Equivalence? In Your Dreams …

According to most of the Right and also the perpetually clueless Stanley Fish (note to Protein Wisdom: If Fish is a “progressive,” I’m Pat Robertson. And Jesus.), this …

… is equivalent to this …

For those of you who are not able to watch the videos, in the first Bill Maher tells a joke about Sarah Palin — that when she heard about last year’s disaster in Japan, she demanded that we invade Tsunami. And then he introduced the next joke with “speaking of dumb tw*ts….” The second video shows highlights from Rush Limbaugh’s three-day rant against Sandra Fluke. (I realize that Maher has said other naughty things about Palin beside this, but again, the Rush video only shows some of what he said about Fluke.)

To say these are equivalent is a bit like saying an average-size rain puddle is equivalent to Lake Superior. And I’m not defending Maher. As I wrote a few days ago, using gender insults to ridicule a particular woman puts down all women in the same way that calling one black person a N—– puts down all African Americans.

But the fact is that if Rush had only said that Sandra Fluke was a “dumb tw*t it probably would have gone unnoticed. Instead, Rush went on, and on, and on, for three freaking days.

But beyond quantity of verbiage, we might also consider another measure of difference between these two “examples.”

What was the effect? Did Maher’s line have any measurable effect on public opinion or the quality of serious political discourse? Comedians make fun of politicians all the time, and the public is free to either be amused or offended. But I doubt that what Maher said changed anyone’s opinion about Palin one way or another.

On the other hand, Limbaugh flat-out lied about Fluke’s testimony for three days (and no doubt beyond), and judging by comments on rightie sites, in large part thanks to Limbaugh a big chunk of the American public actually believes that Sandra Fluke demanded that taxpayers pay for her contraceptives so she could have more sex. And no amount of linking to or explaining Fluke’s actual testimony can change their minds. In other words, Rush utterly poisoned any discussion we might have had on the issue of private insurance mandates and contraception.

Fish’s argument appears to be that we are supposed to see these two as equivalent because it’s the fair thing to do —

These questions come naturally to those who have been schooled in the political philosophy of enlightenment liberalism. The key move in that philosophy is to shift the emphasis from substantive judgment — is what has been said good and true? — to a requirement of procedural reciprocity — you must treat speakers equally even if you can’t abide what some of them stand for. Basically this is the transposition into the political realm of the Golden Rule: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Don’t give your friends a pass you wouldn’t give to your enemies.

So if you come down hard on Limbaugh because he has crossed a line, you must come down hard on Schultz and Maher because they have crossed the same line; and you should do this despite the fact that in general — that is, on all the important issues — you think Schultz and Maher are right and Limbaugh is horribly and maliciously wrong.

However, I don’t think Schultz and Maher were “right.” But Ed Schultz was taken off the air for a week because of his use of a sexual insult, and I think that was appropriate. The price was paid. The scales were balanced in his case. He probably won’t do that ever again.

I don’t think Maher received any punishment for the “dumb tw*t” remark, but once again, if that is all Limbaugh had done, those of us who never listen to Limbaugh probably wouldn’t have noticed, or cared.

Fish continues,

The idea is that in the public sphere (as opposed to the private sphere in which you can have and vent your prejudices) you should not privilege your own views to the extent that they justify treating those with opposing views unequally and unfairly. (Fairness is the great liberal virtue.) This idea is concisely captured by the philosopher Thomas Nagel when he says that in political life we should regard our most cherished beliefs, “whether moral or religious … simply as someone’s beliefs rather than as truths.” In short, back away from or relax your strongest convictions about what is right and wrong and act in a manner that grants legitimacy, at least of a formal kind, to the convictions of others, even of others you despise.

The difference between Maher and Limbaugh is the difference between insult and slander. Maher insulted Sarah Palin; but all he communicated was that he doesn’t like her. He didn’t make any substantive claims about her that one could judge to be true or not. But Limbaugh spent three days telling outright lies about Sandra Fluke’s testimony.

So where’s the equivalence, Mr. Fish?

If we think about the Rush Limbaugh dust-up from the non-liberal — that is, non-formal — perspective, the similarity between what he did and what Schultz and Maher did disappears. Schultz and Maher are the good guys; they are on the side of truth and justice. Limbaugh is the bad guy; he is on the side of every nefarious force that threatens our democracy. Why should he get an even break?

I reject making moral judgments about behavior based on how I feel about the people acting out the behavior. The more useful measure is to consider the effects, actual and potential, of a particular act. And again, by that measure comparing Maher and Limbaugh is comparing a puddle to Lake Superior. They are both “wrong,” but wrong on an entirely different scale. And not equivalent.

See also Whiskey Fire.

23 thoughts on “Equivalence? In Your Dreams …

  1. There are other differences:
    Palin, by agreeing to be the VP candidate, despite probably knowing herself that she was stunningly unqualified for the position, made herself a public figure.
    Ms. Fluke is a private citizen who testified before Congress – and whose testimony was completely turned around by Conservative’s desperate to change the subject from birth control, to ‘C*llege G*rls G*ne W*ld!’ (Filter proofing, I hope).

    Another difference is that Rush is on the AM/FM broadcast spectrums, aka: PUBLIC airways, and available to anyone with a radio.
    Maher is on HBO, a pay-cable subscription network. You need a TV, a cable connection, and a few extra bucks to watch his show.
    And Schultz was on a cable news, and was punished for his transgression. And I don’t remember a whole slew of Liberals defending what he said. As a matter of fact – I don’t remember ANY!

    A 3-second “tw*t” joke, is not a 4-day rant – 3 days of ranting, and another day not apologizing for his non-apology.

    To say that these are equivalent, is to say that a 7 year-old T-baller, is equivalent to Albert Pujols.
    “Well, they both play Baseball!” Uh, yup…

    And Stanley Fish should know better. And if he doesn’t, he shouldn’t have a column at the NY Times.
    Btw – what ever happened to the people at newspaper once known as “Editors?”
    You know, the people who used to look at a column like that BEFORE it was printed, and say, “Are you sure, Stanley, that THIS is what you really mean to say? You might be taken for a f*cking moron if we print it as-is. Ok, Mr. Fish – it’s YOUR reputation!”

  2. I agree with everything you said here, Barbara. But I’m getting really annoyed with Maher. Those sort of remarks are what caused the false equivalency arguement. Not that the fault is only his; I get really annoyed with anyone who calls themselves liberal and uses this sort of language in the media.

    • Lynne — Yeah, I can’t say I’m a big fan of Maher, either. I catch his show very occasionally, and sometimes I agree with his comments, but often he’s just being an ass.

  3. Lynne,
    Sure, Maher does have some Liberal tendencies – but he’s closer to being more of a Libertarian than to a real Liberal.

    And he’s been a misogynist for years – and a bit xenophobic, too.
    I have a love-hate thing with him. I love him for his anti-Bush, anti-Conservative schtick. I hate him when he’s misogynistic. And I also can’t stand that he gets into arguments with Conservatives when he’s completely uninformed on the subject he’s talking about. Oy, Billy, baby, THAT ain’t helpin’!
    He sometimes thinks he’s George Carlin or Richard Pryor when he does social commentary. He ain’t! Not even close!

    • He sometimes thinks he’s George Carlin or Richard Pryor when he does social commentary. He ain’t! Not even close!

      Ain’t that the truth!

  4. Pingback: I Hate To Tell You, But… - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money

  5. The difference between Schultz and Maher and Limbaugh is one of intent.

    Schultz made a one word, one time gaffe which, although insulting, was clearly not intended to imply that the subject moonlighted as a lady of negotiable affection.

    Maher’s intent was to get a laugh at the expense of a public figure. Yes, he used an offensive word–maybe even a bunch of offensive words–however, it was clear within the given context that he was expressing his opinion, not stating a fact.

    Limbaugh’s intent was to smear Sandra Fluke with lies. He knew what he was doing, and he kept it up for days. This is not about a name-calling; it is about deliberate, intentional defamation of character.

  6. Also, Maher is on HBO after having been kicked off (repeatedly, I think) shows he had on non-pay-cable networks. It’s not like he hasn’t paid the price for his outspokenness in the past.

  7. muldoon,
    I hope Ms. Fluke is ‘lawyering-up,’ because you’re right – it was intentional defamation of character.
    Just have a jury read her testimony, then listen to Rush’s rant – I guarantee you it’ll be the shortest deliberation in history.
    Of course, the presupposition is that it’s a jury of HER peers. A jury of his peers could only be found in the wing of the asylum dedicated for the drug-addled and/or mentally deranged sociopaths.
    Or, maybe Rush can pay for “justice,” and will want a three-judge panel to decide – and he’ll pick Thomas, Scalia, and Alito. Or, his probably all-time favorite judge – Moore.

  8. Lynne,

    I agree with your opinion of Maher, but not only is he not particularly liberal, he is only nominally of the left.

    Let’s remember his show on ABC, another political chat show with multiple guests from right and left, was called Politically Incorrect. Maher completely accepted the rightwing talking point about the power of political correctness as a force in society at a time when it was being moved to the right, in part, by the media’s total acceptance of that rightwing political correctness canard.

    There’s no doubt that Bush-fils pushed Maher a bit more toward the left, but political idiosyncrasy is his true specialty. Yes, he can be funny, but I can’t watch him on a regular basis because it’s so discouraging to see how someone who clearly keeps up with the news and cares about the political life of the country is so often so powerless to counteract the talking points of his “conservative” guests. See any time Dana Loesch is one.

  9. I do like all of you chiming in on this! My particular problem with Maher is that he is always used as an example of the liberal position – even though he really isn’t.

  10. Lynne, in today’s world, if you’re white, a comedian, and to the left of Dennis Miller, than ‘you might be a blue-neck!’
    No, they automatically assume they’re a Liberal, and assign him/her to our team.

    Just like Stanley Fish:
    Since he doesn’t write for the WaPo, or the WSJ, but the NY Times, and he’s not a total right-wing wacko – then he MUST be a Liberal.

  11. They are both “wrong,” but wrong on an entirely different scale.

    My particular problem with Maher is that he is always used as an example of the liberal position – even though he really isn’t.

    Agreed, and agreed!

    I haven’t seen Bill Maher in ages, but my sense has always been that stupid women annoy him especially, not because they’re stupid but because they’re women (I’ve never seen him react to stupid men in the same way, using sexual references to their stupidity). Rush Limbaugh, on the other hand, saves his most rancid hate for women who stand up for themselves. I mean, jeez, how dare we?

  12. In the mid-90s Maher wrote a piece for Playboy titled The Reluctant Conservative. I can’t find it online anywhere, but, IIRC, in it he said that while he didn’t agree with the right on social issues, he was with them on economic issues, which he regarded as more important.

    That Maher is now regarded as a liberal has less to do with Maher’s ideology than it does the failure of conservatism in the economic sphere and the hard right turn the conservative movement has taken.

  13. One things that drives me crazy about Sarah Palin, is that the right trots her out whenever they are accused of being sexist. “We can’t be anti-women, we love her!! You hate her, so you’re anti-women”.

  14. As for Mr. Fish: he’s a post-modernist, and therefore not to be taken seriously about anything. You see, as a postmodernist he has issues with the concept of objective reality. The creepy radio demagogue has similar issues.

  15. It would be anti-women NOT to point out Palin’s unqualifidness for public office. To give her a pass, as the Repugs did, was the epitome of being anti-women. Because shes was attractive (some say, not me personally) she belonged on the ticket. How terribly sexist is that?

    As for Maher, I watch him every week. But he is ill prepared for his conservative guests. He had Andrew Breitbart on, and couldn’t counter his propaganda. He will say that he is not a Democrat, though the cool million is hard to argue with. I think if anyone legitimately backed legalization, he’d be with them no matter what else they believed. He seems like more of the Ron Paul kind of guy.

  16. What is being forgotten about Ed Schultz is that he gave a very heartfelt, sincere apology to Laura Ingraham and everyone. If anyone wants to learn how to apologize, they should follow Schultz’s example. In the comparison of Maher and Limbaugh, there is no comparison. Maher is a comedian. Limbaugh tells lies about people he doesn’t like; and, then, makes low digs at people based on the lies he has told. Bill Maher does a lot of funny bits during his standup routine and on his show. I especially like his bit about all righties living in a bubble so no contradictory evidence can get through to them. The bottomline is that you cannot equate bald-faced lies about a person to any comics’ take on politicians who open the door to those kind of things as soon as they become a politician. The link for Ed’s apology is as follows:


  17. Bonnie… I was reluctant to comment on the subterfuge of equivalence, but your bringing up Ed Schultz’s apology is a very important point. Schultz man’d up and accepted responsibility for his words without a trace of trying to weasel out from or deflect responsibility for his actions. I was thoroughly impressed with his sincere and heartfelt apology. When he apologized also to his wife and children for his failing to live up to his responsibility as a husband and father…It was clear he understood the nature of his offense, and felt the pain that his words caused.

    Those righties who want to draw an equivalence should look closely at Limpaugh’s non-apology. It says it all.

  18. While I agree that what Rush did was different from what Schultz and Maher did, I think you’re ignoring an even bigger problem with Fish’s article, which is:

    Who are these people who are defending Maher and Schultz while attacking Limbaugh?

    As the comments above show, most of the time when I see a lefty commentator bring up Maher their opinion of him ranges from ambivalence to outright hostility, and Schultz apologized profusely and was punished for what he did.

    Feminist blogs especially tend to call out sexism against right-wing targets.

    So where is this double standard?

    I don’t know every single thing every left-winger has ever said, so maybe there is a high profile commentator who has done that, or a group of blogs, or a politician, or something. It would have behooved Fish to actually mention at least one, and preferably several cases of this double standard he’s talking about.

  19. American politics is a full-contact sport without pads. Nobody cried sexism here over a blog titled ‘Dick the Dick’ but if Maher says ‘twit’ referring to moosewoman, that’s proof he hates women. Maybe I’m dense, but I don’t get the offense. Name-calling is childish and trivial. (Sometimes I engage in it, but I don’t profess sainthood now or in the future.) The character assasination and requests for nude pictures of Ms. Fluke engaged in sex is something quite different and especially vile, and quite probably Rush can be sued for it.

    My fondest wish is that Ms. Fluke, represented pro bono by the best of the ACLU, sue the rather substantial ass off that windbag, and donate 100% of the proceeds to Planned Parenthood. Though Ms. Fluke was the target and the victim, the goal was to declare ALL WOMEN, and their reproductive capacity under the control of men. Withot a single swear word, that’s the true obscenity, which has been obscured by smoke from the left and right about politically-incorrect words. The best punishment is to reward with several millions of Rush’s riches, the organization he despises. Sauce for the goose, seeing the ACLU pound his lawyers.

  20. My assumption was that Maher did not call Palin a twit but was referring to another part of her anatomy. Perhaps my fault for not watching the clip. No matter, it was name calling and not character assassination.

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