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Laurie Penny on Rush Limbaugh: a vicious clown

When somebody is paid to say the worst possible thing, it allows someone else to say the next worst.

Before I arrived in the United States, I thought that Rush Limbaugh was a special American legend, like the headless horseman, or meritocracy.

Before this week, I thought the real Rush Limbaugh -- bile-spitting Conservative radio wingnut, professional despiser of women, workers and minorities and peddler of frothing crypto-fascist hatespeech to millions of listeners -- had long ago imploded under the pressure of his own hot air.

I thought of Limbaugh as a fairytale, the sort that liberal parents use to frighten their children into eating up all their alfalfa. It turns out that the beast is alive and embarrassing Republicans everywhere by saying what they really think about women in plain, paranoid English.

This week, Limbaugh launched a four-day attack on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, who testified before Congress to the effect that all Americans should have the right to affordable birth control, even if their bosses object to it on religious grounds.

Limbaugh called her a slut and a prostitute and wondered aloud how she could walk after all the sex she must be having.

The torrent of misogynist abuse was vile enough that advertisers scrambled to pull funding from Limbaugh's show, convinced by many of the millions of Americans who believe that no woman should be ashamed of wanting to live in the 21st century that the ultra-right pundit had finally "gone too far".

Too far, however is where Limbaugh is paid to go -- he is a cartoon monster, and that's precisely what makes him so dangerous. The trouble with cartoon monsters is that noone quite believes they're real.

Pundits as viciously hysterical as Rush Limbaugh -- and I do mean literally hysterical, "womb-crazy", driven spitting nuts by the notion of women's icky, sticky bodies becoming a known and open part of the political process -- pundits like that have only one real political function. They are decoys. they make a loud noise and a dirty flash and draw our eyes slightly to the right of where the real attack is coming from.

This week, as American right-wingers rushed to disavow the tone of Limbaugh's attack, they have barely been pulled up for backing up its substance. Commentators like Monica Charen got clean away with saying that Limbaugh's "choice of words was crude but that I certainly understood and sympathized with the point he was making."

The left has been drawn into defending the personal attack on Fluke's reputation -- and not the political attack on millions of American women in the anti-contraceptive, anti-sex backlash which is infecting public discourse on both sides of the Atlantic.

When somebody is paid to say the worst possible thing, it allows someone else to say the next worst thing and sound sane.

That's the real danger here, for women and for everyone else who believes in real sexual equality. In an apology so half-arsed it needed a special chair made for it at the misogyny table, Limbaugh said that he had not meant "a personal attack" on Ms Fluke, but noted that " I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities."

By "social activities", he means women having sex without fear of pregnancy, and by "pay for", he means "allow to continue without a government crackdown".

Limbaugh's essential point -- that women and girls who want the right to affordable contraception are prostitutes, that women who use contraception are sluts who should be ashamed of themselves -- remains largely unchallenged.

Americans call this a "war on women", but only one side appears to be putting up a fight.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times