the mainstream media' you write about. I am thoroughly up to date on Mr. Limbaugh and what you label 'his pieces of outrageous hilarity.'
"And as I came across all that hilarity last this week, I could feel my 'scrawny chest swelling with a warm sense of completely unearned righteousness.'
"And, just as you predicted, I turned to my spouse (my third spouse -- you were so kind and not at all self-righteous to assume that we liberals would only have married twice) and said something, but not quite what you thought. I said, 'Oh God, if only I had been given a sense of humor like Mr. Klavan, maybe then I'd see the fun in wanting my president, six weeks in office, to fail in these treacherous times; or the hilarity in labeling as 'phony war veterans' those Iraq vets who lost faith in their leader and that war; or the giggles available in Limbaugh's incessant dumping on the preponderance of scientists, worldwide, who take global warming very seriously.'
"Then, again as you predicted, I 'widen[ed] my eyes and open[ed] my mouth in the universal sign of Liberal Outrage.'
"But here is what else I -- 'a lowdown, yellow-bellied, lily-livered, intellectual coward' -- have to say. I will fight with my life -- and I have done that -- to protect Mr. Limbaugh's right to speak. And your right also, Mr. Klavan, to carry on on his behalf. Which doesn't change the fact that El Rushbo suffers from extreme flatulence of speech, emotion and personality. The 'hilarious' El Rushbo is simply a pompous, self-worshiping blowhard and bully. And you, sir, Mr. Klavan, are silly."
Constance L. RiceCivil rights attorney in Los Angeles
"As yet another liberal, long-time listener, I've formed many opinions about Rush Limbaugh. He is a brilliant circus barker, the perfect cipher for cynics, a masterful agitator of paranoia and a beguiling oracle for the low-information cohort. I suspect that the only human he loathes more than "feminazis" and "limousine liberals" is himself. As with all malignant narcissists with a megaphone, he bears watching. Just think of him as the Father Coughlin of 2008."