Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Power of Boycott

[See updates below]

If you have been living on another planet since February 23rd you might not have heard about Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke, a third-year law student at Georgetown University who had the temerity to believe that the new federal law mandating health insurance coverage for contraceptives prescribed by a female policyholder’s physician should be enforced even if it offends her employer. On his daily radio show Limbaugh called her a “slut,” suggested she was a prostitute, and demanded that she provide videos of having sex as the price of her conviction.

Limbaugh has made a career of obnoxious hateful caricatures of people with whom he disagrees to the obvious delight of millions (yes “millions”) of self-described “Ditto Heads.” Has his latest slander gone too far?

Brian Dickerson of the Detroit Free Press says there is one school of thought that believes
 …the best way to deal with somebody like Rush Limbaugh is to ignore him, the way you might avoid calling attention to a toddler who has just puked all over your new sofa or a demented great-uncle who starts spewing racial epithets at the Thanksgiving table.

There is much to be said for this approach. Ignoring isolated assaults on civility generally diminishes their impact and accelerates their transit to oblivion. Drawing attention to the offender, or insisting that others join in a formal denunciation of his indiscretion, tends to accomplish exactly the opposite.
In this case, however, Dickerson believes that’s not an appropriate response:
The danger is that what passes for discreet silence when boorish behavior is overlooked once or twice may be interpreted as acquiescence when it such behavior goes unremarked again and again.

So, at the considerable risk of prolonging the provocation-reaction cycle on which all demagogues thrive, I’d like to propose that it is time for politicians, commentators, and sponsors who wish to remain in good standing as members of the civilized world to put some distance between themselves and the hate-mongering sociopath who calls himself Rush Limbaugh.
After all, Dickerson points out, Limbaugh is being paid to say these things:
If Limbaugh had spewed his misogynistic slander from a street corner in Detroit or New York, we might step around him, in much the same way we’d avoid a pile of dog excrement left inconsiderately in the middle of the sidewalk.

But he did it on a nationally syndicated radio show distributed by a broadcaster (owned, by the way, by Bain Capital) that charges advertisers millions of dollars to reach Limbaugh’s considerable audience.

So when he calls our daughters, wives, sisters and mothers sluts and prostitutes, he’s getting paid to do so, and lots of other people we generally consider to be members of civil society are going along for the ride.
For the moment anyway, Limbaugh may be enjoying the attention, but the companies who pay for time to advertise on his show may not be so comfortable. By Friday afternoon a firestorm of response from “millions” of woman and men who are not ditto heads were calling for a boycott of those sponsors who pay Limbaugh.

This spontaneous Internet campaign, as Dickenson points out, is similar to the ones that killed proposed federal anti-piracy legislation and forced the Susan G. Komen Foundation to rescind a decision to cut Planned Parenthood adrift. The new campaign has sent some advertisers running for cover.

In our capitalist/consumerist society, the public does not have the opportunity to elect or vote out corporation heads, but what we do have is the right to buy or not buy their products; and we have the right to encourage others to buy or not to buy them.

Already, there are cries of “foul” from some corporate sponsors, suggesting that a boycott is somehow un-American. Maybe it’s time to recall a little history.  

In 1880, Irish landowner and land reform advocate, Charles Parnell, organized tenant farmers against Captain Charles Boycott, a British land agent in County Mayo. When Boycott refused to reduce the rents of the farmers in the desperate conditions following the Great Famine, Parnell used the scriptural injunction of the ban in Matthew 18 so that everyone in the locality would refuse to have any dealings with Boycott. Laborers wouldn’t work for him, local shops stopped serving him, and no one would deliver his mail.

The harvest was saved; but at an enormous cost. The campaign became big news in England; moneyed interests saw in it a threat to their absentee landowners in Ireland. Fifty Orangemen from Ulster traveled to the estate to save the harvest, and a regiment of troops of over a thousand men were sent to protect the harvesters. The cost to the British government and others was over £10,000 to harvest approximately £500 worth of crops. Those are the kinds of costs a boycott can exact, the fear of which causes targeted companies to tremble.

A local priest, Father John O’Malley, is credited as bringing the name “Boycott” into the English language as a verb for social ostracism.  

In a capitalist/consumerist society such as ours, corporations say that the market is self-regulating; consumers determine what products survive and which flourish by what they choose to buy. If we don’t like what the sponsors of Limbaugh are paying for with our purchases of their products, we can stop buying them, and let them know why. It is as simple as that. A boycott is simply the use of a capitalist/consumerist tool; and as such is as American as apple pie.

If you don’t like what Limbaugh’s sponsors are paying for, join the boycott.   At ToppleBush.Com you will find a continuously updated list with information about contacting the companies.

You will also be encouraged to send a note of thanks to those companies that have withdrawn support. I’m not sure how much gratitude I feel toward those companies who were supporting Limbaugh in the first place but who under pressure have withdrawn that support. What your note will do is to let those companies know you noticed them. In matters like this, the companies don’t like being noticed.  

You may also check Out of Stepper and Daily Kos for their lists and suggestions.  

In our society, the right to boycott is right up there with the right to vote. Neither do much good if too few people exercise them.

[UPDATE Saturday 7:31 pm PDT: Limbaugh Apologizes]

Today, Rush Limbaugh issued an apology on his website for his attack on Sarah Fluke:
For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week.  In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke. … My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.
Forgive me if I'm not impressed. What he said more than a week ago was not a slip of the tongue, and he defended what he said every day since on his radio show. He is not, I think, apologizing for creating "a national stir" because that is his goal for every show. Given his history of "absurd" attacks on women, I also have to wonder about apologizing "for the insulting word choices." 

What prompts today's apology is that several of his sponsors have pulled their ads (LegalZoom, Quicken Loans and Sleep Number) because of public pressure; and others are considering it (Pro Flowers and eHarmony). Sleep Train, a mattress company, said it was ending its 25-year relationship with Limbaugh permanently. 

The threat of boycotts against these companies is one of the few languages Mr. Limbaugh understands. He is not going to change - the disingenuous apology makes that clear - and he is certainly free to express his own warped ideas; but if those who pay to have his views on the air risk exposure to the wider public and possible boycott they will all be reconsidering their positions. Keep up the pressure on the companies!

UPDATE 3:43 PDT SUNDAY: Seventh Sponsor Withdraws 

This from MSNBC:

ProFlowers said Sunday on its Facebook page that it has suspended advertising on Limbaugh's program because his comments about Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke "went beyond political discourse to a personal attack and do not reflect our values as a company." 
The six other advertisers that say they have pulled ads from his show are mortgage lender Quicken Loans, mattress retailers Sleep Train and Sleep Number, software maker Citrix Systems Inc., online data backup service provider Carbonite and online legal document services company LegalZoom. 
ProFlowers had said on Twitter that posts it received about Limbaugh's remarks affected its advertising strategy. ProFlowers is an online flower delivery service.

- Milo