When Bad People Die

When Bad People Die February 20, 2021

We should speak the truth about bad public figures, even when they die.

Rush Limbaugh was not a good person, and we are under no obligation to pretend otherwise.

As Matt Taibbi put it, Limbaugh “hit on a Faustian bargain that gave him a gigantic audience and the adulation of millions. All he had to do in return was have no morals at all and embrace a sociopathic programming concept.” He pandered to the worst and most bigoted urges of his audience, as when he ran a regular bit called the “AIDS Update” where he mocked people who died of HIV. Though he pulled the bit after a few weeks and later said it was one of the “most regretful things [he’d] ever done, that he did it at all speaks to his general vileness.

Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

In so far as Limbaugh was a war-monger — one who sells, who promotes, war — I’ll even make him the same long-distance dedication of Dylan’s “Masters of War” that I made for John McCain and will make for Biden when he kicks off: “And I’ll watch while you’re lowered / Down to your deathbed / And I’ll stand o’er your grave / ’Til I’m sure that you’re dead.”

Rush Limbaugh’s angry, nationalistic faux populism paved the way for Trumpism, and I will not miss or mourn him.

But we should be careful not to damage our own hearts and minds by celebrating the suffering of a human being. Any human being.

Yes, even of a human being who was bad at being a human being. A bad man feels his pain just as much as a good man does, whether than bad man is a murderer being executed by the state or a far-right dingbat dying of cancer.

Some of my friends who think of themselves as “liberal” or “leftist” and (rightly) oppose capital punishment, sound right now very much like right-wingers cheering the execution of a murderer. If you’ve decried conservatives gloating over the suffering and death of a condemned criminal but are now cheering Limbaugh’s suffering and death from lung cancer, it would be a good time to pause and look those emotions.

The question is not what Limbaugh deserves, or what those who supported him and now mourn him deserve, but what we ourselves deserve. Our “duty toward self”, as Robert Pirsig translated the word “dharma”.

Anger is an energy and has its place. The wrathful “Wisdom King” Acala, Fudo No Myo, the Immovable One, is one of the deities on my altar. But he “turns Wrath to Purified Accomplishment”, as Gary Snyder put it. Because anger must be transformed to be useful.

Otherwise, as Buddhaghosa said, it’s like picking up a burning ember or a piece of shit to throw at someone: it just burns your hand or makes you stink.

So yes, let us speak clearly about the vileness of Limbaugh’s deeds. If the public discourse tries polish that turd, let us forcefully object. But let us also try to hold the basic compassion due any sentient being — not for his benefit (he’s beyond caring) but for the health of our own hearts.

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