Sandra Fluke, a third-year law student at Georgetown University, testifies… (Alex Wong/Getty Images )
Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law school student Rush Limbaugh called a "slut" and a "prostitute," is intelligent, poised and coherent. That alone puts her miles ahead of her detractors.
She's been making the rounds this week on behalf of her argument that the insurance she pays for at Georgetown (insurance that is not, she says, subsidized by the Jesuit school) should cover prescription contraception for women. When she said all this to Congress, testifying in favor of the Obama administration's "insurance companies should foot the bill" rule on birth control, Limbaugh said she "wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex."
Fluke has addressed the slut business repeatedly — saying on "The View" on Monday that she'd prefer no penitent calls from Limbaugh (not that one was in the offing) as the "statements he made on the air about me have been personal enough" — but what she seems most interested in is restoring her argument to its original, pre-contorted state.
"I want to correct a misperception that Mr. Limbaugh and a lot of other commentators have been putting out there to confuse the public," Fluke said. "The idea that this is about taxpayers or the government paying for contraception."
Anyone who heard or read Fluke's testimony in its entirety would know that Fluke was hardly banging her fists on the table and demanding free birth control. Instead, she focused on the fact that contraceptives, particularly the pill, can have medical uses (even lifesaving ones) that have nothing to do with the number of babies brought into the world.
Limbaugh, however, is not in the business of understanding things in their entirety. He practices the "skim and scream" method of political and cultural analysis.
Before I go on, let me say that agenda-driven reductiveness is by no means limited to right-wing blowhards. Left-wing blowhard Michael Moore is highly skilled at cherry-picking facts and twisting them into amusing if cartoonish balloon animals. And Bill Maher? What he called Sarah Palin was wholly unacceptable.
But back to Fluke. Limbaugh, whose go-to label for assertive women is "feminazi," insulted Fluke no less than 50 times once he got started. (Incidentally, "feminazi," according to his first book, is "a feminist to whom the most important thing in life is ensuring that as many abortions occur as possible," which is an odd way to characterize someone who's committed to preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place.)
Meanwhile, commenters all over the Web echoed Limbaugh's sentiments with their own charming apercus: Fluke is so ugly she doesn't need birth control; she is a whining brat; she pretends to be an innocent student when she's really a 30-year-old community organizer working as a Democratic operative.
I won't list all the reasons this stuff arises when a woman speaks up about an issue even tangentially related to sex. But here's one that stands out for me: Sandra Fluke is the kind of woman that people like Limbaugh know nothing about. She's simply not on his radar screen. In the sad slice of America he represents, an America driven by fear of diversity, impatience with facts and an unwillingness to see things in anything but the starkest black-and-white terms, women come in two categories: dirty sluts and pushy feminazis.
Granted, the nasty labels don't carry much sting anymore. "Feminazi" is almost Limbaugh's version of calling everyone "dude." As for "slut," given that there's a movement to integrate the word into a kind of empowerment lexicon (mainly through rape-consciousness-raising "slut walks"), it would be intellectually dishonest to make it the touchstone for Limbaugh's general ickiness.
But what the slut/feminazi diametric does point to is an increasing tone-deafness to nuance. It's the reason you've heard sound bites from Fluke's testimony rather than all of what she actually said. It's the reason some people have such difficulty seeing how contraception could transcend the vagaries of one's own private life. It's the reason Fluke, initially misidentified as a "23-year-old coed" and subsequently pilloried as a "fraud" for being an adult with a resume, gets labeled a radical instead of recognized for what she really is: a measured voice that represents the vast majority of Americans.
It also may be why Limbaugh can't shake his paranoid hallucinations of trampy, castrating women. He doesn't have a clue what a real one is.