For what Rush serves
March 20, 2010 12:20 PM   Subscribe

What role does Rush Limbaugh serve in society seen from an anthropological/ sociological point of view?
posted by manwoo to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What do you mean by "what role?" And what do you mean by "from an anthropological/sociological point of view?" Are you referring to categorization per some specific academic taxonomy?
posted by The World Famous at 12:25 PM on March 20, 2010

I assume when you're talking about a sociological view, you mean a functionalist point of view, which is the only sociological view that would ask this question. The problem with a functionalist perspective is that it begs the question of whether something has a function at all.

But if you're going to assume that this particular thing has a function then I would start with creating solidarity in a particular group of people (by painting another group as deviant) and possibly think about the role in creating a public sphere a la Habermas.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:27 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I guess if you asked Foucault, he might call Rush a universal intellectual:

Foucault believes that the seemingly chaotic occurences of history are conflicts of power. He states that there is an "intrinsic intelligibility of conflicts" that can enlighten us to the reasons behind actions...

The overall volume of power rises with each individual involved in the play...

Foucault sees the exchange of power in very active terms: "isn't power simply a form of warlike domination?" It is difficult to sort out just who is fighting the war, since Foucault seems to lean toward the "war of all against all" notion...

Foucault responds with a discussion of the the intellectual, who he says has gravitated from a "universal" intellectual to a "specific" intellectual. Foucault sees scientists and scholars who remain cloistered in their field as specific intellectuals, and cites the writers of old as the universal intellectuals:

Foucault:The intellectual par excellence used to be the writer: as a universal consciousness, a free subject, he was counterposed to the service of the State or Capital – technicians, magistrates, teachers.

I'm (only half) joking, of course.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:36 PM on March 20, 2010

Interesting question. It tangentially applies to my profession (public relations).

In terms of the social sciences, Limbaugh (as all pundits do,) frames and interprets political discourse for the masses by reinforcing stereotypes and cultural biases. Wikipedia has a decent page on framing here.
posted by zarq at 12:37 PM on March 20, 2010 [5 favorites]

Oh, yeah, I took that from a discussion about Foucault's "Truth and Power", to interrelated concepts I believe are crucial for understanding Rush
posted by KokuRyu at 12:37 PM on March 20, 2010

I should have said "many" pundits. Not all political pundits use stereotypes and cultural biases to persuade their audience.
posted by zarq at 12:38 PM on March 20, 2010

posted by hamandcheese at 12:42 PM on March 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

Entertainer: that's a huge mistake. That's what he claims to be, and what he ducks under when challenged. But for those people who make the mistake of taking him seriously, his power is way beyond that of LOLZ, he's funny because he's wrong, or LOLZ, he entertains me because he's making fun of the Others.

Where he really fits in is as a sort of modern day sage/oracle. And dare I say, savior/god type. Or a self-selected authority figure- actually, here is the perfect metaphor:

He's a secular preacher.

Of the traveling road show, televangelist variety. He says stuff people agree with, or things that people strive to agree with. He reinforces beliefs and guides them. For people that follow his "religion", they have bought in to the extent that anything he says must be true, because they've believed everything else he said, and it is much easier to just keep on agreeing than challenge beliefs they've held so strongly. Having built up his flock, he now maintains them via a steady stream of challenges to their faith.

Rather than using this carefully constructed power base to just keep extracting money from the flock, his is slightly more subtle. He uses advertising to get his money, and the power of his message to create a sort of MLM pyramid of people out in the world evangelizing. We are starting to see the results of that, in some politicians making their way to higher levels, who have grown up in the Church of Rush.

Very scary- not because his ideas are so terribly dangerous, but the blind faith of the followers is what is dangerous. No analyitical skills or desire, merely an us versus them mentality and a stock of catch phrases and "facts" that can be used to win arguments with people who haven't done the research.
posted by gjc at 1:14 PM on March 20, 2010 [10 favorites]

For people who agree with him, he serves the role of town crier. For people who don't agree with him, he serves the role of village idiot (and a dangerous one at that).
posted by amyms at 1:24 PM on March 20, 2010

Political entrepreneur?
posted by Xalf at 1:36 PM on March 20, 2010

I actually meant to say policy entrepreneur, but both terms might be relevant.
posted by Xalf at 1:40 PM on March 20, 2010

Salesman surely
posted by A189Nut at 1:52 PM on March 20, 2010

Demagogue, pseudo-historian, or, perhaps, agent provocateur, depending on how you interpret his message to his followers.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:14 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might find more scholarship on the very similar figure of Father Coughlin, a priest who made popular, anti-Semitic radio broadcasts in the 1930s.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:36 PM on March 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

posted by Dick Laurent is Dead at 3:25 PM on March 20, 2010

What a great question; dismaying that certain kinds of rancor can cripple my thinking enough that it never so much as crossed my mind before you asked it.

I'm convinced one of the default settings of human culture is tribalism.

Tribes tend to make war upon one another for access to resources, for control of land, for access to reproductive opportunities (stealing women, as with the Yanomamo or in the 'rape of the Sabine women', not to mention various incidents in the Bible), and perhaps even as a side effect of the evolution of language (essentially that languages viewed as self-reproducing entities under some circumstances get a competitive advantage by encouraging their speakers to kill off and otherwise displace speakers of other languages-- as witness the cliche in cultural anthropology that 'stranger = enemy' in many tribal languages).

I think Rush is at bottom a tribal war leader whose role is to get his tribe whipped up into a frenzy of hatred against an identified Other and then to lead the attack on that other. The frenzy he seeks to engender seems to me to be a kind of mass hysteria.
posted by jamjam at 3:36 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Modern cultural anthropologist by training here, for what that's worth (not much) and with a degree in philosophy (specializing in ethics) to boot (worth even less, I am afraid).

I am not sure this question makes sense from an anthropologist's standpoint. We are mainly observers of behavior and don't often do much in the way of application; I would put that in the sociology realm, but, then again, it's been some years since I was studying formally.

As I have no sociological training, I can't really answer from that standpoint.

However, from a purely personal viewpoint, what about A$$hole? Is that a formal role in society?
posted by Yellowbeard at 5:10 PM on March 20, 2010

"No analytical skills or desire, merely an us versus them mentality and a stock of catch phrases and "facts" that can be used to win arguments with people who haven't done the research."

I think you may have just described the entire Neocon movement with that one....
posted by Yellowbeard at 5:13 PM on March 20, 2010

The defender of the status quo and lowest common denominator.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:23 PM on March 20, 2010

He's an entertainer. A storyteller, really. His job is to occupy however many hours of airtime a day (3, is it?) that keeps people listening so that they stay tuned through the commercials and his advertisers pay a lot for them and everyone makes money. Very skilled at rhetoric and has a fantastic voice. Having a sense of civic responsibility and telling the truth to his audience do not appear to be on his list of priorities.
posted by citron at 6:28 PM on March 20, 2010

As far as sociologically, it depends on how far you go back. Currently, I would agree that Foucault would think of him in the terms of the intersection of power and audience that he cultivates. I would be inclined to agree with KokuRyu's thinking of him in terms of universal intellectual, not matter how distasteful a thought that might be.

In addition, I might think of him as Max Weber's concept of the Charismatic Leader, but personally I'd like to think of him as a demagogue the Lumpen Proletariat.
posted by JimmyJames at 6:52 PM on March 20, 2010

Cautionary example, too.
posted by darkstar at 7:52 PM on March 20, 2010


Gotta have a few in every civilization.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 8:01 PM on March 20, 2010

Response by poster: dismaying that certain kinds of rancor can cripple my thinking enough that it never so much as crossed my mind before you asked it.

Exactly how I have felt. Thus the question. I am surrounded by conservatives, tea-bag conservatives even, and am trying to gain new perspective of the phenomenon in an analytical sense thus combatting sheer anger. This, on the eve of the health care vote.
posted by manwoo at 9:32 PM on March 20, 2010

posted by foobario at 4:13 AM on March 21, 2010

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