Your Rush Limbaugh was Not My Rush Limbaugh: Goodness, Badness, Humility and Perspective
When I was 12, mama took my brother and me to see a stage production of Rashomon. What had begun as a short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa later became a famous Kurosawa film, and then in 1959, a Broadway play. What we saw at Carmel’s Forest Theater was a local, amateur version of what had run on the New York stages.
Rashomon is the tale of a single dramatic incident – a murder -- replayed four times, each time from the perspective of one of those who was involved, including the victim. Each of the viewpoints is equally compelling and contradictory to the others, and the audience is denied an omniscient narrator to determine which is telling the “real truth.” The audience walks out suspended in glorious, rapturous, humbling doubt.
With the possible exception of Don Giovanni, no stage production I saw in my youth had as big an effect upon me Rashomon. The week after we saw the play, I went to the library and tracked down both the script for the Kay and Michael Fanin play, as well as translations of the two Akutagawa stories on which it had been based.
I talked mama’s ear off about it for a month. I talked to my seventh-grade English teacher about it during lunch, until she told me I should go play basketball with the other kids.
A window had opened for me. Rashomon declared that all truths were to some degree subjective, depending upon our own experiences and prejudices. It wasn’t that there was no absolute truth, it was that objective truth itself was largely unknowable. All we can know is that our understanding of the world is always hopelessly compromised, and the best we can do is try to be loving to those who see and experience things very differently than we do.
Before she kicked me out of her classroom to eat her lunch in peace, that English teacher told me she was going through a divorce. (Mrs. Jorgensen was a true oversharer, and it was the 1970s, when one was permitted to overshare to one’s pubescent students.) “My husband had his truth, I had my truth, and then there was THE truth – but only God can know that one. The only thing we could do is accept what we can’t know, and move on.” (Years later, I would hear almost exactly the same thing repeated again and again in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.)
I think about Rashomon a lot, especially in these past few years. If nothing else, we’re living in an age that is contemptuous of ambiguity. More than a century ago, Yeats famously lamented that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” I hardly count myself among the best of anything, but some days, it does seem that virtually everyone else is full of passionate intensity, foaming and frothing with moral conviction. No one wants to sit through Rashomon anymore, and be cautioned that all is merely a matter of perspective. We want to be told there’s a right side, and a wrong side, and to comfort ourselves by hanging around those who reassure us that we’re always on the former.
Yesterday, my friends on Facebook were nearly universal in their condemnations of Rush Limbaugh. The general rule seems to be that “to not speak ill of the dead” is to be complicit in their misdeeds while they were alive. “Good riddance” said many, and many said far worse, citing El Rushbo’s comments about gays, women, and ethnic minorities.
I belong to a private email list on which virtually all the contributors are conservatives. Many had worked closely with Rush over the years; virtually all, especially the Gen Xers, were deeply inspired by him, and credited him with moving them to the right in their formative years. Several related anecdotes of Limbaugh’s personal kindnesses, and his consistent encouragement to young people in the conservative movement. Many of my friends on this list conceded that Rush could often be abrasive, and lamented that in his final year, he made the colossal mistake of buying into the Trumpian nonsense about the “deep state” and a “stolen election.” And yet, it was clear how many adored him.
I thought too of another legend who left us this week: pornographer Larry Flynt. To me, Larry was a hero, one of the great Americans, for his relentless commitment to free speech. Larry was shot and paralyzed by a bigot who hated porn; Flynt sacrificed more for the cause of liberty than most. Those of us who believed in a broad and capacious understanding of the First Amendment owe him a debt.
That’s my view; that’s my Larry, but not everyone saw him the same way. The daughter from whom he was estranged (and whom he allegedly abused) had a different Larry, as did those who despise pornography as a misogynistic moral cancer. There are many Larrys. My Larry is not a fiction, my Larry was real, and meaningful, and inspirational – but the Larry I loved (and met once, at a fundraiser) was not everyone’s Larry.
I am not a public figure as Rush or Larry were. But I am not entirely unknown, either. When I die, there will be people who never met me, but who read of me, and hated what they knew of me. “Good riddance,” they will say; “he was a sociopathic predator.” When I die, there will be people who did know me and whom I hurt deeply, and they may say something publicly about what I did to them. They will not be wrong; when wrapped up in my own pain, I inflicted great harm.
There is no single Hugo Schwyzer, and there is no single Rush Limbaugh, no single Larry Flynt, and there is no single Mother Theresa, Joss Whedon, Serena Williams, Brett Kavanaugh, Prince Phillip, or you. All we have with anyone, from public figures to our parents, are incomplete and inadequate pictures. Our Rushes, our Larrys, our Moms, our Dads – they are only ours, and others will have different experiences.
(A friend of mine once asked, “So if there was a serial killer who rescued dachshunds, don’t you think his murders should deserve most of our focus?” To which the obvious reply was yes, but at some point, for the fullest possible picture, we really ought to hear from the dachshunds.)
Let's say that someone who has always been wonderful to you turns out to have hurt other people in ways that seem totally out of character with what you know about them. Say that person is your college mentor, or Rush Limbaugh, or your sister.
Rashomon reminds us that our positive experiences with someone prove nothing about how they behaved with others. Just as importantly, their appalling behavior with others does not negate or de-legitimize your own happy memories with that person.
We tend to assume that if someone behaved boorishly or abusively, or made racist remarks, then boorishness or abusiveness or racism must be at the core of their character. Any generosity or warmth or empathy they show is dismissed as inauthentic grooming behavior, or as a clever mask they wear.
This is bad pop psychology. People are complicated. They are not Good or Bad, they are Good and Bad. The Bad doesn't mean the Good didn't happen; the Good doesn't excuse the Bad. Again, again, again -- people can be genuinely kind and sincerely empathetic to some, and cruel and predatory to others.
We are all, sooner or later, the villain in someone's story. We are all, sooner or later, the friend that saved the day for someone else. This is true in our personal lives, and it is true of public figures who touch us all in radically different ways.
In Judaism, when someone dies, we say Baruch Dayan Emet: “Blessed be the judge of truth.” It is a recognition of radical humility, an acknowledgment that we can never know the disposition of another’s soul. The judge of truth may or may not exist, but one thing’s for sure: we ain’t it. We could all do well to cling to that humility in these angry, prideful, and all-too-certain times.