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Bigotshtick: Rush Limbaugh on Indians

[The following award-winning essay was first published in Native Americas Journal, Fall 1995, after Rush Limbaugh made one of his "provocative" racial comments about American Indian people.]

"The American Indians were meaner to themselves than anybody was ever mean to them. The people were savages. It's true, they damn well were ? these people were out there destroying timber, they were out there conquering and killing each other, scalping people." - Rush Limbaugh

"Bigoted: Obstinately and blindly attached to some creed, opinion or party and intolerant toward others." - The Oxford Universal Dictionary

In my car, alone, and sometimes at home - to my wife's discomfort - I listen to Rush Limbaugh or catch his TV appearances.

I have heard enough of Limbaugh over the years to get the gist of his message and of his style, which is the medium of his message. The man's opinions might not be of much interest except that they are nearly inescapable. He has national airtime for over 20 hours a week and he reaches some 20 million people a week, in long, continuous monologues. Limbaugh, a veritable rotor of right wing politics in North America, is furthermore an entertainer. He can make people laugh.

The problem is that the man has an ugly side - a very ugly side.

The quote above must be considered. It is vintage Limbaugh when he gets rolling on his radio show. (He writes books, too, but they are severely whitewashed; you have to listen to Limbaugh's radio voice to get to know him.) On the radio, usually from a position of outrageous umbrage, he is one major national commentator willing to prejudice a whole race of people and perpetrate a racial slur that must be seen as significant, considering the breadth of the source. Why would a man in Limbaugh's position call Native peoples savages in this day and age?

Limbaugh is neither stupid nor particularly careless. True, he is self-promoting to an embarrassing degree, but he is nevertheless a master of public discourse with stated political goals. He is also a commentator who regularly uses the power of the medium and of his formatted personae to persuade, cajole, and at appointed times, command a large public to political action.

With a message well-suited for those mean times - his dominant idea seems to be championing unmitigated business development by dismissing all gestures of cooperative (as opposed to confrontational) thinking, and all efforts to regulate human activity to protect the earth and its resources - he plays to a major national audience, whose frustration and anger he mines in pursuit of ideological imperatives.

Dismissed for years as mostly a buffoon while his popularity increased exponentially, Limbaugh whips up the troops throughout the year, ditto, ditto, ditto, and come November elections, delivers for the Republicans. TIME has put him on its cover then and Ted Koppel has invited him to comment on his news show (as if 20 hours of national airtime per week is not enough for one mortal). Thus Limbaugh proved himself a hugely influential and highly marketable commentator. All of which makes it particularly troubling that dehumanization through racist stereotyping (used against Indians since Cotton Mather) is a trademark of the (formerly) rotund disc jockey.

Limbaugh developed his national audience by cleverly employing an old shtick: funny umbrage at imagined groups - the media, people on welfare, immigrants, feminists, black athletes, American Indians - that he props up to hit with a wide-slapping brush of ridicule, outright misinterpretation, and wanton disrespect. Limbaugh's shtick, becoming increasingly evident in media and in politics, is a 1990s kind of bigotry.

Those who like their politics mixed in with ridicule especially enjoyed his antagonistic sarcasm, ostensibly directed at "Liberals" but hitting, double-barreled, at many of the poor and resourceless groups whom Limbaugh giddily and nastily defines coast to coast. A master at reducing truth to comic line, he also knows how to repeat a half-truth that serves his purpose so regularly that it becomes a sort of reality substitute. Apparently, he is confident enough in his own positioning to hurl out stereotypes at whole classes and races of people without the slightest fear of rebuttal. In this era of trial by airtime, Limbaugh is a hanging judge.

The comment quoted earlier is not his first on Native peoples. I remember another, from 1992, when Native delegations met at the landmark Rio conference on environment and development. "What a ragtag looking bunch," he laughed on the air, expounding then too on the savvy ways of Indians and mocking "these fools out there" in the environmental movement who support Indians and want "us to live like stone-age people."

As Limbaugh is unabashedly political, one must assume that his attacks are orchestrated, his targets carefully selected. In this context, the connection with Native peoples is about the general public concern over environmental degradation, which Limbaugh and the interests he truly represents would like to see discredited or at least reduced. In the promised new era of non-regulated exploitative extraction of natural resources now well under way, concern over environment and Indians is a troublesome factor.

But, hey, the Indians ? "these people were destroying timber."

What Limbaugh is doing is transparent. It is part of the lining up of forces. Since Native peoples' issues often and naturally coincide with environmental concerns, Native peoples themselves must be attacked. As environmentalists are increasingly recognizing, interest in Native peoples and causes offers a convergence point where ecological issues can be creatively conceived. Native peoples' traditions are not made up by counter-culturalists or academic theorists - they are long-standing human ways that speak to the relationship to the natural world and can form the core of a realistic discussion among broad sectors of the population. Native traditional knowledge is sometimes abused or trivialized, but it is now widely accepted as a base on which to develop a true environmental philosophy.

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A man in Limbaugh's position, I believe, must find ways to discredit that connection. That is his job. And Limbaugh is clearly very diligent about doing his job.

We might do well to consider Rush Limbaugh and his ways with words - not to banter with him, but because he should not so wantonly dominate and even seriously impact the most serious of topics. He should not be allowed to issue bigoted and racialist statements unchallenged. We should not pretend such languages and attitudes are proper for a public commentator of such wide reach.

Let's remember what Limbaugh said.

"The American Indians were meaner to themselves than anybody was ever mean to them."

This is the basic stereotype on Indians: a war-like nature. Limbaugh is starting by harping on this one. Watch him run with it again and again. It has just enough reality in it to make it useful. For instance, it is true that Indians warred, and that during wartime people sometimes acted with meanness and brutality. You won't hear from Limbaugh, however, how the damage inflicted in traditional Indian disputes pales in comparison to the mass exterminations carried out against tribes, or by nation-states against tribes, or by nation-states against civilian populations. It is a cheap stereotype. A trick.

"The people were savages. It's true, they damn well were ? scalping people."

This is a deepening of the stereotype, deceitful and manipulative, not only for what it says, but for what it hides and obfuscates.

By focusing on the "war-like" Indian image, by invoking the designation of "savage," the far more prevalent philosophies of Native American societies - governmental and spiritual application - the documented reality of Native American knowledge systems is completely left out of the listeners' perceptions. This reflects the Limbaugh style: over hours and hours each week, only negative images are reinforced of anyone Limbaugh perceives to be an enemy.

One never tunes in to find Limbaugh asking a Carl Sagan about ozone layer depletion or interviewing Native scholars on the variety of Native cultural viewpoints. Why present a balanced view when ridicule can suffice? Perhaps for Limbaugh a dialogue with "savages" would be unthinkable. "I am equal time," the commentator is prone to answer when questioned on the lack of balance in his shows.

They taught at my journalism alma mater that principles of public information handling were worked out over many decades. Major thinkers in American life contributed to the idea of balanced use of information channels - especially the national networks. Whether the law dictates it or not, the ethic holds that balanced journalism, well documented, is of central value to society. Simple, preferably depersonalized styles were expected from information handlers.

In that context, Limbaugh is to the national discourse what professional wrestling is to sports. Blowing his point of view often and loudly he takes center stage in the arena. His loud reductionism bombards the mind. His trick hold? The most scurrilous form of argumentation - crafting straw men for demolition - which he has down to a fine science. His sarcastic, constantly mocking style stresses the negative as primary - the negative, of course is whatever he is against; the positive and only the positive, of what he is for.

Still, despite his self-consciously arrogant style, Limbaugh can make people laugh. He is superb at skewering politicians' vanities, for instance. And no one is better at pulling out the loose threads of the Liberal coat, which he can then retie in clever knots of common logic, bathed in acid humor. He identifies some of what is wrong with the country after 40 years of (so-called) Liberal policies, and he can make sense. The problem is that Limbaugh projects his options in such one-sided, pin-the-blame contexts that the truth of matters is inevitably trivialized.

Limbaugh is superb at reducing environmentalism to some "animal rights nut" who won't kill a rat even to save her child from going through painful rabies shots. Listeners can identify with Limbaugh's outrage as his unbroken monologue guides us through. But then, hey, how about that spotted owl, he says and feigns eating a spotted owl, as if that somehow eliminates the need for bio-diversity conservation. Limbaugh tells us that there are more trees today than a century ago. Deforestation is not a problem. According to him, well, ahem, "there is not damage to the ozone layer, ha ha." Indians and the environment? Hey, "these people were out there destroying timber."

We used to know the difference between a stand-up comic with a political bent and a social commentator who, with respect and journalistic balance (the operative principle), integrates a range of information, analyzes the conflicting viewpoints, and strives to provide the public with a better ability to interpret. But Limbaugh blurs the two roles more thoroughly than anyone. His ego expands visibly as his "talent, on-loan from God," apparently grants him infallibility.

Limbaugh likes to run down a long list of people and causes that, in his eyes, fuel the Liberal conspiracy to end free enterprise, which must be saved from those he seems to consider less legitimate peoples with inferior viewpoints. That free enterprise might have excesses or that market-driven ideas are not always sacrosanct does not enter the picture. That some situation, might not fit within the Left/Right dichotomy seems inconceivable to Limbaugh. With him, it's full speed ahead, economically, and damn the rest. We can be sure how though: Native peoples - long condemned as "obstacles to progress" - are on the list.

It may be wise to keep watch on the bigoted views of Rush Limbaugh. Since he serves as a barometer of the national climate, familiarity with his points of attack can be useful. But remember also this truth, Native Americans - Limbaugh's so-called "savages" - carried out a prescribed protocol of participatory democracy that sat human beings in a circle. The object of discussion was placed in the center of the circle and in relation to it, everyone in the circle had a view, a unique vantage point. The truth was said to emerge from the common discussion, the respectful appreciation of everyone else's point of view. Highly trained specialists (elders) gathered the consensus. This style of governance spawned confederacies and produced a palpable freedom, a shared experience that inspired colonial American leaders, and that is more "of America" than Rush Limbaugh, from his glass-enclosed, push-button, over-blown, self-aggrandizing world will ever be.

Jose Barreiro, Ph.D., is senior editor at Indian Country Today.