The firestorm of rebuke that met Rush Limbaugh's crude characterization of a Georgetown law student who dared to speak in favor of free contraception flashed across the headlines, the blogosphere and Facebook Friday. Such contempt -- he called her a "slut" and a "prostitute" -- appears to have crossed the threshold of what most Americans will tolerate.
But I can't say Limbaugh's words shocked me. This kind of remark is all too familiar in this political season -- or perhaps century -- of dissing and disregard for fact.
It is, after all, less than two weeks since an ESPN producer posted the headline "Chink in the Armor" on the sports network's mobile user platform after Chinese-American basketball phenomenon Jeremy Lin played his first bad game for the New York Knicks. It's only a month since CNN political commentator Roland Martin tweeted anti-gay "jokes" during the Super Bowl.
And the Limbaugh brouhaha broke on the same day my morning Boston Globe told of a new round of fraternity hazing at Dartmouth University so crude and degrading that it led Theatre Professor Peter Hackett to ask the paper, "Why do we have a social system that is from the 19th century?"
Yes, why? The answer, perhaps, is that the hazing and Limbaugh incidents are just the latest sign that if we don't live in the 19th century, plenty of people still appear to long for a time when white males from the right families ruled supreme and everyone else could just damn well get used to it.
One doesn't have to look much past the abuse heaped on our first African-American president to realize that. Barack Obama has been called a socialist (repeatedly), a closet Kenyan Muslim (where's the birth certificate, huh?), a liar (before the joint houses of Congress) and lots more.
Wrote Andrew Rosenthal in a New York Times commentary, "There has been a racist undertone to many of the Republican attacks leveled against President Obama for the last three years, and in this dawning presidential campaign."
Still, the issue posed here is larger than the president and more wide-ranging than the issue of race alone. At least Barack Obama chose to run for office. Sandra Fluke, the third-year law student Limbaugh savaged, merely had the temerity to speak her mind, to support the Obama Administration's call for greater access to insurance-covered birth control for women. She might think twice before she speaks out again.
What perhaps offers some hope is the response to Limbaugh not only from Democrats but from some members of his own party.
Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown, was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying "Rush Limbaugh's comments are reprehensible." (Yes, Brown is up for re-election in a largely blue state, but still.) House Speaker John Boehner's office trotted out a spokesman, who, the LA Times reported, said the speaker "obviously believes the use of those words was inappropriate." And even arch social conservative Rick Santorum reportedly managed to say that Limbaugh was being "absurd."
Incivility is too nice a name for incidents like this and others in recent weeks. They are bullying. They are bigotry. And they will continue to stretch at the country's fragile fabric as long as Americans in positions to say and do something stand back and stay quiet.
In his book Integrity, Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter wrote that an integral person can't stand pat after discerning right from wrong. Integrity means owning up to what we believe to be right -- acting on it and then speaking up to explain our actions.
Scrolling the headlines, I'd say on most days we have a way to go before living up to Carter's standard. ESPN fired the producer of that racist headline about Lin and CNN suspended Roland Martin. But neither network said much more about the incidents. It took Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney until Friday night to say anything about Rush Limbaugh's vitriol, and then he managed only "I'll just say... it's not the language I would have used." And Dartmouth President Jim Kim seems to be trying to thread a needle on the hazing incident, suggesting, according to the Globe, that any effort to ban the Greek system at the college would merely push the problem underground and off-campus, where drinking and driving would pose greater dangers to students.
Perhaps. But at least the college's message would be clear and the new risks would be to the bulliers, not the bullied.
Bullies, like those hazers, like Limbaugh, can only thrive when others stay mute. Silence tells the haters and hecklers they've got a green light. So let's make some noise.
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