Apparent Retrograde Motion

Saturday, May 11th, 2013 Politics

Rush Limbaugh is easy to dismiss (or rather, to not “take seriously,” since his statements are so exuberant and grandiose—so obviously geared to foment certain primitive emotions in his listeners), but I think he’s very interesting. Limbaugh is absolutely crucial to those entrenched, institutional forces of injustice, malfeasance, and the corruption and exploitation of the public trust that are dependent on mass support; he’s an essential component in every one of the mechanisms by which the powerful extend their dominion over the powerless and the countervailing forces of progressivism, Enlightenment (in the strict 18th Century sense; the egalitarian principles which our nation was ostensibly founded upon) and political, cultural and social advancement are kept at bay.

What few people understand about Limbaugh is the degree to which his entire operation serves as a “loss leader,” in the strict business-school sense—Clear Channel Communications struggles with debt in order to maintain Limbaugh’s $400 million paycheck, and then forces radio stations to accept his syndicated programming as part of their content packages (Limbaugh is also distributed to the Armed Forces). In many American markets it’s impossible to avoid hearing him, even though nobody else is making money from his broadcasts (especially in light of the chronic loss of advertisers his programming inspires). But he’s clearly worth every cent, since his ability to disseminate a message to all those enforced listeners is unparalleled. Joseph Goebbels pioneered the Volksempfänger-based technique of using radio to control public opinion, and the effects have not become any less corrosive and devastating since the 1930s.

Limbaugh’s rhetorical talents—not his incendiary polemics, his blatant racial and gender-based slurs, his overwhelming dependence on falsehoods and hyperbole, his willingness to say anything and everything necessary to advance those viewpoints and positions that best serve to galvanize the widespread elements that retard the progress of our society, but, rather, the potency of his framing devices and presentational slight-of hand—cannot be overestimated. My hardline-conservative step-grandmother (who passed away a year ago at the age of 98) used to ask me if I enjoyed listening to Limbaugh, and, when I told her that I did not, since I support and respect everyone whom he is against, she hastened to point out that he “isn’t against anyone” but is, instead, “accepting of all views” and “just wants to get past the politics and find the common sense answers we can all agree on.” Limbaugh has a gift for the creation of inverted logic—for finding ways to express indefensible positions backwards and upside down, so that they sound reasonable. In his extraordinarily cynical, sophisticated handling of current LGBT rights controversies, he beautifully exhibits the singular force and effectiveness of these skills.

As everyone knows, NBA player Jason Collins just announced (in the April 29 Sports Illustrated) that he is gay. Limbaugh did not attack Collins for being gay. He did not attack homosexuals or homosexuality. He did not talk about morality, children, religion, or mention any of the other lynchpins of conservative anti-gay sentiment. He was much shrewder than that. First, he lamented:

Folks, I grew up in a family where people’s sexual orientation preferences, whatever, weren’t even discussed. Why – why can’t – why can’t everybody just put your sexual preferences on Facebook and call it a day? What do we need to stop everything and have a national day of celebration – or mourning, depending on your view – recognition, or whatever, about this. […] If you’re like everybody else, they’re sick of hearing this. They’ve got gay-news fatigue. Alright, we got it. Just put it up on Facebook and forget it. Why does it have to be rammed down our throats, figuratively speaking? Why does this have to be thrust at us?*

How many listeners found themselves nodding in agreement with this, since it’s possible to find some recognizable sentiment in his outburst (even die-hard liberals and progressives, emerging from provincial upbringings, occasionally admit to some buried squeamishness about social conventions that they’re unaccustomed to) without ever admitting to being anti-gay, or even thinking about “homophobia”? Limbaugh continued:

And this tolerance, you know, it only goes one way. So, Person X of some national stature announces his sexual orientation is gay. And, applause. ‘Great day for America. We’re really taking giant leaps ahead.’ If anybody says, ‘You know, I’m not big on that.’ ‘You bigot! You – You – You racist! You – you extremist! You – you – you homophobe!’ There is no tolerance at all here. Not only do these people have to publicly announce, everybody else has to applaud and accept it. My point the other day about how it’s only us conservatives who are divisive. You know, I’m one of the most loving, unifying, want everybody to do well, like everybody, hope everybody has a great life-kind of guy you’ll ever run into. But because I’m not a liberal, I’m called divisive. Liberals are never divisive. You know why that is? ‘Cause to them, liberalism is just status quo. Anything that’s not liberal is divisive. So, liberals believe this country has been racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic, and now we’re making great strides.

This stunning logical conjuring act is mirrored in yesterday’s tearful remarks by Minnesota State Representative Peggy Scott (R), on the occasion of a definitive same-sex-marriage bill passing that state’s House. Scott said:

My heart breaks for Minnesota. It’s a divisive issue that divides our state. It’s not what we needed to be doing at this time. We want to come together for the state of Minnesota, we don’t want to divide it.

Nicolaus Copernicus established the heliocentric model of the universe (i.e. the earth goes around the sun, and not vice versa) in 1543, which always seems late to me; the ancient Greeks knew the Earth was round (although that understanding was lost for centuries after the birth of Christianity—no comment), but the fact that hundreds of years’ worth of people lived and died observing the sun’s changing orientation through the seasons and just assuming it followed a corkscrew path (rather than extrapolating a tilted earth) is unnerving to me. It took yet another 200 years for the “Copernican Revolution” to take hold; like Darwin’s ideas, the heliocentric model fought an uphill battle against brute intuition.

The two crucial features of the Copernican model (and of all subsequent paradigmatic insights that are called “Copernican Revolutions”) fit together: first, the observer is removed from the center of the figure—in this case, literally, the center of the universe. Overcoming the tyranny of one’s sensory impressions, and, more important, thinking beyond the subjective primacy of self that those impressions under-gird and uphold, is the most essential breakthrough of the Enlightenment (again, in the strictest sense; the interlocking philosophical, moral, and scientific doctrines upon which the American identity is overtly modeled). And, second, the Copernican model (wherein the observer is no longer the fixed point of reference for the entire observable universe) is simpler, and more reasonable, containing far fewer arbitrary and/or inexplicable elements. Look at the animated diagrams above, showing the orbits of the earth (blue) and Mars (red) around the sun (yellow): the pre-Copernican model (on the right) has Mars performing a mysterious loop (“apparent retrograde motion”), which is the only way to explain its passage across the night sky while maintaining one’s insistence that the earth (and the observer) is the center of all things. Put the sun in the center (left) and suddenly it’s all clear, and it’s all much simpler.

The dark brilliance of Limbaugh’s (and Scott’s) diatribes is that they represent pre-Copernican thinking in all its pervasive, persuasive, retrograde glory: all you have to do is coronate your own blinkered perceptions as the armature of American reality, and the entire observable society ties itself in loops and knots around you, assuming a complex shape whereby you are right and those that trouble you are wrong. It’s not gay Americans who are oppressed and struggling for equality, dignity and those freedoms promised in our founding documents: it’s the straight people who are being punished; who are being asked to sacrifice. Limbaugh fondly remembers a time when he did not even have to think about homosexuality, and all its unsettling implications: can’t we just go back to that? Why is he being punished—even discriminated against—for his intolerance? From his vantage point, everything was fine until the gays and their supporters and allies came out of the woodwork and started causing all this conflict. (Similarly, in 1974 Ronald Reagan told the attendees of First Conservative Political Action Conference—in his famous “City Upon a Hill” speech—that “When I was your age, believe it or not, none of us knew that we even had a racial problem.”) Pre-Enlightenment thinking like this—appealing to the hindbrain rather than the intellect, and so going resolutely backward against the tide of intellectual history—is, in so many words, un-American.

*Media Matters—the source of my quotations—provides, as usual, an excellent report on these statements. Their comprehensive coverage of Limbaugh is probably the best that can be found on the web.