The legendary right-wing radio jockey Rush Limbaugh never lacks for attention. But it’s rare for him to be the center of intellectual history discourse. And it’s even less common for him to be the subject of a sonnet written by a respected intellectual historian. But that’s what happened this week when Wilfred McClay, the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, friend of USIH, and author of the award winning The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, offered up an unqualified defense of the (in)famous radio jockey in this month’s edition of Commentary. McClay’s essay, “How to Understand Rush Limbaugh,” has gained wide attention among liberal intellectuals thanks to Jonathan Chait’s response over at The New Republic, where he charges McClay with ignoring inconvenient facts that might complicate his “ode to the goodness of Rush Limbaugh.”
Although I largely agree with Chait’s rather harsh assessment, let me begin with where I think McClay is right. He argues that liberal intellectuals schizophrenically charge Limbaugh with being a conservative puppet master and with being a drug-addled “big fat idiot.” I think McClay is right here. Most liberals don’t get Limbaugh’s appeal, in part because they never listen to him and generally lack curiosity about him. As someone who listens to Limbaugh’s radio program semi-regularly, I understand why he’s the most popular radio host in the nation. Limbaugh is a comedian who doubles as a political judo master in that he almost always successfully turns the tables on his liberal detractors. Take last year when the Obama administration thought it strategically wise, not to mention subtly comedic, to use Limbaugh as its whipping boy, to tie Obama’s congressional opponents to the polemical radio host, as if Limbaugh would act as an albatross on the Republican Party. Well, as Limbaugh might ask, who’s laughing now?
But though McClay accurately analyzes liberal myopia regarding Limbaugh, his understanding of Limbaugh’s place in the larger political and cultural context is equally myopic. Here’s a taste:
Without Limbaugh’s influence, talk radio might well have become a dreary medium of loud voices, relentless anger, and seething resentment, the sort of thing that the New York screamer Joe Pyne had pioneered in the 50s and 60s—“go gargle with razor blades,” he liked to tell his callers as he hung up on them—and that one can still see pop up in some of Limbaugh’s lesser epigones. Or it might have descended to the sometimes amusing but corrosive nonstop vulgarity of a Howard Stern. Limbaugh himself can be edgy, though almost always within PG-rated boundaries. But what he gave talk radio was a sense of sheer fun, of lightness, humor, and wit, whether indulging in his self-parodying Muhammad Ali–like braggadocio, drawing on his vast array of American pop-cultural reference points, or, in moving impromptu mini-sermons, reminding his listeners of the need to stay hopeful, work hard, and count their blessings as Americans. In such moments, and in many other moments besides, he reminds one of the affirmative spirit of Ronald Reagan and, like Reagan, reminds his listeners of the better angels of their nature. He transmutes the anger and frustration of millions of Americans into something more constructive.
More constructive? Chait documents some of the ways in which Limbaugh has been less than constructive, such as hyping up conspiracies that Obama is a foreigner out to destroy the United States from within:
All right, little Barry is back in Indonesia, and they’re all happy over there. Little Barry Soetoro is back and they’re all happy over there in Indonesia. In fact, he was someplace in India, he was introduced by somebody from Kenya, and the woman says, “As a fellow Kenyan, Mr. President,” of course everybody looked the other way, “What do you mean fellow Kenyan, we don’t want to hear this,” and now little Barry is back.
Chait also addresses Limbaugh’s very real record of race baiting, of stroking the egos and stoking the anxieties of whites in the manner of George Wallace. This has been an easy sell with a black man occupying the Oval Office. A recent tidbit:
You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, “Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on,” and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he’s white.
By ignoring Limbaugh’s less than constructive provocations, McClay’s Commentary article positions him as a conservative culture warrior, rather than a dispassionate, scholarly chronicler. Which is fine for several reasons. First, I’m not one of those rah-rah objectivity types. Objectivity is overrated. Second, McClay obviously brackets off his serious scholarship, on display in his books and at the most recent USIH conference, from his political commentary (or, at least, I bracket them off in my mind). And third, I would not begrudge McClay the larger audience he will gain by writing for Commentary, or from being “heartily” endorsed by Limbaugh over the air (which he was).
That said, some intellectual contradictions need exploration. McClay concludes his Commentary essay as follows:
The critics may be correct that the flourishing of talk radio is a sign of something wrong in our culture. But they mistake the effect for the cause. Talk radio is not the cause, but the corrective. In our own time, and in the person of Rush Limbaugh, along with others of his talk-radio brethren, a problem of long-standing in our culture has reached a critical stage: the growing loss of confidence in our elite cultural institutions, including the media, universities, and the agencies of government. The posture and policies of the Obama presidency, using temporary majorities and legislative trickery to shove through massive unread bills that will likely damage the nation and may subvert the Constitution, have brought this distrust to a higher level. The medium of talk radio has played a critical role in giving articulate shape and force to the resistance. If it is at times a crude and bumptious medium, it sometimes has to be, to disarm the false pieties and self-righteous gravitas in which our current elites too often clothe themselves. Genuinely democratic speech tends to be just that way, in case we have forgotten.
McClay thus thinks of Limbaugh as a champion of those who would take on the despised “new class,” putting McClay in the same camp of neoconservative thinkers such as Daniel Bell (“new class” thought is discussed here, here, and here). Let’s return to Rush. Here’s what he had to say on his program in 1994 during the dust-up over the National History Standards, in part authored by UCLA historian Gary Nash, who defended interpretation and exploration as the goals of history education:
What? History is an exploration? Let me tell you something folks. History is real simple. You know what history is? It’s what happened. It’s no more. The problem you get into is when guys like Gary Nash try to skew history by saying, “Well, let’s interpret what happened because maybe we don’t find the truth in the facts, or at least we don’t like the truth as it’s presented. So let’s change the interpretation a little bit so that it will be the way we wished it were.” Well, that’s not what history is. History is what happened, and history ought to be nothing more than the quest to find out what happened.
McClay obviously can’t endorse such simplistic anti-intellectualism. (Hell, if Limbaugh were honest, he wouldn’t endorse his own diatribe, since he’s constantly exploring and interpreting the past.) So I conclude with a question for readers: How do neoconservative intellectuals who lambaste the “new class” reconcile what appears to be anti-intellectualism with the fact that they are intellectuals? (I ask this question fully recognizing its unfairness, given that we’re all riddled with contradiction, especially when we enter the political realm.)