Why I don’t think it’s funny to use Limbaugh’s drug abuse as a punchline.

Short background: Rush Limbaugh (link goes to Wikipedia article) is a US conservative radio talk show host who has risen to prominence in the US by inciting “controversy” after “controversy” with hateful rhetoric. He also went through an ordeal some time back for addiction to prescription painkillers, an incident that the US left likes to use against him. Recently he was rushed to the hospital again, which has spurred a new round of derision from US liberals.

Rush Limbaugh isn’t exactly a sympathetic character. His politics are vile and he makes a career out of escalating white male resentment into white male supremacy. And that causes real harm to real people who don’t meet the requirements to be part of Limbaugh’s He-Man Woman-Haterz Club.

How did he end up abusing prescription painkillers? I don’t know. Was he taking them for legitimate pain due to injury, surgery or a medical condition, and the usage got out of hand? Was he consciously using it as a recreational drug? I have to say I am still somewhat bitter about people who use the stuff I need to be able to get on with my daily life as a quick and easy “high,” ultimately making it harder to access needed medication. (But that is argument from emotion, mostly; I would posit that the real problem is a medical field and larger culture which does not take seriously the needs and concerns of chronic pain patients and is eager to punish people who step outside accepted boundaries.)

But even if he was just out for a high, I still feel unease when I see people use that angle to criticize him.

Because, here’s the thing… the same narrative that you are using to condemn this despicable figure is the narrative that is used to condemn me.

You are feeding, growing, reinforcing the same narrative that codes me as an abuser, that makes me out to be a good-for-nothing low-life, that makes it difficult for me to access the medication I need to be able to live my normal daily life.

When you laugh, joke, or rant about Limbaugh’s abuse of narcotics, you are lifting a page from the book of people who would call me a malingerer and interpret my behavior (frustration at barriers to access, agitation and self-advocacy to try to gain access) as signs of addiction. People who would, in the same breath, chastise me for “making it harder for the real sufferers.” (See why my bitterness about recreational use isn’t actually serving the right purpose, in the end?)

Maybe you don’t really think this way. But maybe the people laughing at your joke do.

And maybe, you just made them feel a little bit safer in their scaremongering about “addiction” and deliberate attempts to make life harder for us.

Scoffing at Limbaugh’s hypocrisy is one thing — but when your scoffing takes the form of a very common, quite harmful cultural prejudice — even when you don’t mean it to — it has real effects on real people’s lives. Sort of like that casual incitement that we hate Limbaugh for.

(Cross-posted at three rivers fog.)

7 Comments

  1. By his hypocrisy I assume you mean his opinions on drug laws?

    His hypocrisy (and his voice…) burn me up. Why can’t he be sympathetic to… reality different yet similar to his own?

    I do understand this post, and since my pain has increased, I have never gone, “Ha ha, he’s a drug addict.” I do – if I think about him – rarely address his pain medication usage, except for the hypocrisy. It’s not a joke, it’s an addiction, and he doesn’t deserve derision. I’d say he deserves sympathy, but I’m no saint. Maybe understanding? I’d love for him to talk about his struggle with pain or pain killers… but I don’t see him admitting a “weakness” like that.

    I hate that it’s called “hillbilly heroin” – classist and ableist! Plus, he got so much derision for taking it and omg, now I’m taking it, what does that make me?

  2. Thank you for writing this. I feel the same way about people shaming Rush Limbaugh for having an addiction as I do about them shaming him for being fat. Neither one is a valid criticism. I can think of many others things to criticize him for, just off the top of my head.

    Also, I’m not positive but I recall reading that he began taking narcotics for back pain/surgery.

    I’m sorry you have to deal with this crap, Amandaw. Sorry any of us do.
    I just don’t have the energy to fight people’s assumptions and condemnations concerning the treatment of my chronic pain. I feel so powerless to do anything to change people’s opinions or inspire any empathy, I just want to curl up and cry. If I’m too assertive in defending narcotic pain control, then I’m clearly an addict who’s afraid of my supply being cut off. If I’m silent about the subject, I’m not allowed to complain about the effects of this stigma on my life, ’cause, you know, I don’t do anything to fix it. Can’t win. It’s not enough that the pain’s wreaking havoc, also have to contend with the judgment, disdain, etc. It’s not fun. I want to be able to focus on my life and getting along with it.

  3. I agree that no one should be denied necessary pain relief or any other medication, just because some people choose to use it recreationally. I also do not disagree with you that ableism contributes to people not taking your need for pain relief seriously.

    However, I think there is another angle that this could be taken from.

    I don’t think that your access to medication would be nearly as hindered by people wanting to get high if recreational drug use wasn’t stigmatized and criminalized.

    Many if not most recreational drug users are responsible, and the problems associated with drug use are caused or made worse by stigmatization and the war on drugs – not made better.

    Addiction is particularly stigmatized and people seem to forget that no one plans on getting addicted to drugs. But once someone does get addicted, addiction is a disease, and stigmatization and criminalization hinders access to treatment.

    This blog entry seems to be normalizing the stigmatization of recreational drug use, and I’m not sure if that’s helpful for anyone.

  4. I just wanted to clarify one thing. When I say that addiction is a disease, I’m not referring to people who have built up tolerance to their pain medications and who experience withdrawal if they go off it.

    I’m just speaking about people who use substances compulsively, even when they know its not in their best interest.

  5. Oh Lord, Elana, I just woke up and initially misread your comment as saying “It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for those nasty addicts ruining your reputation.” Which is not such an uncommon thing to hear in response to these sorts of posts, and I was preparing to come in with an angry response (ahem). I apologize for misreading it that way, because you raise good concerns.

    Your points are duly taken. I’m still trying to wring coherent sentences out of my mind on the Good Crip/Bad Crip phenomenon with addictive substances, i.e. the “responsible,” “legitimate” users (and you can, of course, imagine the social factors that go into determining whether a person is one of them) and the “irresponsible” “illegitimate” user (the rec user, the addict, the person who would be responsible/legitimate if only they weren’t nonwhite or poor or with an unconventional accent/speaking affect, etc.) I really want to post on this, because several people have brought it up when I speak about narcotics as a treatment for chronic pain, and I feel a responsibility to address that straightforwardly.

    I still really struggle with some amount of bitterness against the very existence of recreational use of some of these drugs. But I know that at least one of the places that bitterness comes from is not aligned with my general purpose in activism, and I have to work on that.

  6. Gossamer – I have Al Franken’s mid-90s book on Rush Limbaugh. I hate the title, which I won’t repeat here. (It picks on his weight and “intelligence”.) (I cannot believe my father listens to him – I have 3 sisters – he picked on a young girl because he disagreed with her father. And there’s his Matthew J Fox “impression”.)

    I don’t actually think about the man too much, unless he says something outrageously racist or sexist enough to pop up on a show or blog.

    You know what else bugs me? Whether he has pain or not (maybe that’s why he’s so grumpy *nods*), I’m sure his wealth and celebrity make it easier for him to chemically deal with it. While I spend a week crying and lashing out because my insurance is made up of sadistic robots. And since he’s had health problems, you’d think he’d be more sympathetic to insurance issues. (I like to out hyperbole them – they have “death panels”, I say “the man on TV wants me dead.”)

    Of course there’s always the question that accompanies the more extreme right wing voices – is this an act or do they mean it? What’s worse?

    This isn’t the place to discuss it, of course, it’s been hashed out a million times.

    Amandaw – Using him is a great idea. It’s “oh, he’s in pain, poor guy” vs “shut off the radio NOW” – how dispassionate can you be when dealing with the issues.

  7. I come from a harm reduction framework and have worked hard to rid my language of terms which aren’t in line with that model. That said, having spent the better part of the 90s listening to his show (due to a boss who loved talk radio) and hearing some of the truly vile things he has said about POCs and host of other marginalized populations I can’t say I can feel much of anything for him.

    That said, I do not support folks taking cheap shots at a person who is clearly going through some things. There are tons of legitimate critiques of him and while generally I am all about some Schadenfrauden, I cannot get down on this particularly brand of it.