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By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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The Deep Resentment of Having to Think About It: Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke

This is a small point, but still worth making: Rush Limbaugh didn’t attack Sandra Fluke because of her or anyone else’s sexual behavior. Given his personal history — and his more general ideological proclivities — it’s fair to say that he is vigorously protective of behaviors which are, as a function of what they are, fundamentally dependent on women who behave precisely in the manner of the straw-woman he is attacking. That’s not what this is about. Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut” because she asserted her right to speak publicly about and make publicly thinkable a set of experiences and problems that he has a very direct and personal interest in excluding from public space.

The broader ideological question which Congress was ostensibly discussing — the question of whether a religious institution can object to covering forms of medical care on the basis of religious belief — is also a red herring. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity neither know, nor care, about the intricate and unstable conjunction of government, insurance, and medicine that might make this a tricky debate if grown-ups were ever to debate it. And the fact that Limbaugh doesn’t even understand how female contraception works doesn’t diminish his rhetorical position a whit. On the contrary, he is defending precisely his right not to know how it works (or what things like Ovarian Cysts are), and the right of those for and to whom he speaks to be similarly ignorant. He is defending his right for that to be a woman’s problem, one which he (and a “we” constituted in his image, as his public) doesn’t need to be concerned. And so he needs to attack Sandra Fluke, personally, all the more because she wasn’t even going to talk about herself. By speaking on behalf of “women,” she threatened to render “women” a member of the body politic. Slut-shaming her — making it about her, personally — changes the subject from a generalizable woman’s public concern to a specific set of personal desires (which he can then moralize about, and use to silence her).

Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke, in short, because her voice threatens to reconstitute the nature of the American public: if she were heard — if the specificity of woman’s health were publicly speakable in the hallowed halls of Congress — then we could no longer pretend that this is simply an abstract and legalistic question of “religion,” “government,” and “medicine.” It would suddenly be apparent that the female public and the male public actually have different interests and concerns when it comes to issues like sex and contraception, that contraception means something different to people with different reproductive organs. The fact that (heterosexual) men’s enjoyment of consequence-free sex is dependent on the privilege of those consequences being borne by someone else might become thinkable, if those “someone else’s” had a public platform to speak about it.

“A constant staple of 1950s American situation comedies…was jokes about the impossibility of understanding women. The jokes  (always of course told by men) always represented women’s logic as fundamentally alien  and incomprehensible. One never had the impression the women in question had any  trouble understanding men. The reasons are obvious: women had no choice but to  understand men; this was the heyday of a certain image of the patriarchal family, and  women with no access to their own income or resources had little choice but to spend a  great deal of time and energy understanding what their menfolk thought was going on.  Patriarchal families of this sort are, as generations of feminists have emphasized, most  certainly forms of structural violence; their norms are indeed sanctioned by threat of  physical harm in endless subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And this kind of rhetoric about  the mysteries of womankind appears to be a perennial feature of them. Generations of  women novelists—Virginia Woolf comes most immediately to mind—have also  documented the other side of such arrangements: the constant efforts women end up  having to expend in managing, maintaining, and adjusting the egos of oblivious and self important  men, involving an continual work of imaginative identification or what I’ve  called interpretive labor. This carries over on every level. Women are always expected to  imagine what things look like from a male point of view. Men are almost never expected  to reciprocate. So deeply internalized is this pattern of behavior that many men react to  the suggestion that they might do otherwise as if it were an act of violence in itself. A  popular exercise among High School creative writing teachers in America, for example,  is to ask students to imagining they have been transformed, for a day, into someone of the  opposite sex, and describe what that day might be like. The results, apparently, are  uncannily uniform. The girls all write long and detailed essays that clearly show they  have spent a great deal of time thinking about the subject. Half of the boys usually refuse  to write the essay entirely. Those who do make it clear they have not the slightest conception what being a teenage girl might be like, and deeply resent having to think about it.” –David Graeber, “Beyond Power/Knowledge: an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity”

This, after all, is why “privilege” is so importantly different from power or bigotry: privilege must remain ignorant of itself, because it’s the right to enjoy benefits which you aren’t even aware that others get denied. And in this sense, while Rush was and is indirectly policing the boundaries of where and how a woman’s reproductive organs come to be of public concern — and real human suffering is indeed at stake — it’s the boundaries of whose concern gets to be publicly voiced and heard that concerns him, who gets to be heard when the public debates itself (as it inevitably will when we start talking about things like religious freedom and the state). And this is also why it’s not surprising that Rick Santorum wants nothing to do with what Limbaugh is doing, precisely because Limbaugh is simply taking Santorum’s own position to its logical conclusion. Santorum needs people to overlook the reductio ad absurdum Limbaugh represent — to misunderstand it so that they can still think he might represent them — but Limbaugh is in the business of policing the boundaries between “us” and “them,” of describing “them” in shameful terms which expel them from the public that “we” see ourselves as part of. The more bitter and contested this expulsion can be made to be, the more effectively he plays his role as culture warrior.

In fact, because it’s the function of a right wing talk “radio personality” like Limbaugh to embody and give voice to a particular set of political considerations — so that it becomes a “personality” — he only has the legitimacy he has, as public voice, to the extent that voices like Fluke’s can be made to lack legitimacy. She becomes a complicating and problematic presence for him because he needs things to seem satisfyingly simple. So she must be excluded, de-personned, rendered a type (“slut”) instead of a subjectivity. And it’s to the extent that we need him to do that work for us — to enable our privilege — that we’ll continue to take him seriously, and he’ll continue to have an audience: we choose to listen to him because it gives us permission not to listen to her.

In once sense, then, Ta-Nehisi Coates is completely right to see this as a “normalization of cruelty”: one can only be cruel to those whose pain one is socially shielded from feeling, whose suffering one is categorically ignorant of. Rush is defending the privilege of being ignorant of her pain, since the pain of a woman with Ovarian Cysts becomes invisible as the consequences of contraception get read exclusively in terms of personal morality. But in a much more direct sense, he’s policing the discourse so that she doesn’t get to talk about it, so that she can’t make his cruelty visible. And in this sense, it only works to the extent that it doesn’t register as either normal or cruel. When whatever consequences a public policy has are seen to be borne by the individual in question because of her own actions, they aren’t normal (since they’re a special punishment for her behavior) and they can’t be seen to be cruel (since she did it to herself). Personalizing it makes the pain become invisible, and its cause.

For this reason, I want to echo what Melissa McEwan observed about Barack Obama’s characteristically careful response to the imbroglio: exactly the way Mitt Romney refused to answer questions about it (reportedly walking away from the reporter who asked him), there is very little to praise in his private phone call of support. McEwan:

As a personal gesture, it was extraordinary. [But, our President] who still has not given a single address dedicated to the issue of reproductive rights, who failed to mention reproductive rights in his State of the Union address, and who cannot even bring himself to include reproductive rights in his Women’s History Month proclamation, instead calls Sandra Fluke to thank her ”for speaking out about the concerns of American women,” because he evidently has not considered the many ways in which treating the feminist/womanist fight for reproductive rights as “woman’s work” is some fucked-up irony.

Limbaugh’s attacks might be personally damaging and personal in their invective, but this issue is not personal to Sandra Fluke. Indeed, since making it personal is precisely Limbaugh’s objective, the fact that the President is content that it remain an issue personal to her is precisely the opposite of what an ally would do. For while the president might have reached out to Fluke, what has he done for the nameless friend that Sandra Fluke was actually advocating for, or for the many women whose health is actually at risk?

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27 Responses to “The Deep Resentment of Having to Think About It: Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke”

  1. Mordicai says:

    & all of this is in context as “a joke,” or “entertainment,” so he can always claim a layer of protection from that– he didn’t MEAN it, he’s just PERFORMING, he’s just saying the thing everyone is THINKING. Blech, ugh, awful.

  2. Brilliant. Thank you for this incisive post. Retaining the shape of the body politic by “not having to think about it,” — yes, that is precisely what’s going on.

  3. Well, it’s not personal to Sandra Fluke AS LONG AS SHE WANTS OTHER PEOPLE TO PAY FOR IT, that much is true. All those words and not even a momentary acknowledgement that this issue only exists because she wants taxpayers to pay for it. If you want government, the public and talk radio to stay out of your private business, maybe keeping it private in the first place is the secret.

  4. MrJM says:

    No one has ever accused you of being, bright have they, Mikey?

    – MrJM

  5. MrJM says:

    The jury won’t care if it was a “joke”.

    – MrJM

  6. Spiny Norman says:

    What makes you think Limbaugh’s primary sexual “proclivities” have anything to do with women?

  7. Spiny Norman says:

    Well, if they have so accused him, he’s doing everything possible to prevent any future accusations.

  8. Oh well, she wants her insurance to cover it, which doesn’t involve anyone else paying for it because THAT money comes from magical elves and doesn’t cost anyone else a tuppence. And of course, it’s not like Congress just passed legislation which will involve government taking over the entire health care sector or anything like that. Thanks for the keen economic insights, you pale, faceless ghouls of too many comment sections.

  9. Jury? What charge do you think he’ll be brought up on? Or do you imagine she’ll sue him for libel? Maybe he can read the results of discovery on the air.

    Thanks for the keen legal insights etc.

  10. Spiny Norman says:

    I take it back. Gebert’s still emitting raw, undiluted stupid.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Where does this free health insurance you speak of come from?

  12. Anonymous says:

    The legal word on the street is slander. Ms. Fluke was not a public figure, especially since the Congressional committee refused to allow her (or any woman’s) testimony, so calling her a “slut” and “prostitute” who should have sex on tape for Limbaugh’s pleasure? Actionable.

  13. Inverness says:

    It is so refreshing to read such content from a man. The sidebar about understanding women, and boys’ frequent unwillingness to relate to girls remains relevant. It’s important for males to explore gender more, especially when being female in fundamentalist USA is becoming a battleground for access to basic healthcare for women.

  14. Beleck3 says:

    exactly, dehumanize the “Other” and the Republican mantra, ” is the goal and always has been.

    the war on America is a well thought out and planned action. this just doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

    that there isn’t more pushback is what i find scary.

  15. Jan Rodak says:

    Yes, patiently waiting for the so-called “Pro-Choice President” to surface. Of course, that will be difficult following his schlong-sucking of the Catholic Church and his fetus-worshipping Congressman, Bart Stupak, in order to pass a half-assed healthcare “reform” bill.

  16. Anonymous says:

    So your response to not knowing what you’re talking about is to double down? Insurance is about pooled risk: she pays in through tuition, partly, and expects the insurance to cover medical costs. Your argument could be used against insurance paying for anything; it fundamentally denies the purpose of insurance. And it says a lot about you that when informed that she doesn’t want the tax payers to pay for it, you just kept charging ahead.

    Also, the reason we say it’s not personal for her is that she was talking about another woman’s inability to receive hormonal birth control for ovarian cysts–I guarantee that you don’t have an issue with group insurance plans covering specifically male forms of cancer, and that you don’t go around accusing male cancer patients of thinking that the money comes from “magical elves.” (Again, do you understand insurance?)

    Finally, this:

    ” And of course, it’s not like Congress just passed legislation which will involve government taking over the entire health care sector or anything like that”

    is not even close to what happened.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Wow. Absolutely brilliant and thought-provoking.

  18. NotYourAverageBear says:

    Her insurance, for which, regardless of how she comes to getting it, she pays into and expects to receive benefit from. She doesn’t expect to receive this benefit from taxpayers; this is a reasonable, expected benefit of having a health insurance.

    Please go back under your bridge.

  19. NotYourAverageBear says:

    If you say false things about someone else that hurt their credibility or ability to work, it’s known as slander. If you print it, it’s libel. So yes, he said things about her that were untrue (particularly the part about the taxpayers paying for her to have sex…. ummm, she’s a lesbian. I think not.), which could legitimately affect her ability to get a job. It’s a slam dunk case, and I hope she DOES sue him. I hope one of her fellow Georgetown alum lawyers takes it pro bono just to let Rush have it where it hurts.

    Again, please, your bridge. I’m sure it’s lonely under there without you.

  20. LeCalabro says:

    This discussion is not about cancer. It is about a young women who wants free (paid for by the US Gov.) pregnancy protection items when and if she or other women engage in penetration sex, mostly out of marriage.

  21. Annapolitan says:

    Libel isn’t so much “print” as it is “publish.” To radio broadcast a defamation is libel.

    Also, the lesbian spoken of by Ms. Fluke was a women whom she was testifying about. Ms. Fluke did not say she was herself a lesbian.

  22. Rek LeCounte says:

    “For while the president might have reached out to Fluke, what has he done for the nameless friend that Sandra Fluke was actually advocating for, or for the many women whose health is actually at risk?”

    I think he authorized and defended the policy change that created this whole mess in the first place. If another woman were to find herself in a similar situation to that of Fluke’s friend in 2013, she would presumably be able to get the care she needs without breaking the bank. Thank you, Mr. President.

  23. Shiva81 says:

    thank you for this incisive analysis.

  24. Truth Has No Agenda says:

    Sandra Fluke has signal handily will kill Obamacare. People who might have been for Obamacare now see how the federal government will force people/organizations/companies to do things they do not want to do.

    So, we should thank her for killing Obamacare. Plus she set back women’s issues by decades. Here is an elitist Georgetown future lawyer who will be a 1%’er who still start earning on average $160,000 a year to START but she made American think she was a VICTIM and needs taxpayers to pay for things she should and is very capable of paying it for herself.

    There are real people who need real help. She is taking away from them to support herself. She is a stuck up 30-year old elitist Georgetown universality who can’t do anything for herself. What an idiot.

  25. Lwheeler says:

    Did you bother to watch or read a transcript of her testimony, or have you simply decided Rush Is Right?

  26. Lwheeler says:


  27. Anonymous says:

    You’re welcome!

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