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Rush Limbaugh, Louis CK, and the Somebody-Else-Did-Something-Bad-Once-Too Argument

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An attack on Rush Limbaugh led in turn to Louis CK taking flak for some ugly past statements.

Here’s an easy way to tell when a political side realizes it’s on the bad end of a public controversy: rather than defend itself, or whichever of its allies is in trouble, it starts mentioning, loudly and frequently, examples of when someone from roughly the opposite political side did something comparable in the past. It calls a double standard. It declares media bias. It hopes it can reframe the controversy into a relitigation of past controversies and countercharges of “false equivalence” and leave the public thinking that, well, everyone’s kind of guilty, so what the hell?

It’s a change-the-subject strategy, or at least a change-the-target strategy. It’s the equivalent of a boxer in trouble trying to get into a clinch, in hopes of catching a breather when the ref untangles them and breaks it up. It’s the Somebody-Else-Did-Something-Bad-Once-Too argument, and it is apparently the tactic of choice for defenders of Rush Limbaugh right now.

So it was inevitable that, with Limbaugh’s show bleeding advertisers after he called Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute for advocating insurance coverage of birth control, that there would have to be a counter-target, and that ended up being Louis CK. The comedian, and star of FX’s brilliant Louie, was chosen in December to host the June 8 White House Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner, but he dropped out at the end of last week when conservatives and commentators, including Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren, complained about filthy remarks he made in 2010 about Sarah Palin.

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His comments about Palin–most of them from a Twitter rant he went on in September 2010 while drunk on an airplane–were nasty, and ugly, and specifically personal and sexual. Warning: I’m going to quote some of them—because I don’t think these kind of comments should be mitigated by bleeping— so avert your eyes if you don’t like reading very foul obscenities: “kudos to your dirty hole, you fucking jackoff cunt-face jazzy wonder girl”; “I want to rub my father’s cock all over Sarah Palin’s fat tits”; on the Opie and Anthony radio show, he referred to her “retard-making cunt,” in a reference to her son with Down syndrome.

I’m not going to defend the comments: they’re ugly and misogynistic. And I’m not going to lie: I thought Louis CK was a genius comic before he said those things and still do. Both things are possible at once. As I’ve said in numerous posts about his show and his comedy, Louis CK is a comedian and writer with a humane and empathetic outlook, but he’s also one whose comedy depends largely on exposing his darkest, ugliest fleeting thoughts. A commenter done with focusing on what he’s said about Sarah Palin could just as easily pick out lines from a routine he’s done, say, on child rape and murder. And yet I also think that Louis CK (the father of two daughters) has made some of the most insightful and soulful comedy about parenting I’ve ever watched.

Blah, blah, blah—you say: the old “he’s a comedian, he’s an artist, it’s doesn’t count!” excuse, right? So why can’t Limbaugh’s defenders say the same thing for him? For starters, there’s a basic fallacy in that argument: you could prove that Louis CK is the most reprehensible person on Earth and it would not make Limbaugh any better. More important, the “Limbaugh is just an entertainer” defense is, ironically, laughable. I mean, if you find him funny, good for you—I’m not going to argue that.

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But Louis CK is not a player in elections and a driver of politics the way Limbaugh is. (The main reason I found Louis CK a weird choice to host the dinner for the WHCD is that, with a few exceptions like this great routine on gay marriage, he’s not a very topical comedian at all.) Politicians don’t seek Louis CK’s endorsement; he doesn’t seek to sway political primaries; and party officials don’t go to him on bended knee for forgiveness after saying something critical of him. I can’t think of anyone on the opposite political side whose role and influence are even narrowly close to Limbaugh’s on the right—not even Obama SuperPAC donor Bill Maher, the subject of a similar Somebody-Else-Did-Something-Bad-Once-Too campaign for remarks he make about Republican women that were, yes, sexist and offensive, and, no, not equivalent to Limbaugh’s sustained public sexual shaming of a college-student advocate. Limbaugh, as he will gladly boast in better times, is a Republican political player, not Andrew Dice Clay circa 1990.

You might disagree; you might think they’re exactly the same, or close enough. The point, anyway, is not who wins this argument, the whole point is making sure that we have this argument because, if it becomes the issue, then Limbaugh himself is less so. The point is to turn this controversy into what every political controversy devolves to now: lugging out some philosophical scale and trying to litigate whether conservatives or liberals are the worse people, and who is more persecuted. The motivations here are hilariously transparent. Louis CK was chosen to host the dinner months ago; but only when Limbaugh got in trouble did it suddenly become very important that he be punished for his remarks about Palin.

This is what political argument is now: the maintenance of extensive lists of atrocities by people you disagree with, all of which have been insufficiently punished, all of which can in some way be compared to another incident in the future and each of which needs to be retroactively set right, until which time everyone should just lay off your side. Because unfairness! Because media bias! Because somebody else did something bad once too!

Which they did, of course, and which should earn them the unending gratitude of their political opposites, who just as surely will do something bad once again.

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