It's been more than a week since Rush Limbaugh verbally assaulted an American citizen who merely exercised her democratic right to testify before Congress. His words were disgusting, vile, mean spirited, misogynistic, inane, and despite Limbaugh's dubious claims, not remotely funny in any conceivable way.
Yet I am opposed to the organized efforts of several organizations to urge advertisers to boycott Limbaugh's show, and to demand that his show be cancelled.
I stand with the ACLU on this. And with Bill Maher, whom I stood up for back in September 2001, when advertisers were urged to boycott his Politically Incorrect show after he made some controversial comments. My thoughts were published in a letter to the New York Times:
"The television stations that drop ''Politically Incorrect,'' and the advertisers that boycott the show, are the ones guilty of a lack of patriotism, not its host, Bill Maher. It would be chilling if one of the first casualties of our war for freedom was our right to debate all opinions vigorously, no matter how unpopular, here at home. Whatever the nature of Mr. Maher's misinterpreted remarks, his rights and those of his guests to exercise freedom of speech should not be silenced."
I don't equate Limbaugh's words with anything Maher or any other comedian has said. Including David Letterman, whose Sarah Palin jokes in June 2009 had conservative groups calling for an advertiser boycott. At that time, I wrote this in The Huffington Post:
"Letterman's Palin jokes were like all jokes. Some people thought they were funny. Some people didn't think they were funny. And some people were offended. The same three reactions all comedians, including myself, can expect. In the past, if you didn't think someone on television was funny, you had a surefire option. Turn the channel. Lately, some Americans seem to be ignoring their remote in favor of an advertiser boycott."
The true test of defending freedom of speech is whether you defend speech that is hateful and totally without any redeeming value whatsoever, like what Rush Limbaugh said. Because once you start making exceptions to free speech, you are on a path to losing the right to speak freely altogether.
After Maher's remarks in 2001, then White House press secretary Ari Fleischer uttered these chilling words, "All Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do."
If liberals and conservatives continue to silence words and views they find offensive, through advertiser boycotts and firings, we will become a fearful, less democratic and far less free nation than we are now.
Instead of focusing our ire on Limbaugh's comments, we should have focused much more closely on the shockingly weak and inadequate responses to those comments by Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. These three men have no problem using venomous language to mischaracterize the president, and gleefully demean each other with harsh personal attacks. Yet all three brushed off Limbaugh's reprehensible words, with Romney saying "I wouldn't have used those words," implying he agreed with the sentiments but might have replaced "slut" with "whore." And Santorum and Gingrich, who piously invoke morality and religion, however insincerely, at every turn, couldn't summon the moral fiber to at least echo John McCain who called Limbaugh's words "unacceptable."
What Rush Limbaugh said told us more about Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich, than it did anything new about himself. There was a time earlier in his career that one could see the broadcasting chops and skill Limbaugh had, despite his often disturbing and offensive words. But as the bar has been lowered for political discourse in this country, Limbaugh's rants have become increasingly desperate, vile and devoid of even the slightest hint of humor or absurdity that could sometimes be heard in his early days.
It says something troubling about our country that Rush Limbaugh makes $30 million a year and has millions of loyal listeners. It would say something even more troubling about our country, if we use the free market to silence voices we hate.
Already the backlash has begun. Greta Van Susteren called the very funny and smart comedian Louis CK a "pig" and urged a boycott of the Radio Television Correspondents Dinner, which Louis CK was scheduled to host. Yesterday, he announced he would be withdrawing from the event.
For all of our bluster about the lack of freedom of speech in other countries, we're not doing a very good job here at home either.
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