The people who want to drive Rush Limbaugh off the air are 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 — who were getting pressured 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. If they wanted a sincere apology, Limbaugh’s critics would have had to defend his right to make these offensive remarks, and then attempt to change his mind using nothing but sweet reason. Go ahead and try.
These umbrage episodes that have become the principal narrative line of our politics are 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 caves in and steps down or apologizes. Occasionally they survive, as Limbaugh probably will, but wounded and more careful from now on.
More careful means less interesting. Limbaugh is under no obligation to stop saying offensive things just to keep me entertained. Still, it’s a pity.
Of course, the insincerity is on both sides. The pursuers all 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 Rush. 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 or she never said, 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 Rush 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,” said David Friend, the chief executive of a company called Carbonite, “will ultimately contribute to a more civilized public discourse,” as the company 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 upon, or in some cases (not this one) actually illegal, on the grounds that enough is enough. 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 show, or Rachel Maddow’s?
As we all know, Limbaugh’s First Amendment rights aren’t involved here — freedom of speech means freedom from interference by the government. But the spirit of the First Amendment, which is that suppressing speech is bad, still applies. If you don’t care for something Rush 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 Rush Limbaugh, you’re probably on the side of truth.
Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist.