Rush played a clip of Obama pronouncing the word "ask" "ax" and made a joking reference to the recently revealed embarrassing statement by Harry Reid, that Obama could win the election because he's "light-skinned" and speaks "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." Obama's use of "ax" was in all probability a mere slip, but to anyone who remembered the Reid statement and who also enjoys exposure of the Democrats' exploitation of race, it was very funny to imagine that Obama made a deliberate choice to affect what Reid called a "Negro dialect."
It was satire.
Now, I'm not saying it was the funniest comic riff in the world. And I'm sure it disturbs those who want to be super-polite about race and, even more, those who — like Hertzberg — want to characterize the Democrats as the good guys about race and people like Rush as the bad guys. Hertzberg therefore recounted the incident leaving out the reference to Harry Reid's remark, so that the humor was hard to see and it looked more like mean-spirited race-baiting. That was totally underhanded and dishonest — unless, as I said, Hertzberg was too dumb to get it. Remember, Hertzberg took the strong position — in The New Yorker — that Rush is nothing but a big hateful racist. So the issue wasn't whether the joke was excellent. The issue is what Rush's statement means about whether he really is a terrible racist. I think my post makes it clear that he is not, and Hertzberg is either stupid or dishonest.
Liberman comes to Hertzberg's defense by calling my post "bizarre," but Liberman only quotes a small bit of what I said, and he leaves out the whole substance of my point. (Did he really not get it or did he omit the context to support his representation of it as "bizarre"?) Liberman doesn't let his readers see how Reid's remark was the basis for understanding why it was funny (or supposed to be funny) to point out that Obama said "ax."
Instead, Liberman tries to make a point by quoting a Pandagon blogger who insulted me long ago, as if that was as relevant to the discussion as Rush's reference to Harry Reid. But it's not. It's just an insult of me, which of course, repeated for no ostensible reason, would be correctly interpreted as a way to insult me and be able to try — lamely — to deny it. Liberman is right about his quoting Pandagon, but the analogy to Rush and Reid is inapt. Liberman says:
You can't defend a false characterization of someone's motivations or actions by noting that the attack was a paraphrase of a third party's remarks, especially if your reference is completely out of context.Remember, the issue is whether it is fair to characterize Limbaugh as a racist and whether leaving out the reference to Reid dishonestly skews readers to interpret the remark as racist. To understand Limbaugh as a satirist of Democrats, rather than someone who hates (or even disrespects) black people, you need to know that he's riffing on something the Democrat Reid said about the way his Party could exploit its black candidate. (Reid was assuming that white voters are racist, but that a black candidate could succeed if he looked and spoke less like some black stereotype Reid expected those who heard his statement to share.) Thus, what was "completely out of context" was Hertzberg's presentation of Rush's remark without the material that allowed us to see it as a critique of the Democratic Party's racial strategies.
The issue is not whether Rush made "a false characterization of [Obama]'s motivation" for saying "ax." That was all a comic riff that you can think is funny or not. So, we don't really know why Obama said "ax," but Rush didn't make a "false characterization" of why Obama said it. We don't really know why Obama said it. I assume it was a simple mistake, and I bet Rush does too. But it was satire to invite us to imagine that this was Obama doing that thing Reid said he could do. Again, you may think it was poor satire, but the issue is whether it is fair to characterize Limbaugh as a racist, and the answer is no.
Liberman needs to take another look at all this and concentrate on what matters. Not why did Obama say "ax," but: Was it fair for Hertzberg to call Limbaugh a racist?