[This review was published in the January/February 1993 issue of Conservative Review, pp. 28-30.]


Book Review


The Way Things Ought to Be

Rush Limbaugh

Pocket Books, 1992


            Using a combination of outrageousness, conservative common sense, egotism (mock or otherwise) and folksy charm, Rush Limbaugh has rapidly established himself as America’s leading radio talk-show personality.  His evening television show, recently begun, involves the same qualities and is also quickly becoming a favorite with millions.  Needless to say, this reviewer counts himself among Limbaugh’s countless “Dittoheads” (named for those who, when they call in, just say “ditto” to avoid repeating the effusive praise voiced by earlier callers).

            Now Limbaugh has taken to the print media as part of his multi-media assault on the inanities of liberal pop culture.  He has added a newsletter and a book, which is the subject of this review.  Those who enjoy and profit from him on radio and television are bound to do the same from his efforts in print.

            The book covers a broad assortment of current cultural and political topics, along with telling about Limbaugh himself.  There are chapters on Anita Hill, the Rodney King affair, the homeless, animal rights, AIDS, abortion, feminism, condoms, Gorbachev—indeed, on all the main themes of his broadcasts.

Commonsense Conservatism

            His commonsense conservatism shines through it all, such as when he says that: “The sympathy in this country is never for those on whose shoulders the burden actually rests: the diligent middle class.  The sympathy is directed at people like the woman who was killed last year after she fell asleep in a dumpster and was crushed by a garbage truck as it picked up the trash.  The American people had that story thrown in their face for a week.  They were told it was their fault that it happened!  That the woman was so hopeless that she had to rummage around in dumpsters for food… It later turned out she was not homeless but was just looking for a few bargains and she fell asleep.”  This leads him to the moral, which points to one of the central problems in America today: “People are going to have to start accepting responsibility for their actions and stop bleeding the people in this country who accept their responsibilities and who see to it that the country works.”  Limbaugh is religious and Ayn Rand wasn’t, but we can recognize here that Limbaugh is stating the idea that inspired Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged.

A Storehouse of Facts

            In addition to conveying much sound thinking, Limbaugh’s book serves as a storehouse of important facts that readers may once have known but are inclined to forget. 

            Pointing back to the “Willie Horton” ads in the 1988 presidential campaign, he says that they “are now unquestionably accepted as a sordid, racist blemish on the Republican party.  But this description is infinitely more than the facts allow.  The truth is that the Willie Horton political advertisement had nothing whatever to do with race.  The issue was crime and the message was Michael Dukakis’s softness of approach with criminals.  Willie Horton was one of eleven convicted killers permitted to leave prison to visit their families as part of a furlough program under then Massachusetts governor Dukakis.  Horton was in prison for murdering a man after castrating him and stuffing his genitals into his mouth.  During his furlough in 1987, Horton tied up a man and made him watch while Horton raped the man’s wife.  After the incident, the state legislature tried to stop killers from getting furloughs, but Dukakis fought against it because he said the program was 99 percent effective.”

            It’s well, too, that all conservatives—indeed, all Americans—remember how “a few years ago, radical students at Stanford University protested against a required course in the great texts of Western civilization.  They organized a march, led by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, with a chant, ‘Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go.’  And Stanford capitulated and abolished the Western civilization requirement.”

            Many of the facts Limbaugh presents are of a sort that puncture the wild exaggerations of the hate-America crowd.  His chapter on homelessness is an example of this, since he compares the late activist Mitch Snyder’s outlandish estimates with the much more realistic facts as found by such agencies as the Census Bureau and the Urban Institute.

Some Additional Observations….

            What we have said so far is enough to show the overall value of the book and to make it apparent that The Way Things Ought to Be is well worth reading and circulating to friends.  It will serve the intellectual vitality of the conservative movement, however, not to end our review here, but to carry it into some points about which the reviewer’s thinking differs from Limbaugh’s, even though the differences often won’t be major.

            1.  There are a few mistakes and other weaknesses, though not many when the book is considered as a whole. 

            Limbaugh would appear to make a mistake in his discussion of Mitch Snyder.  He cites Snyder as having said that 45 of the homeless die every second, and he calculates that this would amount to 23 million a year, a sum he rightly considers wholly beyond belief.   My calculations show that 45 deaths per second would come to 1,419,120,000—almost a billion and a half!—in a year’s time.  It would be 45 deaths per minute that would come to 23 million.  This tells us there’s a mistake somewhere: either in Limbaugh’s calculation or in his quotation from Snyder.

            Another criticism relates to his discussion of Anita Hill.  He starts by saying that she made unsubstantiated allegations.  That is certainly true, and is quite a sufficient indictment of her in itself.  It isn’t long, though, before he speaks of her as having lied and committed perjury.  That’s a big extra step—one that requires considerable proof.  Limbaugh doesn’t seem aware of the jump he’s made and the need to provide that proof.

            Finally, there’s some inconsistency in his use of the term “feminazi.”  In places, he insists that he uses the term very narrowly to denote a mere 25-or-so feminists who actually want as many abortions as possible to occur; but in other places he uses the term with a much more sweeping denotation, such as on page 191 when he speaks of “the militants of the 1970s, many of whom are now the embittered feminazis” (emphasis added).   Frankly, we think he ought to resolve the inconsistency by unabashedly allowing himself the broader usage—certainly not to denote all women who are friendly to feminism, but to speak of those many who intolerantly demand conformity to their views through ‘political correctness.’

            2.  On a more substantive matter, Limbaugh is critical of the Supreme Court’s finding of a Constitutional “right of privacy” (which in turn formed the basis for the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion).  In opposition to this “right,” he sees “conservative justices” as those who “believe in judicial restraint.”

            Even though his view on this is in agreement with several prominent conservatives, this is a point about which conservatives should, in my opinion, give pause.  In the theory of an individualistic free society, such as that formulated by Friedrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty, the concept of a “private sphere for the individual” is a necessary feature.  A recognition of this private sphere is inherent, say, in the point that “a man’s right to swing his fist is limited by the proximity of another man’s nose.”  If it weren’t for our wish to give sanctity to each individual’s person, we couldn’t really say that the nose has priority over the fist.  In many ways, both the law and the theory of a free society accept this priority as a starting principle.

            The recognition of a “private sphere of the individual” is so basic to individual freedom and to the law that it is certainly to be included within that reservoir of unspoken liberty referred to in the Ninth Amendment.  During the “classical liberal” ascendancy prior to the final years of the New Deal, the U.S. Supreme Court had little difficulty affirming that there is indeed such a thing as “substantive due process”; i.e., a reservoir of judicially cognizable rights.  In recent years we have seen the Court use this concept to declare certain specific rights of a personal nature while refusing to apply the concept to the normal incidents of productive activity, such as to reaffirm economic freedom.  In opposing these applications of the concept, however, we would do well not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  A sound Constitutional conservatism may itself, one day, find it agreeable to articulate something very much akin to the “right of privacy.”

            3.  In his chapter on “multiculturalism,” Limbaugh endorses the assimilationist ideal and opposes cultural fragmentation.  He believes all immigrants should strive to become Americans first and foremost, retaining their past heritage only as an enriching feature.  To this, his fellow conservatives will say “hooray,” since none of us want America’s growing ethnic diversity to undermine our cultural unity and tear the body politic asunder.

            I would make would the same point about Limbaugh’s discussion, though, that I would make about Arthur Schlesinger’s recent book The Disuniting of America: that it isn’t enough simply to argue for the ‘melting pot’ model.  Unless we also argue against, and effectively bring to an end, the tidal wave of Third World immigration that is occurring, all arguments for a ‘melting pot’ will sooner or later come to ring hollow.  Fragmentation will be the stark, irreversible reality; and those who will continue to talk of ‘assimilation’ will be crying in the wind.  It isn’t enough for Limbaugh and Schlesinger to have their hearts in the right place on this vitally important issue; if their assimilationist ideal is to carry real meaning, they must go far enough to advocate the necessary measures that would implement it.

            4.  My next point, a much less significant one, is in the nature of a reflection triggered by something that Limbaugh says in common with many others.  He speaks of the fact that society is “not a ‘zero-sum game’ in which for one person to win someone else has to lose.”

            The point he makes is vital, since the notion that in a market system one person’s profit is necessarily another’s loss is an idea that lies behind a lot of anti-capitalist thinking.  It is important to point out, as he and other market-economy advocates do, that millions of “win-win,” not “win-lose,” transactions are what constitute a market.

            When this is put in terms of a “zero-sum game,” though, we should realize somewhat ruefully that we are losing our grasp of the history of ideas.  The great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises was fond of pointing out, a half century ago, that the idea that one person’s gain is necessarily somebody else’s loss was put forward prominently in the sixteenth century by the French essayist Montaigne.  Mises spoke of it as ‘the Montaigne dogma.’  I suppose it’s all right to speak of a “zero sum game,” but, darn it, we’re losing four centuries worth of context.

            5.  This illustrates both the strength and the weakness of Limbaugh’s thought.  In the dimension that is most important to his success both for himself and for conservatism, it is a real advantage that he is current.  He could hardly popularize his (and conservatism’s) ideas as he does if he talked the language of “Montaigne dogmas” as distinct from “zero sum games.”  The public is seldom enthralled by seemingly dull professors who talk of the form that concepts took four centuries ago.

            We should recognize, though, in any serious discussion of his ideas, that they do not aspire to theoretical or historical depth.  An example is that he is acutely aware of the anti-American alienation that pervades late-twentieth century America’s intellectual and media culture.  But you could not tell from his book that that alienation has a centuries-old history, and is fundamental to our civilization as we have known it.

            To point this out is to say no more than that there are different levels upon which social philosophy is to be understood.  Conservative social philosophy needs both popularizers and theoreticians; it is not an either-or proposition; each is essential.  I doubt whether the Friedrich Hayeks and Russell Kirks of the conservative movement will think less of Rush Limbaugh because his success is as a remarkably successful popularizer of conservative ideas.

            6.  Many callers have pointed it out to Limbaugh, but I am not sure that he grasps the cultural incongruity that is inherent in a good deal of what he does.  Much of his appeal lies in his showmanship, his audacity, his outrageousness, his playing with the absurd—all of which makes him interesting and brings his listeners back day after day for more.

            Most of this audacity is, however, seriously at odds with social conservatism.  His “condom updates,” “Gorbasms,” and the like are plainly fun.  But culturally analyzed, they trace their origins back to the “Free [Filthy] Speech Movement” at Berkeley and to the masturbatory antics of the likes of Jerry Rubin during the New Left.  His showmanship is thus of a sort that would have scandalized our grandfathers and that violates some extremely important values.  It thrives by embracing the very cultural disintegration that is so serious an issue in American society today.

            I wish Limbaugh every success, and in common with millions of others I laugh along with his scandalizing method.  Just the same, we can regret his contribution to the dilution of standards.  How does he dilute them?  Marshall McLuhan observed years ago that “the medium is the message.”  It is precisely in this context that Limbaugh gives a dual message, one conservative through the ideas he articulates, the other very much an echo of the Sixties in the way that he grabs and holds his audience.

            Would I suggest that he blunt his audacity?  No, I suppose not.  But there is irony in not doing so.  Why?  Because the argument on behalf of his continuing as he is is the same as the argument for condom distribution in the schools (something Limbaugh detests).  This is an argument that if responsible people are to have any success and acceptability in today’s milieu, they must make their way within the world as it has become, not as they would like it to be.  In connection with condoms it is argued that this means offering “protection” to teenagers who are “going to have sex anyway.”  In connection with talk-radio, it means offering titillation to a mass audience that presumptively would not care to listen (not, at least, in as great numbers) without the attraction that that provides.  It’s a tough choice, really, to which there is no easy answer, whether or not to play the game in such a world according to its own terms.

            Be this as it may, there is a major difference between the recently burgeoning “trash television” that brings sex into our living rooms in the competition for ratings, on the one hand, and the audacities of a Rush Limbaugh, on the other.  The titillating similarities aside, he uses the salacious and outrageous as a means to bring conservatism and commonsense to millions.  As he is fond of saying, his broadcasts don’t need to be offset by liberal voices for balance: he is the balance.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Dwight D. Murphey