Rush Limbaugh died. Many people twitted about it, as people do. I was no fan, so I said nothing. I usually do a “RIP” for a notable death, but this time I didn’t. Many had some very hateful things to say, like “thank got” and “I didn’t celebrate his life, but I’ll celebrate his death.” People hated Rush Limbaugh. and saw this as the opportunity to say so.
“Not proud of this,” a friend wrote to me in a text message mere minutes after the news broke on Wednesday, “but feeling really good about Rush Limbaugh dying.”
There is a difference between hating what Rush said and did, and “feeling really good” that someone died. This text message, shared by Frank Bruni, was relatively benign compared to much of what I saw, and it did, after all, begin with “not proud of this.”
But it’s the “not proud” part of my friend’s message that compels me to share it. It’s the “not proud” part that makes him one of my nearest and dearest. He’s a humanist, he’s decent, and he was acknowledging that death isn’t a moment for rejoicing or gloating — that the only thing served by that is our own debasement. He was making clear that what he was confiding to me he wouldn’t be stitching on a throw pillow, posting on Facebook or putting in a headline.
Bruni might be a bit too forgiving here, as there was no particular need to say anything at all. Rush was dead, whether you loved or hated him. He wasn’t coming back if people failed to express their hatred to others. Whatever he did during his life was done, and his death wasn’t going to make it go away.
What Bruni calls humanism, decency is what others might call Gertruding: I know that what I’m about to do is wrong, but I want to do it anyway and I don’t want to be considered an asshole for being an asshole. But Bruni may be forgiven his confusion in light of far worse expressions of mourning.
“BIGOT, MISOGYNIST, HOMOPHOBE, CRANK: RUSH LIMBAUGH DEAD.” Those were the words, capitalized and adrenalized, that HuffPost splashed across its home page. Several other left-leaning sites took the same tack and tone.
In his early years, I listened a few times to Rush Limbaugh. It was like a broadcast from another dimension, where facts didn’t exist and reality twisted into something horrible and unrecognizable. So I didn’t listen to Rush anymore and was critical of him and things he said over the years while he was alive.
Bruni raised the question of speaking ill of the dead, and argued that the reason not to do so in this instance was that it might strengthen the resolve of those who favored Rush’s views.
I’m not saying that if we all just talked prettier, we’d find common ground, or that ugly language about bigots is nearly the problem that their bigotry is. I’m not saying that we owe Limbaugh and his listeners a gentle touch and, without it, are doing them some unwarranted disservice.
But our roughness certainly isn’t going to lead anyone to the light, and it may well encourage its targets to hunker down in their resentment, double down on their rage and stray less frequently onto terrain where they might mingle with people who hold at least slightly divergent views.
Is an argument needed to persuade his readers that taking a person’s death as an opportunity to express hatred toward him isn’t the right way to behave?
And the crudeness wasn’t some moral imperative, though some Limbaugh denouncers presented it as such. “Rush Limbaugh was a terrible human being,” one of them tweeted, “and I refuse to abide by the convention that his death absolves him from the criticism for his legacy of bigotry.”
What convention is that? Yes, there’s that musty adage about not speaking ill of the dead, but it hasn’t really applied to prominent political figures or culture warriors for some time.
This was once a social norm. Is it really now “musty”? Perhaps, at least among those whose undue passion and lack of impulse control means they cannot, simply cannot, ignore an opportunity to spew vitriol against those they hate. That isn’t to say that there won’t come a point when a deceased person’s life is subject to review, but only after a decent period, whatever that means now.
But the pitch of that ill-speak needn’t be screechy. The manner of it needn’t be savage. It has more credibility — and, I think, more impact — when it’s neither of those things. And we preserve some crucial measure of civility and grace.
Ironically, it was that last line, those two words, “civility and grace,” that morphed Bruni from “reasonable hater” to hated.
Not that anyone does, or should, care what’s “funny” to some guy named Klippenstein who writes for The Nation and The Intercept, but it reflects the irony and hypocrisy of demanding slavish adherence to whatever “social rules” arose ten minutes ago while denigrating social rules that society embraced that inhibit their impetuous rush to hate.
I will shed no tear for the loss of Rush Limbaugh, and so I had nothing to say about his passing. This was not because Frank Bruni’s argument, that shrieking about how awful he was or celebrating the death of a human being who said terrible things would provide support and comfort to Limbaugh’s followers and sycophants. This was because that “musty” old adage was a social norm that some of us still believe worthy of following.
We are not gracious and civil because the deceased necessarily deserved it, but because we are who we are. I chose to say nothing, and by saying nothing, made my choice.