OFF THE GRID

What Rush Limbaugh’s Bid for the Rams Tells Us About Hate Speech

Oct 15, 09 | 8:25 AM   byMichael Wolff
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I think I’ve got it—the hate in America and where it’s coming from.

Rush Limbaugh’s effort—aborted by his fellow investors, it seems—to buy the St. Louis Rams has given me the insight. Other people, when they don’t get something they want—and rich guys really want football teams; for them this is true love—get sulky, or shrill, or litigious.  (Well, Rush does threaten, of course: "We are in the process of working to get apologies and retractions with the force of legal action against every journalist who has published these entirely fabricated quotes about me.”) Rush immediately got out there and gave a speech which dismissed reality: "I'm not even thinking of exiting. I'm not even thinking of caving. I am not a caver. None of us are. We have been betrayed by too many who have caved. Pioneers take the arrows. We are pioneers. It's a sad thing but our country, over 200 years old now, needs pioneers all over again, but we do."

So the hate: I think people have a natural instinct to want to declaim, to inveigh, denounce, opine, and show-off to great rhetorical effect. It’s as natural as dreaming of playing major league baseball (it is, speech for speech’s sake, like baseball, a man’s thing). People (men) just want to hear themselves talk.

And the people who do it well, the only people who do it with any formality and structure, are conservatives. The art of this—the formal discipline of rhetoric taught in classrooms for generations—has fallen out of fashion in our era. Except, that is, on right-wing radio and on Fox News. It is the mesmerizing thing about all of these conservatives, not just the bile, but the cadence. Polemical liberals at worst sputter and at best debate, conservatives practice old-fashioned big-breath talking, long oom pa pa flights of castigation and censure and reproach and excoriation and threat and blame and denunciation in which meaning takes a back seat to verbal skill and style. Theirs is the ultimate lesson: You win all arguments if you don’t shut up.

Talking like this can seem like the ultimate defense. It’s like being a black belt in karate. No one can best you.

That’s what we learn from conservative bloviators: All of the frustrations and disappoints of modern life can, you make it appear, be beaten back and smacked down, if you can only talk.

Losing out on the pure joy of owning an NFL team—as close as you get to being a true potentate in America—Rush may be facing a level of personal disappointment that few of us can truly appreciate, but he’s not weeping. Instead he’s blissfully self-dramatizing, channeling his pain into a great rhythmic flow which blocks out the sound of anybody else.

This, I think, is the root of hate speech: The conservatives talkers have shown many fragile people how to use rhetorical effect—repetitions, rising and falling pitch, tempo, structured breathing, metonymy, synecdoche, and a variety of tried-and-true tropes (“our country over 200 years old now”), combined with passionate enmity—to achieve a little place in the sun.

Anyway, I think we should go back to teaching rhetoric in schools. It’s a talent and weapon that could well appeal to reasonable people as well as the emotional addled.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NewserColumns.
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