While a graduate student at the University of Georgia in the early nineties, I had the privilege of attending a speech given by William F. Buckley. The elder statesman of the movement amazed the large crowd with both his wit and his wardrobe. To this day, I remember his navy sportcoat, yellow shirt, khaki pants, and RED belt. You've got to be good to pull that look off, but Buckley was equal to the task.
At the end of his presentation, he allowed questions. The first supplicant approached the microphone and hopefully inquired, "Mr. Buckley, what do you think about Rush Limbaugh?" This was during the time when Rush was still something of a rising star. His rhetoric was bombastic, hard-edged, and wickedly funny. Members of the audience shifted forward in their seats expectantly as Buckley answered by telling the following story.
There were two Spaniards sitting in a bar. One asked the other, "What do you think about General Franco?" Instead of answering, the man gestured for his friend to follow him outside. Once on the sidewalk, he motioned for the friend to follow him to his car. They got in the car and drove to a forest. Deep in the woods, he parked the car and beckoned the friend to hike with him down to a lake. At the edge of the lake, he pointed to a boat which they boarded. He grabbed the oars and rowed to the center of the lake. Finally, he sat still, looked his friend in the eyes and paused for a moment. "I like him." Buckley told the story so brilliantly and created so much suspense, the denouement brought the house down amid gales of laughter and happy applause.
That moment conveyed the tremendous sense of affection many conservatives have had for Rush Limbaugh through the years. Despite all the efforts of liberals to demonize the king of talk radio and turn him into a soft-around-the-edges Nazi, Rush managed to break out of the conservative ghetto and eventually earned a respected place within the broadcasting establishment. His long journey to mainstream respectability culminated in the job he won as a Sunday morning football analyst with ESPN after losing the Monday Night gig to Dennis Miller a couple of years ago. And he did it all without ever really compromising his beliefs.
That's why it was so heartbreaking to watch "Sunday Morning Countdown" and see Rush say something that was both substantively wrong and politically radioactive. He said Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is overrated and has received too much credit for the team's success last season. He attributed the supposedly inflated estimates of McNabb's ability to media hopes for black quarterbacks to prove themselves in a position many people didn't think they could handle.
The statement was substantively wrong because close NFL watchers know the black quarterback controversy has been over for a while now. Outstanding sustained performances by Steve McNair, Daunte Culpepper, Donovan McNabb, and others have largely made the quarterback-race issue irrelevant. At times, McNabb has demonstrated he may be the most talented of the group. That's the first problem. If you're going to go out on a limb, you'd better be right. If former Pittsburgh Steeler Kordell Stewart had been the object of Rush's analysis, the broadcaster might have been on at least semi-solid ground.
The second problem was that Rush ventured into excessively sensitive territory by singling out a black quarterback and criticizing both his performance and the level of respect he has received. It seemed like an excessively personal attack, particularly by a white fan/analyst on a black player. The bottom line is that although Rush is indeed about 97.2% right, in this case he was wrong.
By now, we all know the end result of the 20-30 second soundbite. Rush resigned the new job he cherished in an attempt to quell a firestorm that had the media in a feeding frenzy and opportunistic Democratic Presidential candidates seeking to pile on. No surprise there, Rush had been grudgingly admitted to the dance based on his incredible star power, but it was only a learner's permit ready to be revoked at any time.
So it's been a bad scene. But in the wake of the quick fervor of judgment, the accusations of racism, and the essentially required resignation, one wonders why it had to be this way. At the bottom of the story, we have a famous man making a slightly intemperate remark. Does anybody realize that? Rush didn't get into name-calling or vicious ad hominem attacks. He didn't demonize the black race. All the man did was suggest the operation of media-sponsored affirmative action for a black quarterback. He was wrong and maybe even a little boorish, but why does that result in a full-fledged firestorm in which the speaker is banished from the realm of reasonable people?
I have a theory about why Rush's brief remarks have unleashed so much antagonism. Many will believe it's just about liberals trying to bring a big conservative down. That's part of the story, but there's something larger underneath. Every society must have taboos. We need to know the difference between sins and virtues so we can order our lives and live in community. In short, knowing what is right and wrong is the key to social order.
America has witnessed a radical re-ordering of our conception of what is good and bad. Socially useful taboos like unmarried cohabitation, having children out of wedlock, adultery, consumption of pornography, and divorce have all been transformed into acceptable activities through a powerful shove from the cultural elite and correspondingly widespread practice. G.K. Chesterton once famously complained about the rich preaching their vices to the poor and introducing them to ruin. He was right. The old sins aren't sins any more and we've paid a certain price for that. Just ask any child of a single mother who hosts a series of transient males in the home.
But sins don't disappear and leave a vacuum. We have a moral sense and we will exercise it on something. The ever-considerate cultural elite did not leave us empty-handed. Commandments they destroyed have been replaced by others more favorable to people of fashion. The sin that now stands center stage is the improperly crafted negative remark about anything having to do with race, gender, sexual orientation, or non-dominant religions.
When some unlucky soul crosses that line, it's over. I'll never forget the display of mass hatred and judgment I witnessed at a game between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves when John Rocker ran onto the field. The anger and disapproval that cascaded from the stands was a palpable force that lasted the entire time Rocker was on the field. Not surprisingly, the young reliever (beyond redemption, apparently) performed poorly and left the game fairly quickly. I was embarrassed to be there.
While the effect of this dynamic on individuals is devastating, the implications for public policy are worse. We now seem incapable of rational discourse. Instead, debate has been replaced by a series of hostile encounters and gotcha moments. We don't talk to each other so much as we circle warily and look for a moment of weakness so we can gain leverage.
The cost is too high. We should refuse to pay it and look for another, more useful way to employ our moral judgment. The founders envisioned the clash of factions and a marketplace of ideas where truth would eventually emerge. Let's have that instead of the despicable elementary school game that seems to be the rule of the day.