A friend invited me to accompany him to the Bren Events Center at UCI last week to hear a speaker named Russ Limbaugh, whose rapid rise to celebrity status in Southern California has piqued my friend's curiosity. As a result of that evening, I have a great deal more sympathy for the students at Cal State Fullerton who raised hell about the paid appearance on campus last Tuesday of Morton Downey Jr.
If--like me--you don't listen to talk radio shows, you are probably no more familiar with Russ Limbaugh than I was before I heard him speak. But, as he modestly pointed out during the 1 1/2 hours he held forth on the platform, he has the largest audience of any talk show in the United States. If that's true--and I have no reason to doubt it--then God help us all.
I had visited the Bren Center some weeks earlier to listen to a debate between Phyllis Schlafley and Sarah Weddington (the attorney who argued Roe vs. Wade before the Supreme Court), and the size of the audience was disappointing. The orchestra wasn't full, and there were only a scattering of people in the bleachers.
Last Thursday was very different. The obvious conclusion would seem to be that even on college campuses, people much prefer to hear their biases supported than to listen to both sides of a question. The center was packed for Limbaugh, and there was such a horrendous traffic jam on campus that the show--and I use that word advisedly--started a half-hour late so people could reach their seats.
Limbaugh described in graphic detail how Barney Frank--the Massachusetts congressman who has acknowledged his homosexuality--solicited and related to the male prostitute who once lived with him. Then Limbaugh asked his audience if any of them were carrying condoms. A number of young men and women approached the platform with condoms that Limbaugh opened and stretched over the microphone until they broke. He then delivered the moral of this exercise: that condoms won't prevent AIDS; only abstinence will.
His tagline throughout the evening was, "I didn't make this up"--even though he dealt admiringly with the probity of the Reagan Administration, which had the highest incidence of corruption in U.S. history. But mostly Limbaugh was obsessed with homosexuality; he must have spent at least a third of the evening railing on this subject. He invited questions from the audience which were delivered to the platform while he was talking, so he read them cold. One was a diatribe against gays that made even Limbaugh blanch, and he put it aside, saying, "This is really sick." What he apparently failed to recognize was that much of what he was saying was sick, too, and that he was encouraging that type of response from his audience.
I watched at first in awe, then consternation, and finally revulsion. Limbaugh works an audience as well as anyone I've ever seen--including Billy Graham and Father Coughlin. He can be funny--and was occasionally. His joke about John-John Kennedy running for the vice presidency and being told in a debate, "Mr. Kennedy, you're no Dan Quayle," was funny. But mostly he was cruel.
His technique was pie-in-the-face and knee-to-the-groin. And his audience--about evenly divided between student types and well-dressed middle-aged people--ate it up. He was telling them that it was not only OK but downright hilarious to be bigoted and selfish and hard-nosed and self-satisfied.
A social conscience is for the weak and sappy and ineffective in our midst.
I left the Bren Center with a lot of mixed feelings--and a fair amount of liberal guilt. Was I as culpable as they in only wanting to hear things that supported my own biases? I pondered speakers I'd heard and liked who offered a different point of view. I could think of only two: Mark Russell and Mort Sahl.
There are fundamental differences between their techniques and Limbaugh's. Both of them stick it to all points of the political spectrum (Sahl has become almost conservative). Both of them are subtle and seldom pick on people who can't defend themselves. Neither of them is cruel.
Maybe there should be no boundaries for satire, but I don't find jokes about the homeless very funny. Nor do cheap shots amuse me. Satire should be directed at the strong, not the weak. At the exploiters, not the exploited. At the bullies, not the victims.
All of us fight a constant battle to put down the unattractive facets of our humanity--the greed and fear and selfishness and deception and self-indulgence. Advertisers have learned that they can sell products by appealing--sometimes not very subtly--to these qualities. And ambitious people have discovered that they can get ahead in the world--in politics, entertainment, business--by doing the same thing.
Russ Limbaugh does that very well. He may not yet be in Morton Downey Jr.'s class as a right-wing provocateur, but he's getting there. Maybe his liberal associates at KFI use the same tactics from the opposite political point of view. I don't know. I just know that fanning the flames of bigotry--from whatever political direction--is something Orange County doesn't need right now. We've managed enough of it on our own. We don't need help.