Thursday, October 02, 2003

Rush Limbaugh's identity politics

It should surprise no one that, instead of recognizing that he was out to lunch and apologizing for it, Rush Limbaugh has chosen to make himself a martyr on the cross of political correctness in the wake of the flap over his Donovan McNabb remarks.

After all, being conservative means never having to admit you were wrong.

But what's most interesting about the flap is what it reveals about Limbaugh's political commentary as well.

Here are the remarks that caused the furor:
"I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team."

After nearly all of the NFL and the rest of the sports media reacted with understandable revulsion, Limbaugh tried backtracking:
"Liberal sportswriters have pushed the notion that it's unfair that there haven't been more black quarterbacks, and I agree with that. I simply said that their desire for McNabb to do well caused them to rate him a little higher than perhaps he actually is."

Never mind that "liberal sportswriters" is a term that belongs with "radical pro golfers" in the laugh-test rankings. I'd like to find evidence that anyone was hoping McNabb would do well because he was black.

Limbaugh continued defending himself on his radio show:
"All this must have become the tempest that it is because I must have been right about something. If I wasn't right, there wouldn't be this cacophony of outrage that has sprung up in the sportswriter community."

By this kind of logic, of course, then Al Campanis and Jimmy the Greek were right, too. For that matter, Adolph Rupp was right when he said, "You'll never see me let a black player wear Kentucky blue." Because whatever those liberal sportswriters say, it must be wrong -- and therefore their victims are right.

In truth, of course, the outrage is almost entirely because Limbaugh is wrong -- grotesquely, laughably, how-stupid-can-you-really-be wrong. It's true that sportswriters are in the fore of saying this, because they know it better than anyone else. And suffice to say that even the most politically conservative of them are saying that Limbaugh's remarks were ridiculous.

There's one main reason for this: In Limbaugh's world, people are capable of advancing to superstar levels on the tide of pure hype. Indeed, one could not find a better description of Limbaugh's own career, so it is a syndrome he knows well.

But while the athletic world has its many flaws, its one great virtue is that for the most part, people succeed or fail almost purely on the basis of what they actually achieve on the field of play. The Anna Kournikovas are the exceptions. Donovan McNabb achieved the reputation he has almost entirely on his game-day performances. If Limbaugh were a serious NFL fan, he would know about McNabb's reputation for grit and sacrifice and toughness, and he need only have seen a few Eagles games to know it was true.

None of this mattered, though, because Limbaugh had a political point to score on the NFL broadcast. What this says about Limbaugh's politics is something else altogether.

In reality, there was for years a marked slowness on the part of the NFL to overcome one of the real vestiges of racism in football: namely, the myth that whites are "better equipped" (as Campanis might have put it) to play quarterback. It is a myth that in fact continues to have many adherents among sports fans, particularly its white ones.

The myth has only been torn down by the reality of black quarterbacks emerging over the past decade on a broad scale and putting the lie to the old coaches' tale. The overwhelming drive to win that is the essence of sports has effectively buried the racial profiling of quarterbacks,

However, that has never stopped the more ignorant contingent of sports fans. Everybody who is a sports fan -- particularly if they are white -- knows this species: The guy who, inevitably during the course of watching a basketball game, remarks on the racial composition of the teams on the screen. "Jeez, that team is all black." "Man, those guys play smart! They have a lot white guys."

These are the same guys with an "inexplicable" animus toward Tiger Woods. The same guys with an automatic ability to spot the "laziness" of Hispanic baseball players, and the "stupidity" and "overratedness" of black quarterbacks.

What is also true about these people is that they tend to view the rest of the world through this primitive racial prism. You'll often hear them whining about how white people can't get jobs anymore because of "political correctness." And they're likely to think skits comparing "welfare recipients" to apes are just hilarious.

Well, the networks have from time to time tried using broadcasters in the sports booths who have no real expertise in the subject -- they are neither the sports journalists who have attended hundreds (if not thousands) of games and practices, nor former players and coaches, but instead are hired to be a sort of "fan's voice" for the broadcasts.

Invariably, these guys -- like Dennis Miller -- just fall flat because they really haven't much of interest or value to add to the conversation. And in Limbaugh's case, it's simply a disaster. Because Limbaugh represents the racially idiotic contingent of fandom. Inviting him onto ESPN's broadcasts is little different than inviting the bellicose know-nothings who always keep track of every athlete's race and even their relative whiteness.

A lot of people have wondered why ESPN hired Limbaugh in the first place, given his previous record for, er, racial sensitivity. The answer always was that they wanted to add a little provocation to their broadcasts, which seems reasonable enough. But the more serious question was why he was invited to join the on-air team, not because of his racial views, but for his manifest lack of qualifications. Limbaugh has never played sports. He has never coached. His exposure as a sportscaster is limited -- particularly at the level of the NFL.

Above all, Limbaugh revealed himself on Sunday night to be an utter and profound ignoramus on something as basic as race in sports -- little better than that moronic loudmouth who offers the same level of profound judgment over his beer at the bar. And that ignorance, as much as the racial insensitivity that accompanies it, was the clearest reason Limbaugh did not belong on a national sports broadcast.

Finally, Limbaugh stepped down from his ESPN job last night -- though without, of course, anything resembling gracefulness. He did not apologize for the remarks, and even suggested that his former colleagues' thin skins were the reasons for his departure:
"My comments this past Sunday were directed at the media and were not racially motivated. I offered an opinion. This opinion has caused discomfort to the crew, which I regret. I love 'NFL Sunday Countdown' and do not want to be a distraction to the great work done by all who work on it. Therefore, I have decided to resign. I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of the show and wish all the best to those who make it happen."

Limbaugh continued the same "woe-is-me" line today at the National Association of Broadcasters Convention in Philadelphia:
"In my opinion, it wasn’t a racial opinion, it was a media opinion. We live in a country where, supposedly, by right of the First Amendment you offer opinions but you can’t in certain places and certain times."

All right, suppose we take him at his word: that he didn't intend to suggest that McNabb was overrated because he was black, that there was no "racist" intent, but rather, his purpose was to criticize the media.

Well then, what he is saying about the media is this: That it "hypes" black athletes at the expense of whites because of "political correctness" -- the same "thought police" who are now silencing him for simply voicing an "opinion."

I don't know about the rest of you, but this has the distinct sound of "identity politics" to my ears: Whites whining that they're being victimized by the real gains of other racial groups -- especially those who whites historically have oppressed.

(Will Mickey Kaus be issuing a denunciation for Limbaugh's "discarded and discredited" worldview?)

This argument indeed suggests what is, at root, wrong with Limbaugh, not merely as a sportscaster, but providing commentary on any aspect of our national discourse: He is an ignoramus. He is not merely ignorant about the realities of sports, he is ignorant about the state of race and culture in America. Like the buffoon at the bar, his opinions on politics are as profound as those about sports.

One has to be amused, however, at the way Republicans who keep insisting that Democrats represent the "real racist" party in America keep guys like Limbaugh up on stage as their chief national spokesmen. And then they wonder why 90 percent of blacks vote Democratic.

The advances of blacks at the quarterbacking position in college and pro football have not come about because of the attitudes of "liberal" sportswriters but, more truthfully, in spite of the entrenched attitudes of conservatives in the coaching and sportswriting ranks. Blacks are now regularly taking on quarterbacking roles because they have proven the old attitudes flat wrong -- they are every bit as intellectually capable of the job as whites. And they have proven that time and again on the field. Any coach who wants to win knows this now.

The example of black quarterbacks reveals the larger bankruptcy of Limbaugh's argument about "political correctness" and race -- not just as it pertains to sports, but to the rest of American culture. It also is quite revealing about the nature of Limbaugh's logic and the people who believe in it. The truth is that a black quarterback is no longer a novel thing to any kind of knowledgeable sports fan or reporter -- though, as we all know too well, the perception that they are not as well "equipped" lingers among certain ranks of people. And that these people are all too eager to leap upon a stumbling black quarterback as proof of their beliefs.

It is no accident that the cry of "identity politics" and "political correctness" is the first to escape the lips of these same folks. But then, hypocrisy is in no short supply on their parts, either.

Maybe it's just the OxyContin talking.

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