I agree with Matt Hershey that both Bill Maher’s and Rush Limbaugh’s comments were repulsive, misogynistic and offensive. There are many things I disagree on with Sarah Palin—pretty much everything, actually—but to call her a “c–t” is not just calling her any other rude word. It’s an attack based solely on gender, which is unacceptable. There is no male equivalent to being called that word, and any woman who has been called one understands just what a low blow it is.
However, while Maher’s words reveal him as a sexist pig, the lack of coverage compared to Limbaugh’s Sandra Fluke comments does not indicate a double standard.
Sarah Palin is a public figure who made the choice to enter the gladiator arena of American media. By accepting the vice presidential nomination alongside John McCain in the 2008 election, she understood that she would be publicly criticized, mocked and perhaps even slandered. That is the unfortunate reality of the American political scene.
Sandra Fluke, however, is not a candidate for the vice presidency. The Georgetown University law student addressed Democratic members of Congress about birth control after she was barred from a previous hearing. Rush Limbaugh singled her out, put her in the public spotlight and made disparaging sexual remarks about her. He completely twisted her argument about affordable birth control by claiming that “she wants to be paid to have sex.”
By attacking Sandra Fluke, Limbaugh (who has a history of sexism and misogyny) attacked the 99 percent of American women who have used, will use or currently use a form of birth control. He actually claimed that “[Sandra Fluke is] having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception.” This is absurd for many reasons, most prominently because Limbaugh apparently thinks the pill is like sunscreen for sexually active women. He fails to understand that the pill needs to be taken regularly at a constant rate, regardless of how often women are in the proverbial sun.
Furthermore, Maher and Limbaugh have totally incomparable levels of influence. Rush Limbaugh is widely-accepted as a legitimate voice of the conservative movement, who holds a great deal of persuasion among far-right Republican voters. He was even made an honorary member of Congress by House Republicans for his contributions to the conservative movement. While it’s true that Rush Limbaugh does not represent more moderate conservative views, our own Jon Green explained well earlier this week that “over time [absolutist right-wing] positions became ‘conservative’ rather than ‘extreme.’” Rush Limbaugh perfectly fits this characterization. The man who made the term “feminazi” mainstream by repetition has been so influential for so long that former President Ronald Reagan called him “the number one voice for conservatism in our country.”
Bill Maher, on the other hand, is a stand-up comedian. Contrary to Matt’s assertions that Maher is a Democratic thought leader on par with Limbaugh, he’s a self-proclaimed libertarian widely known for including political commentary in his humor. It is absurd to compare his sphere of influence with Limbaugh’s. In fact, I challenge anyone to find any liberal commentator as influential or popular as Limbaugh.
To Matt’s point about faith and religion: there are major differences between Barack Obama’s connection to Derrick Bell and Jeremiah Wright versus Rick Santorum’s connection to Dennis Terry. Obama’s relationship with Bell consists of nothing more than a hug, and the President has repeatedly repudiated Wright’s views. On the other hand, liberal ire for religious radicals on the right is generally driven by conservative candidates themselves. Even establishment candidates like John McCain and George H.W. Bush sought endorsements from the religious extreme, and claimed such views as their own.
But even if liberals play up religious extremists’ ties to conservative candidates who rejected such views, there remain fundamental differences between Obama’s associations and those of the religious right. Bell and Wright express anger and dissatisfaction about America from the point of view of the oppressed, while the Jerry Fallwells of the world speak from the oppressor’s perspective. White people as a whole are in no danger of marginalization or persecution, but non-Christians as a whole live with that reality every day. Additionally, liberals may take relationships like the one between Rick Santorum and Dennis Terry more seriously because Santorum has made his intent to bring religion to the White House painfully obvious.
The left is not perfect. But this debate was not an effort by the left to rationalize obviously inappropriate comments: this was a concerted effort by the right to equalize obviously different magnitudes of political speech. To equate a comedian’s misguided attempt at shock laughter with a conservative thought leader’s deliberate attempt to harm deflects criticism from Rush. It’s easy to sigh that “well, both sides do it so no one can complain.” It’s harder to step back and realize that opposite doesn’t always mean equal.