Monday, August 08, 2005

Responses to Dennis Prager and Rush Limbaugh

About a year ago I was a staunch conservative who had only the highest praise for Dennis Prager and conservative ideology alike. As you know, I am The Middle Ear now, and these columns further demonstrate to me what is the even more distancing of these individuals. The last column, on Rush, is such a devastating account of the man which it makes it awfully difficult to persuasively support him.

A Response to Dennis Prager
In an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times on Sunday, May 29th, conservative political pundit Dennis Prager revealed a great insight that came to him some years ago in a debate with Alan Dershowitz, whom Prager dismisses as "a Harvard liberal." That insight or "epiphany" for him was that the central genesis of the culture war in America is not between religions per se, but rather "the great divide in values is…between those who believe in a divine text and those who do not." "What distinguishes leftist Jews from rightist Jews and leftist Christians from rightist Christians…comes down to their belief in the bible, not their belief in God." He then goes on to argue that some Jews and some Christians believe that their sacred texts come "from God" and "are divine" and some Jews and Christians believe that biblical texts are "man-made": "conservative Jews and Christians share the belief that God revealed a text (while) liberal Jews and Christians share the belief that this text is man-made."


The problem with this smug argument is that it mischaracterizes the belief of those who disagree with a narrow, literalistic reading of sacred text as people who fail to hold sacred writings as divine, who are guided more by heart and sentiment than by the Word of God.

To argue that scripture is "from God" (Prager) is too simplistic by far; for what conservative Christians and Jews really suggest is that scripture is "authoritative and determinate" based on its "inerrancy." Evangelicals, faced with inconsistencies in scripture - e.g. the creation story in Genesis One in which God creates man and woman in his image simultaneously and Genesis Two in which man is created first and needing a helpmate, Eve is formed from Adam's side - argue that in their "original autographs," God's word is without error and that until these are found, we are bound to a corrupted and yet authoritative text.

From this "high theology" of scripture, conservative Jews and Christians argue for a closing of debate on settled issues of moral values (and by implication public policy). In his op-ed piece, Prager argues that there are four: that marriage can not be redefined to include gays and lesbians; that human life, not animal life, is sacred; that murderers should be executed and that people are not essentially good. (That conservative Roman Catholics read the same text and hold the same high regard for scripture as God's Word and conclude that a consistent and seamless regard for the sacredness of human life makes the death penalty unacceptable and immoral seems to have eluded Mr. Prager; that the Hebrew scriptures he holds so dear say in Genesis that "God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good" [Genesis 1:31] also seems to have been lost.)

The sin (defined as "missing the mark") of Dennis Prager is to selectively elevate portions of sacred text which justify conservative politics (the death penalty, "defense of marriage", exploitation of the environment) and to ignore the vast witness of both Testaments which, for example, condemn the abuse of the poor by the rich. To paraphrase Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical, in speaking of these believers: "I don't question their good faith; I question their bad theology." To say that scripture is "divinely inspired" is simply to say that God, not the written word, is divine. There is a danger in idolatry, including biblio-idolatry. Such narrow and uncritical reading of scripture leads not to God but to human enmity and strife.

Surely Dennis Prager knows that the scriptures of the so called "New Testament" were written by Jews who told the story of a Jewish rabbi who claimed that "no one comes to the Father but by me." If God's word is divine, then why are these words not binding for Jews, liberal or conservative? Many conservative Christians believe that they are and that there is no place in God's economy for the unconverted. That Mr. Prager, as a Jew does not accept this portion of 1st century Jewish sacred text as binding for him as a Jew, does not make it less so. The great pathos in Paul's epistles is his sadness for his fellow Jews who refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah. His call to them was to "repent and believe (accept as God's revealed truth) the gospel" that Jesus is Lord.

Dennis Prager is a gifted speaker and writer but his dismissal of those who don't agree with him as being merely "guided by the heart" ("do I listen to my heart or to what I believe is God's word?") is intellectually dishonest and unworthy. Many of us believe we should and must read the bible in the fullness of our humanity, through the God given faculties of head and heart; and to approach these texts with humility and wonder but ultimately knowing that they point the way to God but are indeed not Gods' self.

Dennis Prager and other conservatives have the right to read and interpret scripture as they wish. As progressives, we honor their voice and their perspective in that on-going dialogue with texts which are indeed "living words" which speak with newness and power to each generation. But we will not allow the conservative and repressive voices to claim for themselves the mantle of true and sole Godliness, nor allow them to dismiss those of us with an alternative view as being people of less faith or less integrity.
-St. Augustine

Dennis Prager and The Ecological Indian
Krech, a white anthropologist, says Indians killed more buffalo than they needed when they drove them over cliffs. Prager acts surprised by this "revelation." My response:

1) That’s a fairly well-known fact, despite what Prager thinks 99% of Americans think. To pretend it’s a secret the PC police have tried to conceal is nonsense.

2) The buffalo jumps were carried out by a few tribes out of many that hunted buffalo. For one thing, you had to have cliffs nearby to conduct the maneuver. Vast stretches of the Great Plains had no usable cliffs...which is probably why there weren’t many buffalo jumps south of the Dakotas.

3) So what if some Indians killed, say, 50 buffalo when they needed 10...when there were still a million buffalo extant? Do conservationists use every scrap of wood and bark when they cut down a tree? Every scrap of meat and hide when they kill a cow? Do they never litter or discard a half-eaten meal?

Of course not. We don’t live in that needy a society. Even the best of us wastes a little because we can.

To equate Indians killing an extra 40 buffalo to Europeans killing the remaining 999,850 buffalo (leaving 100 of 1,000,000 alive) is the worst sort of joke. It’s intellectual sophistry and Prager is guilty of it. Does the word "vile" or "reprehensible" suggest anything to you?

Were the Indians comparable to today’s conservationists? Hell, yes. They wasted a little because all humans do, but they didn’t touch the overall supply. Their actions conserved the population even if they didn’t conserve every animal.

Were the Indians comparable to today’s Euro-Americans? Hell, no. The Europeans killed entire species—as in permanently extinguished them. They also clearcut 90% or more of the virgin forests they found. In no way, shape, or form were the two groups equivalent.

Deer and beaver
Krech claims the Indians of middle America almost wiped out the deer and beaver. My response:

Both these alleged cases of massive hunting happened after Europeans arrived with their colonizing culture—a fact Prager the sophist neglected to mention. In the 1700s and 1800s, especially east of the Mississippi, Indians were no longer acting on their original beliefs, uncontaminated by outside contact. They were no longer completely free agents.

The Europeans forced them to adopt a cash economy and so they adopted one to survive. If they wanted to buy guns (to defend their lives) or food (because they were forced from their bountiful homelands) they needed something to trade. The Europeans valued furs, skins, and meat. Can you guess what happened?

That’s right, the Indians got co-opted into the European system. So if Indians decimated species, it was because they mimicked European culture, not because it was inherent in their own culture. If the Europeans hadn’t come, the Indians wouldn’t have harmed the deer or beaver populations.

Again, the conniving Prager didn’t bring up these points, though they seemed obvious to me. The anthro Krech didn’t sound like he had an axe to grind, but Prager sure did. Even if the three examples were valid—and none were close—they’d cover only a third or so of the continent. So where does Prager get off claiming Indians as a whole were as bad as Europeans?

Because they decimated two animal species while aping Europeans and mildly wasted one species on their own? While Europeans laid waste to flora and fauna like a nuclear holocaust? Who was it, exactly, who wiped the passenger pigeon from the face of the earth? Who came close to extinguishing the buffalo and the bald eagle, our national emblem? Who caused the Dust Bowl, the burning rivers, the eggs laced with DDT?

Native Americans? Don’t think so. Look in the mirror if you want to know who, because we’re still putting profits before polliwogs. Which reminds me of the massive die-off of frog species occurring now, but that’s another story.


The message here, and in all my multicultural postings, is that every culture has something to offer us. What I dispute is the incessant exaltation of Western civilization above all others. Western civilization exists only because it borrowed from earlier, non-Western traditions. (See my posting, Multicultural Origins of Civilization, for more on that point.)

The corollary to my message is that every culture has problems. I'm not exalting a Native American culture or lifestyle over its Western equivalent. You don't see me living in a tipi, hunting Bambi and kin, or grubbing for roots in the dirt, do you? Clearly I enjoy the benefits of our so-called civilization; I don't deny them.

I'll grant that Indians might have been no better than "average" in terms of their stewardship of nature. But Euro-Americans have been far worse than average. Despite their much larger populations, are China and India paved over like parking lots? No. The idea of conquering nature and replacing it with something "better" (cities, farms, strip malls, McDonald's) is peculiarly Western.

Bigotshtick: Rush Limbaugh on Indians
[The following award-winning essay was first published in Native Americas Journal, Fall 1995, after Rush Limbaugh made one of his "provocative" racial comments about American Indian people.]

"The American Indians were meaner to themselves than anybody was ever mean to them. The people were savages. It's true, they damn well were ? these people were out there destroying timber, they were out there conquering and killing each other, scalping people." - Rush Limbaugh

"Bigoted: Obstinately and blindly attached to some creed, opinion or party and intolerant toward others." - The Oxford Universal Dictionary

In my car, alone, and sometimes at home - to my wife's discomfort - I listen to Rush Limbaugh or catch his TV appearances.

I have heard enough of Limbaugh over the years to get the gist of his message and of his style, which is the medium of his message. The man's opinions might not be of much interest except that they are nearly inescapable. He has national airtime for over 20 hours a week and he reaches some 20 million people a week, in long, continuous monologues. Limbaugh, a veritable rotor of right wing politics in North America, is furthermore an entertainer. He can make people laugh.

The problem is that the man has an ugly side - a very ugly side.

The quote above must be considered. It is vintage Limbaugh when he gets rolling on his radio show. (He writes books, too, but they are severely whitewashed; you have to listen to Limbaugh's radio voice to get to know him.) On the radio, usually from a position of outrageous umbrage, he is one major national commentator willing to prejudice a whole race of people and perpetrate a racial slur that must be seen as significant, considering the breadth of the source. Why would a man in Limbaugh's position call Native peoples savages in this day and age?

Limbaugh is neither stupid nor particularly careless. True, he is self-promoting to an embarrassing degree, but he is nevertheless a master of public discourse with stated political goals. He is also a commentator who regularly uses the power of the medium and of his formatted personae to persuade, cajole, and at appointed times, command a large public to political action.

With a message well-suited for those mean times - his dominant idea seems to be championing unmitigated business development by dismissing all gestures of cooperative (as opposed to confrontational) thinking, and all efforts to regulate human activity to protect the earth and its resources - he plays to a major national audience, whose frustration and anger he mines in pursuit of ideological imperatives.

Dismissed for years as mostly a buffoon while his popularity increased exponentially, Limbaugh whips up the troops throughout the year, ditto, ditto, ditto, and come November elections, delivers for the Republicans. TIME has put him on its cover then and Ted Koppel has invited him to comment on his news show (as if 20 hours of national airtime per week is not enough for one mortal). Thus Limbaugh proved himself a hugely influential and highly marketable commentator. All of which makes it particularly troubling that dehumanization through racist stereotyping (used against Indians since Cotton Mather) is a trademark of the (formerly) rotund disc jockey.

Limbaugh developed his national audience by cleverly employing an old shtick: funny umbrage at imagined groups - the media, people on welfare, immigrants, feminists, black athletes, American Indians - that he props up to hit with a wide-slapping brush of ridicule, outright misinterpretation, and wanton disrespect. Limbaugh's shtick, becoming increasingly evident in media and in politics, is a 1990s kind of bigotry.

Those who like their politics mixed in with ridicule especially enjoyed his antagonistic sarcasm, ostensibly directed at "Liberals" but hitting, double-barreled, at many of the poor and resourceless groups whom Limbaugh giddily and nastily defines coast to coast. A master at reducing truth to comic line, he also knows how to repeat a half-truth that serves his purpose so regularly that it becomes a sort of reality substitute. Apparently, he is confident enough in his own positioning to hurl out stereotypes at whole classes and races of people without the slightest fear of rebuttal. In this era of trial by airtime, Limbaugh is a hanging judge.

The comment quoted earlier is not his first on Native peoples. I remember another, from 1992, when Native delegations met at the landmark Rio conference on environment and development. "What a ragtag looking bunch," he laughed on the air, expounding then too on the savvy ways of Indians and mocking "these fools out there" in the environmental movement who support Indians and want "us to live like stone-age people."

As Limbaugh is unabashedly political, one must assume that his attacks are orchestrated, his targets carefully selected. In this context, the connection with Native peoples is about the general public concern over environmental degradation, which Limbaugh and the interests he truly represents would like to see discredited or at least reduced. In the promised new era of non-regulated exploitative extraction of natural resources now well under way, concern over environment and Indians is a troublesome factor.

But, hey, the Indians ? "these people were destroying timber."

What Limbaugh is doing is transparent. It is part of the lining up of forces. Since Native peoples' issues often and naturally coincide with environmental concerns, Native peoples themselves must be attacked. As environmentalists are increasingly recognizing, interest in Native peoples and causes offers a convergence point where ecological issues can be creatively conceived. Native peoples' traditions are not made up by counter-culturalists or academic theorists - they are long-standing human ways that speak to the relationship to the natural world and can form the core of a realistic discussion among broad sectors of the population. Native traditional knowledge is sometimes abused or trivialized, but it is now widely accepted as a base on which to develop a true environmental philosophy.

A man in Limbaugh's position, I believe, must find ways to discredit that connection. That is his job. And Limbaugh is clearly very diligent about doing his job.

We might do well to consider Rush Limbaugh and his ways with words - not to banter with him, but because he should not so wantonly dominate and even seriously impact the most serious of topics. He should not be allowed to issue bigoted and racialist statements unchallenged. We should not pretend such languages and attitudes are proper for a public commentator of such wide reach.

Let's remember what Limbaugh said.

"The American Indians were meaner to themselves than anybody was ever mean to them."

This is the basic stereotype on Indians: a war-like nature. Limbaugh is starting by harping on this one. Watch him run with it again and again. It has just enough reality in it to make it useful. For instance, it is true that Indians warred, and that during wartime people sometimes acted with meanness and brutality. You won't hear from Limbaugh, however, how the damage inflicted in traditional Indian disputes pales in comparison to the mass exterminations carried out against tribes, or by nation-states against tribes, or by nation-states against civilian populations. It is a cheap stereotype. A trick.

"The people were savages. It's true, they damn well were ? scalping people."

This is a deepening of the stereotype, deceitful and manipulative, not only for what it says, but for what it hides and obfuscates.

By focusing on the "war-like" Indian image, by invoking the designation of "savage," the far more prevalent philosophies of Native American societies - governmental and spiritual application - the documented reality of Native American knowledge systems is completely left out of the listeners' perceptions. This reflects the Limbaugh style: over hours and hours each week, only negative images are reinforced of anyone Limbaugh perceives to be an enemy.

One never tunes in to find Limbaugh asking a Carl Sagan about ozone layer depletion or interviewing Native scholars on the variety of Native cultural viewpoints. Why present a balanced view when ridicule can suffice? Perhaps for Limbaugh a dialogue with "savages" would be unthinkable. "I am equal time," the commentator is prone to answer when questioned on the lack of balance in his shows.

They taught at my journalism alma mater that principles of public information handling were worked out over many decades. Major thinkers in American life contributed to the idea of balanced use of information channels - especially the national networks. Whether the law dictates it or not, the ethic holds that balanced journalism, well documented, is of central value to society. Simple, preferably depersonalized styles were expected from information handlers.

In that context, Limbaugh is to the national discourse what professional wrestling is to sports. Blowing his point of view often and loudly he takes center stage in the arena. His loud reductionism bombards the mind. His trick hold? The most scurrilous form of argumentation - crafting straw men for demolition - which he has down to a fine science. His sarcastic, constantly mocking style stresses the negative as primary - the negative, of course is whatever he is against; the positive and only the positive, of what he is for.

Still, despite his self-consciously arrogant style, Limbaugh can make people laugh. He is superb at skewering politicians' vanities, for instance. And no one is better at pulling out the loose threads of the Liberal coat, which he can then retie in clever knots of common logic, bathed in acid humor. He identifies some of what is wrong with the country after 40 years of (so-called) Liberal policies, and he can make sense. The problem is that Limbaugh projects his options in such one-sided, pin-the-blame contexts that the truth of matters is inevitably trivialized.

Limbaugh is superb at reducing environmentalism to some "animal rights nut" who won't kill a rat even to save her child from going through painful rabies shots. Listeners can identify with Limbaugh's outrage as his unbroken monologue guides us through. But then, hey, how about that spotted owl, he says and feigns eating a spotted owl, as if that somehow eliminates the need for bio-diversity conservation. Limbaugh tells us that there are more trees today than a century ago. Deforestation is not a problem. According to him, well, ahem, "there is not damage to the ozone layer, ha ha." Indians and the environment? Hey, "these people were out there destroying timber."

We used to know the difference between a stand-up comic with a political bent and a social commentator who, with respect and journalistic balance (the operative principle), integrates a range of information, analyzes the conflicting viewpoints, and strives to provide the public with a better ability to interpret. But Limbaugh blurs the two roles more thoroughly than anyone. His ego expands visibly as his "talent, on-loan from God," apparently grants him infallibility.

Limbaugh likes to run down a long list of people and causes that, in his eyes, fuel the Liberal conspiracy to end free enterprise, which must be saved from those he seems to consider less legitimate peoples with inferior viewpoints. That free enterprise might have excesses or that market-driven ideas are not always sacrosanct does not enter the picture. That some situation, might not fit within the Left/Right dichotomy seems inconceivable to Limbaugh. With him, it's full speed ahead, economically, and damn the rest. We can be sure how though: Native peoples - long condemned as "obstacles to progress" - are on the list.

It may be wise to keep watch on the bigoted views of Rush Limbaugh. Since he serves as a barometer of the national climate, familiarity with his points of attack can be useful. But remember also this truth, Native Americans - Limbaugh's so-called "savages" - carried out a prescribed protocol of participatory democracy that sat human beings in a circle. The object of discussion was placed in the center of the circle and in relation to it, everyone in the circle had a view, a unique vantage point. The truth was said to emerge from the common discussion, the respectful appreciation of everyone else's point of view. Highly trained specialists (elders) gathered the consensus. This style of governance spawned confederacies and produced a palpable freedom, a shared experience that inspired colonial American leaders, and that is more "of America" than Rush Limbaugh, from his glass-enclosed, push-button, over-blown, self-aggrandizing world will ever be.

Jose Barreiro, Ph.D., is senior editor at Indian Country Today.

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