Steven Landsburg is drawing heat from the president of the University of Rochester over Steve’s posts on the Limbaugh/Fluke fiasco. (If anyone is concerned, I checked with Steve to see if we should all just let this issue die away, and he basically told me, “Bring it on” [not in so many words].)
First, to avoid the same trap that ensnared Steve, let me be clear: I don’t think the UofR president should have said anything about it, and of course he is doing so because “politically correct” people are complaining. Also, I have been reading Steve’s stuff for years and I didn’t think anything he wrote was outrageous.
Having said that, many of Steve’s loyal fans are being quite obtuse in their over-the-top defenses of him. I can totally understand why some of his more recent readers–or people who never heard of him but were pointed to his Fluke comments by outraged people–were shocked at his initial post.
I’m bringing this point up because this type of thing happens a lot when there is a public controversy. People quickly rush to their preferred outposts, and then heap massive sarcasm and exaggeration on their opponents. This is bad for both sides, because (a) it’s unfair to the opponents and (b) actually makes it harder for the reasonable people on one’s own team reach out to the reasonable people on the other side.
So let me get specific. In the comments of Steve’s post about the president’s statement, I said:
Well, I think your longtime readers know “what you meant” Steve, but jeez when RL calls a law student a “slut” and a “prostitute,” you probably should be a little clearer when rushing to his defense. (Again, you didn’t defend *those words*, but my sentence is perfectly accurate as to what happened.)
Probably (though not necessarily) responding to me, a subsequent commenter said:
KenB, I think you nailed it. We all know that ignoring 95% of a news story to focus on the economics and logic is part of Landsburg’s shtick. But to some people, any discussion of Limbaugh’s statements that doesn’t include a denouncement of his degrading tirade against Fluke is tantamount to being completely on his side.
Now THIS is what I’m claiming, is complete BS. This guy is making it sound like Landsburg meekly said, “Well you know, in this whole Rush Limbaugh thing, what’s important to focus on is the equivalence of insurer mandates and wealth redistribution. So let’s talk about when it makes sense to make others bear some of the cost of…”
Except no, that’s not what Steve did. If he had done that, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Instead, what happened is that Steve posted a blog with the title “Rush to Judgment.” OK? Steve didn’t call it, “When is it proper to make others share costs?” No, when Steve is trying to summarize what his post is about, he decided to characterize it as his defense of Limbaugh from the criticism of others. With that title, here is how Steve then proceeded (my bold):
Rush Limbaugh is under fire for responding in trademark fashion to the congressional testimony of Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, who wants you to pay for her contraception. If the rest of us are to share in the costs of Ms. Fluke’s sex life, says Rush, we should also share in the benefits, via the magic of online video. For this, Rush is accused of denying Ms. Fluke her due respect.
But while Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being, her position — which is what’s at issue here — deserves none whatseover. It deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered. To treat it with respect would be a travesty. I expect there are respectable arguments for subsidizing contraception (though I am skeptical that there are arguments sufficiently respectable to win me over), but Ms. Fluke made no such argument. All she said, in effect, was that she and others want contraception and they don’t want to pay for it.
To his credit, Rush stepped in to provide the requisite mockery. To his far greater credit, he did so with a spot-on analogy: If I can reasonably be required to pay for someone else’s sex life (absent any argument about externalities or other market failures), then I can reasonably demand to share in the benefits. His dense and humorless critics notwithstanding, I am 99% sure that Rush doesn’t actually advocate mandatory on-line sex videos. What he advocates is logical consistency and an appreciation for ethical symmetry. So do I. Color me jealous for not having thought of this analogy myself.
Some could be forgiven for construing the above as Steve’s basic endorsement of what Rush said, not merely absence of evidence that Steve was shaken deeply to his core by the obvious mistreatment of a woman.
Oh wait, I spoke too soon. Steve then did go on to criticize Rush for calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute.” Phew! Some of us were worried. I guess the UofR president didn’t read this part of Steve’s post:
There’s one place where I part company with Rush, though: He wants to brand Ms. Fluke a “slut” because, he says, she’s demanding to be paid for sex. There are two things wrong here. First, the word “slut” connotes (to me at least) precisely the sort of joyous enthusiasm that would render payment superfluous. A far better word might have been “prostitute” (or a five-letter synonym therefor), but that’s still wrong because Ms. Fluke is not in fact demanding to be paid for sex. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) She will, as I understand it, be having sex whether she gets paid or not. Her demand is to be paid. The right word for that is something much closer to “extortionist”. Or better yet, “extortionist with an overweening sense of entitlement”. Is there a single word for that?
And then, just to make sure Steve lets us know what the real issue is here, he concludes the post like this:
But whether or not he chose the right word, what I just don’t get is why the pro-respect crowd is aiming all its fire at Rush. Which is more disrespectful — his harsh language or Sandra Fluke’s attempt to pick your pocket? That seems like a pretty clear call to me.
Love him or hate him, it’s your call. But don’t tell me we are supposed to think Steve was on-board with everybody who thought Rush was totally out of line for using those terms, and that Steve simply failed to mention the obvious.
I also note that my above commentary is also applicable to the half a dozen people at Landsburg’s blog who said, “The president obviously didn’t read your posts Steve!” No guys, the president obviously did read Steve’s posts; he had to know how bad the damage control was going to be, for one thing. And after reading the above commentary, the president would quite understandably say, “Holy cr*p Landsburg, you wrote that?? Do you know how many phone calls I’m going to get now?!”
And now since I’m complaining, how about this blogger’s attempt to spin things around and make Landsburg’s critics into anti-feminists?
[UofR prez:] “We are here to educate, to nurture, to inspire, not to engage in character assassination.” [Blogger defending Landsburg:] Where’s the character assassination? Landsburg disagreed with the policy Sandra Fluke promoted. In Congress. Professors have the obligation to “nurture” and “inspire” her from afar by refraining from taking on her ideas? Is that some special kid-gloves treatment for women? Ironically, that would be sexist. Should we be patting the female political activist on the head and murmuring good for you for speaking up? That is dismissive. It’s better feminism to react to what a woman in politics says and to respond to her with full force the way you would to a man. And that’s what Landsburg did…
Again, no, that’s not at all what happened here. Limbaugh attacked a person he disagreed with in a way quite specific to her sex. I don’t recall Limbaugh calling any of the guys who support the coverage “gigolos.” So no, Limbaugh didn’t respond the way he would have to a man. Limbaugh wouldn’t have asked for a man to post videos of him having sex (even though, unless the guy were gay, that would still involve the same type of show). But in that case, it wouldn’t have been as funny/entertaining, and that’s why Limbaugh wouldn’t have said it. The joke only worked because it was a young woman saying those things. If it had been a 50-year-old woman, Rush might have made a different joke about “who the heck would want to sleep with her?” or something like that, but it wouldn’t have been the same joke.
And, in regards to Limbaugh saying she should post video online, Steve was upset that he hadn’t thought of that argument himself.
Last thing: Rush Limbaugh has said way more controversial stuff in the past. I actually don’t understand why this particular thing ignited such a firestorm.