One of my near-and-dear sent me an email about the “diabolical and destructive” acts of Rush Limbaugh, who is “a threat to our nations’ future.” It concluded, “We should all send letters of condemnation to every station which gives him a voice” and demand equal time. I wrote back:
Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. I think that’s an important point to keep in mind when thinking about how to deal with him. It’s absurd that so many people take his rants seriously. But that’s because they are confused about the difference between entertainment and reasoned discourse; they don’t have the experience to tell the difference. Like most American voters, they make their political decisions on the basis of how a candidate, or a pundit, makes them feel about themselves. They don’t think much about the community or the nation. They think about how they expect to feel if so-and-so is elected or such-and-such happens.
Limbaugh poses as a political soothsayer, but he knows he’s just an act. His livelihood depends on keeping people stirred up, one way or another. He thrives on attacks from political opponents. What he can’t take as easily is ridicule.
Probably no one ever did him more harm than David Letterman, who once had Limbaugh on his show as a guest. After several cordial exchanges, Letterman asked, “Do you ever ask yourself, ‘Am I just full of hot gas?’” The audience roared, and Limbaugh was speechless for most of a minute. Probably the longest silence he’d kept in a public setting since 1982.
Actually, it’s likely that Limbaugh himself has done the most to discredit Rush Limbaugh, with the revelations of his drug abuse and general dishonesty. The mainstream media did a lot for him by taking his opinions about the 2008 election seriously, repeating his really quite outrageous recommendations to listeners. But whenever he’s backed into a corner (meaning his audience is in decline) you can count on Limbaugh to try something outrageous to win back the spotlight.
I think the best way to deal with Rush Limbaugh and those like him is to ignore them or mock them — not as evil geniuses, which they aren’t really, but as silly egoists with nothing to say that’s worth hearing. After all, the only thing they dread is becoming unpopular and losing their audiences.
There’s nothing original about my instant analysis. Since then I’ve thought of a 600-year-old precedent. It’s a remark by Thomas More: “The devil … the prowde spirite … cannot endure to be mocked.” (In the 1940s C.S. Lewis chose it as the motto for The Screwtape Letters.)
So let us grant for a moment that Rush Limbaugh really is diabolical. In that case he wants either your submission or your hatred. Don’t give him either. Laugh at him, or turn your back and get on with your life. But don’t give him the kind of attention that assumes he’s significant.