Fact-Checking and Correcting Rush Limbaugh (Or, Reflections on the Easiest Thing I’ll Do All Day)

Today is a glorious day indeed. First, our youngest daughter began kindergarten this morning, amidst great excitement and enthusiasm, and was walked to her classroom by her big sister (in 2nd grade), who felt especially “adult” for getting to do that, I’m sure.

And secondly, because yesterday afternoon, Rush Limbaugh attacked me on air. The afterglow, as they say, is still with me.

Limbaugh, apparently peeved at my comments on CNN the night before — where I had discussed the role of racism in much of the hostility being witnessed in the town hall meetings — couldn’t help himself. Among other things, he called me a liar and a dunderhead, who wasn’t qualified to write a book. The first of these is funny, coming from him, and the last of these is too, considering that his book was ghost-written. Now, as for “dunderhead?” Well, I had to look that one up. It apparently means: “A nonsense word often used by OxyContin addicts to describe their political adversaries.” Who knew?

Anyway, his diatribe was really quite telling.

First, he was angered by my referencing him, and claiming that he had recently said that the President hates white people.

“This is the kind of lying that passes for reporting and wise commentary on the left. I never said Obama hates white people,” bellowed Rush in reply.

So, wanting to be accurate, I went back and checked. I want to be precise, after all. Turns out, Rush is half right. He didn’t say those words, that way. Glenn Beck did of course, a few weeks ago, but not Rush. What Limbaugh did say, however, and the statement to which I had been referring, was this, from May 29:

“How do you get promoted in the Barack Obama administration? By hating white people…make white people the new oppressed minority…and they’re (the Republican Party) going right along with it ‘cuz they’re shutting up, moving to the back of the bus. They’re saying “I can’t use that drinking fountain, OK! I can’t use that restroom, OK!”

Now, let’s process that shall we? First, the point I had been making on CNN — that radio talk show hosts have been deliberately playing on white racial resentments and anxieties in their attacks on Obama — is made even more convincingly by the actual quote, than by the version I had offered. If anything, saying that whites are going to be the new oppressed minority, and that Republicans are literally going to suffer the indignities of segregation, is even more over the top than a silly off-the-cuff broadside about the President hating white people.

Secondly, the first part of the actual quote — which is the part I had been thinking of — actually does suggest that Obama hates white people. After all, if the President only hires people who do (you know, like that notorious white-basher, Tim Geithner), then what is Rush saying about the President? That he hires anti-white bigots just so he can argue with them and convince them of the errors of their ways? Or are we to assume that Obama himself must harbor the same hatreds? Honestly, to weasel out of the implications of his comment here, would be like arguing, “I never said that priest was a pederast. But you know what? If you want to be his friend, you’d best have some hot tips on where to pick up children.”

Rush then denied calling Obama Hitler: an argument he felt compelled to make due to my mention of people in the town halls who have indeed portrayed Obama as Hitler, as in, on their signs. And again, in his denial he is engaging in a half-truth. No one has ever said he, or anyone else, literally called Obama by the name, Hitler. The point is, he, and others, have been regularly seeking to compare Obama to Hitler and the Nazis. And so, on August 6, we have the following from Rush:

“Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate. His Cabinet only met once. One day. That was it. Hitler said he didn’t need to meet with his Cabinet; he represented the will of the people. He was called the messiah. He said the people spoke through him.”

And this:

“It is Obama who is manufacturing right from the White House, sending out his brownshirts to head up opposition to genuine American citizens who want no part of what Barack Obama stands for.”

And this:

“Obama’s got a health care logo that’s right out of Adolf Hitler’s playbook.”

And this:

“Oh, another similarity. Obama is asking citizens to rat each other out like Hitler did.”

Again, to deny the implications of what Rush is saying here would be like arguing: “I’m not saying you’re Jeffrey Dahmer. I’m just saying that, like Dahmer, you like to eat people and keep their body parts in the freezer. That’s all I’m saying.”

Finally, Rush had the verbal equivalent of an exploding aneurysm at my closing point from the show, wherein I noted that to claim you want to take the country back to “the way the founders envisioned it” is inherently disturbing, because, after all, they envisioned a white supremacist state.

To this Rush replied:

“This country was not founded on the premise of white supremacy. What happened was the original 13 colonies, there were 13 of them and they needed all 13 to be unified, to declare independence, to send the message across the pond that we’re breaking away. There were some of these colonies that were slaves, states, colonies, whatever you call them, and it was an agonizing thing for many of these founders. John Adams, particularly agonizing, and they knew that it was going to cause problems down the road because the whole principle of one man owning another did not jibe with the Constitution they wrote, the Declaration that they wrote, and so guess what? They wrote a Constitution which allowed for that to change, and it did. We lost 500,000 of our own citizens getting rid of slavery. We went to war with ourselves over it, and the Constitution and our laws have made many changes. It is not the America of 200 years ago.”

This paragraph is literally stunning for its intellectual dishonesty.

First, I hardly need a history lesson from a guy whose last history class was in the tenth grade in Cape Girardeau, MO. No offense, but seriously. Secondly, Rush ignored what I actually said. I never said that the founders all believed in slavery. Indeed, I know better and have written about the fact that there were many whites in those days, including some among the founders, who opposed it mightily. I said the nation they envisioned and created was a white supremacist nation. Meaning, it was founded on the notion that whites should rule, that whites had superior ability to rule, that the nation should be a white republic, and that people of color surely should not have equal rights with whites. That point is inarguable for God’s sakes. To say the nation was founded with those notions in mind is simply true. It doesn’t require that every single person agree with those premises, though indeed most whites did: even the ones who opposed slavery.

Third, the fact that some of the founders agonized over slavery says nothing about how much they agonized over their own assumptions of white superiority. Because as regards the latter, they agonized not one bit. Thomas Jefferson, even as he seemed torn about enslavement (though not enough to free his chattel), was not at all shy about writing in Notes on the State of Virginia that:

“Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?”

And this:

“They (negroes) are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.”

And this:

“Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous…never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait, of painting or sculpture…”

And finally this:

“The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites, has been observed by every one, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life.”

Got that Rush? Their inferiority relative to white people.

No apparent “struggle” there. Just white supremacy. Something about which Jefferson was also adamant with regard to indigenous peoples. So despite often praising Indian folk for their traditions and comparing them favorably to blacks, he also made clear in 1807 that the U.S. should “pursue them into extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach.”

As for Adams, who Limbaugh claims was particularly vexed about the institution of slavery, let there be no doubt, he struggled not at all with the notion that whites were superior and non-whites inferior. He saw nothing wrong with referring to Indian peoples as “savages,” not something one normally does with those considered to be one’s equal. More telling was his insistence to Benjamin Rush, in a letter dated April 11, 1805, that “Negroes, Indians and Kaffrarians…cannot bear democracy any more than Bonaparte and Talleyrand.”

That Limbaugh mentions the 500,000 persons who died to end slavery in the civil war is telling. First, he should tell his neo-confederate listeners, of whom there are no doubt more than a few, that the war was indeed about that. They seem to be confused on the point. Secondly, without the bravery of the 120,000 so-called colored troops, fighting for themselves and others like them, the union may well have lost the battle, according to most historians. And finally, nothing about this argument serves as a rebuttal to mine. After all, as soon as slavery was ended, white supremacy returned in other forms. As Douglas Blackmon details in his award-winning book Slavery by Another Name, the oppression to which blacks were subjected after the end of enslavement, was often as bad or worse than that which had existed before abolition. White supremacy, indeed, was a formal and de jure reality until the 1960s and the passage of civil rights legislation, which of course was opposed by every conservative of that time. Yes, as Rush would no doubt retort, there were many Republicans who supported the Civil Rights Act, and were instrumental in getting it passed over an intransigent southern Democratic party bloc. But anyone who studies that time knows that those Republicans were so liberal that they would be called RINOs today by the right (Republicans in Name Only), and shunned. Meanwhile, virtually all of those southern segregationists in the Democratic party became Republicans in the intervening years.

His side, meaning the conservative side, has very simply been on the wrong side of race, always. From the beginning. Only those who were the liberals and progressives, and leftists of their day — of whatever party — have ever stood up for racial equity, and against institutional white domination. At some level, even with his limited education, Limbaugh must know this. But he can’t allow himself to say it, or for his listeners to think about it, so he evades, changes the subject, distorts what others have said, and then flat out lies.

For the 20 million people who listen to him, at least by his own estimates, this level of disingenuousness is tragic. But for those of us who get to be the targets of his duplicity, I gotta say: it’s really pretty special.

Tim Wise is the author of four books on race. His latest is Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama

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