Rush Limbaugh's apologies to Sandra Fluke, the law student he called a "slut" and "prostitute," may reflect earnest contrition. Reviewing the written statement he released over the weekend and his subsequent Monday monologue, I'm persuaded that he knows he behaved badly and regrets it, even apart from the advertisers that he's losing. (The man has a lucrative contract, loyal fans, and at least tens of millions in assets. It's hard to imagine he is sweating the lost dough.) Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe he's not sorry at all. Maybe he just wants the controversy to go away. But the ritual public apologies we've come to demand in these situations are totally useless if the transgressor's good intentions aren't assumed when he apologizes.
So that's it. The rite has played out. Time to move on. What's that? You're not satisfied? Yes, I quite agree. Even if Limbaugh's apologies were offered in a spirit of earnestness, as I am presuming, there's no getting around the fact that they included bothersome errors of logic and fact. Before I get to them, I want to propose a whole different way of dealing with these situations. In the future, when a public figure says something that would now elicit demands for an apology, I submit that we substitute an alternative act as the culturally accepted way to "lay the matter to rest." Apologies are, after all, easy to utter and seldom address the ideas at the core of a controversy. Instead of apologies, why not demand that future Limbaughs submit to a public debate? Let the object be to hash things out, not to signal contrition that most people are going to doubt anyway.
In this case, I'd nominate Rachel Maddow as his interlocutor. She's smart, informed, and adept enough at the broadcast medium to hold her own on a stage with one of America's most technically proficient communicators. She'd need to be prepared, for this wouldn't be a one-sided inquisition. If Limbaugh wanted to cite Kirsten Powers' column about offensive things that left-leaning commentators Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Bill Maher, Matt Taibbi, and Ed Schultz have said about women, he'd be free to do so -- I hope Maddow would acknowledge the different treatment, note that it is perhaps unfair, and proceed to cite David Frum and Ross Douthat, who persuasively argue that it owes partly to the singular place that Limbaugh has in our politics.
And when it was Maddow's turn to drive the debate, I hope that she'd pose questions such as the following:
- Mr. Limbaugh, you said in your initial apology that you "chose the wrong words" in your "analogy of the situation," and that you "did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke." You may regret personally attacking her, but how is it plausible that you didn't intend to do so when the attacks happened for two days running?
- Do you understand how birth control works? That women don't pay for it every time they engage in a sexual act?
- In your second apology, you state that this personal attack was an aberration. But you've uttered dozens of similarly offensive comments over the years. Would you like to acknowledge as much and explain yourself, or shall I read this list of statements I have to show you what I'm talking about? Why do you so often use hateful language and attack your political opponents personally?
- In your second apology you said that, in behaving badly, you'd acted like a leftist. Do you really believe that a whole arm of the political spectrum acts in a single way? Or are you just flattering the prejudices of your audience? Is Sandra Fluke a leftist, someone who exhibits the stereotypes you mention? How about Oprah Winfrey? David Remnick? Russ Feingold? What percentage of the left would you say fits this stereotype? Based on what evidence?
- Mr. Limbaugh, you once told The New York Times, "I'm a businessman. My first goal is to attract the largest possible audience so I can charge confiscatory ad rates. I happen to have great entertainment skills, but that enables me to sell airtime." But on your show on Monday, following the loss of advertisers, you said, "For me, this program is always about you. You talk to anybody that knows me who asks me about this program, and I always say, 'It's all for the audience,' because if you're not there, all the rest of this is academic. This show is about you. It's not about the advertisers." So which is it? Is your audience a means to the end of charging confiscatory ad rates, or is your audience itself the reason you do the show? And why have you been inconsistent on this point?
What this exercise would prove in this particular instance is that much of what Limbaugh says cannot stand up to even cursory scrutiny. Forcing him out of his hermetically sealed talk-radio world, where he has a call-screener and a finger on the mute button when he interacts with people at all, would quickly prove that point. That's why Limbaugh would never consent to debate anybody like Maddow. His fans like to portray him as a fearless advocate for conservatism, but he'd be terrified to expose himself to a capable interlocutor in a forum that he doesn't control. Maddow should, in fact, challenge him to square off and taunt him until he accepts.
This model is attractive beyond the present controversy too: It would better ensure that we don't reflexively condemn unpopular ideas that have merit once you think about them; and it would expose genuinely bad ideas to ridicule in a forum direct enough to discredit them. Our current default, the coerced apology, emphasizes contriteness without ever getting into substance.
That's why it's often unsatisfying.