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Rush Limbaugh, Contraception, and Male Insecurity

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) March 10, 2012: We've endured twenty debates among the Republican candidates who are running for the nomination as Republican candidate to run against President Obama in the 2012 election. Ho hum.

Then the Catholic bishops decided to get into the news by objecting to the Obama administration's initial contraception mandate. Under pressure from the Catholic bishops, President Obama caved in and agreed to change the mandate so that Catholic-affiliated institutions would not have to pay for their employees to have contraception coverage in their insurance plans. Sounds like a victory for the Catholic bishops, eh? Wrong. The Catholic bishops were not satisfied with having Obama cave in under their pressure. So they escalated their attacks on the entire idea of contraception coverage in insurance plans. The Catholic bishops claimed that employers should have the right to exercise their freedom of religion NOT to pay for their employees' contraception coverage in their insurance plans. Ho hum.

Next, a Republican Congressman held a hearing about the freedom of religion issue. But only male clergy-types were allowed to testify at his hearing. A third-year law student at Georgetown University, a Catholic university in Washington, D.C., named Sandra Fluke was not allowed to testify at the hearing. Ho hum.

Next, Republican Senators introduced legislation to block contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act, which is popularly known as Obamacare. But their proposed legislation went down to defeat by a narrow margin. Ho hum.

However, along the way, Rush Limbaugh interjected himself into the discussion of contraception coverage in Obamacare. On three different days, Rush Limbaugh broadcast his vile remarks about Sandra Fluke. The first day he broadcast his vile remarks, ho hum. The second day, ho hum. But the third day, enough already!

Of course Rush Limbaugh is not the only misogynist in the country. At the high end of the spectrum of defenders of male patriarchy and male dominance, we have the Catholic bishops. And Rush Limbaugh may not even be the lowest at the low end of the spectrum of defenders of male patriarchy and male dominance. However, on a scale rating loudmouths defending male patriarchy and male dominance, Rush Limbaugh arguably tops even the outspoken Catholic bishops. He may be beloved among his regular conservative listeners, just as the Catholic bishops are apparently beloved among conservative Catholics. But he is loathed by many other people. As a result, we have had an outpouring of commentary criticizing his vile remarks about Sandra Fluke.

Let me repeat something. After the first day of Rush Limbaugh's vile remarks about Sandra Fluke, ho hum. After the second day, ho hum. But after the third day, enough already! At first blush, the delayed anger seems to illustrate the saying about giving him enough rope to hang himself with. But the delayed anger in this case also raises the question as to why there has not been more anger aroused at Rush Limbaugh over all the years that he has been broadcasting. After Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was allowed to run amok, he was confronted at long last. "Have you no decency, sir?" The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd published a column titled with a variation on the rhetorical question that was used at long last to confront McCarthy: "Have you no shame, Rush?" Indeed, Rush Limbaugh does not have a healthy sense of shame. Why not? Read John Bradshaw's book HEALING THE SHAME THAT BINDS YOU (rev. ed. 2005). When our emotions are bound by toxic shame, we do not have a healthy sense of shame.

To be sure, the episode involving Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke and the Catholic bishops on contraception is not over yet. Nevertheless, I want to offer some reflections here about the outspoken defenders of male patriarchy and male dominance. I am well aware that conservatives are not the only misogynists in the country, even though they are prominent in the contraception discussion. So let us keep this in mind.

Arguably one of the most telling portrayals of a misogynist in American literature is William Faulkner's portrayal of Thomas Sutpen in his novel ABSALOM, ABSALOM! Because Faulkner does not use the straightforward narrative technique known as the omniscient narrator, readers have to piece together tidbits of information about Sutpen in order to get the picture about what is driving him and about the lengths to which he is driven. Of course readers also need to do this kind of diligent detective work in certain other novels by Faulkner.

However, in his portrayal of Sutpen, Faulkner undertakes to portray not only deep-seated misogyny but also deep-seated white supremacy and racism in Sutpen. Because Faulkner's portrayal of Sutpen is so loaded with darker motives, I like to think that the diligent detective work that readers of the novel must undertake to understand Sutpen is similar in spirit to the kind of reflection that we Americans should undertake to understand our dark heritages regarding male patriarchy and male dominance, on the one hand, and, on the other, white supremacy and racism.

My essay about Faulkner's portrayal of Sutpen is titled "Faulkner and Male Agonism." My essay appears in the book titled TIME, MEMORY, AND THE VERBAL ARTS: ESSAYS ON WALTER ONG'S THOUGHT, edited by Dennis L. Weeks and Jane Hoogestraat (1998, pages 203-221).

In my essay I base my discussion of male agonism on Walter J. Ong's fine short book titled FIGHTING FOR LIFE: CONTEST, SEXUALITY, AND CONSCIOUSNESS (1981), the published version of Ong's 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University. Fortunately, another publisher reissued Ong's 1981 book in a paperback edition in 2011.

I know, I know, feminists will probably find something to criticize in it regarding Ong's discussion of women. I have no problem with their criticizing something Ong says about women, provided that they understand what he says about male insecurity. Male insecurity drives not only Thomas Sutpen but also Rush Limbaugh and the Catholic bishops and many conservative Republicans.

Now, if turn-about is fair play, as the saying has it, then it may seem to feminists that it is fair to counter misogyny with an anti-masculinist attitude and orientation. However, I do not think that this way of countering misogyny is the way to go. Let's identify alleged examples of misogyny and then discuss them one by one to work out how to counter them. To be sure, misogyny is sweeping in scope. Even so, an equally sweeping anti-masculinist attitude and orientation involves throwing out the baby with the bath water. Misandry may be an understandable reaction to misogyny. But in the final analysis, misandry is not a defensible position, just as misogyny is not a defensible position.

Now, misogyny apparently begins with the male-child's understandable need to separate himself from the seemingly all-encompassing mother's world. As the saying about "good enough" mothers puts it, "good enough" mothers understand this psychodynamic and try to support it to the extent that they can support it. In short, this is an understandable psychodynamic. Through this psychodynamic, the male-child works out a sense of identity not only as separate from the all-encompassing mother's world but also as specifically masculine, in contradistinction to the feminine mother's world. Now, boys need help to work out their specifically masculine sense of identity -- not only help in the form of appropriate support from their mothers and other significant women in their lives, but also help in the form of appropriate support from their fathers and other significant men in their lives as they are growing up.

As boys are growing up, they often tend to work out their emerging sense of specifically masculine identity through competitions and rivalries with other boys. Ong refers to this competitive spirit as agonistic. The Greek word "agon" means contest, struggle.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
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Walter J. Ong's discussion of male insecurity in h... by Thomas Farrell on Sunday, Mar 11, 2012 at 3:57:45 AM
an article I wrote for OEN long ago, "macho is ado... by martin weiss on Sunday, Mar 11, 2012 at 6:01:48 PM