I heard a recent clip from Rush Limbaugh’s broadcast, in which he commented upon Michelle Obama and Jill Biden serving as Grand Marshals at a NASCAR event over the weekend. Evidently, a portion of the crowd responded quite negatively to them. Limbaugh took it upon himself to explain that reaction from a crowd that was, in his words, insulted by the first lady’s presence there. Most any viewpoint that I hear Limbaugh express raises questions as to how, throughout decades in broadcasting, the man has managed to insulate himself so completely from anything that resembles evolution of thought or self-awareness.
A quick glance at other mentions of this incident on news sites and blogs indicates that many people are focusing on Limbaugh’s use of the word “uppity,” and the evident racial element to that kind of terminology. And while that is worth examining, I don’t like to put too much emphasis on the semantics of people’s stupid commentary. I’m willing to give Limbaugh the benefit of the doubt on things like that, and accept that he was using the word in a colloquial sense to refer to arrogance and haughtiness. Perhaps Limbaugh is simply unaware of the racial history of the term stemming from its original use by blacks in describing other blacks who seemed too invested in moving upward in a white-dominated society.
It’s a bit presumptuous to claim that Limbaugh’s use of the word denotes racism, though it very well may, but I think it’s perfectly fair to conclude from it that either Limbaugh doesn’t pay any attention to the issue of racial sensitivity or he hasn’t realized at any point in his long career in radio that words have consequences.
Still, language is kind of an esoteric way to criticize commentary that is so much more easily cut down by pointing out self-delusion and rational flaws. What Limbaugh offered, apparently as the principal reason why the crowd saw fit to give Mrs. Obama such a disrespectful reception was this:
“The first lady has to take her own Boeing 757 with family and kids and hangers on four hours earlier than her husband who will be on his 747. NASCAR people understand that that’s a little bit of a waste.”
Now, his further comments suggest that he means “waste” in a purely fiscal, “those are my tax dollars” kind of way. I hope to God that that is indeed what he means, because if he thinks the people in attendance at an event where dozens of cars drive in a circle for five hundred miles are concerned about fuel conservation, he’s far more insane than I ever gave him credit for.
So, supposing that the source of the outcry is little more than the spending of public money, let’s look at this rationally. A jet like a Boeing 757 gets about three miles to the gallon, and the latest figures that I was able to find for the price of jet fuel place it at $3.20 per gallon. There’s about a thousand miles between Washington D.C. and Miami, so if that’s the trip we’re talking about, the first lady’s plane expended roughly 1067 dollars’ worth of fuel in getting there. If we ask for an equal share of that from just 150 million Americans – substantially less than half of the present population – then each of them is made to contribute just over two ten-thousandths of a cent to the trip. Of course, what Limbaugh seems to deem unforgivable is Michelle Obama going to the same place as her husband, except earlier. So we can double the per capita figure to about four-and-a-half ten-thousands of a cent. Is that personal loss what each of the members of the crowd was jeering at?
I recognize that the criticism of Mrs. Obama’s use of public funds extends far beyond one trip to Miami. I understand that the crowd wasn’t making so direct a connection between the first lady’s travel arrangements and their decision to give her such a cold reception. But my point here is to ask, does Rush Limbaugh understand that?
I think it was tasteless across the board for the crowd to boo Mrs. Obama, especially seeing as she was there to promote a charitable organization that serves our military veterans. But I don’t ascribe a single point of view, much less one so narrow in scope, to everyone who joined in on that chorus. I imagine that some people think she spends too lavishly given the state of the nation’s economy, but also that some were jeering at her as nothing more than a proxy for her husband’s political career. I also believe that some portion of the noise was probably coming from racists who just plain don’t like the uppity black woman taking center stage at their event.
I do not believe, however, that it’s possible to attribute Rush Limbaugh’s personal views to an entire crowd of people at a massive sporting event. Yet I think Limbaugh himself does just that in explaining just what it is that “the NASCAR people understand.” And by so doing, I think Limbaugh tends to shield his own very personal, unfair verbal assaults behind the imagined worldview of a group that probably possesses much more nuance in its collective thinking than is convenient for him.
I hope that some of the members of that crowd realize that the real insult against them is this kind of black-and-white thinking, which holds that there are only two ways of thinking about anything – the wrong way, and the Limbaugh way.