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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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I’m in Bangladesh as I needed to put a few thousand miles between myself and the Hovel

So I had to go to Dhaka. To its literary festival, to be precise.

So I had to go to Dhaka. To its literary festival, to be precise. I was invited a few months ago, I’m not sure why. It was certainly before some maniac at the London Review Bookshop, probably desperate to drum up custom for an event I was chairing there, described me as “Britain’s most influential book critic”, a title that cheered me up, to be sure, but, for all the benefits that have accrued to me as a result, may as well have been “Ireland’s most unpredictable wasp”, or “Poland’s wonkiest ladder”.

My invitation to Dhaka arrived, instead, shortly before the July attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery by Islamist extremists, in which 29 people were killed. Before then, I had noticed that Bangladesh was becoming one of those countries where writers and atheists were hacked to pieces more than was strictly necessary, and had experienced some collywobbles, but an epic dinner at Rules given me by Ahsan Akbar, the festival’s director, made me snap my fingers at danger.

Really, it would have been rude to refuse to travel; besides, the threat I constitute to myself is at least on a level with the one posed by any militants. If you think I exaggerate, the state of my bedroom alone, which I have not allowed Martha the Cleaner to enter for the past three weeks, on the grounds that it is too shameful, is enough to make me want to kill myself. I had to get out of there before I did myself any further psychic damage by merely looking at it. It was time to put a few thousand miles between myself and the Hovel.

I have been in Bangladesh only a day now, but never, considering how I am being treated, has the title “Down and Out” been less applicable to the words beneath it. The journey started with an Emirates flight from Heathrow, and if what I was in was economy, then heaven alone knows what first class is like. Maybe it is heaven, and indeed the steps leading up to the next floor of the plane suggested something magical and other-worldly, like the staircase in A Matter of Life and Death.

I scanned the inflight entertainment brochure with awe. It covered several pages. I decided to watch La Grande Illusion, the Renoir classic, but then, realising that I actually have the DVD at home but just haven’t got round to watching it yet, settled on a binge-watch of episodes of M*A*S*H and a surprisingly fascinating documentary on the making of Star Trek: the Next Generation. This after playing the Velvet Underground for my take-off. The music selection itself, I must say, is incredible. It’s like flipping through the record collection of your coolest friend. Not just Unknown Pleasures and Never Mind the Bollocks: there’s Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, for crying out loud. I was aching for sleep, having pretty much not slept since the night of the US election, but it was almost too exciting.

And now Dhaka. We arrived in darkness, but this only made the lights of the police escort all the more visible. Having a police escort is a new experience for me, unless you count the more informally organised police escort I was offered after being caught with two tabs of LSD in the vicinity of Buckingham Palace in 1982. (Long story.) This time, though, the police were armed and, notionally, on my side, though one of them seemed to be giving us the evils.

“No,” said one of my fellow authors, “that’s just a sexy underlook.” (I hadn’t encountered the word “underlook” before, but from now on I intend to adopt one as part of my seduction technique, even if this might be a risky thing to try at my age.)

My fellow authors are delightful. They have to be. The English-speaking author abroad on a cultural jolly is bound by a firm obligation: to ensure that as much as possible of every conversation consists of a joke. I suspect that a convention of comedians would be notable for its seriousness of word
and deed; writers are happier to subvert themselves. Maybe. But even V S Naipaul, who opened the festival from his wheelchair, was able to crack wise a couple of times before and after cutting the ribbon.

The hotel is so luxurious that it fills me with guilt. As for Dhaka, I’ve not been here long enough, except to marvel at the traffic, which moves only at the exact moment you have given up all hope of ever moving again, and at the kindness of the people, and at the warm, soupy air. The city isn’t exactly tidy – but, as you might have gathered, that kind of thing isn’t going to bother me. l

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile