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I don't like e-mail asking me to sign a petition any more than I like a telemarketer calling at dinnertime. A digital petition doesn't signify much of anything because big numbers are so easy to come by; furthermore, it advances the most sinister work of the Internet—which is slicing and dicing the American population into niches that don't know, don't want to know, and despise each other.
On Wednesday I got e-mail from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that began: "250,000 Signatures Needed: Demand Rush Limbaugh’s sponsors pull their ads after his rape comments."
The e-mail went on: "Since Rush Limbaugh's disgusting comments on sexual assault came out, more than 191,000 have signed to demand his sponsors drop him. It's already one of our most successful petition launches ever! We need to hit 250,000 signatures today to put real pressure on those companies to drop Rush once and for all."
The e-mail offered a taste of Limbaugh's views. Discussing student regulations at Ohio State University, he'd commented: "[According to Ohio State policy,] consent must be freely given, can be withdrawn anytime, and the absence of 'no' does not mean 'yes.' How many guys, in your own experience with women, have learned that no means yes if you know how to spot it? . . . Are these [policies] not lawsuits waiting to happen?"
Looking further, I found this video of Limbaugh's two-and-a-half-minute peroration Monday on Ohio State, and on his own website a transcript of everything he'd had to say on the subject of feminism and what he called the reprogramming of men. Limbaugh said nothing we hadn't heard before, and back in the 1950s much of it would have passed for conventional wisdom. "I don't know how men can be held to that Ohio State agreement, policy, anyway," said Limbaugh, "because everybody knows in sex men don't think with their brains. Not the one in their heads, anyway. It's just so silly."
Whatever brain Limbaugh thinks with, it could stand some fresh air. But even if that's a given, it doesn't answer the question, Should we sign the petition? I won't.
Freedom of speech, put simply, is the freedom to have your say—and then accept the consequences. The consequences could be a libel suit. They could be a petition designed to drive you from the airwaves. Ideally, however—and I try hard to be an idealist on this topic—the consequences are someone else saying why you're wrong in a voice equal to your own. Maybe no one voice has been the equal of Limbaugh's, but collectively his big yap has gotten a run for its money.
The Democratic Party shouldn't be in the business of trying to shut people up. And it shouldn't play the game of pretending to try to shut people up. I think the DCCC likes Limbaugh right where he is—a noisy, right-wing boogeyman the Dems can point to a few weeks before national elections to scare progressives into saddling up. This petition drive won't cost Limbaugh sponsors and the Dems know it; it won't tell the sponsors anything they don't already know about who Limbaugh is and what he does and which people he drives crazy.
Politico blogger Dylan Byers talked to one unnamed Democratic "campaign strategist" who thinks the petition is a mistake. "Using rape to build lists is just wrong, and they'd slam any Republican doing it," the strategist told Byers. "Limbaugh's comments are disgusting, and should be called out, but this is the wrong way of doing it."
They're not even that disgusting—they're weary and banal. There's a big difference between wishing somebody would just shut up and trying to make them. Try to make them and you've stupidly ceded them the moral high ground, which makes no sense at all if you're a political party.