The people who want to drive Rush Limbaugh off the air were not assuaged or persuaded by his apology over the weekend. They say he was not sincere: He only apologized for calling a Georgetown University law student a “slut” and a “prostitute” because of pressure from advertisers.
Well of course he wasn’t sincere. And of course he was only apologizing to pacify advertisers, which were getting pressure to pressure Limbaugh by these very critics. Oh, there might have been a political calculation too — that he’d gone too far for the good of his ratings or his celebrityhood. But any apology induced in these circumstances is almost by definition insincere. You can’t demand a public recantation and then expect sincerity along with the humble pie.
These umbrage episodes have become the principal narrative line of our politics, and they are always orgies of insincerity. Pols declare that they are distraught, offended, outraged by some stray remark by a political opponent, or judicial nominee, or radio talk-show host. They demand apology, firing, crucifixion. The target resists for a few days, then, if the fuss hasn’t blown over, caves in and steps down or apologizes. Occasionally they survive, as Limbaugh probably will, but wounded, and more careful going forward.
More careful means less interesting. Limbaugh is under no obligation to say offensive things just to keep me entertained. Still, it would be a pity if he stopped.
And of course the insincerity is on both sides. The pursuers pretend to be horrified and “saddened” by this unexpected turn of events. In fact, they are delighted. Why not? Their opponent has committed the cardinal political sin: a gaffe.
A gaffe, as someone once said, is when a politician tells the truth. This is a bit imprecise. The term “politician” covers any political actor, certainly including Limbaugh. And the troublesome statement needn’t be the truth, as it certainly wasn’t in this case: more like “the truth about what he or she is really thinking.” The typical gaffe is what they used to call a “Freudian slip.” But, with all due respect to Freud, why should something a politician says by accident — and soon wishes he hadn’t, whether true or not — automatically be taken as a better sign of his or her real thinking than something he or she says on purpose?
People have the right not to buy a product or service they don’t wish to buy (except, of course, health insurance, but that’s another story). Limbaugh’s advertisers are free to transfer their loyalty to Glenn Beck if they wish, and Limbaugh’s critics are free to deny themselves the rapturous comforts of Sleep Number beds.
Nevertheless, the self-righteous parade out the door by Limbaugh’s advertisers is hard to stomach. Had they never listened to him before, in all the years they had been paying for commercials on his show? His sliming of a barely known law student may be a new low — even after what he’s said about Nancy Pelosi and Michelle Obama — but it’s not a huge gap. “We hope that our action … will ultimately contribute to a more civilized public discourse,” said the chief executive of a company called Carbonite, as it withdrew its ads. Ultimately? Where was this hope for “civilized discourse” a week ago?
Consumers who are avoiding products by Limbaugh’s advertisers are engaged, whether they know it or not, in what’s known in labor law as a secondary boycott. This means boycotting a company you have no grievance with, except that it does business with someone you do have a grievance with. Secondary boycotts are generally frowned on, or in some cases (not this one) actually illegal, on the grounds that enough is enough. And there’s sense to that outside the labor context too. Do we want conservatives organizing boycotts of advertisers on MSNBC, or either side boycotting companies that do business with other companies who advertise on Limbaugh’s orRachel Maddow’s shows?
As we all know, Limbaugh’s 1st Amendment rights aren’t involved here — freedom of speech means freedom from interference by the government. But the spirit of the 1st Amendment, which is that suppressing speech is bad, still applies. If you don’t care for something Limbaugh has said, say why and say it better. If you’re on the side of truth, you have a natural advantage.
And if you’re taking on Limbaugh, you’re probably on the side of truth.
Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, is a Bloomberg View columnist.