Every two or three years, it feels like I have reason to recount here on the .org the day when Kurt Cobain’s dead body was found after his suicide, on the final Friday of spring break during my senior year of high school, and the electric shock I felt later that night when Rush Limbaugh, in the middle of his syndicated television show, called Cobain a “worthless piece of human garbage” to raucous laughter and cheering from his in-studio audience. Cobain’s death was one of those galvanizing moments for nearly everyone from my generation, but the Limbaugh reaction may have hit me even harder, simply for the naked hypocrisy it showed when it came to the “family values” that American conservatives of the 1990’s were constantly blathering about.
My feelings about Limbaugh before that moment were very complicated. I was having a hard time putting words to my personal political beliefs — I was nowhere near the leftist I am today, even though issues like the 2 Live Crew obscenity arrests in Florida and the continued criminalization of same-gender sexuality had greatly shaped my politics years earlier — but as a budding shit disturber, I had a weird kind of respect for some of the tactics that Limbaugh employed to get a rise out of his political opponents, even when I disagreed with his politics. (It probably didn’t help that I was constantly being harassed by the second-wave feminist teachers at the abattoir of a “school” I was going to, who gave me a very mistaken view of what feminism was that I only got to correct after I went off to college for the first time.) I even emulated some of those tactics when I was in high school, and (very rightfully) got in trouble for that. After the posthumous attack on Cobain, though, I was done with Limbaugh forever.
That was over a quarter of a century ago, and in the years that have followed, I’ve not only come to a much greater understanding of how hypocrisy over “values” and an appalling belief of intrinsic superiority over others has animated American conservatives in my lifetime, but I’ve seen the latter go from being carefully-concealed (at least some of the time) to put on vulgar display, like a three-year-old hooked on the attention that comes from pulling their pants down in public. (We might as well stake out that one elevator ride as the moment when all the pretenses were either killed off for good, or lined up for summary execution.) In a lot of ways, these past few decades feel like the logical culmination of so much of Reaganism, particularly the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine that allowed for the rise of Limbaugh in the first place.
Even before the whole Cobain thing, Limbaugh’s barefaced lies were one of the things that set me on edge. On both his radio and television shows, he would often make noises with a piece of paper in his hands he was about to read from, claiming that said hands were “formerly nicotine-stained.” He did this despite the fact that he was often photographed smoking cigars, and smoked a cigar on at least one episode of his television show. Worse yet, before the major tobacco companies admitted to misleading the public about the dangers of cigarette smoking in the nineties, Limbaugh repeatedly asserted that there was no reliable scientific evidence that smoking contributed to cancer, only to deny ever saying that after the tobacco companies themselves admitted to the link. The notion that this kind of unabashed lying on the part of right-wingers started with the size of the crowd at the 2017 presidential inauguration is just plain wrong, and I witnessed it firsthand when I was still paying some direct attention to Limbaugh.
For him to be dying now from advanced lung cancer just goes to show yet another hypocrisy of right-wingers, who are constantly claiming that all the Americans who die due to not being able to afford health insurance, or falling victim to any of the other systemic discrimination that conservatives work so hard to uphold, are to blame for their own demise because of the “choices” they allegedly made. With one of their icons about to pass away from a disease that was likely exacerbated from his cigar smoking, though, the same people are insisting that the same criticisms they throw out against so many other Americans can’t possibly be applied to Limbaugh, and that any criticism of him in his final days is so disrespectful as to be inhumane. Anyone who would dare use the same words about Limbaugh that he used against Cobain on that April night in 1994 will likely find themselves the target of serious threats to their life.
As I’ve had to remind some of my students and friends whenever someone they don’t like dies, these people all have friends and family who are grieving. We’ve all had to endure the loss of a loved one, and yet it’s one of those pains that it still feels like no one should have to endure. For the sake of those who have to go on living in the face of such a deep personal tragedy, I don’t think it’s appropriate or proper to speak ill of the dead or dying on a personal level. I didn’t celebrate the deaths of Ronald Reagan or Osama bin Laden, and I’m not about to celebrate the passing of Rush Limbaugh.
Having said that, there is never a wrong time to rail against the actions of anyone, especially when those actions are so clearly harmful to others. The heartless ideologies that people like Limbaugh have drowned America in during my lifetime have poisoned this country, and may well lead to near-extinction of the human race if they aren’t stopped in their tracks sometime in the decade. Just as Reagan’s death in 2004 lit a fire under conservatives for Bush 43’s re-election campaign, I fear that something similar may now happen during this year’s presidential election, and this planet literally cannot afford to let that happen. For those of us who are so deeply repulsed by the likes of Limbaugh, we can’t afford to stop railing against not only the philosophies that animate far-right figureheads like Limbaugh, but also those who would dare to put Limbaugh on the same pedestal that we save for people like Rosa Parks and Helen Keller. That’s not disrespecting the dying or the dead. That’s an act of survival, and that survival has never been so perilous for so many of us as it is at this moment in history.