Rush Limbaugh is dead.
About that much, at least, we can all agree. But our divided nation is split over the legacy of the conservative political commentator who dominated the airwaves as one of the loudest voices on talk radio. For decades, he used his national broadcast to promote racial prejudice, spread unproven conspiracy theories, and denigrate women and LGBTQ people — all as he helped shape the Republican party into what it is today. Limbaugh was the “talk titan who made right-wing radio financially viable in American media and himself a Republican kingmaker years before Fox News,” as USA TODAY reported.
Them’s the facts.
Conservatives posted tributes: Senator John Kennedy, R-La., tweeted that he “fought for your right to believe and think freely. He invited people into the conversation & championed their right to agree & disagree alike.” Former President Donald Trump referred to Limbaugh as a “legend” and a “great gentleman.” That’s one way of describing him, and people are certainly entitled to their opinions.
The rest of us, especially those Limbaugh relentlessly and mercilessly attacked, will remember him differently. So how do we talk about this man’s legacy without becoming like him?
USA TODAY Entertainment:Rush Limbaugh, conservative radio titan, dies of lung cancer at age 70
For generations, parents have told their kids, as did my mother, “If you can’t say something good about the dead, then don’t say anything.” I agree that it’s bad form to celebrate anyone’s death, even someone who hurt us and mocked us. I’m again reminded of what former first lady Michelle Obama famously said regarding her opponents: “When they go low, we go high.” I’m trying.
Limbaugh went low
For those who might not be familiar with the times Limbaugh went low, let me help you: On Nov. 24, 1991, Limbaugh noted the HIV/AIDS death of Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen. And then he played a snippet of the hit Queen song, “Another One Bites the Dust.”
In 2006, Limbaugh accused actor Michael J. Fox of exaggerating the extent of his Parkinson’s disease in an advertisement for stem cell research. Limbaugh characterized Fox as shameless for “moving all around and shaking.” (Tremors are one of the telltale signs of the degenerative brain disorder.)
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Limbaugh described Black athletes as “thug(s)” and promoted Trump’s incendiary (and false) claim that President Barack Obama wasn’t an American citizen.
In 2012, Limbaugh called out Sandra Fluke, a women’s rights activist, as a “slut” and “prostitute” after she supported insurance coverage for contraceptives in a discussion with House Democrats. He popularized the slur “feminazi.”
Them’s the facts.
Some of Limbaugh’s critics are having a field day over his death, pushing the news to the top of Twitter’s trending topics. None of this is surprising in our tit-for-tat age of insults. They may bring a momentary frisson of satisfaction, but I think we need a better way.
We all reap what we sow
So what are the alternatives — how do we react to his death? For starters we can stick with the facts, which is why I outlined some of Limbaugh’s most egregious statements above. He said them; they’re on the record; we can decide what we think of them. We can avoid name-calling, which only adds gasoline to the fire.
I’ve stopped referring to people as “racists,” “misogynists,” or “homophobes,” detailing their words and actions rather than reducing them to labels. After all, when you call me a name — “snowflake,” “social justice warrior” — I stop listening. I don’t think I’m an outlier.
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We don’t have to make it personal, or lash out at his family. What if we simply turned a deaf ear? For someone like Limbaugh, who lived to be heard on the air, not talking about him might be worse than anything we could say.
In fact, silence just may be the perfect retort to his death. Michelle Obama knows that; she posted nothing on Twitter about Limbaugh’s passing. Neither did President Joe Biden or former President Barack Obama. Not only would my late mother have endorsed such a strategy, I think she would have appreciated the good karma, which is in short supply these days.
I’ve read over and over on Twitter, as a grievance against Limbaugh, that, if you don’t sow empathy in life don’t expect to reap it in death. Let’s not forget that what’s true for him is true for the rest of us: If we don’t sow empathy, especially to those we might despise, we become complicit in the continued fracture of civil discourse. I’d also add that a lot of Limbaugh’s followers are paying attention to those of us persecuted by him. I don’t think its folly to hope some will follow the example we set.
As for me, I won’t celebrate his death — but I am thankful that his voice is silenced forever.
Steven Petrow, a writer on civility and manners and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the author of five etiquette books. His new book, “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old,” will be published in June. Follow him on Twitter: @stevenpetrow
Additional reporting by Caroline Petrow-Cohen.