Rush Limbaugh and Bedtime Stories: Definitely Not the Worst Thing That Happened Last Week

The interview I linked to last week, about our book Family Values provoked what, for both me and Adam, has been a somewhat bizarre, and occasionally disturbing, experience. The sequence of events seems to have been this. Some Australian journalist (Tim Blair of the Daily Telegraph) with a beef against ABC, the broadcaster of the interview, wrote an article/post lambasting ABC for broadcasting it. Then, Mr. Rush Limbaugh picked this up and, in turn, lambasted Adam for insanity and ridiculousness (quite to my irritation, he didn’t mention me at all). Then – well, I guess a mention on Mr, Limbaugh’s show is enough to get you a lot of publicity, and the right and ultra-right wing blogs took up the cause. We started getting invitations to appear on talk shows, and a slew of hate mail (almost all of it to Adam – the worst I got was one saying “your also a fucken idiot like your mate adam smith. pair of wanker fucksticks. simple. fuckoff idiot). NRO took it up, and that spread it further. As you might guess, once Mr. Limbaugh has hold of something, the white supremacists pick it up pretty quickly too, and one site (to which I will not link, because it is so repulsive) celebrated the 70th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s death by telling its readers that if the world had only listened to him, people like me and Adam would be silent.

Now, what did we say that was so insane and ridiculous? – what was it for which, according to one of Professor Althouse’s commentators, we should be shot?

We wrote a book, providing an elaborate philosophical defense of the family. Not, maybe, exactly, the traditional family – we are clear that same sex parents, adoptive parents, and single parents count as families—but something quite like it (indeed, one left wing blogger who had linked to one of the ultra-right websites ridiculing us criticized our views, in an email, as “highly moralized in a way typical of bourgeois moral philosophy”). One passage in the book – which I initially drafted, and with which we are both pretty pleased – explains in considerable detail why reading bedtime stories to your children is so valuable that it is something nobody should be prevented from doing, and should be (cautiously) encouraged to do –and, in fact, we argue that parents have a duty to their children to do intimate things like reading bedtime stories to their children. One commenter, indeed, said it was the most eloquent account of what was so good about bedtime story reading that he/she had ever read.

The part of the internet I explored seems like a huge and bizarre game of Chinese Whispers (in the US I’m told we call it “telephone” which seems behind the times – can I suggest renaming it “internet”? ), with a distinctly postmodernist view about truth. By the time it reached Mr Limbaugh, our view was that it is immoral to read bedtime stories to your children and before long it seemed that we believed the family should be abolished.

Now, I am not whining (it’s very hard not to sound like I am whining, but, really, I’m not, I swear!). As I said when I mentioned this in the election thread, it was hard to figure out how to write a post about this – “Rush Limbaugh is not very nice to people who are completely reasonable” and “People on the internet are really horrid sometimes especially when they don’t give out there names” don’t really seem especially insightful or informative tag lines. I totally understand that people like Mr Limbaugh make their livings by misrepresenting other people and sometimes outright lying about them, and that the ultra-right echo chamber is populated substantially by people less privileged than I am, who sincerely feel disempowered by, and isolated in, a cruel and uncertain world. And of course I recognize that some people lack a taste for moral complexity; the idea that there could be bad aspects to good things and good aspects to bad things (as, we argue, there are downsides to the all-things-considered good and justified practices of raising kids in families and parents reading bedtime stories to them) seems incomprehensible to some people, which is understandable given the state of public discussions of politics in the US. Personally, I am not especially bothered by the insults, the comparisons with Pol Pot or the claims that we deserve to be shot (though one friend to whom I pointed out that Adam has had far the worst of it, said “Yeah, but you live in a state where everyone who says you should be shot owns and can legally carry a gun”). Still, it did make me somewhat distressed about my relatives who listen to Mr. Limbaugh and think of him as an entertainer.

The one thing I genuinely worry about is my institution being brought into disrepute. Many voters, and no doubt some legislators, in Wisconsin, listen to Mr. Limbaugh, and read the kinds of blogs that have misrepresented my and Adam’s ideas. (I’m not completely naïve – I know that part of Mr. Limbaugh’s purposes is to drip drip drip misinformation in order to erode trust in and support for the institutions he despises). I did, completely absurdly, waste some time posting corrections in the comments sections of some sites, but stopped when I got to the white supremacist site (honestly, when I got there, I saw lots of sidebar references to Jews, and felt particularly sad that a Jewish blog had taken up the misrepresentation – so I was actually relieved to find that wasn’t the case, but then, after reading for a bit, started feeling physically sick). Adam has posted a comment on his personal website presenting our actual views, as a corrective. I tried to write something similar, but couldn’t get it to seem quite right. Daniel implied that I (or we) should go libel shopping, but as I said, my dad’s already sued for libel once, and successful as that was I’m not sure I have the resources to do that. Any advice about how to pre-empt or counteract any bad effects this might have on my institution would be welcome.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.