Bill Maher spent a significant portion of last Friday’s Real Time defending Rush Limbaugh. Well, not defending the man, whom he calls repulsive. And not defending Rush’s statements over the last few weeks, which he vehemently objected to on both political and rhetorical grounds. But Maher defended Rush’s right to say those things, invoking free speech and the ACLU, and in the process missed the point completely.
Maher proclaimed that efforts to pressure Rush Limbaugh’s sponsors amounted to an illegitimate attack on his freedom of speech, and that the advertiser campaign is an example of “the system being manipulated.”
Unsurprisingly, the right-wing press wasted no time in broadcasting triumphantly that even lefty pundits recognized that the real victim here was Rush.
Let’s get this clear: Rush is not a martyr for the cause of free speech. Nor have his First Amendment rights been violated in any way since the day he chose to call a Georgetown law student a “slut” for arguing that contraception should be covered by health insurance. For starters, violating Rush’s First Amendment rights would require state action. Rush has not been jailed for his views, nor has anyone even whispered a suggestion to that effect. There have been no calls for his radio transmitter to be jammed. No one is even demanding he be fined, which might be possible under the FCC’s arcane and arbitrary decency laws.
Instead, what his critics are doing is exercising one of their own fundamental American rights, their right as consumers to frequent the businesses they choose. This is not actually a constitutional right, but for Americans who may feel their right to vote doesn’t amount to much, our right to spend our money as we see fit affords us some additional measure of self-determination.
In the modern world of consumer defined identity, we use this power of the pocketbook for far more than satisfying visceral needs. Our shopping preferences have become clear signifiers of our values and our character. Any Branding 101 class teaches that values alignment is a key driver of consumer loyalty. Many companies have spent millions of dollars winning and retaining customers through value-based brand strategies. Shop at Whole Foods? Might as well scream “I care about the Earth!” (Or just carry your recycled Whole Foods shopping bag to scream it for you.) Apple user? Obviously hip, tech-savvy and cutting edge. Munching on some Newman’s Own cereal? Clearly someone who cares about philanthropy and your health. It’s a perfectly reasonable way to build a customer base. But it makes these companies responsible for upholding their end of the bargain.