Most years around the middle of May I think of how I was introduced to the Rush Limbaugh Show. Back in the spring of 1993 the Rush Limbaugh phenomenon was only a rumor to me. That is how far away from it I was. I became familiar with his shtick and views because for two solid months I listened to Rush Limbaugh’s program from a truck radio all afternoon, all the workdays of the week.
I labored as a seasonal worker on a state trail maintenance crew for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. A full-time employee was my on-site supervisor–I’ll call him Matt–and he controlled the radio. We were a two-man crew; I was the only audience for Matt’s running commentary. So not only did I gain exposure to the show itself, but also to the personality of a live “ditto-head,” complete with offshoot rants about women and minorities. Especially about women, delivered in a self-deprecating Minnesota niceness. This was the dark side of the nice—more irritating than offensive, more pathetic than threatening.
Matt believed that minorities were asserting themselves while white men like himself were unable or disallowed to do the same. Political correctness and humorless “femi-nazis” were the problem, not sexism and racism. Rush was a truth-teller and an example of courage, his champion, appreciated for making the (pseudo)-factual observations that regular guys could not. Matt’s entire political frame was founded on the presumption that his life, his perspectives, and his feelings were normal, and those of the female, the queer, the black, brown, and red were somehow deviant. I specify those categories because in time I heard Matt deride, insult, or complain about gays (“disgusting!”), African Americans, Mexicans, Native Americans, and women in general.
That one could always find individual examples from racial minority groups that agreed with his conservative philosophies only served to reinforce Matt’s belief that “ordinary” people such as his kind were up against a willful non-conformity—in nationalistic terms, an anti-Americanism. I think he considered me, an Asian American, to fall within the normal spectrum somehow. Or what is more likely, Matt had had little experience with Asian people, either through media or in person, and simply was without basis for feeling threatened or wronged by us. That made a twisted sense because the category of non-white and/or non-male people he'd had most contact with, that is white females, bore his most frequent barbs. I was told later that he had been disciplined once under the sexual harassment policy for saying the wrong things to the wrong people. If only for workplace functionality, in the best case scenario Matt would have had to complete a basic diversity best practices seminar. I am often critical of “diversity training” but in this case, I could see the utility because he was just that clueless.
Contradictions made it difficult for me to entirely demonize Matt. He identified with the union and recognized it as the main organ of his economic security, to the extent that he served as an officer for the AFSCME local. Not being a student of history, his underdog disposition was mostly felt on the level of personality; Matt was the beleagured blue collar worker, an Archie Bunker with none of the belligerence. From what I could tell, he most certainly did not identify with nor aspire to join management.
Better than his union work, Matt was generous in sharing skills. He showed me how to use a chainsaw properly, how to measure and mark lumber as carpenters do, and how to operate a tractor. A creature of the Southeastern Minnesota landscape, he also knew about fishing the trout streams, not with the fly casting gear of the pretend gentry but using spinners from Farm & Fleet. The one time I went out with a cheap rod and a fresh license, I got strikes based on his instructions.
His best tips came in the area of foraging, and this is why I think of him around this time of year. Matt demystified for me the art of foraging for morel mushrooms. In the time before the inter-webs this was valuable information that those in the know held close. He told me where to look—around the dead elms standing along the grassy embankments lining roads and railroad grades. Look for the snags with bark slipping off the trunks. Look for the elm tree gestalt, a kind of light bulb shape, with the upper branches curving inward. More important than where to look is when. He taught me to pay attention to the spring weather pattern that triggers the fruiting of the morel. Start hunting when we have two or three days of chilly rain followed by a warm front, bringing in the first of the summer heat. The common wisdom says that the blooming lilacs signal the appearance of morels, but he noted that often the lilacs followed a week behind. Don’t wait for the lilacs, he advised, or you might be just a little too late.
The larger lesson for me was the compartmentalization that happens when individuals base their entire politics on purely atomized greivances–ie how they personally have been wronged, feel threatened, or are not being heard–and miss the systemic forest for the trees. In the end, my experience with Matt was not about a balance sheet of his good points versus his bad. What I realized was that the politicization of subjective experience, sourced from liberation traditions, had been redeployed by the Right. Interestingly, the areas of life not yet ideologically digested–in Matt's case, including activities like trout fishing, foraging, conservation practices–remained outside the frame of antagonism that defined social relations in other contexts. The resulting contradiction was perversely rational.
As with the morels, which have never been successfully domesticated, do most people retain some element of autonomy from their ideological shackling, an untainted pathway through which a human connection may be found? Or is the reactionary cultural frame a one-way disease, spreading like the Dutch Elm fungi, ravaging bio-communities, one at a time? Or is it a symbiotic dynamic, with the Limbaugh culture rotting from within, taking out the formerly majestic pillars of its society with it, so that the new diversities, which accelerate the breakdown of the old, may grow out from underneath?