Saturday, 19 September 2009

He may have said, “[w]e need segregated buses,” but that doesn’t mean he’s a racist. (This, however, does.) 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: RUSH: Well, did he say why, in Obama’s America, that incident with the white kid getting beat up on the black school bus was not racially motivated? CALLER: I didn’t hear him comment about that. No, sir. RUSH: Because we’ve seen the videotape. Have you seen the videotape? CALLER: Sure. RUSH: We can’t hear what’s being said. CALLER: No. RUSH: So we don’t know what obvious taunts this lone white student was dishing out to the whole bus. CALLER: Right. RUSH: We don’t know what obvious taunts. CALLER: Right. RUSH: Worse than the obvious verbal taunts, we all know the racism that was in the kid’s mind. I mean Newsweek magazine says he was born a racist. So you know the white kid is sitting there thinking N-word and all kinds of things being surrounded by...
Conservatives are outraged over an actual outrage? Color me impressed. It may have taken awhile, but thanks to Patrick Courrielche’s exposé at, of all places, Big Hollywood, conservatives are positively fuming over the Bush Administration‘s decision to funnel $2.2 billion through the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives into programs that specifically support the President’s ideological and policy commitments, like the Abstinence Education Program, designed to “enable states to provide abstinence education and mentoring, counseling, and adult supervision to promote abstinence from sexual activity.” Conservatives are rightly upset with a speech Bush delivered at the 2004 White House National Conference on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, in which he said “[i]t’s hard to be a faith-based program if you can’t practice faith [and] the message to you is, we’re changing the culture here in America.” “It’s hard to read his comments as anything but a call for groups to engage in a partisan campaign on behalf of the Bush Administration’s policy agenda,” argued John Hinderaker. Nick Gillespie agreed, saying that “[i]f you’ve ever wondered—and worried—about where government support of the arts leads, look no further than the full transcript of an August 10, 2009 telecon[ference call] between an official at the National Endowment for the Arts and a group of ‘independent artists from around the country.’” Wait wait wait—I thought conservatives were upset because the White House created an office, installed it five federal agencies, then used them to fund a clearly partisan policy agenda to the tune of $2.2 billion. You mean to tell me all those links are about an August 10th conference call that tried to wrangle up support for the current President’s National Day of Service—a call in which not one cent of the NEA’s $155 million budget was dispensed or even offered? They are. All the outrage centers around a conference call designed, in the words soon-to-be-becked* Yosi Sergant, “to raise the visibility” for a program whose purpose is to encourage “all Americans and others throughout the world to voluntarily perform at least one good deed or another service activity on the anniversary of 9/11 each year, and on other days marked by terrorist events.” The problem, it seems, is that the NEA is supposed to be above partisanship, and supporting the President’s United We Serve initiative is seen by conservatives to be a partisan issue. Here are some of its highly partisan goals: We want to make Americans’ lives better by asking everybody to participate in shaping the life of their community and make the quality of life better. Clearly, “making Americans’ lives better” is a partisan issue. Which would be acceptable, were the administration not being so heavy-handed: [H]ow do we move the people who look to each of you for guidance to get involved? We have to leave that to you because nobody else knows how to do it better than you do[.] Clearly, dictating that individual organizations ought to do what they think is appropriate in a manner of their own choosing is but one step from installing Obama as...

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