For purely academic reasons, I’ve never understood the argument that we should ignore Rush Limbaugh because he’s simply an entertainer who says outrageous things that millions of people are merely entertained by.  I didn’t read the complete works of Silas Weir Mitchell because they were good—they are almost uniformly awful—I read them because they were popular.  I was interested not in the content of his thought—it is almost uniformly mediocre—but in why his contemporaries found it so wildly appealing.  If you want to learn which ideas and ideologies literate Americans in 1900 found comforting, you do not consult Henry James: you turn to the inartistic novels that parroted their prejudices back to them in a language they already understood.  So when people say that we should dismiss Limbaugh on the grounds that he only says outrageous things to sell his product, I’m never quite sure why they’re more concerned with Limbaugh’s motivations than the fact that millions of Americans are buying what he’s selling.

Ignoring whatever millions of Americans are buying distorts your understanding of the American political scene whether it be 2009 or 1909.  If you work on popular culture in 1909, you are limited to tracking the flight of a given idea—but if you track a given idea in 2009, your work can actually change its trajectory.  You might not know exactly where exactly that idea will land yet, but you can do the political calculus required to figure out where it came from and where it’s likely to strike.   If it feels like you’re tilting window fans at cannon balls from half a continent away, remember what they say about rare Chinese butterflies flapping their wings: they are less likely to be minuten-pinned by mad lepidopterists—which is beside the point.  The point, as one prominent Beatles apologist recently argued, is that cultural studies can be an important fan so long as we aim it at the right cannonball.

In this case, the important issue is not that Limbaugh is a racist who makes racist statements, but that those statements resonate with his audience so powerfully. Consider, for example, that he feels no compulsion to qualify his sarcastic call for segregated busing: