A gifted writer whose books have given me much pleasure, Paul Theroux, has written an essay on the Sandra Fluke controversy. There isn’t much to be said of it, because the essay doesn’t have much to say.
His main prongs of irritation are that this was just name-calling so get over it, the hypocrisy of those critical of Limbaugh’s remarks, and a litter of other paragraphs that don’t quite rise to the level of these heady thoughts.
What Limbaugh said, Mr. Theroux concedes, was offensive. But, he continues, “it is little more than flapdoodle. Did anyone really think that the earnest, scholarly Sandra Fluke was a prostitute?” This is a strange test of how offended we should be by loathsome speech. I’ll give an example of truly vile speech. Let us suppose Jon Kyl or Rush Limbaugh had called the president “a retarded nigger born to a crack baby mom”. Does the fact that this statement is false, that no one would mistake the president for this, make the statement any less offensive? According to Mr. Theroux, bomb throwers are given license to say these things as long as they are obviously not true. Let us suppose, back in that bygone erea when newspapers still had book reviews, that some hack, making up in provocation what he lacked in style or insight, reviewed a book by Mr. Theroux, and in all sincerity had called the author a murderous plagiarist. Should calls for this man’s dismissal be tempered at all by the simple fact that such a statement is obviously not true?
This ties into the problems of his related point, that the nation has more important things to do than this. Following Limbaugh’s insult, “the president of the United States called Ms. Fluke to tell her that her parents should be proud of her. The war in Afghanistan is deadlier than ever, Israelis are on the verge of bombing Iran, Syria is imploding, gas is inching to $5 a gallon and the president is bucking up a law student who was called a naughty name?” I do think it’s important to give a context of how we got here, one that Mr. Theroux does not provide. The republican party decided to appease its supporters in the vestiges of the religious right, by making great issue about the incursion of state into church matters over the possibility that some employers with a religious affiliation would be required to pay for contraception. It was one more manuever, alongside various aggressive anti-abortion efforts in various states, such as Virginia’s ultrasound law, and the personhood amendment of Mississippi, which made women, whose concerns are indifferently noted by culture and politics, once more chits on the table, to be gambled for a few more zealots’ votes. After hearing on contraception legislation, which, featuring an ovary challenged series of witnesses, Ms. Fluke had the audacity to give testimony, for which she was rewarded with Limbaugh’s attentions.
So, the reason for the anger may not simply be the final gob of spit in the face, but all the previous cajoling and nonowing before. The refrain that Mr. Theroux sounds, that there are more important things than this, has been sounded before, here and here, unsurprisingly always by men. Women already have to shoulder much of the burden of the uncomfortable details of reproduction; on top of finding some protection that actually works and doesn’t make them sick, they now stand accused as enemies of the faith for being responsible enough to avoid the inevitable consequences of sex, while in Virginia they will now be probed and mauled if this inevitable consequence occurs. They recoil against this maltreatment, and they are called prostitutes. These are not marginalia, but issues now enchained with the intimacy that bedevils and haunts us all. Mr. Theroux’s dismissive wave of all this, is something like the complaint of a fading rock star aching for significance: What I really want to do is write music about things like water pollution and nuclear war, things that actually matter to people, not sex and love. War, no doubt, is something we all want to talk about, but as many know, Lysistrata least of all, some things are of occasional importance as well.
Mr. Theroux’s other points can be quickly dismissed. He mentions the lack of equal attention given to Limbaugh’s slurs against Charles Barkley, Kweisi Mfume, as well as liberal attacks against George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, all public figures, with both Barkley and Palin having no compunction about throwing their own verbal lobs. The distinction between these public figures and a woman who gave simple testimony to a Congressional committee has already been made in many places, most notably by Timothy Noah. That Mr. Theroux brings this trope up yet again suggests a yokel who’s very well informed on the issues from three week old newspapers.
Theroux further contends that anyone who believes Limbaugh holds anything like leadership or influence should have their head examined by a proctologist. As counterpoint, I link to this magazine cover and this one. I quote a relevant section from the latter:
Limbaugh has wielded political influence since his show first went national 22 years ago. In 1994 he was so important to the Republican congressional landslide that the GOP House freshman class made him an honorary member. But never before in his long career has Limbaugh had the degree of political influence he currently enjoys.
I am ignorant of the details of the transition of editorship at Newsweek, so I’m unaware of whether Tina Brown or Jon Meacham was responsible for the latter, and whose head is to be removed from whose ass.
Later, we are informed, Limbaugh, is only a mirror for “the justifiable anger of a large proportion of the white American public.” Anger at falling incomes and a more marginal place, sure, justifiable anger at that marriage of politcos and industry who gladly moved work overseas is understandable. I am, however, curious why Ms. Fluke is the justifiable scapegoat for this. This smacks of “any bitch will do” mentality, and it speaks well that many in the United States stared it down.
“It occurred to me that in this fairly illiterate, irony-challenged country we have no notion of what satire actually is.” It occurs to the reader at some point that Mr. Theroux has been commissioned to write five hundred words, and has only relevant thoughts for two hundred. “Satire is merciless, unsparing, savage. It is not the genial teasing comedy of The Daily Show, or the fooling of Saturday Night Live.” It appears that Mr. Theroux is unfamiliar with Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, South Park, Mr. Show, or Family Guy, all programs, whatever you think of them, that are ruthless in their razing, all produced by the same irony-challenged illiterate nation.
Mr. Theroux finds it startling that no one seems able to be both outraged both by the persecution of Bill Clinton on his sexual life and the non-inquiry into his execution of Ricky Ray Rector, yet Joan Didion’s Political Fictions managed to do both, with the essays “Vichy Washington” and “Eyes on the Prize”, respectively. He bemoans the lack of attention given to Newt Gingrich’s dalliances, rather than his cash machine, Sheldon Adelson. I am happily ignorant of Gingrich’s sexual life, and this lengthy article on Adelson is more words devoted to the gambling magnate than that liberal bastion has ever devoted to the resting places of the Gingrichian penis.
I end with Mr. Theroux’s claim that the very passion of the defense of Fluke implies that “many of her defenders actually believe there is a vicious taint of self-indulgence, if not sluttiness, in a female student’s clamoring for a federal mandate of subsidized contraceptives.” This point is appropriate cornerstone for a discussion of Limbaugh, since it is a good mix of provocation and stupidity that his program embodies. A too passionate defense against a baseless charge leaves us suspect: if one weren’t guilty of something why would one protest so loudly? The original sin of some is that they were born women, and thus, easy victims. Their sin now, it appears, is that they have made their targeting a little less easy.
Mr. Theroux, as I said already, is an excellent writer whose books have given me great pleasure. However, he has produced here something extraordinary for a brilliant man: an essay as thoughtful and well-argued as a column by Ross Douthat.