The Atlantic • March 9, 2012
It’s every author’s wish that a major media figure will discuss her or his work on air. So when Rush Limbaugh spent 40 minutes lambasting both me and my first book, The American Way of Eating, during his radio broadcast to 15 million listeners on Tuesday, I was mostly elated. By the time I finished listening to the show, though, I had a question: What exactly does he think I did wrong?
Take for example, his summary of my chronicling of mismanagement and poor-quality food in a Walmart produce section I worked at in a store outside of Detroit. After noting that a Walmart manager told me the store keeps prices low by selling subpar produce, Limbaugh twists that clear admission of low-quality food. “It’s not enough that Walmart offers unprocessed food to low-income families,” he says. “Oh, no, that’s not enough. Now it has to be the best.” I have no idea what is so offensive about expecting that poor families should have fresh, healthy food of high quality — any more than we expect that they should have clean water and air, too. And all of this, Limbaugh says, constitutes a “war on freedom,” which is the same as a “war on private enterprise.”
Rush Limbaugh may be terrified of a government nanny, but he’s enthralled by the idea of a corporate one.
Citing a passage in The New York Times review — which he read in almost its entirety — saying that “The news Ms. McMillan brings from the front lines [of the American food system] is mostly grim,” Limbaugh responds: “Of course it is! Because this is America and it’s grim because the government doesn’t control everything yet.” Limbaugh reads another review passage that notes — accurately — that my work is informed by my status as an unmarried white woman, and observes, “The war on women now includes unmarried white women working at these horrible places like Walmart and Applebee’s.”
The reasons for these pronouncements aren’t clear to me; they pivot from actual facts to claims entirely unsupported by those facts. But they are shrouded in a faith in the power of the market so strong that it would make the Pope look like a heretic. Limbaugh may be terrified of a government nanny, but he’s enthralled by the idea of a corporate one.
As a reporter, I take it as a point of pride that Limbaugh apparently found little he could challenge in my reporting; he does nothing to discredit the facts I found in my work. And that likely explains why Limbaugh turned his critique away from my book, and aimed fire instead at me.
“What is it with all of these young single white women, overeducated — doesn’t mean intelligent,” he says, going on to list my professional bona fides with derision. “Who is the authorette? It doesn’t matter.”
I have to be honest: “overeducated” is one of the nicer names I’ve been called in my life. And I had been prepared in a general way to argue about the central political point of my book: That both private enterprise and government have failed Americans when it comes to providing us with good, healthy food. But what befuddled me was the implicit idea that my status as a single woman, and as someone who worked my way through college to get a B.A., might be considered sufficient to discredit my work.
Upon reflection, all of Limbaugh’s observations about me — my marital status, my race, my education — are code for “elite,” which in turn carries the connotation of being far removed from the realities of daily life. That’s ironic, given the nature of my book: an undercover, first-person attempt to live and work in America’s food system. It doesn’t get much grittier in America than a Central Valley peach orchard hitting 105 degrees in July, coupled with a wave of projectile vomiting brought about by heat sickness. I can tell you that because I’ve experienced it. If Rush did more than push paper around a desk all day, I’d invite him to try shedding his elite status and get his hands dirty.
I hope and think I didn’t get much wrong in my book, and I suspect that Limbaugh thinks that too. That would explain his compulsion to criticize me in personal rather than professional terms. But it doesn’t explain why he’d offer a first-time author he presumably hopes to banish to obscurity the unparalleled gift of massive national publicity. I have one last question: Where do I send the thank you note?