3 Lessons From the National Conversation About Sluts and Twats


Should Priorities USA, a pro-Obama super PAC, return $1 million pledged to them by HBO show host Bill Maher? That's the topic du jour, especially since Maher has called Sarah Palin and other high-profile conservative Republicans names such as cunt and twat.

Worse still, Maher recently stood up for radiophonic right-winger Rush Limbaugh, who sparked the past week's outrage by calling a birth-control activist a slut when she testified that other people should pick up the tab for her birth control pills. GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney was evasive in denouncing Limbaugh's language, and liberals such as The New Republic's Timothy Noah have carped that Maher's language (and that of other media figures such as Keith Olbermann, Ed Schultz, and Chris Matthews isn't equivalent to Rush's because "It matters more to society what a person with a big following says than what a person with a small following says." (Ital in original.) Big. Small. Leave it to men to immediately start talking about size, am I right ladies?

Some conservatives are calling on Barack Obama to get Priorities USA to reject Maher's generous offering but it's not up to him, is it? If Priorities USA is in fact not coordinating with the president's campaign, why should he have a say in what they do (despite the fact that he's signalled that some of his people will appear at Priorities events). Is this some sort of campaign-financing honeypot sting operation? In any case, Priorities USA has responded so far by…running a picture of Ronald Reagan at the top of its website.

And now, Obama's right-hand man, David Axelrod, is reportedly scheduled to appear on…Bill Maher's show.

And there's this pretty funny video of Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) refusing to denounce foul, misogynistic language in the media:

What lessons can we draw so far?

1. Free speech, including speech which is really stupid, is and should be legally protected under the First Amendment (which should also be extended to broadcast media such as radio and television). Audiences and sponsors are free to walk whenever they want to. Almost 30 advertisers have fled Rush's show and one of them, Carbonite, has been further punished in the stock market, supposedly by conservatives who are in fact fed up with politically correct corporations. Or something. And some conservatives and liberals (think Bill Bennett and Donna Brazille) have even found common ground around the idea that calling women twats, cunts, and sluts is no way to conduct a conversation about politics.

The important thing being: This whole brouhaha shows that what Albert Hirschmann called the strategies of "exit, voice, and loyalty" are still fully in play, even in Janet Reno's/John Ashcroft's/Eric Holder's Amerika. Some people have bailed from what offends them, others have screamed bloody murder from every possible position on the political spectrum, and others are doubling down with the odious creature of their choosing (there are more characters to choose from in terms of misogyny than there were members of the Village People).

2. The outrage over foul language has obscured a serious debate over the implications and implementation of Obama's health-care reform. The issue buried by all the attacks and counter-attacks won't be disappearing. Is it a good thing that Obamacare will force all of us to start paying for other people's choices in new and disturbing ways? Whatever your position on health care, this issue isn't going to go away.

3. As a nation in an election year with massively high levels of unemployment, a tottering economy, more debt than we can possibly ever pay off, a foreign policy most charitably described as FUBAR2, and so many other problems, we'd rather talk about anything else than how to fix what's wrong with us.

Many years ago at the late, great site Suck.com, I declared the 1990s to be "the decade of the penis" that just might usher in "the century of the vagina." Along the way, I characterized the then-popular movie The Full Monty, in which unemployed construction workers in the U.K. turn to stripping rather than regular jobs, as a form of cinema verite dedicated to "documenting the depths to which British men would sink rather than work."

We may have spent the last week talking about lady parts. But we've been stripped as bare as the lazy yobs in The Full Monty and exposed as a fundamentally unserious people who deserve the massive political screwing that we've gotten over the past 10 years and will likely suffer for the foreseeable future too.