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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 am an immigrant – and I believe “migrant” is a far from neutral term

 A seemingly neutral term like "migrant" is so potentially pernicious because we don’t take the kind of care we should in assessing its effect on us.

I am an immigrant. I came to the UK 20 years ago from the US to teach philosophy at the University of Sheffield, where I am now a professor. My American accent remains very strong. I used to be surprised when, despite hearing me speak, people would express anti-immigration sentiments to me, with a clear expectation of agreement. I would tell them that I am an immigrant. “I don’t mean you”, they’d respond, surprised that I count myself as an immigrant.

This shows that seemingly neutral words – like "immigrant" – are not always used in a neutral way. The supposedly neutral word "migrant" is increasingly used by the media to describe the large numbers of desperate people travelling into and across Europe, fleeing war and persecution.

But this use has recently come under attack.

To some, this attack is baffling. A migrant is just a person who migrates, surely, and these people are migrating. What can be wrong with this truthful description? One thing that might be wrong with it, however, is that, according to the UN, that’s not what a migrant is:

The term 'migrant'… should be understood as covering all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of 'personal convenience' and without intervention of an external compelling factor.

While maybe among the desperate risking their lives to escape places like Syria and Afghanistan, there is a person or two who has joined them for reasons of “convenience”, these people are surely vanishingly rare. According to the UN, then, it is simply factually wrong to call these people migrants.

But why, a more compelling objection goes, should we even care about language? People are dying and need help, and there goes the left again worrying about words. The reason to care about language is that the language we deliberate in shapes our deliberations. We’d see this without hesitation if racial slurs were being used to describe these people. And few people of good will would defend Katie Hopkins’ use of the term "cockroach". We know all too well how such clearly dehumanising words help put in place patterns of thought that make genocide possible. But "migrant"? "Migrant" is not a slur. 

Those who study the intersection of language and politics, however, have become increasingly aware that terms that seem innocent, like "migrant", can do some of the worst damage. This is because we are not aware of the ways that they are affecting our thought. Almost all of us, below our consciousness, are prone to ugly biases that we would reject if we were conscious of them. We see this in studies showing that people presented with the same CV judge it to be less attractive if the name at the top is a typically black one.

Apparently innocent words can come to function as dogwhistles, speaking to our unconscious in ways that our egalitarian conscious selves would reject if only we realised what was going on.

In America, the apparently race-neutral term "welfare" has come to be so strongly associated with black people that attitudes to any policy described using this term correlate with racial attitudes. Fascinatingly, adding an explicit reference to race removes this effect – if it’s too obvious, our conscious egalitarian selves step in. And this is why a seemingly neutral term like "migrant" is so potentially pernicious: it is not, as the UN recognises, actually a neutral term. But it seems like it is – which means we don’t take the kind of care we should in assessing its effect on us.

The suggested alternative terms are "refugee" – which calls attention to the fact that these people are fleeing intolerable conditions of violence; and the simple "human being" – which reminds us of our moral obligations. Either of these is an improvement on the inaccurate "migrant", which threatens to distort our discussions without our even realising it.

Professor Jennifer Saul is head of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield