The difference between Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher is that in his intemperate remarks, Rush broke today’s one inviolate rule of American life while Maher did not. But first a note on the similarities, and they are extraordinary.
It has been well-reported that Rush has been castigated for his name-calling while Maher has been given a free pass. Even administration officials attempted to distinguish the two by terming Maher a “comedian” while Rush a “Republican leader.” Neither vessel holds any water. Rush is a commentator and activist whose policy prescriptions are not heeded as often as his opponents presume. Maher tries to be a comedian (he’s not on my viewing schedule, so I missed his recent vulgar iterations), but, then again, so did Al Franken. Franken still tries to be a comedian, but he sits in the US Senate. And Maher insists on being taken seriously as a political commentator and thinker.
The truth is that both Rush and Maher are “entertainers” in the sense that both depend on ratings for the survival of their mediums. If Rush were only about politics, then George F. Will could just as well sit behind the microphone; if Maher were only about comedy, Jerry Seinfeld could do a better job. Putting both in the most favorable light possible, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Rush tries to entertain as he informs, and Maher tries to inform as he entertains. They are actually quite similar, except for their messages, which are polar opposites. (Has anyone noticed that if Ma-her is enunciated, it means “Rush” in Hebrew?)
The excuse that Maher degrades public figures while Rush assaulted a private citizen is facile. There was no “private citizen” in the latter case. That 30 year-old law student purposefully made herself into a public figure by volunteering to testify before Congress, giving media interviews, and making herself the poster girl for adult women who feel that other people should pay for the contraception. And who said the ridicule of even political candidates is, or should be, acceptable? Maher’s insults of Republican women are gratuitous, and completely unrelated to their policies and views. It is juvenile behavior at its worst, and seamiest.
Rush’s language was adolescent and offensive – worse because he distracted from the issue and undermined his arguments – but at least there was a point buried in his heavy-handedness. Which was: there is no possible way to perceive the use of contraception by an unmarried woman that is not unchaste (except when medically indicated, which is already provided for free by insurance plans). Whether she has one lover or many is not my business or concern, and Rush’s language assumed the worst, but the basic point remains: her plea was for society to fund her private immorality.
That was the taboo that Rush broke, for which he duly suffered heaps of scorn. In America today, it is considered impolite – even repugnant – to refer to the traditional morality that guided and inspired mankind for millennia. These moral norms included chastity before marriage, having children while married, and remaining married to the same person for the duration of one’s life “until death do they part.” Such values have not only been banished from public discourse but they are also ridiculed and maligned – of course, to the great detriment of society. The breakdown of marriage and the exponential rise in out-of-wedlock births (the latter often celebrated in the popular culture) have devastated the American family and left children, born in declining number anyway, without parental role models.
This is not to say that Rush or Maher are ideal spokesmen for traditional morality or the joys of family in any event. Neither has any children, Rush has been married several times and Maher has sworn off marriage. But the beauty of objective moral notions is that they retain their force and attractiveness even in theory, even if their proponents fall short of exemplifying the ideal (as they all do). There is a supreme importance in articulating those values because society benefits from having standards, and from producing a behavioral model that can be held up to children as an aspiration.
Maher was feted in the mass media not just because he is a liberal and an unabashed Obama supporter (and it is the height of hypocrisy for Obama to criticize Rush and not Maher, but he must have a million reasons for making the distinction) but because he rejoices in the death of morality and is paid to be one of its undertakers. He is repulsed by the traditional family, and therefore the Palin’s, Bachmann’s and other women who combine material success with healthy and loving home lives are especially vexing to him. They are what he is not, and they have what he will never have – so his vulgar insults come from a different place entirely, but a place with which the mass entertainment industry is most comfortable. Hence, the adulation he receives and the rationalizations offered for him are quite comprehensible.
In America today, as Rush learned, it is simply unacceptable to term someone else’s behavior “immoral.” It is not that morality is meant to be private but rather that it is meant to be personal, subjective and indefinable. The mere enunciation of moral norms is construed as attempts to “impose” one’s morality on another. Advocates of traditional morality are mocked and derided when they are not altogether being accused of trampling on the freedom of expression and behavior of the other side. But the rejection of objective morality is itself a moral “position” of sorts, and its imposition on the rest of us is onerous.
Thus, for example, forcing a Rutgers student to room with a homosexual was considered normal, even edifying, a great way to teach tolerance and open-mindedness. And the tragic consequences of that arrangement belie the normalization of homosexuality in our society. All the attempts to promote acceptance of that lifestyle as a natural choice, as just an alternate lifestyle with its marriages enshrined in law and celebrated in lore, fail to overcome the “shame” test that bedeviled the young man who committed suicide. It is hard to imagine two heterosexuals caught in the same predicament having the same unfortunate reaction; more likely, given the popular culture, they would have been inclined to sell videos of their encounter.
The point is not to castigate the victim, who surely had the right not to have his privacy invaded and whose death is a tragedy, but rather to underscore the great harm engendered by the deterioration of morality. Only in a society that has abandoned all moral notions could the absurdity of having two such individuals rooming together been considered innocuous. And only a society that has cast off all moral restraints could produce such as the roommate, who got his jollies by publicizing and rejoicing in the degradation of other human beings.
For sure, the Internet has exacerbated the decline of standards by normalizing outlandish views and deviant practices and beliefs. It has certainly lowered the discourse by allowing anonymous people to give vent to emotions and opinions heretofore kept to themselves or a coterie of like-minded eccentrics. It has popularized the short-hand slurs that Rush, Maher and others have taken to the airwaves with predictable, and tendentious, results.
But make no mistake that the castigation of Rush and the glorification of Maher is just another round in the cultural wars that are defining America downward. And worse than the verbal affronts of either person is the relentless attack on traditional morality, which many on the left would love to force underground and discredit entirely. That is the real danger that looms in America that, if unchecked, will render it unrecognizable and unsustainable a few decades hence.