Sympathy for the Devil

Ana Marie Cox

It came as something of a surprise to hear conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh confess an addiction to painkillers, but his drug of choice does make a curious kind of sense. Of course he’d consume a substance that gave him an irrationally euphoric worldview and made him peculiarly unfeeling—it’s staunch conservatives who aren’t addicted to painkillers who have some explaining to do.

More disturbing, but even less surprising, was the reaction among liberals to Limbaugh’s shockingly dignified announcement on October 10 that he suffered from addiction and was taking a 30-day leave from his show to seek treatment. A list of comments Limbaugh had made regarding drug abuse over the decade and a half he’s had his nationally syndicated show quickly made the e-mail rounds, and freelance and professional pundits alike chortled with schadenfreude as they compared current headlines with such hyperbolic Rushisms as “We have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs … so if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up.”

Al Franken—who is both a critic of Limbaugh and a left-wing counterpart—told reporters, “I’m looking forward to the perp walk.” Online, as usual, commentators were less restrained: “Rush Limbaugh is a big fat junkie,” wrote one poster to the liberal Democratic Underground Web site—

Cries from the right for sympathy—and preemptive defenses against charges of hypocrisy—erupted with just as much predictability. Many attempted to draw a distinction between Limbaugh’s past outbursts against illegal drug use and his current addiction to legal (albeit illegally obtained) drugs.

“From a moral standpoint, there’s a difference between people who go out and seek a high and get addicted and the millions of Americans dealing with pain who inadvertently get addicted,” arch-conservative Gary Bauer told Newsweek—as if Limbaugh’s costly habit was some kind of accident that crept up on him unawares, kind of like how your bills at the end of the month always seem higher than they should be. “Let’s see, heating, electricity, gas, TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS on pain pills! Geez, how’d that happen?”

Bauer’s predictable remarks were all the more offensive for the tacit premise of contemporary drug policy they left magisterially intact: If Limbaugh’s out-of-control painkiller jones was an understandable overextension of a standard prescription, well, then, the misery of a heroin addict has to be simple justice.

Bauer’s comments are especially ludicrous in light of what Limbaugh had to say. “I am not making any excuses. You know, over the years athletes and celebrities have emerged from treatment centers to great fanfare and praise for conquering great demons. They are said to be great role models and examples for others,” he said. “Well, I am no role model. I refuse to let anyone think I am doing something great here, when there are people you never hear about, who face long odds and never resort to such escapes. They are the role models.”

I feel sorry for Limbaugh. And I find myself frustrated with those who seem to be enjoying the spectacle of his decline. To fling charges of hypocrisy at Limbaugh now, while it may light a smug little glow in most leftists, casts a dark shadow on the argument so many of us have made for so many years—that addiction is a disease, that treatment and not prison, or public ridicule, is the best response to it.

Focusing on Limbaugh’s tragedy also distracts from the true villain of this little morality play: Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Limbaugh’s beloved “little blues” (as he called them in e-mails to his maid/dealer). Purdue makes more than $1 billion a year off OxyContin and has largely resisted pleas from drug abuse advocates to make its bestselling narcotic less addictive and more difficult to resell. In the face of its huge profits, Purdue’s $10,000 “grants” to local police forces to help them launch sting operations and even its multi-million ad campaign to “promote awareness about prescription drug abuse” seem like window dressing—which they probably are. The company also has successfully fought off several dozen class-action lawsuits seeking damages for what they claim was the manufacturer’s foreknowledge of the pills’ potential for misuse.

Criticism of the company’s marketing tactics date back a few years—they appealed directly to pain patients, and thus expanded the drug’s potential market much further beyond the cancer patients for whom it had been approved. Purdue Pharma has pledged to do better, but just last January, the Food and Drug Administration cited the company for placing ads that “omit and minimize the serious safety risks associated with OxyContin and promote it for uses beyond which have been proven safe and effective.”

Thanks in large part to these kinds of marketing practices, addiction to prescription drugs has become one of the fastest-growing categories of abuse in the country.

About 2.6 million people misuse painkillers. I have no doubt that many of them are conservatives and that even more are assholes of one sort another. But I think we’d all like each one of them treated with dignity and fairness. We’d also like each one of them to be able to afford, as Limbaugh can, a luxury in-patient treatment program. Let’s hope Limbaugh emerges from rehab with some sense of how lucky he is.

Ana Marie Cox is the brains behind Wonkette, one of the most popular political blogs on the web. She is also the former editor of the dearly departed suck​.com and has written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mother Jones, Wired and Spin.
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