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.
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?