Some people are just pathetic

A reader has sent me a link to this story from The Guardian about the latest antics of Rush Limbaugh, a US conservative shock jock. Apparently, Limbaugh has been playing a song on his show called “Barack the Magic Negro“, referring to Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama. Obama hopes to become the first African-American president of the US.

I can’t help being shocked and horrified by the title of the song. The term “Magical Negro” was coined by Spike Lee to describe a stock Hollywood movie character who appears out of nowhere to help the white protagonist. African-American commentator David Ehrenstein first used the term in conjunction with Barack Obama in an article in the Los Angeles Times. Ehrenstein explains the “Magical Negro” as follows:

He’s there to assuage white “guilt” (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.

Ehrenstein’s argument was that Obama is a “Magical Negro” – he is a benign and polite figure who presents no danger to white American sensibilities. Sounds like a modern take on the “Noble Savage“. If I read it correctly, Ehrenstein’s argument is that it is too good to be true, and of course, being an ordinary human being, Obama has flaws and shortcomings just like the rest of us. By idealising Obama in this fashion rather than treating him as a real person, once he behaves like an ordinary person and falls from grace, the public cannot help but be disappointed. Secondly, Ehrenstein seems to suggest that Obama is sidestepping a whole heap of issues which affect African-American people because he is concentrating on being “safe”. In this way, white voters feel that their guilt is assuaged and that everything is hunky-dory in terms of race relations.

Ehrenstein’s column is at least intelligent. The same can’t be said for Rush Limbaugh’s song. Apparently the singer is parodying black activist and politician Al Sharpton. (For a bit of context: relations between Sharpton and Obama have been rumoured to be tense, although Sharpton has categorically denied this.) I’m not exactly sure what the point is. Humour is culturally relative, so perhaps I’m missed the humour of the song because I’m Australian, but it just seems stupid, racist and offensive to me. I thought about listening to it again to try and work out whether I’d missed a funny bit somewhere. But then I decided not to bother. First, the though of listening to the song again made me feel dejected. Secondly, I suspected that I hadn’t missed any funny bits. So I didn’t waste my time.

Things like this raises difficult questions of freedom of speech and tolerance. How far does one have to tolerate offensive and intolerant points of view? Should people be allowed to parody and criticise politicians on the basis of their personal characteristics? How is parodying Obama for being African-American different from suggesting John Howard shares a marked similarity with Penfold the Hamster from DangerMouse? In both cases, each politician is being singled out because personal characteristics. But when a parody is racially based, it is not just about a physical characteristic. It is potentially a slur against a whole group of people. It is particularly vexed because of the history of slavery, oppression and segregation of African-Americans, and the way in which racial characteristics were used to perpetrate and justify that unfairness. Limbaugh has attempted to justify his use of the term by saying “Well, Ehrington said it first” – but I think Ehrington’s use of the term was quite different to Limbaugh’s use. The song is patronising towards Obama and Sharpton, inviting the audience to laugh these “uppity” men who think that they can play a white man’s political game.

But does suppressing comment such as this help? Clearly, shock-jocks such as Limbaugh and Imus are tapping into a certain pre-existing feeling within the community, and getting rid of them is not going to stop that feeling. However, my concern with radio demagogues is that they have immense influence, and can ratchet people’s feelings up to a dangerous level (see previous post on Alan Jones, Sydney shock jock). On the other hand, preventing someone like Limbaugh from playing his song might cause him to garner more sympathy.

I can’t help hoping that Limbaugh will get in trouble in the same way Imus did, but I can’t see it happening unless, as in Imus’ case, radio sponsors pull the pin. Evidently, Obama and his team have played the whole thing very coolly, refusing to get upset, but gently suggesting the song was dumb anyway. Perhaps that’s the best way to play it.

I can’t help thinking that in the end, the song says far more about Rush Limbaugh than it does about Barack Obama. Limbaugh is a pathetic idiot if that’s what he finds funny.


Filed under freedom of speech, humour, media, politics, racism, tolerance, USA

16 responses to “Some people are just pathetic

  1. Asher, I couldn’t agree more. What a pathetic nut he is.

  2. OTT

    “On the other hand, preventing someone like Limbaugh from playing his song might cause him to garner more sympathy”

    You are so right about this (as with so many other things). It really aggravates me that the sometimes necessary silencing of racism in such things as anti-villification laws can be turned around to be the minority’s triumph over society. As if the historical lack of power and voice is somehow remedied by a request to behave more responsibly. Limbaugh already has power – he already has his radio station and listeners. Asking him to use his power responsibly can be morphed into the terrible triumph of political correctness and the way minorities are actually oppressing all the people who really have power. Oh god, I’m ranting.

    I’m actually very conflicted about Barack vs Hilary. Though I cannot vote in US elections, I have no idea which way to think on this one – race vs gender. Do I want the first woman president, or the first black president? It is just too cruel. (Not that either will represent all women or all African-American people in the US – but having both in the running is valuable.)

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  4. OTT,

    Rant away. Exactly how I feel. How can it be “oppressive” to ask Limburgh to behave responsibly? And just act like a decent human being? But I’m betting that if you stopped him from playing it, he’d be ranting and raving, as if he was the one who was disadvantaged and hard done by! Grr.

    My gut instinct with a song like this would be to ban it, but my head says (a) freedom of speech is important and (b) banning it might just make things worse. Sigh.

    Like you, I don’t know which one I would prefer out of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I guess I haven’t watched the race that closely to have any personal feelings about either of them, but I am pleased that it will be a landmark step if either wins the candidacy.


  5. fairlane

    Limbaugh already got away with violating federals laws so I doubt this will hurt him one bit. He’s an oxycontin addict in case you didn’t know. (Oxycontin is a time-released synthetic form of morphine). When he was arrested he had 180 tablets of “Hillbilly Heroin”, as it’s also called, in his home. The average dosage is 1-3 capsules per day. He was also “Doctor Shopping”, and may have had someone else, a maid I think, helping him find the drug.

    The best part is he ranted for at least a decade about “drug users and dealers” and how they should put in prison for the rest of their lives. Projection of self-hatred.

    He still rants about drugs to this day, which is why I wonder if he’s 1) still using and/or 2) anti-social.

    On a lighter note, I bloody loved “Danger Mouse”! They cancelled it here years ago, and I haven’t seen it since. That is a great cartoon, right up there with “Ren and Stimpy”.

  6. Danger Mouse! Astounding! Danger Mouse! Amazing! Danger Mooooooooooouse!

  7. Fairlane,

    I knew that there was something about drugs and Limbaugh, but wasn’t quite sure of the nature of it.

    So he’s a hypocrite as well as a schmuck.

    Definitely some serious self-hatred going on there – but that doesn’t excuse him lashing out unfairly at other people too.


  8. SimonC

    How far does one have to tolerate offensive and intolerant points of view?

    Tolerate? Not at all.

    Allow? All of it.

    The whole point of freedom of speech is that you WILL hear things that you disagree with. You WILL be offended. This is guaranteed.

    But in return, you have the right to call that speech offensive, or racist, or intolerant. If enough people agree with you, then the original speaker is marginalised. If the speaker is working for someone else (say a radio station), and their employer feels that their speech is detrimental to the business, they can be removed.

    Supporting peoples rights is always easy when you are not affected. The trick is supporting other people’s right to do things that piss you off.

    I’m disturbed by the nascent sexism/racism that is ‘I can’t choose whether to vote for the black or the woman’. How about you look at their policies, and judge them as human beings.

  9. SimonC,

    Yes, I agree – the corollary of freedom of speech is that I have the freedom to say that I think Limbaugh’s song is stupid and puerile. If I really wanted to, I could even make a song called “Rush Limbaugh the idiotic loser” in response. (Not my style, but it would serve him right).

    I must confess here in Australia I haven’t watched the presidential candidacy race so closely. I think there are more candidates than Clinton and Obama, but I don’t know who they are – the media has concentrated on those two.

    I would not judge either of them on the basis of being female or black. As I said in a comment above, I don’t have any personal feelings yet about either of them as human beings. Just because the candidates are female or black doesn’t mean they are good candidates! Not at all. But I tend towards the Democrat candidates because I don’t like the Republicans and to my mind, anyone has to be better than Bush (white, black, female, male, gay, straight, you name it).

    Nevertheless I’m pleased by any sign of diversity in the presidential race, because that diversity reflects the true diversity of the electorate. My hope is that a different approach might come from a person from a different background.

    Still, that might be a vain hope. In my young and naive days, when I lived in the UK, my neo-Marxist friend was ranting about Margaret Thatcher. I hadn’t lived there long, and didn’t know much about UK politics. “But surely as a feminist you would think that it’s good to have a female Prime Minister?” I said, innocently. She just looked at me. She was judging Thatcher not on her “femaleness” but on her performance and policies. That’s how it should be.

    As I have said over and over on this blog, I think it is important to judge people by their actions towards others, not by their religion, race, gender, sexuality, politics or anything else.


  10. fairlane

    I actually wrote a song about Rush to the tune of “Puff”, but haven’t decided if I’m going to post it or not.

    Freedom of speech is great, but there has to be a line somewhere. Well, unless we’re talking about me, and then there should be no line.

    I say let him have his songs, and let the world decide for themselves. It definitely gives you insight to the kind of people who listen to and “resepect” him. A bloody high school drop-out, drug addict.

    My favorite Danger Mouse episode was when Penfold got into a replication machine and there were thousands of Penfolds. I miss that cartoon.

    All we get now are commercials disguised as cartoons.

  11. How is parodying Obama for being African-American different from suggesting John Howard shares a marked similarity with Penfold the Hamster from DangerMouse?

    The latter is more funny (humor being relative of course). Actually, I can almost invisage the PM not minding the latter.

  12. Fairlane,

    I like the idea of your song.

    We used to watch DangerMouse when we were kids – can’t remember my favourite episode clearly – but I do remember the thousands of Penfolds from the replication machine. And Penfold saying “Aw crumbs!”


    If I were a political cartoonist, I’d love to draw the PM in a Penfoldesque manner. Politicians must be used to cartoons which exaggerate their worst characteristics! It’s part of the job description.

  13. fairlane

    There are couple of problems with Rush calling that song a “parody”. The first being, he knows without doubt that “negro” is considered a racist and degrading term. Second, in the wake of the Imus scandal he knew the reaction would be an angry one, from many people. His “shock” and “surprise” are completely disingenuous. He did it because he wanted to, because he could. He dismisses black leaders, and by default the people they represent. His “parody” only adds fuel to the fire. Many Reps want people to believe that racism no longer exists in this country.

    I have a hard time with a white person deciding what is or what is not “racist” or whether racism even exists. How in the hell would they know? (I’m “white” by the way). Of course, the claim of racism is used sometimes to bully, and intimidate. So are many issuess, but to use that as a reason to dismiss the issues altogether is nonsense. Some women falsely report rapes, does that mean all rapes are “falsely reported”?

    The Right Wing in America has taken up the slack from the Democrats and are now the party that panders to racists in this country. Until the 1960’s, and the Civil Rights Amendment, that role was filled by Democrats. The amendment split the party and is a big reason, over the past 40 years, there has been a shift by the “Red States” away from the Democratic Party. In the South, there are still many people who remain angry over the Civil War.

  14. Fairlane,

    I agree, it’s really for African-Americans to make the call whether they find it racist and offensive because it is that particular group which is targeted by the song. It’s not for either Limbaugh or me to say whether it is “racist” or not.

    In the wake of the Imus scandal, Limbaugh’s actions do seem deliberately provocative. It is not as if the song makes a proper political point about Obama’s policies or anything like that, as far as I can work out. It just aims to offend and provoke.

    Yes, sometimes claims of racism are used in a way which is disingenuous – your post about OJ Simpson claiming he’d not been served in a restaurant because he was black provides an example. I find OJ’s use of the “race card” cynical and awful as a whole. It detracts from those who have genuinely been discriminated against, and he does all African-Americans a great disservice, to my mind, because he allows people like Limbaugh to argue “Oh, racism is just a trumped-up claim.”

    I forget, sometimes, that desegregation in the US only occurred relatively recently, along with the civil rights movement.

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