By Tommy Airey
*Trigger warning: this post includes content, straight out of Rush Limbaugh’s mouth, that some readers may find offensive and/or traumatizing.
“I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, says the Lord,
but rather in his conversion, that he may live.”—Ezekiel 33:11
Rush Limbaugh died last week. When I heard the news, it took me back thirty years. During the Fall of my senior year in high school, I went on a weekend road trip from Orange County to Berkeley to surprise one of my best friends at college. I drove up with his dad. We parked a block from the hippies and unhoused on Telegraph Avenue. When my friend came down from his dorm room, I was hiding in the trunk of the car. His dad handed him the keys to open the trunk. I scared the living tar out of him.
I will never forget the look on his face.
I will also never forget stopping at In-n-Out Burger three times during our drive up.
And I will never forget listening to Rush Limbaugh for three straight hours through the most boring stretch of the 5, plowing past towns like Buttonwillow, Lost Hills and Los Banos. Spanish for “the bathrooms.” Plural and Providential. What we needed for all that bullshit blaring through the speakers.
Back then, my adolescent evangelical mind was absolutely convinced that Rush was right. He was just speaking common sense. Fast-forward to the Fall of 2019, a few months before Bernie got blindsided by neoliberal thugs and the pandemic pressed the pause button on full-frontal hugs. I got re-acquainted with Rush Limbaugh on a drive from Central Oregon to Detroit, Michigan. I was rolling through the Cornhusker State and I had zero cell reception and zero data. So I partied like it was 1999 by tuning in to one of the 600 AM radio stations that aired his show. As I drove past countless billboards of swaddled babies warning against the evils of abortion, I listened to Rush Limbaugh. Because it was either him or Sean Hannity. And because I was lonely and I wanted to hear from an old friend. My mistake.
That day, Rush Limbaugh was practically crying. The state of California would be the radical leftist model for the rest of America if the Democrats prevailed nationally. If only. He was eviscerating environmentalists who make a living scaring the devil out of us, telling us that the planet will be uninhabitable in 30-40 years. It’s all a crock, he said, all of it. He was lamenting the liberals trying to ban police chokeholds. He referred to them as seatbelt maneuvers. As if they are actually used to protect people. Rush Limbaugh, right before a commercial break, summed up his political platform, resisting everything that is not white and not male: I oppose stupidity. I oppose the absence of common sense. On that drive, I realized how much I had unconsciously hidden all this bogus banter in the far corners of my soul basement. Fox News and red MAGA hats were so easy to confront head-on because they did not came around until after I had been born again. I repressed Rush because I used to roll with him.
Long before Trump, Rush Limbaugh recruited white men like me plagued by the insecurity and entitlement that comes with our conscientious blindness to power and privilege. He puffed his cigar and, with an incessant axe to grind, sharpened his urban legends and conspiracy theories on sexuality, gender and race. Not necessarily in that order. Psychologically, it was pure projection. Who was the master of making everything about race? Rush Limbaugh, who called President Obama Barack the Magic Negro. Who was thoroughly embedded in identity politics? Rush Limbaugh, who referred to any strong woman as a femi-nazi. Who was canceling folk long before cancel culture became a thing? Rush Limbaugh, who consistently called Black pro athletes gang members and thugs.
Make no mistake, the root of Rush Limbaugh’s appeal to white men was not hate or anger. It was supremacy. Like that song from the original Karate Kid. You’re the best around, no one’s ever gonna keep you down. The motto of his mimicking listeners—called dittoheads—was Rush is right. Which meant everyone else was wrong, inferior, lazy, crazy or just plain stupid. Supremacy is so powerful because it means that you are right, no matter what, because of who you are. White. Male. Christian. Straight. American. It is mythical, magical thinking masked as common sense. It is the simple explanation for so many of society’s ills.
Why do we have pockets of abject poverty in cities and on reservations? Why are so many Black and Brown men locked up in prison? Why are suburban schools so much better than every other school? Why do Black and Brown folk suffer higher rates of many diseases, including Covid-19? Why are so many people of color killed by cops? Why are the ranks of the powerful and wealthy filled with white men? All one needed to answer these queries was common sense coated in supremacy stories.
Common sense—the way white people explain this situation—does not account for a racist system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that works collectively to keep Black and Brown people in the basement.
Common sense does not account for research revealing, for example, that people from all races and ethnicities use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates, yet people of color are arrested and imprisoned at far higher rates than white folks for drug possession and sales.
Common sense is not complicated by comprehensive data or other inconvenient details.
Common sense is mired in a myth about the inferiority of “other” cultures and their failure to assimilate to what is American—which is just another word for white.
Common sense is automatic, and if we want to live into the truth, it must be addressed.
Rush Limbaugh built an empire of white men emotionally caged and confined by their version of common sense. White men languishing in lonely cells sealed shut by what Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr. calls “racial habits.” The things we do, without even thinking, that sustain the segregation. White men (and women) lack the capacity to realistically assess the context of our situation, to take inventory of the racist assumptions and policies that produce both our automatic responses and our socio-economic conditions. My own habits had been formed long before Rush Limbaugh came along. Common sense was burned into the basal ganglia of my brain from early on. The seeds were planted by TV shows, commercials, movies and music. They were watered by coaches, the fathers of friends, teachers and, yes, pastors. All Rush had to do was fertilize them with more bullshit.
I became disillusioned with dittoheads sometime between 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. U.S. troops invaded Iraq and my common sense unraveled as it was consistently confronted with real life testimonies of those coming out of the closet, those coming up from south of the border, those coming from the other side of the tracks. Much of my road to Damascus went down in my own classroom. Scales fell as I listened to sincere students share their common sense in the civics courses I taught at a large public high school in Southern California. The rest of it ripped open my mind and soul in seminary while meditating on the works of Howard Thurman, James Cone, Cornel West and Brian Blount. Black men who Rush Limbaugh probably would have called Commie libs. Or worse. Just like Jesus, these theologians confront the establishment with a kind of common sense that is totally different and far more compelling. Because it rises from reality.
The redemptive road to white male healing and liberation runs in the opposite direction of dittoheads. I do not believe that the opposite of Rush Limbaugh is acceptance, tolerance, diversity, equity and inclusion. White liberal slogans and catchphrases are vague, passive nouns that lack the spiritual power to lead us to the promised land of collective liberation. The opposite of Rush Limbaugh is breaking rank with common sense and breathing with those whose lives are consistently terrorized by it. The opposite of Rush Limbaugh is passionate, convictional leadership animated by active verbs like telling the truth, taking inventory, confessing, grieving, making amends, making sacrifices, listening, learning, laughing at ourselves, being present and pursuing justice with every ounce of energy we have left. The opposite of Rush Limbaugh is signing up for St. Paul’s scandal, a kind of conspiracy plotted by a God of crucified love who chose those that common sense calls foolish to shame the wise and those that common sense calls weak to shame the strong and those that common sense calls stupid to shame common sense itself.
The irony of the hour is that Rush Limbaugh died of lung cancer after telling listeners that smokers are not at any greater risk than people who eat carrots. Smokers aren’t killing anybody, he said. A year ago, he claimed that Covid-19 was being weaponized to bring Trump down. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks. These samples are just the tip of the melting iceberg. Three hours a day, for three decades, Rush Limbaugh riffed off the racial habits of white men, stamping them with entitlement and stripping them of empathy. The effects of this epidemic cannot be exaggerated. The truth is that even though Trump and Rush have been removed, our spiritual, social and political problems remain. Because the root cause is common sense, folks.
Tommy Airey is a retired high school teacher and ex-Evangelical pastor. He is the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.net and author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).