The Clare Spark Blog

March 3, 2012

Limbaugh v. Fluke

Hot tempers flashed yesterday on my Facebook page: the subject was whether or not Rush Limbaugh’s description of Sandra Fluke’s testimony to Congress on the subject of the government’s paying for her contraception was destructive and obnoxious. In short, Rush called her a “slut,” and walked right into a political trap (the distraction of culture war talk instead of focus on statist social policy) from which there was no escape. No consensus was reached on my FB page and we retired to our respective corners, each side perhaps feeling abused by the other.

In this short blog, I want to restate my position about how we fight, or, the rules of engagement in public space. (For a longer essay see, one of my first blogs, that will be of special interest to artists and writers.) During the rise of the second wave of feminism (during the 60s and 70s), many feminists angrily denounced men (the collective object of their wrath) as “male chauvinist pigs.” Outraged males returned the compliment with such terms as “feminazis” or, more recently, the proponents of the welfare state as avatars of the “nanny state,” the latter a bossy maternal entity that was also linked to fascism. Still other “true conservatives” are angry with such “RINO’s” as George W. Bush, Chris Christie, John Boehner, John McCain, and Olympia Snowe, all of whom are tied to the “Massachusetts moderate” Mitt Romney, hence are beyond the pale of decency.

One of Alexander Hamilton’s lesser known contributions to government in a representative republic is his connecting “truth” with the defense against libel and slander. I.e., it was neither libel nor slander if the speaker being sued for defamation was accurate in his or her characterization of the plaintiff. (For a valuable and accessible discussion of the free press question, see Ron Chernow’s biography of AH, pp. 668-71. It does much to answer those who associate Hamilton with the Alien and Sedition Act.) Such a rule clarifies the limits of free speech and fills out what he might have meant by “popular sovereignty” (see Federalist #22, specifically the voice of the people as the source of legitimate authority). It is impossible to deliberate over what is to be done in controverted questions of public policy if either side in the battle resorts to the shorthand of personal insults and malicious intent. It is repulsive and counter-productive when any participant in a conflict muddies the waters with ad hominem attacks, as opposed to clarifying the question at hand with facts and reasonable arguments. The appeal to reason is our best defense against the sadists who withhold the details of their own conduct from would be knowledgeable voters, all the while resorting to the mind-management I have constantly condemned on this website.

Hamilton’s summation of his six-hour speech in the Croswell case brings tears to my eyes: [Hamilton speaks, in Chernow, p. 670:… “I never did think the truth was a crime. I am glad the day is come in which it is to be decided, for my soul has ever abhorred the thought that a free man dared not speak the truth.” The issue of press freedom was all the more important because the spirit of faction, “that mortal poison to our land,”  had spread through America. He worried that a certain unnamed party might impose despotism: “To watch the progress of such endeavours is the office of a free press. To give us early alarm and put us on our guard against the encroachments of power. This then is a right of the utmost importance, one for which, instead of yielding it up, we ought rather to spill our blood.” [end, Chernow excerpt]

The internet and talk radio potentially offer much to the mob: anonymity; distance from the frowns, screams, and daggers of enemies; catharsis as a way of life: all in all, reinforcement to our most antisocial impulses. I abhor such conduct whether it comes from revolutionary socialists, or from “liberals,” or from “conservatives.” The persistence of such violence at a distance will destroy the sense of safety that serious citizens require to speak their minds, often in dissent from fashionable ideas in any particular partisan camp.

Conversation on the internet is priceless when we consider the positive effect it could have in building community, consensus where possible, and in educating each other about subjects that are often mystified or hidden by various elites—elites who are also gatekeepers who discourage fact-finding, and who cannot withstand close examination by “hoi polloi.”

For many, it is a pleasurable relief to discharge rage to a distant crowd. But the thrill wears off quickly, only to leave the enragé depressed, and finally without any friends at all.


  1. I think Rush should have said “tart.” Or perhaps “floozy.”

    Comment by marklarochelle — September 28, 2014 @ 8:09 pm | Reply

    • I don’t think he should have characterized her negatively at all, but then he would have lost much of his audience. A neutral adjective or noun would have been preferable.

      Comment by clarelspark — September 28, 2014 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

  2. […]  (retitled “Limbaugh v. Fluke, and mentioning the Crosswell case, one of Hamilton’s great achievements for telling the truth) […]

    Pingback by Gossip and the gullible | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 26, 2013 @ 9:35 pm | Reply

  3. […] Sometime during the research for my book on Herman Melville’s resuscitation between the wars in the 20th century, I read the collected letters of Abigail Adams, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. It was clear that free speech was not about libel or slander, but about the search for worldly truth. Similarly, Alexander Hamilton, in the Crosswell case, argued that “truth” should be the standard in cases of libel and slander; that plaintiffs had to prove that their targets were actually lying before crying foul. (See […]

    Pingback by “Free Speech” and the internet | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 2, 2013 @ 7:37 pm | Reply

  4. […] a related blog, retitled Limbaugh v. […]

    Pingback by Feminism and its publicists « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — August 23, 2012 @ 3:01 pm | Reply

  5. […] no confines.” Are We a Nation? For more on Alexander Hamilton and the search for truth see (retitled Limbaugh v. Fluke). Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Comments […]

    Pingback by Popular sovereignty on the ropes « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 4, 2012 @ 1:05 am | Reply

  6. Fluke did not participate in Issa’s congressional hearing into Obama’s demand for religious institutions to provide abortions and other birth control. Fluke did not give congressional testimony. She was not under oath. The democrats had her talk to them alone later and filmed it- like it was part of the hearing. Since she had no expertise, she was denied entry as the replacement for Land. The democrats have managed to pull a fast one and most news accounts refer to her “congressional testimony.” To speak to only a few democrats later is not congressional testimony. Why did they want this 30 year old woman to talk about her sex life at a hearing called by Issa to talk about religious freedom and whether Obama was violating the first amendment?

    Comment by Eva — March 8, 2012 @ 5:34 am | Reply

  7. We’re living in an era where social discourse has become so debased, that a private citizen simply expressing her views as protected by the 1st Amendment can be shut down through lies and slander. How different from the age of Dr. Johnson, Macauley et al.; how far we’ve fallen…

    Comment by Keir — March 4, 2012 @ 11:44 am | Reply

    • Oh, people. I am most certainly not an expert on Dr. Johnson. I am, however, quite familiar with history and human nature. When was this charming period of no lies and slander or virtuously defeated lies and slander? Personally, I am always charmed when people, usually geeks, wax nostalgic about the 18th century. For some reason it’s always the 18th century. I spent a lot of thinking why it has to be the 18th century and concluded that dresses and coiffures of this century appeal to people who imagine themselves in these dresses and ball rooms. For unknown reasons nobody imagines him/herself as a slave/serf/factory worker/German ghetto dweller etc.
      Keir, are you actually familiar with the political discourse of the period you mentioned?

      Comment by anna — March 5, 2012 @ 12:53 am | Reply

  8. Clare – my thoughts are close to yours. I have stopped reading the comments section of various internet articles for the reasons you give. It is depressing to see that we have become a sophistical society and not a Socratic one. If my observations are true then the only way to change is a complete collapse and a rebirth.

    I have an older sister who is a lesbian. She moved away from our conservative town decades ago (1970) and unfortunately landed in the midst of an anti-man (white that is) society. We don’t talk anymore and most likely will not until one of is close to death. I am certain that we will throw aside our differences for the last days or hours. What we will both have missed is what a brother and sister should have had, what a tragedy.



    Comment by Don — March 3, 2012 @ 9:13 pm | Reply

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