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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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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood