North America 9 March 2012 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. Sign UpGet the New Statesman's Morning Call email. Sign-up 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. › No double-dip recession, just flatlining Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things. Subscribe To stay on top of global affairs and enjoy even more international coverage subscribe for just £1 per month!