What you can learn from liars.

Nameless Cynic made a very good point in his comment on this post. He questioned whether Rush Limbaugh believes the stuff he says. It may be that saying controversial things is the best way for Limbaugh to generate interest, he will say them even if he doesn’t believe them. It is, as Paul Simon might say, “the principal source of his revenue”.

This is a worthwhile observation, and I have to say it seems quite possible. If you could get paid millions of dollars to say stuff you didn’t believe, would you do it? I suspect lots of people could find some way to justify it. (The phrase “sheep are meant to be sheared” springs to mind.)

If Limbaugh is a charlatan, where does that leave us? Is there anything to be gained by analyzing his statements, or is he simply not worth even thinking about?

Well, that depends. The reason Limbaugh’s pronouncements are controversial is that lots of people believe them and lots of other people don’t. Thus, it is important to recall that even if Limbaugh knows everything he says is a contemptible lie, many other people apparently do not. His claims sound right to them.

It’s important to draw a line between the radio persona Rush Limbaugh and the actual man Rush Limbaugh. If the latter really doesn’t believe what he says, the former is evidently an avatar for the beliefs of many other people. He speaks not his own mind, but the minds of his listeners. He allows people to hear their own subconscious, but with a better speaking voice.

If this hypothesis is correct, then it might still matter what Limbaugh says, because he is still articulating the thoughts of conservatives throughout the country. Or, one might even say, he is telling them what to think. It can be hard to tell which is which.

Edward Bernays, who is often credited with making huge strides in the field of propaganda, once wrote:

“In almost every act of our lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons… It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.”

(Bernays is sometimes compared, rightly, to Machiavelli. When reading either, it is impossible to tell whether or not they knew how creepy their ideas sounded. Both are almost outrageous enough to be in the Modest Proposal genre, but not quite.)

So, maybe Limbaugh is one of the “small number of people”–or else an agent of theirs–and they are simply telling the “ditto-heads” what to do. The fact that they have been persuaded to call themselves “ditto-heads” is itself a bit of evidence in favor of this idea.

And so we come back to how this post got started: Limbaugh’s comments on the 1950s. He may or may not believe the 1950s were better. If he does, he has enough money to create for himself a virtual 1950s lifestyle, and indeed, this he may be well on his way to accomplishing. But if he does not, and is only a charlatan, then why did he bring it up?

It must have been because he calculated that lots of other people believe it. His listeners are largely white men, and as Thingy pointed out in her comment, these are the people who have by far the most to gain from a return to the 1950s social climate. (However, it is hard to imagine that Limbaugh personally could do any better for himself in the ’50s than he has done in the present. And taxes were higher in the 1950s…)

I don’t think Limbaugh could come and out and say just anything and make his loyal fans believe it. Maybe some of them, but not anything like most of them. I mean, if he told them to go out and kick puppies, I think they’d balk at it.

Personally, my feeling is that people are more resistant to propaganda than they are given credit for. They can usually tell when they are being manipulated to think something, unless the propagandist is very good at his job. Limbaugh is pretty good at his job. And the reason for this is that he tells them what they want to hear.

In Paul Graham’s essay “The Submarine”, about Public Relations firms, he noted:

“A good flatterer doesn’t lie, but tells his victim selective truths… Good PR firms use the same strategy: they give reporters stories that are true, but whose truth favors their clients.”

If you read the links about Bernays above, you may have observed that the word “propaganda” and the phrase “public relations” to him meant basically the same thing. “Propaganda” came to be a pejorative term, and so “Public Relations” or “PR” was substituted. This is known as a… PR move.

Back to Limbaugh: he is indeed “favoring his clients”, only they are called “listeners”. If this idea is correct, then Limbaugh’s claims might still be important to understanding politics, because they tell us what the conservatives want to hear.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?