Judging Limbaugh and his 15 million fans

Rush Limbaugh has died. His radio audience, the largest audience of any talk-show in America, amounted to more than 15 million weekly listeners. I wasn’t one of them.

In my lifetime, I probably listened to him for about sixty minutes. I’m conservative in my politics, but what I heard listening to Mr. Limbaugh, and what I learned reading about him, didn’t impress me. So, I never tuned in.

But despite my lack of interest in him when he was alive, I’ve been intrigued by the reaction to his death. There have been, in certain circles, expressions of satisfaction and perhaps even joy—not, we are told, over his death, but because he will no longer be broadcasting his opinions.

A perfect exemplar of such a reaction is the ToI op-ed written by Daniel Gordis, headlined “When Jews rush to mourn Rush.” (Clever headline, don’t you think? “rush/Rush”—a masterstroke!)

Mr. Gordis insists he doesn’t “celebrate” Mr. Limbaugh’s death. But he does ask: “What kind of a human being was [Mr. Limbaugh]?”

Some of us might think it presumptuous to judge the quality of another human being, particularly one who has just passed away, but Mr. Gordis isn’t shy. The columnist Caroline Glick referred to the late Mr. Limbaugh as “an angel,” and that tweet apparently triggered Mr. Gordis’ very considerable disgust for all things Limbaugh.

This is what Mr. Gordis thinks of both Mr. Limbaugh and his listeners: “[T]he world is a much, much better place now that Rush Limbaugh is off the air[,]” because Mr. Limbaugh “stood for the very opposite of decency. So do his fans.” And again: like Mr. Limbaugh, “[h]is fans are also a disgrace.” Mr. Gordis has weighed Mr. Limbaugh and his listeners in the balance, and they have all been found wanting.

What justifies Mr. Gordis’ rather severe condemnation of Mr. Limbaugh and millions of others? Well, first of all, there’s his understanding of a story in the Babylonian Talmud, which he sums up as teaching: “Legal views (or political views, or moral views) are one thing, …and on those, reasonable minds can differ. But when it comes to ‘trashing’ another human being, that God will not abide.”

Now, please understand that it is not Mr. Gordis who is trashing the late Mr. Limbaugh or his 15 million fans—of course not. Rather, it is Mr. Limbaugh who did the trashing, and apparently, his fans are also guilty as accessories after the fact.

So, what did the trashing consist of? Well, Mr. Gordis catalogues five (5) instances in which Mr. Limbaugh said something on air that Mr. Gordis finds disgraceful.

He quotes one sentence Mr. Limbaugh uttered on each of three topics: race, women, and gays. He also refers to a series of comments Mr. Limbaugh made about a female college student who testified before Congress that health insurance should pay for birth control (comments for which Mr. Limbaugh later offered a halfhearted apology). Finally, he refers to a song Mr. Limbaugh would sing on air entitled, “Barack, the Magic Negro.”

There’s no doubt that, with respect to all of the five instances identified by Mr. Gordis, what Mr. Limbaugh said was very offensive and in perfectly bad taste. But did Mr. Limbaugh ever say anything uplifting and positive with regard to any of those topics? I don’t know, and Mr. Gordis does not say. Did Mr. Limbaugh ever say anything worthwhile about anything? Mr. Gordis concedes that Mr. Limbaugh strongly supported Israel; that doesn’t change his opinion that we’re better off without his broadcasts.

Mr. Limbaugh was live on air for approximately 24,000 hours over his whole career. That amounts to almost three years (to be exact, 2.7397 years) of uninterrupted, unscripted talk on the most controversial issues of the day. And Mr. Gordis has identified five instances when Mr. Limbaugh said something deeply offensive. I wonder if Mr. Gordis, or anyone else, could talk extemporaneously about highly controversial topics for almost three years without making any offensive comments.

Towards the end of his op-ed, Mr. Gordis laments that people have a “binary view” of the world, and he cites as an example people who say: “Rush loved Israel, so we love everything he said.” But it seems to me that Mr. Gordis has just the same blinkered, one-sided view of things. He in effect says: “Rush made offensive comments on five separate occasions, so the world is better off without his broadcasts.” But 24,000 hours of broadcasts is a lot; has Mr. Gordis listened to every one? How can Mr. Gordis know that, on balance, the world is a better place without them?

He then says: “[T]he categories of pure and impure still matter. There are ways of speaking that come close to pure, and ways that reek of impurity.” Presumably Mr. Limbaugh’s way of speaking “reek[ed] of impurity.” Did impurity pollute all of his 24,000 hours of total air time, or only some of it? Mr. Gordis does not say. The only thing that emerges clearly is that Mr. Gordis has identified five instances where Mr. Limbaugh said something offensive.

I agree that we can, and sometime we must, judge statements people make and actions they perform. Some statements are true and some are false; some are bigoted and offensive and some are not. Some actions are hurtful and morally wrong; others are morally correct. But if we’re going to extract five discussions from a context of 24,000 hours of talk, we ought to at least acknowledge that much larger context.

Purporting to judge, after a person’s death, “what kind of a human being” that person was—summing up the moral pluses and minuses of a lifetime (in Mr. Limbaugh’s case) of seventy years—is something we mortals ought to leave to a higher authority. And who among us would judge that 15 million hard-working, law-abiding people–people we’ve never even met–all stand for what is indecent and all are a disgrace? If God won’t abide one person “trashing” another, maybe we should leave it to God to determine who has committed that sin, and maybe we should take great care to be sure we don’t commit it ourselves.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=2523973