On a recent show, Rush Limbaugh once again swatted at The American Prospect. As he put it on his Web site, TAP had succumbed to something he termed "The Raspberry Effect" (links added):
For those of you who don't recall, the great columnist for the Washington Post, William Raspberry, wrote a 1993 column extremely critical of my program. He then heard from polite Dittohead readers disagreeing, and suggested he listen to my show, which he hadn't done.
Once Raspberry did spend some time listening, he wrote another column apologizing.
So whenever a journalist writes something critical, then listens to the program and realizes the first effort was wrong, it's described as "the Raspberry Effect." It has now happened again with our friends over at the American Prospect, the people who first accused me of being deeply involved in a conspiracy to destroy Tom Daschle. Last week, Harold Meyerson ran a piece on the Bush White House political strategery.
I don't know that I praised it. I just cited it and agreed with Meyerson's analysis of the way the Bush White House is attempting to expand their circle of voters by going 75% of the way on liberal issues, rather than pushing our own. They're doing so, of course, in a way that doesn't necessarily broaden the base -- and that's the whole point.
Well Chris Mooney, Online Editor at the American Prospect, wrote a piece illustrating a central element to the Raspberry Effect: the liberal in question panics at the very notion that I have agreed with them.
Huh. It's hard to decide what's more odd about this: Rush's notion that I panicked because he was agreeing with the Prospect -- actually, I mostly found it funny -- or the idea, mentioned in the first paragraph above, that Dittoheads are "polite."
But let's linger on the latter conceit, because as Rush seems to imply, I have indeed had an experience with Dittoheads that's relevant here. Last July -- I wasn't "Idea Log" back then -- I was sitting at my computer, doing God knows what, when I suddenly found myself witness to an incoming streak of angry white e-mails. "You are up there with the most hypocritical agenda-biased hate mongers on the planet," Thomas Dawsey wrote (presumably he excluded himself from the running). "Helen thomas, cokie roberts, maureen dowd, meg greenfield and chris mooney," Philip Ramsay wrote, "stinking cunts all."
Such was my cordial introduction to Rush's Dittoheads (and let us not forget that Meg Greenfield, former editorial page editor of The Washington Post, had been dead for two years when I received this e-mail). As I soon learned, that day Rush had spent more than 20 minutes of airtime reading aloud an article I'd written -- mentioned and linked above -- titled "The Secret War on Tom Daschle." Noting that the right's partisans were hungry for Daschle scandals, I simply catalogued some of the budding attack strategies. And with the help of the Web site Spinsanity.com, I traced many of them -- like nicknaming the Senate's majority leader "Puff Daschle" -- back to Limbaugh.
When I replayed the show from his Web site, it was clear to me that Rush enjoyed being credited with Daschle-bashing. But he was outraged that I had the nerve to complain when the left (he felt) had been doing the same to conservatives for years. "These people write in a vacuum," Limbaugh pronounced. "It's amazing to behold these liberals, ladies and gentlemen."
With these words, I became the latest incarnation of media bias to Rush's 19 to 20 million weekly listeners. An e-mail from "EbayElvis" put it nicely: "Thanks to Rush, you are probably more famous now than ever." The chief reminder of this, of course, was the barrage of vituperative e-mail. In total word count, the messages soon exceeded my original article's length by a factor of sixteen. "You're so full of 'Barbara Streissand,'" wrote one Dittohead. And they got much meaner. "I have never read more hogwash in my life," wrote Frank Guinley, devastatingly, "and I am 78 years old."
Shocked by the deluge of criticism, I quickly phoned Lee Vanden-Handel, the affiliate marketing director for the "Rush Limbaugh Show," demanding to know whether he was aware of what happens to people who get trashed by Rush. "Dittoheads are remarkable people," he responded cheerfully. "Some of them can be pretty vulgar, but they're just normal human beings." But I wasn't so sure that sending off e-mails with "brilliant article" in the subject field, and an invitation to fellate "puff daschle" in the body of the message, was normal behavior.
Granted, in some sense Vanden-Handel had been right. Indeed, I found that the more Rush's listeners berated me, the more the slanders and arguments melted into the background of an overarching aesthetic experience. I didn't find myself giving any ground about Limbaugh and Daschle, yet I became immersed in the language of the e-mails. Sometimes, I found, the most vulgar ones were also the richest. "[F**k] off into your homogenous vaccum of liberal Marxism," Peter Charow told me.
Polite this was not, and yet in spite of myself I began to empathize with the Dittoheads. Some of the nastier writers were deeply self-conscious about their descent into ad hominem. "P.S.," Mark wrote, "While it is quite easy to defeat liberal arguments, name-calling, while ineffective in debate, is rather fun at times." Others were acutely aware of their own personal inclination to vent. "I realize that I am whizzing in the wind to discuss this with you," Jon Brooks wrote. "But sometimes I need to tilt at windmills," he finished, metaphor by metaphor. "I needed something to laugh at today," Larry Gralewski added, "and you are it."
Only a few of the e-mails were from women. One came from Hong Kong. Tampas Sarma, from Kenner, Louisiana, via Bangladesh, sent me a huge book manuscript, promising that I could be co-author if I could help him edit and get it published. Tate Ulasker asked me: "If there is coordination from the Right, then why would I, living in Russia, working my own business, write to you?" (I'm still scratching my head about this one.) And on and on, the messages flooded in. Probably the most memorable one came from Michael Seitz, who wrote:
Back in 1958 I served onboard the USS Hancock CV-19 with a guy from Lynn, Massachusetts named Chris Mooney. By chance are you related to that Chris Mooney and if so, I would be interested in contacting him.
This, I will readily admit, was indeed polite. It was also the exception.
As the above story shows, there's little doubt that Limbaugh has it within his power, via his army of Dittoheads, to give someone he discusses on the air quite a dramatic experience. He certainly did that to me. He can call it the "Raspberry Effect" if he wants to, and I imagine that William Raspberry's experience was not so very different from my own.
That's exactly why, despite what Rush says, I find myself doubting whether politeness was a very big part of it.