Monday, October 30, 2006

On Disgusting Political Discourse

Tibor R. Machan

Rush Limbaugh may do this deliberately, seeing that he considers his radio show, in his own words, more entertainment than serious discussion. Within the latter, as a friend of mine recently put it, "we should try to behave to each other as we might if we met at a dinner party at a common friend's house. We would have somewhat better manners and even sympathy for the other guy's sincerity and point of view etc." But for Limbaugh, he seems to think, that would not produce ratings. So in response to a TV political ad featuring Michael J. Fox, the actor, who was offering his support for a candidate who backed government funding of stem cell research, Limbaugh went ballistic? Why? Because Fox appeared to exaggerate his Parkinson's disease in the ad so as to influence voters to get behind the candidate whose support might hasten finding a cure for his disease.

The basic issue here is, of course, whether it is the role of government in a free society to support medical research. It is not, especially when such research involves procedures that millions of citizens consider immoral. But that is moot at this point—both parties are perfectly willing to spend other people’s money on projects with which may who are being extorted to pay for it disagree.

So, the issues is whether there is anything wrong with exaggerating one’s illness in a political ad? Well, advertising is by its very nature a form of promotion and promotions usually overstate what is going to be appealing and underplay what is not. Ads are not informational but promotional devices and as such they use gimmicks and other means to catch viewers’, listeners’, and readers’ attention so they might get on board. So, for Limbaugh to complain is ridiculous, especially since he, probably more than anyone, overstates every one of his points, treating his opponents as if they were all vicious and his own supporters as if they were angels. No, Limbaugh is not a credible critic of anyone who is in the business of peddling ideas, policies, programs, and the like. It's really a case of “Look who’s talking!”

In general, the example Limbaugh sets is sad. Instead of arguing with Fox and others about the merits of the message—raising questions such as “Should people really support government funded stem cell research?” and “Are there alternatives that would be better?”—he lays in on the actor for seeming to play up his ailments to make a point.

Was Limbaugh credible about questioning Fox’s way of coming across in the ad (which I studied a bit)? Yes. I have seen Fox act on very recent episodes of the TV show Boston Legal and he was nowhere near as afflicted as he seemed to be on that political advertisement. But maybe he got worse in the meantime and that is what some have testified to in the wake of Limbaugh's rant. Limbaugh couldn’t tell whether this is the explanation or that Fox was deliberately overdoing it. Had he just noted his puzzle about it, had he mentioned the contrast between Fox’s behavior on Boston Legal and the ad, Limbaugh would have been within the bounds of civility, although even there what matters more is the substantive merits of what Fox was advocating.

But no. Limbaugh went for the jugular and managed to open himself up to charges of callousness and insensitivity. I watched the tape of Limbaugh as he was imitating Fox in his studio and it was undoubtedly insulting to Fox and totally unsympathetic to those who have advanced Parkinson’s.

This particular incident is not a big deal but given Limbaugh’s ubiquity on radio across the country, it would really be of some worth for him to tone it down, to adhere to standards of civilized discourse, to cut out the constant nastiness toward all those with whom he disagrees. Sure, many of those folks are themselves uncivilized in their demeanor as they go about fanning political winds. But, to make use of an old saw, do two wrongs make a right? No. Why not just let the targets of his criticism be guilty of exaggerations? Why not make an example as someone who comports himself decently even as he does battle with people who don’t?

But perhaps it is all about reading the pulse of a rather unruly, irrational radio audience. Perhaps they really do demand Limbaugh’s wild and crazy guy routine and rather have nothing to do with civilized political exchange. Maybe Limbaugh’s conduct is purely demand driven and he cares nothing about setting any kind of example.

It is too bad. In political disputes as in others, the people with whom one disagrees are not mostly monsters even if they are wrong. They can be quite decent folks on many other fronts and merely get the politics wrong. That might be a basis of reaching some agreement. But to do that one would have to show some consideration for the seriousness, even sincerity, of their thinking.