When I was a teenager who wanted to be loved by as many people as possible for being funny, I thought Rush Limbaugh had it all figured out.
Back then, I traveled a lot as an inventory auditor, and my conservative Republican boss listened to talk radio for the hours between the grocery stores we counted. He even once unzipped the Bible-sized satchel in which he kept his cellular telephone, clipped the antenna to the window, and dialed Rush’s call-in number so I could raise a point with him.
Of agreement, I’m sorry to say. And yes, I got through and made the point to the man himself.
What I envied most about Rush Limbaugh (other than getting paid to talk) was how he always had something to say on any subject. I hated being caught off guard with no opinion when asked, and it seemed amazing to me that Limbaugh always knew exactly what he thought and felt about everything.
If you asked Rush about the death penalty, he’d say, “Burn, baby, burn!”
If you asked me at seventeen about the death penalty, I’d say, “Well, who are we talking about here? How many people did the guy kill? Is he likely to do it again?”
In my youthful anxiety, that felt to me like confusion and indecision, so I set out to find my own rigid core of certainty just like Rush’s.
Exactly like Rush’s, in fact. I read my girlfriend’s father’s back issues of Reason and The Limbaugh Letter and the American Spectator (where I applied for an internship). I read Ayn Rand and P.J. O’Rourke, too, and I wrote lists and essays for myself explaining the complicated logic why people deserved the lives they’d gotten.
Yes, I even read The Art of the Deal.
For a while, I felt warm and secure with everything conveniently packaged for me, always having a canned opinion I could rely on.
But the more I honestly assessed the real world and talked to the people who lived in it, the more twisting I had to do for the logic to work. Around 1997 (in my twenties) came a series of personal events that snapped the infinite folding for good when I was haunted by a simple question:
“If an idea requires this much rationalization and still feels icky, how can it possibly be right?”
That’s how it all fell down, helped by Babylon 5 and Star Trek and Eyes on the Prize and Langston Hughes. (It was a strange semester.)
Doing the right thing isn’t always easy and it doesn’t always feel great, but it shouldn’t feel…ugly. Or empty. Or stretched thin between far distant facts that we had to scrounge for on the fringe despite our own intuition.
Of all the flimsy rationalizations and blithe cruelties spouted by Rush Limbaugh, one of the most damaging is the idea that it’s possible and desirable to always be certain. We’re dealing now with the people he emboldened to think that doubt and exceptions are signs of weakness.
That’s mildly excusable in a seventeen-year-old desperate for something to hold onto. It’s embarrassing in adults who have seen and experienced more of the world.
If you’re mourning Rush tonight, I hope you’ll ask just how much of your heart is his and how much is yours.