Monday, March 5, 2012
Looking Forward in Anger
Given his history, Rush Limbaugh's excoriation of Sandra Fluke can hardly have come as a surprise. He thrives on being incendiary, delights in upsetting rational people by using such absurd language as "feminazi," and shrugs off any revelation of his vast hypocrisy. He's rich and has a powerful voice – presumably any detractors are just jealous. And of course they are liberal, which in his mind means they don't count.
The excrement that shoots out of Limbaugh's mouth with such force and regularity boasts a particularly impressive vileness. He may not be a clever man, but being unencumbered by reticence, respect, or decency, he's managed to build a platform and audience that guarantees he receives press attention in a way his social predecessors – working short-wave radio or cranking out spew-filled pages on mimeograph – didn't know they could dream of.
Limbaugh, along with Bill O'Reilly, who echoed many of his comments with a modicum less repugnance, has enjoyed his position at the top of the food chain. This time, however, he may be looking at a fall. He and his cadre of grouchy rich white men are doubling down in their attacks on women and minorities because they are terrified. As they ought to be. Supposed historian Newt Gingrich might just know an historical aberrance when he is one.
There were liberal movements prior to the 1960s. The union movements that began in the 19th century were one of the most powerful – during which women agitating for more rights in the workplace were referred to in much the same language used by Limbaugh and O'Reilly. Impugning a woman's sexual morality is ever the first and best means by which a terrified plutocrat attempts to silence her – it's no accident that women accused of witchcraft were also said to be sexual consorts of the devil.
The shock of the Depression in the 1930s gave rise to another liberal movement, wherein government regulations were placed upon the banks and government stepped in to give people real assistance and lay safeguards against destitution.
But in the 1960s, the power structure changed. As did the rules. Black people, always meant to remain within their borders and do as they were told, insisted upon their equality and humanity and that they wouldn't settle for anything less, even if meant being beaten, abused, jailed, and killed. They weren't going to settle for being second-class anymore.
Gay people did much the same thing, shocking the establishment with the Stonewall Riots and insisting that they would no longer be complicit in their own invisibility. They were proud of who they were and after a few thousand years of society telling them they should be ashamed, they weren't going to hear it anymore. It was time for society to broaden its voice.
Then women stood up and demand that they be granted full citizenship within the social and power structure as well. One of the most powerful weapons in their arsenal was the legal access to contraceptives, made possible in part by the ruling in Griswold vs. Connecticut (1965). Being able to control their fertility allowed women to storm battlements as never before. Even despite the prejudices against working mothers, marriage and the children that often follow are no longer automatic ejectors from the workplace.
This terrified the white, male, and powerful. It was one thing to have blacks, whom they probably only dealt with when they needed their shoes shined, or gays, whom they didn't think they dealt with at all, stand up and demand equal treatment. It was quite another thing to have their wives (or girlfriends, sisters, daughters, mothers), of whom they expected unquestioned loyalty and solicitude, start to say words like "no."
As for Limbaugh, he's made a career by being offensive, so it's interesting that only now is he hemorrhaging advertisers. Even despite his apology – worded with all the sincerity mustered by an indignant four-year-old – the flak is not dying down. He now bleats that he's merely an entertainer, that this was a joke. Quite the turnaround from someone who has effectively insisted that he be consulted in the makeup of the GOP platform. One imagines that if people take him at his word and think of him only as an entertainer, he will be displeased.
However, what was it about this bit of vitriol that has stirred up such a powerful counter-protest? Perhaps women and anyone else who thinks Griswold v. Connecticut was a proud moment in history has finally had enough. They laid into their supposed ally, the Komen Foundation, when that group turned on them - and won. If history is any indicator, more victories are ahead. You don't have to look back to the Civil Rights Movement or the Stonewall Riots to understand how anger is coalescing into action. Look more recently, to 1987 and ACT-UP.
ACT-UP – AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power was formed because a tipping point had been reached. AIDS patients and activists were tired of being at best ignored and at worst belittled, abused, attacked. They were done with being polite and playing by the rules to affect change. Instead, they engaged in civil disobedience. The forcefulness of their actions and messaging finally spurred real political action on AIDS, improving the lives of patients and channeling more funding and focus to developing a cure, so that today those living with HIV aren't living under a death sentence. As if this victory wasn't enough, it was arguably this re-politicizing of the gay civil rights movement that helped make marriage, employment, housing, benefits, and adoption rights such a regular part of the national and international conversation today. Anger begets action, which begets change.
And change is inevitable.