Nil nisi bonum. Do not speak ill of the dead. The Latin proverb has provided sage advice for centuries, yet the passing of Rush Limbaugh has caused some to turn to another thought leader: Mark Twain, who once observed on the death of a famous public figure, “I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” Limbaugh might have appreciated the humor, but then, it was probably too subtle for his taste.

The radio provocateur who coined the term “feminazi,” described Chelsea Clinton as the “White House dog” and suggested most of the faces on wanted posters look like Jesse Jackson, died Wednesday at the age of 70. Loyal viewers of Fox News could be forgiven for thinking that this was the equivalent to the death of a pontiff or king or at least a Mark Twain-like literary figure. Such were the round-the-clock laudatory commentary and remembrances, often from folks who barely knew the man.

And while we are left bewildered by these tributes, we do not find joy in his passing. As noted in the Talmud, “God does not rejoice with the fall of the wicked.” And even a generous appraisal of Limbaugh’s career must concede that “wicked” is hardly an exaggeration. Limbaugh treated serious matters of public policy in the same way that certain teen comedies of the 1990s addressed the awkwardness of puberty. He wasn’t looking for insight; he was more interested in scorn, outrage and ridicule that helped him build a vast audience who found it all so entertaining.

And so, when Fox talking heads compare him with William F. Buckley Jr. — with a straight face — a little fact-checking is clearly in order. No, this was not an intellectual, not a pioneer in the conservative movement. He was an entertainer and, in the modern vernacular of social media, a social influencer with a checkered broadcasting past who stumbled into the zeitgeist of disaffected working class white males. What MAGA media gets right is that there is a line to be traced from Limbaugh’s rise to Donald Trump’s political ascendancy. Not just in the politics but in the personality. Without Limbaugh, there would surely not have been a Trump presidency.

But our purpose is not to retell that unfortunate past or condemn his manifest racism, sexism or even his recent role in deliberately misleading his audience into believing the last election was stolen, an especially repugnant bit of demagoguery that culminated in the attack on the U.S. Capitol that left five dead. No, it is to address his broader legacy in coarsening the political debate so profoundly. It is in the creation of “ditto heads,” precursors of the “Trump deplorables,” who treated his comedic shtick as gospel. Add to this Limbaugh’s angry disdain for those who did not share his conservative beliefs, his disinterest in facts (rarely did he bother to engage with policy experts on his program), and his devotion to white male grievances and you have successfully poisoned the public square. Social media simply exaggerated the worst effects helping create an echo chamber, a bubble where opposing views were never even broached let alone fairly examined.

Make no mistake, the trend has long since transcended Republican politics. There are left-wing commentators who trade in name-calling as well, though they seem less commonplace and prosperous than their right equivalents. Talk radio has no truly moderate, let alone inquisitive voices. Cable television is much more sneering and divisive than it used to be. And we have to wonder how many average households suffer divisions far nastier and disrespectful than what previous generations might have dealt with. As much as the term “cancel culture” seems overwrought, we can’t deny a rise in cultural ostracism in reaction to the public expression of unpopular beliefs. Much of that is due to social media that gives everyone a megaphone but not necessarily the wisdom to use it judiciously, some surely to the Limbaugh legacy where hardly any asininity is considered beyond the pale.

So, we seek not to celebrate a man’s death but ask Americans, Democrats and Republicans, young and old and regardless of race or religion, to perhaps use this moment to mourn our loss of courtesy and respect and commit to do better. Surely, none of us is without sin in this regard. But all of us can try a little mutual respect. A pernicious and injurious fad has now officially ended. Or at least we can hope it has. Long live civil debate.

Editorial by The Baltimore Sun

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