Over the past few days, the good Lord decided to play a cruel trick on the GOP for the second straight election cycle, aiming a hurricane directly at New Orleans just as the Republican Party was rolling out the red carpet and striking up the fanfare for its National Convention, at which it would formally introduce to the world a candidate with whom we have long since become familiar to the point of contempt, and would rally its troops with battle cries, “Down with the socialist!”
A major hurricane aiming for any stretch of the US coast threatens to upset the spirit of such an occasion, calling for unity when division and partisanship are at their highest pitch, calling for sobriety when self-congratulatory effusion is the order of the day. But a hurricane headed for New Orleans, as Gustav was during the 2008 RNC and Isaac was this year, is the worst scenario imaginable, summoning up the haunting memories of those dark days in late August and early September 2005, when Katrina dealt the US its deadliest blow in more than 75 years and drowned one of its great cities. In 2008, several key attendees at the Convention were forced to stay at home, some of the proceedings were abbreviated, and the tone was greatly sobered. Thankfully, Gustav spared New Orleans—just—while dealing much of the rest of SE Louisiana a punishing blow. This year, the same scenario was being replayed, but made even worse by two additional factors. First, some genius bigwig in the Republican Party, undeterred by the experience of Gustav, had the bright idea of scheduling this year’s convention in Tampa, FL, on the US Gulf Coast at the height of hurricane season. Isaac duly made its lumbering way toward Tampa at first, frightening the organizers into canceling the first day’s events. Then, having opted to spare Tampa, Isaac set his sights for New Orleans and timed his arrival to coincide exactly with the seventh anniversary of the Katrina catastrophe. A distraction like this was almost worse than the Convention being cancelled.
Unlike Katrina, then, Isaac didn’t even have to make landfall yet before igniting a political firestorm, as both parties jostled to make whatever hay they could out of this sensational turn of events. Understandably, the Republicans were in much the more difficult position, and so their fiercest champion strode forth, wielding the vorpal sword of his untamed tongue with a rare ferocity, and all but suggesting that the Democrats were steering Isaac via a remote control hidden deep in the dark fortress of Democratic Party headquarters. I am speaking, of course, of Rush Limbaugh.
Of course, he didn’t really say that about the remote control, so far as I’m aware, but his actual claims and insinuations were scarcely less ridiculous. Indeed, so much so that may people will say that it’s a silly waste of time even engaging them, or that I am making a mountain out of a mole-hill because he was so clearly joking. Jon Stewart, they say, makes outlandish, clearly false statements and no one bats an eye, because it’s a joke. Let’s give Rush the same benefit of the doubt, they say. Well, was he joking? In some remarks perhaps; in others, it certainly seems not. It is, at any rate, far from clear—unlike Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh doesn’t have a laugh-track studio audience, and doesn’t burst into a silly grin at his own jokes (not that we can see, at any rate), to clue us in. This lack of clarity means that he bears a greater responsibility for the reliability of his remarks, and how they might be taken, than a mere satirist (and even a satirist isn’t off the hook entirely, as we shall discuss below). Moreover, for millions of Americans, Rush is their chief source of political news and opinion, their source for facts. Limbaugh has been called “The Number One voice for conservatism in our Country,” and has received the William F. Buckley, Jr. Award for Media Excellence and a “Defender of the Constitution Award” from CPAC; in a 2009 Zogby poll, he was rated “the most trusted news personality in America,” garnering 12.5% of responses. That being the case, he has to be taken seriously, whether we want to or not, and his remarks have a great capacity to do harm.
So what were these remarks? Well, there were a great number, over several broadcasts. But among the most controversial were the following (see also here and here):
“The media is now out there saying that Hurricane Katrina is hanging like a pall over the Republican convention in Tampa. So this whole thing has been politicized, as the Democrats politicize everything, and that’s why we are talking about it. Now, I want to remind you: All last week… And, no, at no time here am I alleging a conspiracy. At no time. With none of this am I alleging conspiracy. All last week what was the target? Tampa. What was going on in Tampa this week?
The Republican National Convention. A pretty important one, too. Introducing the nominee, Mitt Romney. It’s only after the convention that Romney can actually start spending all of this money that he’s raised, so this convention is very important. It’s a chance to introduce Romney to a lot of people who don’t know him yet. And I noticed that the hurricane center’s track is — and I’m not alleging conspiracies here. The hurricane center is the regime; the hurricane center is the Commerce Department.
It’s the government.
And I’m noticing that that track stayed zeroed in on Tampa day after day after day. And the Republicans reacted to it accordingly over the weekend, canceling the first day of the convention. What could be better for the Democrats than the Republicans to cancel a day of this?
And at eight p.m. Saturday night I see one of the biggest, one of the largest shifts in model forecast I have seen since 1997 when I moved down here and started caring about this stuff and started studying it….This was a beeline. This is gonna follow the coast of Cuba right up to New Orleans, in every model. Again, I’m alleging no conspiracy. I don’t want anybody thinking I’m going somewhere with this. I’m just telling you what happened.
I’m sharing with you my thought process, ’cause I know full well that if you give these people the slightest chance and they’re gonna turn this into Katrina and they’re gonna scare the hell out of New Orleans and they’re gonna revive, “Bush doesn’t care about people” and revive all of it. They’re gonna politicize everything ’cause they do it. And now they had the model runs allowing them to do it.
Now they had these model runs allowing them to start scaring the hell out of people in New Orleans and make political connections to Bush.
It was all there.”
There are a great many points to pick up on here, but let’s first deal with the obvious issue: his non-conspiracy theorist conspiracy allegation. Repeatedly in the broadcast, he hints that there must be some conspiracy, for there is just so much coincidence that it’s “unbelievable,” but repeatedly states that he is alleging no conspiracy. This is of course the oldest game in politics—”Hey, I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’…” He suggests that there’s something very fishy and unsavory going on, but makes sure he can protest innocence of having actually accused government officials of criminal breaches of the public trust—although in this particular quote, he comes very close to it. I expect that Limbaugh is too smart to actually think that the NHC deliberately distorted the forecast. To this extent, people who have defended him to me on the basis that he was deliberately making an outlandish claim just to enrage the liberal media are probably right. But neither was it a mere joke, an isolated outlandish claim. On the contrary, the entire broadcast was dedicated to a meticulous (though in fact highly distorted and inaccurate) point-by-point narrative of the timeline of various forecasts regarding the hurricane, suggesting various things that didn’t add up, that were too odd to be coincidence.
Of course, his dark hints didn’t seem to add up with one another. On the one hand, he notes that the computer models shifted the forecast track suddenly away from Tampa and toward New Orleans immediately after the Republicans decided to cancel the first day of the Convention, suggesting that the forecast toward Tampa was merely an attempt to disrupt the convention, and once that mission was accomplished, the convention could then be best further disrupted by forecasting a hit on New Orleans. Both the original forecast toward Tampa and the later forecast towards New Orleans were, on this view, politically motivated. But what about the fact that the hurricane did in fact make a bullseye hit on New Orleans, just as the later forecast called for? Does that not vindicate the new forecast? Did the NHC just get lucky? On the other hand, Limbaugh elsewhere in the broadcast chides the NHC for not acting immediately on these new model runs (which they had apparently conjured for political ends), and staunchly maintaining its near-Tampa forecast well beyond when it was justified based on the computer models. Clearly, these two sets of accusations don’t fit together. If the NHC made up the model runs (which, in any case, is impossible, as they are generated by a whole slew of different agencies and research institutions around the world, many of which are not under US gov’t control) to cause a panic about New Orleans, then why would they hold off on actually updating their forecast track accordingly? Or if the accusation is that the NHC was foolishly disregarding its reliable models, then what was the point of casting doubt on the trustworthiness of the models? If the problem is that the forecast is all just politically motivated, then how was it so amazingly accurate in the end (once the NHC figured out that New Orleans was under the gun, it nailed the forecast track, missing by only 25 miles with its 48-hour forecast, compared to an average error of 80 miles over that time frame). The fact that the various dark hints don’t even add up with one another, much less with the real world lends credence to the suggestion that a lot of this was just an act. But to what end, we must ask?
Some will say, “Just to make the liberals mad. To make them freak out and actually believe that he meant it, and waste their energies attacking him.” So his defenders will say. Even if this is true, it is a weak defense indeed, since I’m not sure when saying something offensive just to make your opponents mad became a legitimate purpose of public speech. (We will return to this later.) But I think clearly there is a further motivation—which is to undermine public trust in the government, and encourage conservatives in a sense that everyone is out to get them, and perhaps in league against them. These inchoate convictions rarely operate quite at the level of propositional logic, but are more like gut emotions. Therefore, Limbaugh does not have to make actual hard and fast accusations; he merely has to create an atmosphere of suspicion, a sense of unease, a sense that there are dark dealings afoot, and that the one entity you can never trust is “the regime, the government.”
This notion of Limbaugh’s that the National Hurricane Center is “the regime. It’s the government. It’s Obama” is sufficiently striking as to call for us to pause and comment. Rarely has the right’s totalitarian pathology been more neatly showcased. The right has in recent years forgotten entirely what “the government” is—namely, a widely-dispersed collection of agencies, bodies, and leaders, each with different defined spheres of authority, representing different sections of the body politic and serving it in a wide variety of ways. We have this nifty thing called separation of powers in the US, and also a division of levels between federal, state, and local, so that there is no unitary abstraction that one can simply peg as “the government,” much less “the regime,” but really just a bunch of people doing their jobs, some badly, some well (and needless to say, they aren’t all under the direct control of Herr Obama). For this good old American constitutional perspective, modern conservatism has substituted a baldly totalitarian conception, in which we find ourselves faced with a united Leviathan, subsuming all authorities and directed by a single baleful will, which it has pitted against the American people using all its resources.
Now, conservatives may respond that this is not what they want, but what the liberals have created. The Constitutional separation of powers has broken down. State and local functions have been devoured by the federal government. Well yes, to some extent. But not so completely as folks like Limbaugh pretend. And the terrible thing is that with this sort of rhetoric, conservatives are accelerating the process. We must not underestimate the power of the imagination when it comes to politics—this is one of the best lessons I learned from the work of William Cavanaugh. Political realities can only proceed so far, unless empowered by the collective imagination. If oppressive regimes capture the imaginations of the people, making them yield to fear, then they become as powerful as feared. If the people see through the pretensions of the regime, and see themselves as free, then they become so. If we make a Leviathan of the government in our imagination, then it becomes a Leviathan. If we see it as just a collection of fallible representatives and often petty bureaucrats, then that is what it becomes. If we see it as an enemy standing over against us and trying to quash our freedoms, we will find liberty and authority in inescapable conflict; but if we see it as a guardian of our liberties, or still better, as a representative apparatus through which we can exercise our corporate agency, then we may be surprised to find that freedom and authority begin to work in harmony. All that is merely an aside, but an important one. Limbaugh wants his listeners to see the National Hurricane Center, and every branch of government, as part of “the regime,” part of “Obama,” part of the enemy. This, combined with his conspiratorial suggestions, has the clearly-intended effect of undermining public trust in the NHC.
It is not hard to see why this is a big deal, but I will dwell on it, because it is a pet peeve of mine. There are few agencies of the federal government that do finer work than the National Hurricane Center, few that more obviously fulfill the purpose of good government—identifying threats to its citizenry, and working to disseminate information to the citizenry to warn them of dangers, and to the authorities to help them coordinate a response. The NHC is in fact one of the US gov’t agencies with a substantial altruistic component, as it supplies data to other governments in the Caribbean and Mexico to help them warn and prepare their citizens as well. It is no exaggeration to say that many thousands, indeed tens of thousands of lives, have been saved in recent years by the NHC’s work. In terms of its forecasting competence, the NHC far outstrips its international counterparts, such as the Joint Typhoon Warning Centre, and it is always improving the accuracy of its forecasts. It is admirably unflappable when beset both with bewildering storms that seem downright unforecastable (as Isaac seemed at times), and the political tempests in which it regularly finds itself. For the NHC’s is a terribly thankless job. For all its advances, the science is still far too poorly-understood for forecasts to be as precise as we would like. The NHC must therefore always walk a fine line between excessive paranoia, with devastating economic consequences as unnecessary evacuations are ordered, and complacency, with devastating human consequences as people are not adequately warned, and death tolls mount. In either case, it faces severe public backlash and pressure from public officials and the media. Indeed, usually in any given major storm, it manages to receive both accusations simultaneously. Such has been the case with Isaac, as some in SE Louisiana, like the President of Plaquemines parish, have chided the NHC for under-forecasting the danger from Isaac, and from classing it as a Category 1 when they think it clearly deserves a Category 2 or 3 designation, from the level of devastation. As a matter of fact, the very serious storm surge risks posed by Isaac were clearly emphasized in every forecast the NHC put out for the last 48 hours before landfall—with a maximum surge of 12-15 feet predicted, which may have been just slightly surpassed in one or two communities that reported 16 feet. Likewise, the NHC thoroughly evaluated all the evidence regarding intensity, and there was none to suggest that Isaac was in fact a Cat. 2, but the NHC did emphasize that because of Isaac’s size, Cat. 2 and 3-level effects would be felt. On the other side, many, including Limbaugh, accused the NHC of over-hyping the danger. “It’s just a Category 1, for goodness’ sake!” The same accusation was leveled after Hurricane Irene last year (which became the fifth most damaging storm in history), and this is a dangerous accusation to be bandying about. If the public gets it into its head that the NHC is over-hyping the danger, or has tended to over-hype the danger in the past, then the public is inclined not to take warnings so seriously, at present or in the future, and not to act on these warnings. Evacuations that are ordered do not take place, lives that should have been saved are lost.
This is particularly difficult for the NHC because it relies so much on the media to get its message out that the public often identifies or confuses the two. The NHC’s sober, carefully-worded forecast is mediated through breathless and hyperbolic reporters, and when they prove unreliable, the blame frequently falls upon the NHC. The problem here, of course, is that the media, through which the message reaches the public, has a rather different agenda than the NHC, an ulterior motive. And it is not, as Rush Limbaugh is convinced, that the media is hell-bent on undermining the Republican party. If that were the case, why would they bother to report on the convention at all? Why not just give it the silent treatment? Conservative claims of a conspiracy in the “liberal media” are as old as the hills, and they aren’t getting one bit more convincing with age. To the extent that we can speak of the media as a whole (and it’s worth pointing out that the reified abstraction “the media” is every bit as much an imaginary bogeyman as “the government”), its primary objective, far more important than any political preferences among newscasters, is to make money. And they make money by increasing ratings. And they increase ratings by generating hysteria or controversy. This weekend gave them an immense opportunity for both. If the media over-hyped the risk to the GOP convention (as I have little doubt they did), it was not because they were trying to sabotage it, but because they knew it would keep viewers glued to their screens. (There is certainly no reason to blame the forecasters here—on the contrary, they were always very modest in the claims they made of the potential threat to Tampa. Hurricane expert Jeff Masters, for instance, put out regular updates on the odds that the storm would force an evacuation in Tampa. They never climbed above 2 or 3%.) If they then over-hyped the risk to New Orleans (and, though I wasn’t watching them, I’m not sure that they did—for Isaac posed a very grave risk indeed), it was for the same reason: money.
This leads to consideration of another of Limbaugh’s startling claims in this broadcast—that there is no reason why an imminent deadly threat to New Orleans should affect the convention at all:
“Last night on NBC Nightly News, the anchor Lester Holt is speaking with the chief White House correspondent F. Chuck Todd about Tropical Storm Isaac and the Republican convention. And Lester Holt said, ‘You have this storm churning offshore. It may not make a big deal in Tampa, but is there some concern about the tone of the convention if we are seeing communities along the Gulf Coast suffering some heavy damage?’ Now, why would that have anything to do with the Republican convention? In the real world, why would a hurricane striking anywhere in the Gulf have anything to do with the Republican convention? With the tone of the Republican convention?”
Rush elaborates on this in follow-up broadcasts—how dare “the liberal media” act like the potential crisis in New Orleans should distract in any way from the important proceedings in Tampa? This is not merely the Republican National Convention, he tells us. It’s “a pretty important one, too. Introducing the nominee, Mitt Romney. It’s only after the convention that Romney can actually start spending all of this money that he’s raised, so this convention is very important. It’s a chance to introduce Romney to a lot of people who don’t know him yet.” Indeed. That is the one tragedy of this election cycle, isn’t it? That we’ve heard so little about Mr. Romney. For the past 18 months, Americans have been desperately flipping channels, hoping to learn something about this person, but they’ve scarcely had the chance to see his face. All kidding aside, Limbaugh displays here a frightfully distorted sense of what politics is about. For him, politics is a war, a fight to the death which “we” (the conservatives) must win, and which “they” (the liberals) must lose. But that’s not what politics is supposed to be about. Politics is the business of serving and protecting the people of our country, caring about and pursuing their well-being. If the Republicans are genuinely interested in that, then it should be deeply relevant to them that the lives of thousands are in danger. It may not be feasible to call off the convention, but it must clearly affect its tone, and any responsible Republican should be more than happy for the convention’s proceedings to take a backseat to the unfolding crisis.
Hurricanes and natural disasters are one of God’s chief ways of keeping us humble. All of our plans and preparations can be suddenly brought to naught by immense powers beyond our control. Political maneuvering that once seemed so important is suddenly put into perspective, and recognized for the relative pettiness it really is, while life-and-death decisions take center stage. One mustn’t be hasty to read divine intentions into particular weather events, but ultimately, it was God—not the liberal media, not the National Hurricane Center, that was interfering with the Republican National Convention, taking it out of the limelight, humbling its pretensions. Limbaugh’s bizarre accusations against everyone from Lester Holt to Obama to the National Hurricane Center to computer models run by the “European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts” the National Hurricane Center are the result of his refusal to accept this humbling.
Now, what about the “satire” defense—the idea that Limbaugh was so obviously making outlandishly exaggerated claims that he did not really intend anyone to believe them, and so they are to be excused? As I have argued above, I find this a very unconvincing reading of the broadcasts in question. Many of his claims he did intend to be believed, and others, while not necessarily intended to be taken at face value, were clearly intended to encourage in his hearers a deep-seated suspicion of authority—well, every authority but himself, at any rate. Even if this were not the case, and he meant for such remarks to be taken in jest, this does not give him a free pass. Even comedians can cross the line and say something so offensive as to merit condemnation, and even a comedian cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theatre. When there are lives on the line, as there certainly when someone questions the trustworthiness of the NHC during a dangerous hurricane, the standards are necessarily much higher. And the “satire” defense can really only work when the speaker’s joking intention is manifestly obvious, as it clearly was not in this case. When I asked one faithful Limbaugh listener for clarification, he told me, “You can’t listen to the man in sound bites to see from where he comes. You have to listen for three hours a day five days a week for about six weeks to begin to understand something of the man’s thought process.” Unfortunately, many people are not willing to listen to Mr. Limbaugh for three hours a day five days a week six weeks in a row, and the nature of radio in today’s era is that it comes in sound bites. If Limbaugh knew that his insiders, his faithful following, would have recognized that it was all just one big joke (which still seems implausible), he must surely have known that many others would hear his remarks and take them seriously—either (for the conspiratorially inclined) as a serious indictment of the NHC and Obama, or (for the rest of us) as serious evidence of his derangement. In either case, Proverbs 26:18-19 is strikingly apropos: “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, Is the man who deceives his neighbor, And says, ‘I was only joking!'”
Limbaugh’s remarks, in short, are an excellent example of the danger to society that comes when “free speech” becomes a free-floating subjective right, a liberty whose exercise never needs any justification beyond the whims of the speaker, instead of being firmly anchored, as it once was, within a nexus of objective public duties that it was to serve. Public speech comes with an obligation to contribute to the public good, an obligation to speak the truth, and a legal guarantee of free speech is intended as a bar to oppressive censorship that would prevent such healthy truth-telling in public debate. Such a guarantee only works when the citizenry still understands that they are bound by a moral duty to use this freedom responsibly; otherwise, it becomes a mere license to abuse, offend, deceive, distort, incite, and enrage, a license whose effects often prove far more harmful than the evils of censorship. When such speech proceeds to the point of insinuating to citizens that their leaders are willing to gamble away their lives for the sake of immediate political gain, it qualifies as what would have once been recognized and prosecuted as sedition. If we continue to feel that it is safer to leave sedition unprosecuted than to give the government power over speech that it might abuse, then the burden that falls on us as citizens is correspondingly greater. If the authorities are to remain passive in the face of madmen who throw firebrands, then we as citizens must be active, active in speaking out against liars and allowing them no place of influence, boycotting them and refusing to give them our advertising dollars.
Some will complain that it is unfair to single out Limbaugh—there are a host of talking heads on the right and the left that are just as bad. That may be so, and to the extend that it is, this applies to them as well. Rather than continuing to accept the proliferation of absurd and untrue speech on both sides of the political divide, Christians need to embrace their responsibility to be guardians of the truth and haters of falsehood wherever it may appear.